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Venice, anyone?

Gardner reconnects with its sister city

John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, Claude Monet, Henry James, Robert Browning: They were among the members of the international intelligentsia who congregated at the Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal in Venice at the end of the 19th century.

There's evidence aplenty of their visits, in the form of painting and writing. Their canvases and quotes from their books make up the "Gondola Days" exhibition that is the culminating event of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's centennial -- which was actually in 2003. (Cultural organizations in need of attention and funds can be forgiven for extending these celebrations as long as possible.)

The works in the show, drawn from public and private collections in Europe and America, are for the most part familiar. It's bringing them together to tell the story of a remarkable moment in cultural history that's the lure of the exhibition. That, and the chance to visit the Gardner's fourth floor, where the works are installed and where the public has never been allowed.

Gardner herself lived there from 1901, when she moved in to supervise construction of her faux palazzo on the Fenway, until her death in 1924. The directors of her museum then occupied the fourth floor until 1989, when the current director, Anne Hawley, took the job but not the residence. The rooms were turned into offices.

Now they've been temporarily turned into galleries. They are most emphatically not period rooms or a shrine to Gardner's lifestyle. You won't find her furnishings here; she bequeathed most of them to her niece, leaving the museum with only a few odd tables and chairs that have been removed to accommodate the Palazzo Barbaro show.

What wasn't removed were actual parts of the architecture Gardner brought from her home: a fireplace surround made of bright Moorish-influenced tiles from Seville; a coffered ceiling painted with stylized flowers; a chandelier made from a Japanese temple ornament in the form of a giant lotus leaf; andirons by Tiffany, set with opaque green glass that looks like jade. This mix alone testifies to the famous eclecticism of Gardner's taste.

The fourth floor is, however, for the most part as dull as the exhibition now in it is dramatic. It is telling that Gardner, who had the first three floors of the museum photographed often, and in great detail, never ordered a single picture taken of the fourth floor. There the Venetian Renaissance fantasy ended; there Gardner seems to have acknowledged her own version of what James wrote about himself in relation to Venice: his "inexorable Yankeeness." There, however, she could look down at the glorious courtyard that was the heart of her creation.

Gardner and her husband, Jack, began visiting the Barbaro in 1884. The palazzo was rented, then bought, by another Boston couple, Daniel and Ariana Curtis. A descendant, Patricia Curtis, still lives there.

Anyone who has been to the Gardner and is then fortunate enough to be invited inside the Barbaro will experience the shock of deja vu. While separated by centuries, the two are architectural siblings. Yet a wall text in the current show says that the museum was actually modeled on another Venetian palazzo, the Ca' Capello. Gardner curator Alan Chong says that Gardner took what she liked from various palazzi and put it all together, the same way she collected art.

The exhibition -- which will travel to the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice in the fall -- offers fascinating insights to the life of the palazzo in the 19th century, 400 years after it was built. While relatively well-preserved, the ornate building represented to the Bostonians the romantically run-down remains of a city whose cultural life had peaked centuries earlier, in the era of Titian and Tintoretto, a city further romanticized -- and, for English-speakers, virtually defined -- in John Ruskin's 1851 book "The Stones of Venice." Ruskin's Venice was a dark Gothic labyrinth, a beguiling, secretive setting where late 19th-century cognoscenti could play out their dreams of past glories. Life at the Palazzo Barbaro is amply documented. Henry James set "The Wings of the Dove" there. Sargent was the best of the several artists who painted its interiors. The Gardner exhibition includes guest books; a photo of the great Tiepolo ceiling removed from the Barbaro and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; and dozens of touristy black and white snapshots the Barbaro set took of each other, made possible by the invention of the hand-held camera preloaded with film. Gondolas were a favorite subject.The quality of the art in this show varies wildly, but for historical purpose, that's not a bad thing. Ralph Curtis, the eldest son of Daniel and Ariana, was a fine draftsman but a mediocre painter, who managed to make what many regard as the most beautiful or at least the most picturesque city in the world look boring. It was beyond his skills to make a gondola look like it was really in the water instead of skimming over its surface. Different artists have portrayed Venice in drastically different ways. Like Canaletto, the city's best-known painter of Venetian scenes in the 18th century, Monet saw water, light, and a sense of spaciousness. His gaze turned outward. The only Monet in the Gardner show, a 1908 view of "The Grand Canal," shimmers in the sun. The painting is on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts; Gardner herself never bought a Monet. While Monet occupies an entirely different level than Curtis, the great Impressionist also seems to have been daunted by the sheer beauty of La Serenissima, as Venice is poetically called. "The Grand Canal" is sweet and straightforward, not Monet at his best.

Whistler and Sargent are in the opposite camp: Their Venice is often dark and furtive, the narrow canals turning corners so you don't see what lies beyond. When Sargent paints a sunnier Venice, he uses a deliberately truncated composition to maintain a sense of mystery. The Sargent watercolors in this show are breathtaking, their fluidity perfectly suited to this city defined by water.

Among the more interesting B-team artists in the show are Joseph Lindon Smith and Anders Zorn, who was a sort of court portraitist to Gardner, ever willing to make her look as glamorous as possible. He obligingly turned her famously plain face into a blur. Lindon Smith is the show's eccentric. In form and content his tall, skinny Whistler-like watercolor of fireworks reads as abstract until you read the label. He arranged with authorities to have scaffolding built beside the 15th-century sculpture of Bartolomeo Colleoni that towers above the Campo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, so he could draw a close-up of the head. The result, which was instantly bought for the MFA, is a snarling face, a gargoyle writ large.

The most haunting image in the show is Sargent's unfinished watercolor of a black-garbed woman reclining in a gondola. The image could easily serve as an illustration of the legends of Ophelia or Guinevere -- or of the one Isabella Stewart Gardner concocted about herself.

‘‘Gondola Days: Isabella Stewart Gardner & the Palazzo Barbaro Circle’’ is at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum through Aug. 15. There is an additional admission charge and timed tickets are required for the ‘‘Gondola Days’’ exhibition. Available at the museum or 617-566-1401.

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