Monday, June 22, 2009

"The Rape of Europa"

On rainy Sunday I went to the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum on the Fenway in Boston. Fueled by lunch in the museum cafe--buzz-making red wine, polenta with mushrooms, and chocolate tort--I climbed up the stairs to the red room on the third floor to look at Titian's "The Rape of Europa."

I saw what I usually saw: a bull as sweet as a cow, the horns harmless as croissants, dulled by a wreath of flowers, Europa terrified--those eyes rolling back, showing white--carried off, tricked by the seemingly mild bull that is Zeus in disguise, the rape about to occur.  As always I was charmed by the cherubs, particularly the one that floats face down on air as if on water. 

I looked again.  O!  The rape seems to have already occurred.  Europa is done in, helpless, limb-loosened.  Those figures on the distant shore are mourning.  No wonder the bull is pacified, his eyes reasonable and mild.  

Did Mrs. Gardner look at her great paintings with fresh eyes or did she stop seeing them?  I like to think that from time to time she saw them as if for the first time.   


  1. Despite Miriam's endorsement, I have always found the museum and Mrs. Gardener a bit creepy. Those wishing a good, brief and less biased recent book on the subject might look at "The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner" by Patricia Vigderman.

  2. She was an obsessive collector. The paintings are extraordinary, the shmatahs from dead popes, etc., creepy. The whole place exudes the atmosphere of artificiality, especially the hot-house courtyard roofed in glass three stories up. I think the creepiness is part of the appeal. Good tip about Vigderman's thoughtful book.

  3. Isabella Stuart Gardner lived until 1924. She didn't buy the moderns. If the right person had advised her, just think what she could have bought! Wouldn't it be fun to see a Picasso in the museum along with the Titian.