Trompe l'oeil cabinet with engineering tools, an hourglass, and a cittern (stringed instrument), all symbols of mathematical truth
If you've looked at Maxwell's entry for the Bloomingdale's Big Window Challenge 2010, you'll notice his trompe l'oeil bookshelf wall, painted by Mark Chamberlain, which was inspired by the Studiolo at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (image 1). The Studiolo happens to be my favorite room in the Met, so let's take a look at this tiny microcosm of Renaissance humanist values and artistic accomplishment.
The Studiolo is a room relocated to the Met from Gubbio, Italy, from the ducal palace of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, who commissioned the space around 1476. Federico (image 2) was a fascinating character, a never-defeated soldier and an enlightened leader who governed based on humanist values of equality and education. His studiolo is on the one hand completely unique within its category, while at the same time fulfilling all the expectations of that type of space.
In 15th century Italy, the studiolo, or study, was found in many Italian courts, an inner sanctum for private contemplation and for privileged visitors. It belonged solely to one person, and was created from scratch, composed consciously in order to reflect the owner's ideal self as a collector and person of letters. Renaissance studioli therefore took on a significant aspect of display.
The contents of studioli were pretty standard: they were designed to hold and display the owner's collections: antiquities, books, natural curiosities (like coral and semi-precious stones), manmade arts (painting, sculpture, gem carving, musical instruments, metalwork, etc.), and scholarly accoutrements.
Studioli, then, were opportunities for prominent patrons to show off their erudition and accomplishments and, therefore, their worthiness as leaders. For Federico da Montefeltro, this aspect of propaganda was very important. He had achieved his ducal position as a condotierro, or a mercenary soldier, and so he felt some pressure to legitimize his authority through humanistic patronage, as well as by adopting all the outward expressions of the Renaissance leader. The well-educated illegitimate son of a count, Federico used his wealth and military victories to turn Urbino into an important humanist center. He filled his library with important manuscripts (some plundered after successful battles) and commissioned the best artists of his day to paint portraits of historical figures like Dante, Euclid and Homer.
Federico da Montefeltro's studiolo is typical in terms of what objects he chose to display there. What is highly unusual (to put it mildly) is how he displayed them. He commissioned the da Maiano brothers, who ran the leading intarsia workshop in Florence, to create a trompe l'oeil version of an ideal studiolo (image 1, 3-10). Intarsia is the art of inlaying woods to create a pattern or an image. The da Maianos used different woods to create their design, and they would use special techniques, like singeing the edges to produce the illusion of three-dimensionality. Using recently-developed perspectival practices, the da Maianos used the windows that actually existed in the room as the perceived light source within their intarsia design, so the shadows cast were rational to the eye. The intarsia work depicts a study lined with latticed cabinets, many of which open to reveal symbols of Federico's erudition, military prowess, virtue and intelligence.
This unique approach to studiolo decoration was successful on a few levels. One, it was a visual joke, a cerebral wink at the expectations and practices of Federico's peers, but one that by no means undermined the traditional studiolo — his was, like everyone else's, evidence of his considerable wealth, intelligence and taste as a patron, but in his case, he was the patron of this fine intarsia workshop. At the same time, he was able to put anything he wanted in his studiolo, so the construction of his ideal self was not limited by the realities of what was in his physical collections (image 3).
In Federico da Montefeltro's studiolo, then, we can see all the components of the ideal Renaissance man. There is an emphasis on mathematics and engineering, because Federico considered geometry "the most important of the Liberal Arts, as well as the very foundation of architecture," so there are several engineers' tools of measurement, an hourglass that measured an equal hour, and so on (image 4), as well as an armillary sphere depicting the Ptolemaic universe. The studiolo contains many musical instruments in various cabinets, both as emblems of mathematical truth in music and as symbols of Federico's patronage of music and musicians (image 5).
Other cabinets refer to Federico's merit as a leader and a soldier. One cabinet opens to reveal his parade helmet, shin guards and a mace, as if the duke had just come in and tossed the stuff in his cubby (image 6). The ermine (image 7) was a common symbol of purity, while the ostrich with a spearhead in its beak represented Federico's ability to withstand adversity. The caged parrot, then a highly prized and unusual pet from far-flung lands, placed Federico among a small group of elite leaders — popes, kings, dukes — who could have owned such a creature (image 8). The jeweled garter, whose "shadow" is rendered in dark wood, was perhaps the most important symbol of all, a reference to Federico's admission into the Order of the Garter, the highest English chivalric honor (image 9). An expression of Federico's prominences as a statesman and a military leader, he displayed the symbol of the garter prominently, including on his leg in a c. 1475 portrait (image 2). The final cabinet is, poignantly, related to Federico's 1482 death (image 10), including a reference to his son and heir, Guidobaldo, and an image of Virgil's Aeneid on a lectern, open to a passage describing the death of Pallas, a young soldier.
Students of the decorative arts often like to argue that the objects people buy and surround themselves with are somehow windows onto their identity, or at least onto the identity they want to project. Federico da Montefeltro's studiolo is one interior that perfectly illustrates that concept: a self-conscious construct, the ideal personal space for the ideal leader.
Images & Sources: 1, 3-10 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. I recommend going to visit the tiny studiolo in person, but the Met's website has a fabulous section that explains the elements of the studiolo in much greater detail than I have done here; 2 Portrait of Federico da Montfeltro with his son Guidobaldo (who would inherit his title at his death in 1482) Pedro Berroguete (1480), Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino, via Museumsyndicate.