On a recent visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, I found myself drawn to the center courtyard, an enclosed space with water, plants, and a skylight 4 stories up. It’s one of my favorite places to escape in the cold winter weather. Isabella designed the garden and building with the Renaissance palaces of Venice in mind, and also incorporated numerous architectural fragments from European Gothic and Renaissance structures.
In previous visits I looked at the garden for a little while and headed the other rooms and three floors of artistic treasures of paintings, furniture, tapestries, ancient statues, and more.
But in this visit I decided to just stay near the garden and try to see everything I could in it. To look at it in a way I never have. Sort of in a meditative way, where you actually see the object, not the imagery and thoughts your mind thinks of when you look at it.
I don’t know how successful I actually was, but I periodically moved from seat to seat slowly making my way around it, to see it from different perspectives. I was also trying not to photo bomb all the young women who were taking selfies and then photographing each other on the stone bench with the garden in the background. One young woman spent so much time fussing with and flicking her long blond hair in preparation, I started to wonder if Vogue was doing a photo shoot. It made me feel wise and superior — oh look at those vain, young ones — as I leaned in slightly toward them to see if I could make them take a photo of themselves at an awkward angle to keep me out of the frame. Ah, youth. So fun to mess with.
There was a lot to see, and even though I spent about an hour and a half looking from the different angles, the details just kept coming–there was no way to see it all.
On the other side of the garden I found a book about it. It’s set out on the bench, so you can learn a little more. It said that most of the garden statues were of powerful women and goddesses, like Athena and even Medusa — death by snakes is pretty powerful. It teasingly mentions that Odysseus is tucked in the corner (I never did see him), and then the booked asked if that was Isabella making a statement about the power of women. Heck yeah! Her wealth and presumably a husband who was a good partner allowed her the independent life she led. So, yeah, I’m going with strong chicks in the garden for $500, Alex.
Then I noticed that the flowers in the book looked very different from the current flowers I was looking at — mostly white, which is a color I was getting all too much of outside. There were pages describing the careful attention to changing flowers for the seasons, spring, summer, fall — and all the elaborate cultivation of “warm” purples and oranges and yellows. Strangely they didn’t mention any elaborate preparations for winter, when the visitors are at their most color deprived.
Then in my little Zen experiment of being calm and really “seeing,” I started to feel ripped off. In fact one passage said they start these long hanging orange flowers called nasturtiums with seeds in June and then grow them for 9 months, like a baby, until they are 15 ft long. There were pictures of the flowers hanging two and three stories from the gothic windows along the sides of the garden. Suddenly I’m counting 9 months after June — wait a minute. That’s right now. Where the heck are my pretty orange cascading nasturtiums? All I get is bunches of cold white flowers? There were a handful of pretty flowering maples in the back, which remind me of my beloved Memere, who grew them, but still. Mostly white flowers.
Where are my pretty, “warm,” colorful flowers?
I might as well have been flicking my gray/brown wavy hair and taking a selfie with all of the “wisdom” I was feeling right then.
Then the book explained what the big stone box was that I was sitting next to:
Because of all the grapes along the top, and because it is a good-sized box, I thought it was maybe used for crushing grapes to make wine. Can’t you see Lucy and Ethel stomping around in there? What? I’m a child of the 70s and 80s. Plus all the carved people are either looking at each other, or trying to grab their neighbor’s beautifully carved buttocks while also gazing at the other neighbor’s accurately carved naughty bits. Usually alcohol is involved in these situations.
However, the little book that taunted me with pretty flowers informed me it’s a sarcophagus. As in coffin. Excuse me, the Farnese Sarcophagus. According to the website:
‘The Farnese Sarcophagus is one of the most important works of art in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Its glorious images of cavorting satyrs and maenads has inspired generations of artists, collectors, conservators, and viewers.
This large, rectangular marble coffin was created in the area of Rome in the late Severan period, around 225 AD. The occupants of the monument are unknown, since the lid was lost or destroyed. It was rediscovered in Tivoli in about 1535 and its beauty inspired Renaissance artists.”
So, what do I know? I looked, and with my I Love Lucy education, made a really wrong guess. How can we ever really know what old things mean to the people who made them, 1,800 years ago?
We can’t. All you can do is be quiet and look as best you can. And try to not to photo bomb the young ones’ pictures.