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Arts & Entertainment

LACMA architect Renzo Piano revamps Boston's Gardner Museum

The new wing of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop.
The new wing of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop.

Halfway through lunch in the gleaming, sprawling, glass-caged café, a young guy came out of the kitchen and started to sing. Obviously a trained tenor, he performed a 10-minute aria about the terrible, yet heavenly burden of love. We sat riveted over our mid-day snack (fine clam fritters and good wine) and basked in the music.

“He’s the real deal,” said our waiter, Dustin. “He practices in the pantry on his breaks.”

Dustin asks if this is my first visit to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. No, I say. I last visited in 1960, and a lot has changed since then, both positive and negative.

The Gardner Museum has recently sustained a $118 million renovation by architect Renzo Piano, who brought us the Resnick Pavilion and Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA. The additions, including an entirely new entrance, studio space, and a fine-looking concert hall, are as startling to me as the lunch-time aria.

(Concert hall in the new wing of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Photo: Nic Lehoux)

They generally work, although they do detract from the mysterious climax of the old entrance, which brought you through a dark tunneled space directly into the sudden splendor of the old building’s green, throbbing atrium heart. Imagine, if you will, the court of the Bradbury Building suddenly infested by both a great art collection and the Amazonian jungle. Instead, now you first pass the ample gift shop and move through a glass hallway before you get to the magic art jungle zone.

The Gardner is ironically — and sadly — known best not so much for what is there but for what isn’t. Almost exactly 24 years before our lunch, a couple of thugs disguised as cops tied up the guards and made off with swag now valued at a half-billion dollars. It included the greatest Vermeer in America, three Rembrandt's, a Manet and a Degas. No one’s ever found the pictures or caught the crooks, although the FBI says it knows who did it.

(Rembrandt, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633. Photo: Gardener Museum)

The pictures were irreplaceable but there is so much left: Raphael and John Singer Sargent; Van Dyck and Rubens; Piero de la Francesca, Matisse and Whistler, Titian, Botticelli and Giotto.  And thousands of objects of décor, books, manuscripts, hangings, textiles — all procured by the acquisitive talents of the formidable Mrs. Gardner, who, after the deaths of her son and her husband made the building and furnishing of the original Venetian-style Palazzo her life’s goal. Then it became her monument.

But it was also her home and in many ways, though she died 90 years ago, it still is. She left orders that the arrangements of all the art and objects remain just as she left them. And so the chairs against the walls, the fan and vase on the table, the little votive alters — all the myriad bequests to her museum — remain where they were when she last saw them. Only the criminals dared break her commands.

Now, empty frames remain where those missing great paintings once hung. But the rest of the collection itself is as it ever was. And worth a visit to Boston just to see.

(Isabella, in 1888.)

And here’s a bonus hint to a few lucky people. If your name happens to be Isabella, your admission to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is free.