Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner

64. The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner, by Patricia Vigderman

Neither a biography nor a guide to the collection, but rather a meditation on the identity, the soul, of Isabella Stewart Gardner, this small volume is Vigderman's attempt to understand, through her collection, why Gardner collected what she did, why she displayed it the way she did, why she left it to the public the way she did.

This is a stroll through the Museum, pausing here and there, thinking about this piece or that. How does it fit with that piece over there? What might it have meant to Mrs. Gardner? Who urged her to acquire it and how was that person important to ISG? That is the structure of the book, in three parts, each broken down into smaller sections headed with the title of a work, its author and date. Something about that work inspires and speaks of the words that will follow. Thus, Helleu's Woman Threading a Needle calls forth thoughts of how ISG "threaded the needle" through a world where wealth and status did not necessarily allow a woman to "make her way into the kingdom of books" to one where she found "pleasant lifelong learning":

As Vigderman wanders through those rooms and corridors, she talks to us about Bernard Berenson, whose career ISG helped launch. We learn of art politics, and in-fighting in the lofty rooms of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. And, finally, Vigderman, joins old Boston and the clutter of Victoriana with the simplicity and grace of the Japanese tea ceremony through the figure of Okakura Kakuz┼Ź, first head of the MFA's Asian Arts department, and author of that book of philosophy, The Book of Tea. (The postscript, An Invitation to Tea, follows the form of the other three parts, but each subsection is headed with a caption of an illustration from the Kodansha International edition of that book.)

In the end, do we know more of Gardner than we did before we began? I think we do. Vigderman's digressive musings help to understand how ISG was both a product of, and a rebel against, her time and place.

Why this book is not available at the Gardner Museum's bookshop is beyond my comprehension.

Reviewed as part of


  1. Lovely review--this sounds like a really great book, especially if you're about to visit the ISG. Is there anything in there that someone would find objectionable about Gardener or the museum donors? That's the only reason I could think of that the gift shop wouldn't stock it.

  2. I saw nothing that would be objectionable. I asked about it, and was told that they used to have it, but that it was out of print.

  3. This sounds like a really great book. I am going to check if I can find it. I love the whole premise of it - as you wrote in the first sentence of your review.