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Boston Luminous

For nearly two centuries, the elegant city of Boston has been known as the Athens of America. To explain how it earned this distinction, which Bostonians take very seriously, Panorama has compiled a shortlist of the city’s most important cultural institutions.

By Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez

Huntington Avenue is an extremely long, straight and wide boulevard stretching from Boston’s financial center to the city’s southwest side. About seven blocks from Copley Square, where the avenue begins, there is a spacious parkway: the Back Bay Fens. The name “fens” comes from the historical fact that during colonial times, Boston Harbor, east of the city, had a sort of swampy twin to the west that formed at the mouth of the Charles River. Beginning in 1877, however, the marshes were filled in to create the splendid park we know today.

To the south of the park stands the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, a traditional neoclassical building that holds more than half a million works of art from the four corners of the globe within its walls. Although the current complex has been there since 1909, the Museum of Fine Arts originally opened in Copley Square in 1870, about the time the Back Bay Fens were being filled. I point out these dates to illustrate the fact that during the last quarter of the 19th century, Boston began an ambitious program of construction and urbanization following the great fire of 1872; at the same time, the city’s reputation as a national cultural center began to grow, thanks to institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA is its English acronym), which I am about to enter.

Although we each have our own taste, the Ancient Art room to the right of the main entrance seems the logical place to start. I must confess that, as a child who dreamed of becoming an Egyptologist, bumping up against the very effigy of Pharaoh Menkaura I’d seen in books for years made my heart leap. The museum also holds King Gudea of Mesopotamia’s head and fragments of mosaics that once covered the Great Gate of Ishtar in Babylon. The exhibits are grouped into six categories and displayed throughout fifteen areas, including Ancient Art, Asian, Oceanic, and African Art, and Contemporary, American, and European Art. If you’re an art-lover, reserve an entire day for your visit to the MFA. Enjoy lunch and a coffee at one of the four excellent restaurants, and you’ll leave at the end of the day feeling energized by the legacy of beauty that humanity has left us over the course of five thousand years of civilization.

Founded in 1630 by British Puritans, Boston soon grew prosperous by trading salt, snuff, rum, and smoked fish. Its proud commercial bourgeoisie, whose resistance to excessive taxation by the British Crown was historically recognized, grew even stronger after the thirteen colonies won their independence and began to aspire to equal footing with the aristocracy of the old metropolis. They amassed enormous wealth and traveled the world, acquiring treasures of incalculable historical value. The Brahmins of Boston (as they are remembered) exhibited the treasures they discovered on their travels in their Victorian mansions, more as proof of erudition than wealth; they later donated these artifacts to institutions like the MFA.

But not all the private collections were absorbed by these museums. One gorgeous example is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Foundation collection, named in honor of an unorthodox member of Bostonian high society. During her remarkable life this woman collected all sorts of artwork, from fine art to utilitarian items from Europe and the Far East.

But, unlike the MFA, where the pieces are organized according to strict curatorial tradition, this collection was arranged in keeping with Isabella’s aesthetic criteria. The foundation’s museum complex was designed to embrace and represent life, from parties to concerts and literary circles. The building was constructed using columns, windows, walls, wood veneers, moldings, and all sorts of building components purchased by the ingenious woman over three decades of travel. The courtyard to the complex was first known as Fenway Court; Egyptian and Greek statues frolic among ferns and hothouse palms, sternly observed by winged medieval creatures set into the walls above the Renaissance windows.

The sculptures surround the courtyard, heralding the splendid exhibition of paintings, sculptures, and sumptuous works that are arranged across the mansion’s three floors. Prepare your eyes for a treat as you encounter works by Veronese, Raphael, Titian, and other Italian masters; Rembrandt, Rubens, and Holbein the Younger in the Dutch Room; and the contemporary artists of Isabella’s time in the Yellow Room. The millionaires left behind an endowment used to set up the foundation bearing her name, which continues to acquire pieces for the collection and sponsor cultural events.

Music is also part of the city’s cultural offerings. Nearby, downtown on Huntington Avenue, on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue, is the Boston Symphony Hall. This auditorium is among the five most acoustically perfect in the world. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1881, chose Symphony Hall as its headquarters after construction was completed in 1901. The Tanglewood Music Festival, held each August since 1934 (formerly in the Berkshires, in western Massachusetts), is also run by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Both the Festival and its associated academic programs have had an enormous influence on many of America’s most renowned composers and musicians.

Although all the venerable cities of New England and the east coast of the United States see themselves as cultural luminaries, none shines with such elegance and good taste as Boston. Although, as stated earlier, the city’s reputation began to take off in the late nineteenth century, the seeds of this awakening were sown much earlier, around 1635, with the founding of the Latin School, so named because all classes were taught in the noble language of Seneca and Cicero.

The Latin School is the forerunner of today’s Harvard University. You might think, given its academic focus, that Harvard would have little place among Boston’s tourist attractions (in fact, the University is in Cambridge, across the Charles River), but you’d be wrong!

The University provides student-guided tours that start at the Harvard Square stop (next to the Out of Town Kiosk selling periodicals from around the globe) on Boston’s “T” commuter system. The tours take visitors to such iconic sites as the Memorial Church; the Harvard College building, one of the oldest on campus; Harvard Yard; and the Harvard Lampoon, where the famed weekly National Lampoon is published. The city is home to hundreds of other educational institutions in addition to Harvard; in fact, each of the institutions reviewed in this article is but one of the city’s hundreds of remarkable and beloved options. So, after taking a look at our recommendations, you’ll face an endless list guaranteed to make your cultural experience in Boston equally as endless. Personally, I’m not much for superlatives, but when my hosts tell me that the Boston area has more cultural centers than anywhere in the world, I don’t doubt them for a minute.

 

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