Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

Blue walls: Florence’s Bardini Museum and Isabel Stewart Gardner

When the Bardini Museum reopened last year the most remarkable aspect of the restoration was the return of Stefano Bardini’s blue walls. Bardini, a 19th century art dealer, left his show room and gallery, housed in a deconsecrated church and convent, to the city of Florence in 1922. Perhaps inspired by the contrast of white against “Della Robbia Blue” in the famous ceramics he collected and sold, Bardini painted his walls blue to better show off the marble sculpture and architectural artifacts for sale in his gallery. This concept proved short lived but well-appreciated by at least one important woman: Isabel Stewart Gardner.

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By 1925, Alfredo Lensi, the city of Florence’s architect, deriding “the fusty antique dealer’s poor taste”, had painted the walls of Bardini’s palazzo a yellow ochre and rearranged the entire gallery so the art was shown in chronological order.

Isabel Stewart Gardner, arbiter of Bostonian taste and creator of her own museum at Fenway Court, saw Bardini’s blue walls in the 1890s. She purchased a number of items from Bardini for her collection. In March 1900, she wrote to art dealer Bernard Berenson, asking “…will you please some day, get on a piece of paper the blue colour that Bardini has on his walls. I want the exact tint. Perhaps some little person can paint it on a piece of paper.”

Isabel Gardner wrote again to Berenson later in the year, “…When you get there (you are there) please do get me a piece of paper painted with the blue of Bardini’s walls. You know you promised me before. I am working hard over my new house.”

Berenson wrote back, right away:

I was most sincerely pleased to hear from you, after so long a silence – even tho’ you mildly scolded me for not having gotten you a sample of Bardini’s blue. The truth is that when you wrote about it last year, I saw Bardini about it directly. He solemnly assured me he would send it [to] you in a day or two….This time I went down and approached him. He was profuse in apologies, and to make sure that now you really got it, I told him to give it to me. I enclose it, the sample, and with it, the receipt for preparing it…

Unrelenting, Mrs. Gardner inquried again: “Did you compare them [the paint chip and wall]? In case you have not, will you kindly do so. I enclose a piece. The important [thing] is to get the tint exactly…”

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Visitors to both the Bardini Museum and the Isabel Stewart Gardner Museum can be glad they finally got the tint exactly right.

Ann Reavis has remained insatiably curious in Florence for the past  ten years and helps other like-minded visitors through www.friendinflorence.com. She also writes the wonderfully detailed blog, with geeky art history and library articles TuscanTraveler.com.

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