Rearrangement Does Not a Renaissance Make

"Botticelli's Witness: Changing Style in a Changing Florence" at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum showing through April 6th

STRANGELY OUT OF PLACE IN terms of mood and presentation, a special exhibition of works by Sandro Botticelli at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum adds little to and may even detract from the overall experience of the most pleasant museum in Boston.

Entering the museum, one is first greeted by an overabundance of life: Vibrantly green vegetation bursts out of a brilliantly lit four-story courtyard littered, or so it seems, with the remnants of the Roman Empire. A head-less marble statue stands in one corner, a decorated sarcophagus in another. It's as if a piece of the eternal city had been cut out and transferred to Boston. One can only stand and admire. The eye of the visitor is soon also drawn to a long line of people apparently waiting for something very special, visible through one of the colonnades on the first floor. They wait patiently, often for more than half an hour, to enter the museum's tiny special events gallery and see the Botticelli exhibit.

The interior of the gallery, however, is not at all what one would expect. Instead of another grand, richly decorated room of this quaint museum, one is instead greeted inside by white walls and pages upon pages of text by each of the few paintings exhibited. The small room reserved for the special exhibition space seems like another world compared with the elegant colonnades and breath-taking courtyard left behind.

The exhibit, through 12 works altogether, attempts to trace the development and changes in artistic style of Sandro Botticelli, one of the great artists of the Italian Renaissance. As an introduction to his time period as well as to his works, it manages to present a vast amount of information in a very logical sequence, making good use of the relatively small and awkward space. But while it gives the viewer a glimpse of Botticelli's life and times, this is often at the expense of drawing the viewer's eye from the artwork. The text, well-written and informative, tends to capture the viewer's eye more than the paintings themselves.

The name Botticelli summons up visions of Venus on the half-shell and elegantly-rendered deities of other kinds, but the view inside this exhibition is a bit disappointing. The exhibit brings together five paintings by Botticelli himself, three from his workshop and four prints derived from his designs. Sadly, the attempted contrast between Botticelli's early painting style and his style in the later years of his life is not readily apparent to the untrained eye.

Only after reading the accompanying texts is one able to recognize that the idealized and softly modeled figures of his earlier career become more agitated and tense in his later work. Again in the text, we are told that the figures gain "a more passionate directness of emotion" in Botticelli's later works--but that again is an idea more supported by the commentary than the artwork itself. Following such a quick lesson in Renaissance art, most visitors come out of the gallery feeling not only overwhelmed by so many facts and so much commentary, but also a bit disillusioned.

The greatest disappointment of all comes with the discovery that all the paintings in the exhibition have been removed from their permanent places in other parts of the museum. Endowed with only the most essential information, these paintings and prints in their original places were a part of a composition, which, though anachronistic at times, was still pleasing to the eye. All the charm of these works is gone in the tiny gallery, where the twelve paintings and prints are presented in sharp contrast to the unforgiving whiteness of the walls. They are now subjected to the cold eye of the observer, who must suppress imagination and base interpretation solely on the abundant text provided. The painting loses its sense of wonder and mystery and becomes a specimen to be looked at and not an entity to be explored and conversed with.

Exiting the gallery is like a breath of fresh air. Mystery and wonder are once again lurking at every corner and there's not a white wall in sight. There is playfulness in the compositions and questions popping up everywhere; the art collection becomes fun again.

If you're serious about art history or you find the Italian Renaissance fascinating, you won't mind the wait. If not, skip the special exhibit and enjoy the rest of the museum, which is amazing in and of itself.