- Gondola Days: Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Palazzo Barbaro Circle
Lavishly illustrated with fine reproductions of photographs, paintings, sketches, and letters, Gondola Days, with its essays by Italian and American scholars and excellent supporting materials, offers far more than coffee-table decoration. This beautiful book, published in conjunction with a 2004 exhibit at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, joins recent works on Whistler and his circle in Venice1 in recovering the meanings and uses that Venice offered to late-nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans. These volumes liberally depict Venices at once new and familiar to us, helping us to recognize how our perceptions are framed by the visions of Whistler, Sargent, and James, just as those artists originally saw Venice through Ruskin.
With "fresh examination of documents, sources, and works of art" (xi), Gondola Days seeks, in a series of essays to exfoliate the significances of a particular Venetian place, the Palazzo Barbaro. Rosella Mamoli Zorzi credits Henry James with the Palazzo's "lasting fame," describing him as the building's "most eloquent and prolific rhapsodist" (70). Gondola Days is dedicated to preserving and extending that project. The building and its multiple artistic representations, including the brilliant Sargent painting, A Venetian Interior of 1898 (now at the Royal Academy of Arts in London), are charted and reproduced throughout. And the art and literary critics and historians who contribute to Gondola Days provide an education in the complex cultural meanings of the Palazzo, its visitors and inhabitants. [End Page 306]
Alan Chong, Curator at the Gardner, introduces the volume and the Palazzo:
Ariana and Daniel Curtis of Boston first rented the Palazzo Barbaro in 1881, and purchased it in 1885. Almost immediately, the palace hosted readings by Robert Browning, tableaux vivants arranged by Frank Duveneck and Joseph Lindon Smith, concerts and recitals, and other entertainments. Henry James and John Sargent lived and worked there; Anders Zorn painted Isabella [Stewart Gardner] entering the Salone from a balcony. Principally though not exclusively American and English, this circle of friends also included James McNeill Whistler, Henry and Enid Layard, Katharine and Edith Bronson, John Addington Symonds, Vernon Lee, Bernard Berenson, and Claude Monet.(xi)
A haven for working artists, the Palazzo Barbaro also played an important role in Venetian cultural commerce. The Curtises were artistic patrons; their son, a painter whose works were collected by friends and family; Isabella Gardner, under the tutelage of Charles Eliot and Richard Norton, Joseph Lindon Smith, and Bernard Berenson, learned there the art of accumulation, finding in the Palazzo as well the model for her Boston shrine to European culture.
The essays that comprise Gondola Days view the Palazzo from complementary (occasionally overlapping) angles. Included are chapters on Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice, the Curtises, Anglo-American artistic life in Venice in the late nineteenth century, Sargent, the Venetian-style building that became the Gardner Museum, the history of the Palazzo Barbaro, and a reminiscence by the great-granddaughter of Ariana and Daniel Curtis. There is also a useful chapter on "The Palazzo Barbaro Circle," consisting of short biographical essays—these too beautifully illustrated.
While Henry James is not the primary subject of this volume, he is the focus of an essay by Rosella Mamoli Zorzi, "'Figures reflected in the clear lagoon': Henry James, Daniel and Ariana Curtis, and Isabella Stewart Gardner." And his name and words are threaded throughout the other essays on Gardner, the Curtises, Sargent, and two "palazzos," Venetian and Bostonian. The various attempts to identify the prototypes for James's Venetian characters will be less interesting to Jamesians than the detailed depictions and analyses of the Venice that he knew. Indeed, the opening illustration for Gondola Days is the Alvin Longdon Coburn photograph that was commissioned for the New York Edition of The Wings of the Dove, a photograph for which James gave his usual explicit instructions:
For the other picture, that of The Wings, I had vaguely in mind the Palazzo Barbaro, which you can see very well...