Speaking Volumes: Rare Books at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Earlier this week I went to an interesting talk at Simmons: Dr. Anne-Marie Eze, the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, spoke about Isabella Stewart Gardner as a rare book collector and about the upcoming exhibit “Illuminating the Serenissima: Books of the Republic of Venice” (May 3-June 19, 2011).

Though Isabella Stewart Gardner is most well known for collecting art, she began collecting books first; however, no one has looked at the rare book collection as a whole or considered Gardner as a collector/bibliophile till now. Dr. Eze is doing this, and cataloging the 5,000 books, which date from the 14th century through the 20th and include illuminated manuscripts, children’s books, incunabula, and inscribed “association” copies from authors with whom Gardner was friends – Henry James, for example.

In her talk, Eze noted – and seemed disappointed – that Gardner did not write in her books. Here seems to be the difference between a librarian/historian type and a rare book collector: the latter would want the book to be free of underlining and marginalia (unless it was the author’s or another famous person’s own notes, which could increase its value), but Eze would have been pleased to discover some, as a clue to Gardner’s life. I was reminded of a line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s from “Improvisations of the Caprisian Winter,” translated by Franz Wright:

So many things lie torn open
by rash hands that arrived too late,
in search of you: they wanted to know.

And sometimes in an old book
an incomprehensible passage is underlined.
You were there, once. What has become of you?

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