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AAD’s Laura Stewart Finds Brahmins Skipping Across Beacon Hill

As America’s Most Straight-Laced City Finally Loosens Up -

A brain teaser for art world cognescenti.

What location connects Harvard University and artist Mark Rothko?

(Hint: Harvard is located in Boston, Massachusetts on the Eastern seafront of America. Rothko was born in Russia, emigrated to the U.S. and painted in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village with The New York School of artists in the 1950s.)
So logically, the correct answer is.... Italy. Italy? Yes, Italy. Here’s how it works.

Harvard’s recent renovation of its art museums was masterminded by Italian architect, Renzo Piano. To celebrate the renovation, Harvard has murals by Mark Rothko on view. The inspiration for Rothko’s murals, we learn, were altarpieces by Italian Renaissance artist, Fra Angelico, ancient Roman frescos preserved in the Italian town of Pompeii, and the Laurentian Library designed by Michelangelo in San Lorenzo in the Italian city of Florence.

If this is not enough to convince, Harvard’s new space has a coffee “bar” - as they would say in Italy - serving impressively authentic espresso. Usually espresso would not be central to an art story - but here it underlines a delicious irony.

First, Boston is the most uptight, least sensually Mediterranean place in America. So when architect Piano was first chosen to revamp The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 2012, and then unveiled an utterly joyous renovation at Harvard, one had to wonder if Boston’s newfound devotion to la dolce vita signalled the loosening of Brahmin britches.

My answer, after a recent jaunt to Beantown, is a resounding Yes. Why is this all so ironic? The answer lies in the unique history of Boston itself.


Ever since pilgrims piled onto Plymouth Rock in 1630, Bostonians have been a peculiar breed. No sooner had they fled all things decadent and deplorable in Europe - notably the classist aristocracy and the hierarchy of the Catholic church - they, as human beings are known to do, recreated a rigid caste society all their own.

This tight-knit band of high-brow Bostonians are known as Brahmins (from the word for the highest rung on the Hindu caste ladder). They spring from the stock of the early settlers, who found their prophet in the Protestant reformer, John Calvin. Calvin preached that the quickest way to jump the queue at St. Peter’s Gate was to hard work here on earth. So they worked, and they worked hard.

This work ethic, especially when the textile trade took off in the 19th century, allowed the progeny of the original finger-wagging Puritans to amass a great deal of money - and guilt free. Thus, these now very rich and very small group of Bostonians immediately separated themselves as the “haves” from the “have nots”. And, in a uniquely American twist, into the “who came firsts” as distinct from the “who came nexts.”

A toast given by a Holy Cross alumni (read Catholic) pretty much sums up how it played out in the end:

‘And this is good old Boston,

The home of the bean and the cod,

Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,

And the Cabots talk only to God.”

It is unlikely that even Renzo Piano and his team - with their greenery at the Gardner and acres of gleaming glass at Harvard - of instantaneously turning a provincial Northern U.S. seaport into the Isle of Capri. But if this trend continues then today’s glimmer of light peeking from behind the brocade, could become tomorrow’s sunlit terrace, or at least partly sunlit. Piano is magical with buildings, but there’s not much he can do about Boston’s longitude, or its weather.

Laura Harding Stewart

About the Author

Laura Stewart

Laura Stewart

Laura Stewart has been a professional in the art world for 30+ years. Her career has included work as a journalist, editor, public relations professional and non-profit management consultant. She bega...