I’m Christina Nielsen, Curator of the Collection—but before I tell you about this fabulous courtyard, I’ll keep quiet for a moment. Just begin to soak it in. Move forward along the edge of it, or even around it—especially if there are other people clustered at the beginning. Take a seat on one of the stone benches if you like.
The music you’re hearing is from Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute.’ Isabella Stewart Gardner had an orchestra playing this piece on the opening night of her museum. When I have people with me who are visiting for the first time, I tell them to look at the courtyard from bottom to top. I think it shows Isabella’s journey through time. The bottom level is like an ancient sculpture garden. In the middle is a Roman mosaic. That mosaic has an electrifying image of a head of Medusa at the very center. She’s a mythological creature whose gaze could turn men to stone. Now let your eyes take in the ancient Greek and Roman sculptures surrounding it. They’re all female statues. Isabella was a champion of “female causes.” She said that women’s education was the key to the 20th century.
Looking upwards, the pink stucco walls, and the windows, recall a Renaissance palace in Venice, Italy. Isabella had a love affair with Venice. She had a house there, and she wanted to bring some of the magic of a place where buildings seemed to float on water, filled with beautiful things, to America, a young country that she said was in need of art. That was her mission.
Now, about the plants: you might be surprised that every one of them is growing in a pot! In order to protect the works of art, there’s a UV (ultraviolet) light filter over the skylight—making it impossible for plants to thrive here. So, many of the plants are replaced every week. And then, about every six weeks, the entire horticultural design is changed. The glass roof was part of Isabella’s original design; it was cutting edge technology at the time.
Before you move on from the Courtyard, I want to make an important point: this building was never Isabella’s house. That’s a common misconception. She always meant it to be a museum. She did, however, create a small apartment for herself on the top floor. Look up and imagine her leaning out of one of those upper-level windows and shouting–as she did–to the workman below; exact orders for every tiny detail.
By the time this building was complete, she was in her 60s. It was the year 1902: the dawn of a new century. She spent the next year installing her collection in it. In her will, she wrote that nothing in the way she installed it could be permanently altered. So what you’re experiencing today is Isabella’s vision. And part of that vision is the lighting–which many visitors first experience as a bit low, compared to the bright lights that are common in museums today. Just take a few moments to let your eyes adjust, and Isabella’s vision will reveal itself…