Sunday, February 10, 2008

from Boston: wealth, art and the real beauty of a February walk

The early afternoon is set aside for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It is at once a uniquely splendid place and, at least to me, slightly disconcerting. It’s the brainchild and private collection of the irreverent, the prominent, the wealthy Isabella Stewart Gardner (she lived at the turn of the century; the previous turn). And it is packed with great art. Top of the line stuff.

How can one person have acquired so many of the world’s treasures??

It is also a photographer’s dream – there is a beautiful courtyard that throws light in all directions from the skylight (her idea!). And there are arches and sculptures and jasmine plants and blooming orchids. But you’re not allowed to take pictures.

You’re not allowed a lot of things: to use cell phones, to take photos, to carry a coat, to sit, to stand, to touch, to use ballpoint pens (only pencils!) – museum behavior, sure, but in this place, somehow these small pieces of life should not be so completely locked out.

Still, my eyes are trained to look at everything but the “no camera” signs and so I take out my clunky guy and begin to snap. Of one little hallway corner, where a Matisse is hung simply, above a door, stuck between other canvases.

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…of the courtyard with Venetian Palace ornamentations and the winter array of plants…

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…only to have angry men run up and scold me for my wrongdoings. And of course, I deserve it. But it makes me grumpy and so I start to notice other things besides the art. For example, I notice that the people who work here do not smile at you (and there are many, many guards; not surprising, given the fact that this was the site of the biggest art heist ever, back in 1990, when a Vermeer, three Rembrandts, several Degas prints and a Manet piece were easily taken out of their frames in the middle of the night).

And there is an aura of pretention, including at the information table where I encounter a condescending attitude from the ladies there when I stop to chat about some quirky museum details.

And I want to say – calm down. Isabella was born rich, she married even richer and so you at least have to temper your protective admiration by one degree, because spending money well was what she did best and though it’s commendable, you have to keep it all in perspective, no?

For a number of reasons, I linger for many, many hours at the Gardner home and so I feel myself to be immersed in the details of her life. I even borrow and read all the books on her, on the construction of her home, on the courtyard. Cover to cover.

And I leave wondering what it would be like to have to figure out a game plan on how to spend a fortune. (It’s good to occasionally mull over the problems of another.)

In the late afternoon, my little one and I walk the ever eclectic and always fascinating streets and neighborhoods of Boston.

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And even though it’s a cold and somewhat wet February day, the walk is splendid. We make our way to the South End, where the brownstones are so gloriously Bostonian it hurts. And they are without the Beacon Hill aura of generational wealth. As the snow swirls and drizzles, we walk forever and occasionally, but not often, I remembered to take a photo.

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There are a number of fresh and honest bakery/cafes in the area (ah, gentrification! Thank you for the fresh Vermont mozzarella and basil and tomato on a crispy baguette. And the cupcake!). We linger and watch people walk their dogs and come in for a warm bite and beverage.

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It is a good moment.

We continue over at Newbury, with my own feeble attempt at spending money well (just two little shirts – one for her, one for me; no, not matching. I am more than twice her age).

It’s dark now. The snow showers are kicking up.

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And still, we want to walk. Across the Boston Public Gardens…

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Past the well tended and so very pretty blocks along Charles Street, all the way to the river, where we catch the T back to Cambridge.

And we have energy for one last hike, over to what is becoming a family favorite – EVOO. Roasted squash salad and a superb steak frites and a lemon tart, capped with an espresso macchiato and a final invigorating walk home.

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I leave today, Sunday and that’s the tough part. Tough not only, not even principally because it is a high of -1 F today in my home town.