From 1892 the millionaire art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner and her husband Jack rented the Palazzo Barbaro from the Curtises during the summer months. Here Mrs Gardner, who was caught flinging open the windows of the Palazzo Barbaro in Anders Zorn’s wonderfully impetuous portrait of her, quickly became the acknowledged Queen of American-Venetian society attracting to her court an international circle of artists, writers and musicians including Sargent and Henry James. Later she was to build her own Venetian palazzo in Boston, now the Gardner Museum, with a Venetian courtyard composed of fragments of architectural salvage. The art collections were formed with the advice of another visitor to the Palazzo Barbaro, Bernard Berenson with conducted a life-long correspondence and through whom she acquired from Colnaghi in 1896 that great Venetian masterpiece, Titian’s Rape of Europa. One of Berenson’s earliest letters to her was written from Venice where he was on a study trip sponsored by the Gardners:
“During my first week the harvest moon still shone most beautifully over St Mark’s. Now we shall have another moon shining on it, and you know what a spectacle, rich, fantastic, fairy-like the whole Piazza is on a moon-lit evening. My previous year abroad led me to believe that the most delightful school of painting was the Venetian. And here I find nothing to change my view. To be sure of the kind that I most enjoy, sheer genre, there is not so very much here, but enough to make me happy with gazing at them several hours each day.”
Berenson also accompanied her on trips rummaging through Venetian antique shops as he described in a letter to his future wife in 1897:
“Mrs Gardner grows on me from moment to moment…she lives at a rate and intensity, and with a reality that makes other lives seem pale, thin and shadowy…We have been hunting the antiquaries shops and picking up at ridiculous prices fascinating odds and ends, [such] as a small Cossa, a fine Bramantino, an early Liberale, a Giambono, and a gorgeous drawing by Rubens after Mantegna’s HC [Hampton Court] cartoons”.
To hear some of Berenson’s later letters to Mrs Gardner about Venice, play the audio below: