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Isabella Stewart Gardner left an art collection of more than 2,500 art objects that span four centuries. The new wing at her namesake museum is the latest in the collection.

Susan Saccoccia | 1/18/2012, 8:09 a.m.
Tapestry Room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, facing southwest. Sean Dungan

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Tapestry Room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, facing southwest.

Isabella Stewart Gardner left an art collection of more than 2,500 art objects that span four centuries. The new wing at her namesake museum is the latest in the collection.

The founder herself is the guiding spirit behind the stunning new wing of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which opens to the public today with a ribbon cutting by Mayor Menino and three days of free admission.

More than a century ago, Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924) modeled her dual residence and museum on the Fenway after a 15th century Venetian palazzo.

The $118 million steel, glass and copper-clad new wing by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop channels the same values that shaped her palazzo: the enjoyment of beauty in all its forms in daily life.

As spare as the original is opulent, the new structure adjoins Gardner’s 60,000 sq. ft. palazzo and more than doubles its size, adding 70,000 square feet to the museum.

The new wing is now the home of the museum’s wealth of programs, freeing visitors to contemplate the work of installation art that is Gardner’s palazzo. Within its galleries, she meticulously arranged her collection of more than 2,500 art objects spanning 30 centuries, from ancient coins to paintings by such contemporaries as John Singer Sargent and Matisse. Stipulating that none of these objects were ever to be sold or permanently moved, Gardner created America’s first art museum set in a palatial residence.

Heirs of wealthy families, newlyweds Isabella and Jack Gardner first set up home on Beacon Street, where Gardner’s bohemian instincts did not mesh well with the Brahmin set. The couple adored their only child, John, who died at two years of age. A long tour of Europe helped Gardner recover and kindled her interests in old-world and exotic cultures.

The couple frequented the Palazzo Barbaro in Venice, which inspired the Fenway structure, and joined a literary and artistic circle that included eminent Bostonians such as Sargent, Henry James and Charles Eliot Norton, who brought the study and collection of Italian Renaissance art to Harvard. Gardener became an astute collector and after her husband’s death, she single-handedly oversaw the design and construction of the palazzo.

Its Fenway site was a newly drained marsh turned into parkland by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Applying Venetian building techniques to create a durable structure in the former swamp, Gardner demanded that its foundation rest on piles planted on bedrock 90 feet below ground.

Open to the public in 1903, the museum drew hundreds of visitors each year during Gardner’s lifetime. Now, hundreds of visitors may arrive on a single day.

The museum has always been more than a place to display art. Gardner intended that its courtyard garden, concerts and lectures — inspired by the intimate salons the Gardners enjoyed at the Palazzo Barbaro — bring pleasure to the public forever.

Two decades ago, the stewards of this legacy, museum director Anne Hawley and her trustees, developed an expansion plan to preserve Gardner’s increasingly fragile environment for generations to come.