Berenson’s letter touches on the value and authorship of a rare altarpiece, also known as a polyptych, created by one of the biggest international celebrity artists of the 14th century. The aforementioned masterpiece was the work of Simone Martini, a student at the Siena School of Painting and pioneer of goldwork technique. The work referenced in Berenson’s letter has been a centerpiece at the heart of the Gardner Museum’s collection of Italian art since its opening.
But how did Gardner come to love and appreciate Italian devotional art? For one, she had unusual tastes and was drawn to avant-garde innovators in the art world, which included Martini and other Sienese masters. She also regularly attended art lectures and gleaned inspiration from her travels to Europe. Gardner made Italy a regular stop on her travels, voyaging for the first time as an adult in 1884 and following up with subsequent trips in 1886, 1888, 1890, and 1892.
With the benefit of Harvard lectures and Berenson’s friendship, her appreciation of Italian art grew over the years, as evidenced by her travel albums. Gardner filled them with photographs of Italian paintings, many of them the work of primitives using gold grounds, from the most important museums and galleries. Two of her albums were overflowing with photographs purchased on site, many of which reproduced paintings and frescoes, including those by Simone Martini, Duccio, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Sano di Pietro, Giovanni di Paolo, and others. While she still did not own any Sienese paintings at the time, Gardner was paying close attention to them.