Everyone remembers where they were on March 11, 2020, the day our pre-pandemic world ended. For Peggy Fogelman, director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the memory is more acute than most. That night, Fogelman and her senior staff squired a group of the museum’s trustees to the National Gallery of Art in London for what should have been a triumphant evening: a private pre-opening reception for “Titian: Love, Desire, Death,” which reunited the Venetian old master’s foundational “Poesie” series of six paintings for the first time in 400 years. (Spanish King Philip II commissioned them in the mid-16th century, but it’s believed they were together in his court for less than 20 years before they started being dispersed to those close to him.)
At the show’s heart sat “The Rape of Europa,” the Gardner’s very own Titian, acquired with sharp-eyed prescience by the museum’s namesake more than 120 years prior. Under any other circumstances, the mood would have been ebullient — the Gardner, a small jewel-box of extraordinary things, was rubbing shoulders with its much-bigger partners, museums like the National Gallery and the Prado in Madrid. Instead, the evening’s elation was tempered by rising anxiety: News of the novel coronavirus’s spread was still far afield, but creeping closer all the time.
“We were very aware,” Fogelman remembered. “And we debated whether to cancel the trip. At the time, [the virus] seemed to be centered primarily in Northern Italy, and the UK hadn’t instituted any new protocols. Then it moved much more quickly than we anticipated.”
The Boston contingent woke the next morning to startling news: While they were sleeping in London, President Donald Trump had announced a travel ban from European countries. The group scrambled to arrange flights home before the ban took effect, dropping themselves into a sea of America travelers just as desperate as they were. On the March 13 flight back to Boston, Fogelman recalled a planeload of what she guessed was “every college student on a study-abroad program, trying to get home. It felt like the COVID escape flight.”
Seventeen months later, the Gardner is preparing to do what then might have seemed impossible: to open the show under its own title, “Titian: Women, Myth and Power” here in Boston, intact and only six months later than originally planned. “Oh my God, it’s nothing short of a miracle,” Fogelman said at the Gardner this week with a big, cathartic laugh.
There would be no escaping COVID and its disruptions, of course. When Fogelman landed home with the pandemic on her heels, it was to empty streets and a shuttered museum, a call she made in unison with her Boston-area museum peers. (Within days, the National Gallery in London closed, too, leaving the Titian reunion locked up and sealed away.) Since then, the Gardner has had to relearn everything it knew about mounting an international art exhibition, and for what’s likely the highest-profile, most significant show in the museum’s history.
“I’m very, very relieved that we hung our last painting yesterday,” said Amanda Venezia, the Gardner’s head registrar for collections and exhibitions, earlier this week. As the senior staff person responsible for everything from negotiating contracts with partners to how things are packaged, shipped, secured, and insured, “I have a lot of skin in this game,” she said with a laugh.
In 2015, Venezia started negotiating logistics with partner museums who owned the other five “Poesie” works, each of them coming from individual, far-flung institutions throughout Europe. “The real drama of this exhibition was supposed to be how we were able to bring these works together after so long apart, which is truly a once-in-a-lifetime event,” she said.
But on that day in March 2020, with Gardner staff hurrying back across the Atlantic while “Europa” was left on a London wall, the drama quickly shifted elsewhere. “In that moment, my stomach just dropped,” Venezia said. “The big takeaway was: That painting is the most important painting in our collection; it left and then the world shut down. It suddenly presented a massive list of unknowns.”
The paintings, they knew, were safe at the National Gallery in London, one of the world’s preeminent museums. They would be just as secure once they reached the Prado for an opening in early March 2021. (After five years of planning, the show’s partner museums decided early in the pandemic to forge ahead. “We all felt that, if we don’t make it happen now, it may never happen again,” Fogelman said.) But getting the show to the Prado, and then on to the Gardner, would be a challenge.
In February of this year, Nathaniel Silver, the Gardner’s curator of collections, boarded a plane for Madrid — his first flight since leaving London, almost a year before — to receive “Europa” at the Prado and check its condition, a standard procedure for high-value traveling works. The pandemic was barely on the downside of its most aggressive peak, with mass vaccinations still months away. Spain wasn’t letting anyone into the country; otherwise routine logistics and security staffing vanished. “It was practically impossible to get people on the ground when you needed them,” Silver said. “When I arrived, to an empty museum, they told me I was the first American they’d seen in a year.”
Venezia had arranged for the US State Department to request special dispensation for Silver to enter the country. Meanwhile, the Prado applied to the Spanish government, verifying that Silver was there for essential work. Then his nearly empty plane landed in a freak winter storm, dropping him into an apocalyptic scene: empty streets and felled trees all over Madrid. “They were unusual travel circumstances, to say the least,” Silver said.
Finally, when time came for the paintings to journey to Boston in early July, new challenges arose: Flash flooding in Europe threw the supply chain, already strained by COVID, into further disarray. And the Olympics were on the horizon, stretching global logistics even further. “We were getting caught in a backlog because they had to prioritize getting horses to the Olympics in Tokyo,” Venezia said. “At a certain point, it became impossible to plan more than seven to 10 days in advance. I basically haven’t slept in a month.”
Even so: The paintings are here now, on time and ready for the show’s opening next week. “My white knuckles have loosened, mostly because the paintings are on the wall,” Venezia said. But the odyssey still has one last leg. “I’m going to take a big, long vacation,” she said with a laugh. “And then do it all again, in January, when they have to go back.”
TITIAN: WOMEN, MYTH AND POWER
At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 25 Evans Way. Aug. 12-Jan. 2. 617-566-1401, www.gardnermuseum.org