Isabella Stewart Gardner fell in love with Italy as a teenager on a family trip in 1857. Still, the affair lasted throughout her life as she continued to visit the country and explore its language and culture both at home and abroad. Today the legacy of this fascination lives on in her Fenway-area museum, which boasts works from many Italian greats and has produced a new special exhibit, Illuminating the Serenissima: Books of the Republic of Venice, on display from May 3 to June 19.The exhibit, organized by Dr. Anne-Marie Eze, affords visitors the opportunity to examine seven historic manuscripts that usually remain out of sight in the bookcases of the museum’s Long Gallery. All are commissioni, detailed contracts of men elected to temporary and permanent positions in the Republic of Venice, explains Eze.
In the mid-15th century, noblemen began having their commissioni hand-written and elaborately bound, showing off not only their status and personal taste but also the era’s trends in printing and bookbinding. Visitors will find a range of styles among the seven commissioni chosen from the museum’s 20-piece collection. The book Doge Francesco Donato gave to the Lieutenant of Udine in 1546 features vibrant shades of blue, red and gold, while the binding of the 1718 manuscript of the Podestà of Chioggia is made from silver.
This temporary exhibit, however, represents only a small portion of the Italian artwork found throughout the space, which takes architectural inspiration from a Venetian palace. It includes four rooms named for the Mediterranean country and its artists, though Italian works are prominent throughout the entire museum, curated with Gardern’s eclectic sensibility. “It really is her creation,” says Eze. “She designed the building, she bought all the works that are in it. She also arranged them and we’ve maintained her installation as it was.”
Those unconventional arrangements reign in spaces like the Early Italian Room, where “everything is a treasure,” says Eze. Piero della Francesca’s “Hercules” hangs on the wall, lying over an embroidered fabric. In the next room, Raphael’s “Pietà,” once part of an altarpiece in a Perugian convent, rests on a table. “For her, it was something interesting, something that people at the time – but not now – could sit down and contemplate from close up,” explains Eze.
Here, visitors experience art in a different way as Gardner’s offbeat attitude prevails in even the tiniest details, such as the lack of labels. “She wanted people to come here and enjoy the art and not worry about who this is by and why, but just to drink in the experience with their eyes and learn,” says Eze, who values the diversity of the collection and its installation. “What other museum are you going to come into that has a central courtyard with a Roman mosaic? You know, it’s the whole experience of the place that makes it so special.”