It was a palace of paintings. For conservative old Beantown, she was simply startling and an individualist; she erected a Venetian pleasure dome in the Back Bay and filled it with masterpieces for the public to enjoy.
…In 1892 Mrs. Gardner tangled with the Empress Frederick of Germany over Susterman’s A Young Commander, which she bought thinking it was a portrait of the Duke of Monmouth from whom she claimed descent. Through Count Seckendorf in Berlin, the Empress tried to get Isabella to step aside and let her have the picture. Characteristically, Belle replied that her Stuart ancestry gave her as much right to it as the Empress. Small wonder that when she sent a wreath to Liszt’s funeral marked “Homage de l’Amerique” it was placed alongside that of Queen Victoria.
The Piero della Francesca Hercules, which Joseph Lindon Smith of the Boston Museum got out of Italy for her, still on its original plaster, after four years of wrangling with the authorities, is said to have been in the artist’s own villa. it is Piero’s only pagan subject and his only fresco outside Italy. The Simone Martini Madonna and Child With Four Saints is the only complete altarpiece by this artist outside of Italy at the time. The tiny Fra Angelico from Florence, The Death and the Assumption of the Virgin, was described by Bernard Berenson as one of the loveliest pictures ever painted. Botticelli is represented by superlative examples of both extremes of his career: the early Chigi Madonna from their palace in Rome and the late Tragedy of Lucretia which Mrs. Gardner bought through Berenson from the Earl of Ashburnham.
One of the other great paintings is a superb Rubens portrait of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, who often appeared in the masques of Ben Jonson for which Inigo Jones supplied the decor, once graced Warwick Castle. Berenson called Anthony Van Dyck’s Lady With a Rose that painter’s Mona Lisa. Her superb Degas portrait of Mme. Gaujelin was rejected by the sitter as too unflattering; yet Mrs. gardner liked to tell people how annoyed the lady was when she learned it had been sent to America.
The most notable sculpture at Fenway Court is Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze bust of the art patron Bindo Altoviti. Michelangelo was not noted for his magnaminity toward other artists, but the gardner hand list proudly quotes his letter praising this work, one of only a few authentic Cellini’s in America. Morris Carter, who was Mrs. Jack’s biographer called the mosaic pavement at the center of the court at Fenway, said to be from the Villa Livia in Rome, the finest example in the United States.