Posted by: zhiv | June 17, 2009

Boston Journal Excerpts #3: Cape Ann and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

We start by making the short drive up to Ipswich, just to get a look at it and guage the distance. Ipswich is Updikeville, and I haven’t done any recent Updike reading or research, but I have a strong personal sense of his presence as we move through the little town and stop for coffee. Updike of course just died at the beginning of the year, and it’s funny to think if my experience here would have been different if he was still alive, how I might have been wondering if he was about to pop in for a bagel just like the one I was having.

We doubled back through Essex and headed out to Gloucester. The weather had been bad for the past two days, cloudy with rain, but now it was gorgeous out and the bright sunshine made all the difference. This is beautiful country, and our scenic drive was now extremely scenic. We covered the west side of Gloucester, then went back down to the center of town and spotted the Crow’s Nest bar from Perfect Storm, then made our second stop of the day at the Rocky Neck Artist’s Colony, getting out, walking around, and enjoying the sunshine. From there we looped out to East Gloucester, where all the big houses are. We kind of stumbled on this, not knowing exactly where it all was, but my scenic drive technique basically consists of putting myself into position to make this kind of discovery–or not. We saw the ocean view inns and motels, which all looked pretty good, and we drove past the beach. From there we headed to Rockport. It was great and we could have happily spent the afternoon there walking around, but we wanted to keep moving and didn’t get out of the car.

I expected we would turn back. But when I was reading the Annie Fields diary the day before, she had mentioned that she and JT were going to their house on Pigeon Cove–I had to assume this was a house they had before building their house in Manchester. When we were finished going through Rockport I saw a sign that said “Pigeon Cove–Two Miles,” so of course I had to keep going, wondering all the while about how different this must have been as a summer spot 150+ years ago. Only I somehow missed Pigeon Cove and soon enough we had definitely gone further than two miles. We were cruising slowly along the winding coast road, enjoying the views and not checking the map, and soon enough we had rounded the Cape and were going through Lanesville, Annisquam and Riverdale, driving the whole of route 127, and we were back at Grant Circle and Gloucester. Combined with the brief ride up to Ipswich, it seemed as if we had put a pretty high score up on the board for the morning scenic drive portion of the program.

And now it was time for the afternoon museum portion. We drove into Boston, which I had down to a science by now, and my scouting/refresher course on Friday morning was helpful as we went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. This famous “small” museum isn’t exactly a secret, and it had been on my list for my two previous trips, but I hadn’t made it there yet. I knew it would be great, and wasn’t disappointed. In mentioning the museum to people I say that it’s like the Frick (and I could add the Huntington here in Pasadena, I suppose), a rich art collector’s mansion turned into a museum. A lot of people seem to know the Frick (“Oh, I love the Frick,” I keep hearing), perhaps because of its Manhattan Museum Row location, its manageable size and the quality of its artwork. The Gardner isn’t as measured and accessible as the Frick, and it’s a bit dark and brooding and heavy in the Renaissance Palazzo manner that informs its aesthetic, but it’s still spectacular. And when we were there the early summer sunshine was poring down into the beautiful couryard and side garden and it was gorgeous. I appreciate a structure centered around a perfect ancient Roman mosaic more than I might have in the past.

Iszy was in heaven. Her studies took a strong art history bent in the freshman year she just completed. It’s funny to think how she likes the museum even more than I do and has a better idea of what’s going on, since my own knowledge of art is a result of lots of museum going but no formal coursework. The Gardner is like a house (sort of, in a palazzo kind of way), everything the way that ISG left it, and nothing is labeled. This is probably good and it’s different, and it makes me realize how dependent I am on the little cards that say who, what, where, etc. There’s a system with room guides, but it takes some getting used to, and throws me off my game a little bit. That’s probably a good thing, I know. I’m voracious and I move quickly through museums, doing a volume business in a first pass through a larger museum, and in smaller ones, like the Gardner, I often go through twice, lingering on the second round, taking my time as others catch up. But Iszy moves pretty quickly too. We’re efficient.

We head to Copley Square and eat, and she’s telling me about Trinity Church and H.H. Richardson and McKim, Mead and White. I had gone through MMWs impressive Boston Public Library on a previous visit, and I had heard Trinity Church mentioned but didn’t understand the fuss, and now Iszy clues me in. The sun is out and it’s five o’clock and people are everywhere, appreciating the great weather. The library and church are closed, but Iszy snaps a couple of photos with her phone.

Then we’re on the road, well-fed, and I’ve remembered something else I wanted to do: we drive out to take a look at Wellesley College.



  1. I’m really enjoying these excerpts, Zhiv, and not just because you’re going over all the places I learned to love when we were still in Boston, just before moving to Switzerland.

    The Isabella Gardner is a place I went to again and again, not just because of the dustiness of it (I happen to like dusty) but because it felt like every time I went back I discovered something new.

  2. Thanks, V. Will go to Schweiz instead of Boston anytime, of course.

    Here’s a good recent post on the ISG heist:

    I heard about the new book about the heist on NPR, and I would probably read it if I bump into it. I like this brief verison.

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