Hi, I’m Nat Silver, Associate Curator of the Collection, and I’ll be taking you around this room. Italian Renaissance Art is my specialty, and this room has some of the museum’s most important Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces.
Move into the middle of the room—and you may be surprised that I’m pointing out these chairs as some of those masterpieces. They’re a set from a Roman Renaissance palace, and each of them features a combination of visual effects of the furniture makers’ art. The intricate wood frames, covered in gold, simulate the appearance of gilded bronze. And the flowered panels on their backs are carved to appear puckered all along their edges, to imitate animal hides, pieces of leather. Isabella placed them on a platform, conveying a stage, set to receive honored guests.
Now, look for the wall with the rectangular windows. Between two of the windows you’ll see a chair and a round table, with a painting on it. A sign that you’re in the right place is the little vase of flowers on the table. This was one of Isabella’s favorite paintings. It’s an unusually close-up view of Christ carrying the cross. By having Christ look directly at us, the artist Giovanni Bellini makes us feel part of Christ’s pain. Peer in closely and you can see tears his cheek. Isabella bought this painting soon after her husband Jack died. She created a memorial to him at this table. In the vase she always kept fresh flowers. It’s a tradition the museum continues to this day.
Now, let's move to the wall ahead of you. To the right of the doorway there’s a sculpture—a wonderful bust in dark bronze. It’s a portrait of the pope’s banker, by Benvenuto Cellini, who, in addition to being a leading sculptor, was also the pope's goldsmith. We can see his skill in fine metalworking in the incredible handling of the details. I love the contrast of all the textures of his clothing, with the strong curls of his impressive beard.
Just to the left of this bust is a painting of a standing man, wearing black. It’s by the great Spanish artist, Diego Velázquez. You may be wondering why there’s a Spanish artist is in this room full of Italian paintings. Well, another theme of this room is European aristocracy; and this is a portrait of the Spanish King Philip IV. Isabella Stewart Gardner was fascinated with royalty. In fact, she tried to connect her own family roots to Mary Stuart, also known as Mary Queen of Scots. In this portrait, Phillip is dressed in formal court attire. When anyone came to Philip IV’s court to request a favor, he would indicate his readiness to hear them by removing his hat and placing it on a table next to him, as we see here.
I want to show you one more thing in this room. To find it, go back towards the close-up painting of Christ on the desk. To the left of it on that wall there are two low, matching wood cabinets, painted yellow. These little chests look like they have drawers. But the front of each one is a solid door that swings open. Inside there are…chamber pots! For going to the bathroom. Having them in this room reminds us that Isabella loved to mix high, and low. And always, to surprise us.
Oh, and a note that this room has, I think, the best view down into the courtyard. From here, the mosaic in the center of it, the Medusa, is facing us.