In the course of the fifteenth century a special room in many houses and palaces came to be set aside as a place of study and contemplation, designated by the Italian word studiolo. To have such a room in one’s home was to announce oneself as an individual who laid claim to the learning and cultivation that distinguished the Renaissance. Here the patron could spend precious hours, snatched from commerce and war, in literary pursuits. In a letter to a friend, Machiavelli described the kind of personal retreat the studiolo represented:
When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them. . . . Then I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives for their actions and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexations, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass into their world.7
Elaborate decorations were often a part of the studiolo, as is indicated by the architect and scholar Filarete’s description of that of Piero de’ Medici (even if Filarete may have indulged in a bit of exaggeration):
He has effigies and portraits of all the emperors and noble men who have ever lived made in gold and silver, bronze, jewels, marble, or other materials. They are marvelous things to see. Their dignity is such that only looking at their portraits wrought in bronze—excluding those in gold, silver, and in other noble stones—fills his soul with delight and pleasure in their excellence.8
Complex programs were devised for the studiolo, in many cases drawn from learned advisers. A November 5, 1447 letter from the scholar and educator Guarino da Verona to Lionello d’Este outlines in precise detail the way in which the Muses—a subject “worthy of a prince”—should be depicted in Lionello’s studiolo. Guarino, who (as discussed above), celebrated the virtues of learning on his medal, makes clear just how fitting such a subject would be for a cultivated individual:
It should be understood of them that the Muses are certain concepts and intelligences which, by human studies and industry, have worked out various types of activities and labors, so-called because they seek after everything or else because they are sought after by all, since it is innate in man to wish to know.9
The studioli prepared for Piero de’ Medici and Lionello d’Este no longer exist. But some studioli have been preserved, either in whole or part. An outstanding example of studiolo decoration from the palace of Federigo da Montefelto at Gubbio has been acquired and reconstructed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In this extraordinary ensemble, the wall surfaces are entirely covered with meticulously inlaid wood designs—the technical term is intarsia—that depict the books, musical instruments, armor, and scientific instruments that would have been part of Federigo’s personal collection. The Gubbio panels were prepared in the Florentine workshop of Giuliano and Benedetto da Maiano, utilizing plans and sketches by Francesco di Giorgio, the duke’s personal architect. They were shipped from Florence to Gubbio in the early 1480s. It has been suggested that depictions of the Liberal Arts (two paintings of which are in the National Gallery, London), were placed on the upper walls of the Gubbio studiolo. The paintings show Rhetoric and Music with books, honored by kneeling young men who appear to be members of the duke’s entourage.
The decorations of another studiolo belonging to Federigo da Montefeltro, part of his palace at Urbino, included a magnificent series of paintings of illustrious men, today divided between Urbino and the Musée du Louvre. It presented a spectacular panorama of men of letters across the ages, from Virgil and Cicero to Dante and Nicholas V. Sitting in his studioli, Federigo, warrior and ruler, could consider himself as taking his place within the world of letters and learning. It was also possible for well-placed women to create studioli for themselves. Isabella d’Este of Mantua, discussed above in connection with the medal she designed for herself, was passionately involved in the setting up and decoration of elegant and costly private spaces that would proclaim her discernment and learning.
Building her collection with the advice of learned advisers and using agents, she concentrated on two separate spaces. One was her studiolo, for which she specially commissioned paintings from some of the most famous artists of the day (see Artists and Patrons). A second space was her grotta, a collection room, which was filled with books, coins, statuettes, and antique works of art and beautifully fitted with carved and gilded woodwork and intarsia paintings. In the grotta as it is reconstructed today, a view of the adjacent studiolo is just visible through the door. The works of art that Isabella assembled are now dispersed in museums throughout the world, but the richly decorated spaces remain where they were built, testimonials to her taste and discernment.
One of the paintings commissioned by Isabella for her studiolo, from Andrea Mantegna, preeminent painter of Mantua, is particularly interesting for its complexity and implications. Mantegna’s Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue, c. 1499–1502, now in the Louvre, is considered a thinly veiled reference to the moral superiority of Isabella herself. It perfectly embodies the idea earlier stated by Alberti in his treatise on painting that works of art should take up serious themes of high moral significance. Minerva, clad in armor at the far left of the painting, rushes into a leafy enclosure—bearing a resemblance to Isabella’s own “secret garden”—and vigorously expels a crowd of malformed and hideously ugly vices. In the lower right-hand corner is a group of three labeled nude figures: Avarice (with sagging breasts) and Ingratitude, who together carry the fat, gross, crowned figure of Ignorance. Further left at the bottom is Lust, a grotesque satyr clasping an infant.
In the center at the bottom is a monkey-like hermaphrodite, identified as Immortal Hatred, Fraud, and Malice. The painting abounds in Greek and Latin inscriptions, attesting to both Isabella’s learning and that of her advisers. A long inscription beautifully lettered in three languages—Latin, Greek, and Hebrew—is placed on a scroll that wraps around a strange treelike figure at the left edge of the painting and gives the message of the scene: “Come, divine companions of the Virtues who are returning to us from Heaven, banish these foul monsters of Vices from our seats.”10
On a more modest scale than Isabella’s, the studiolo functioned as a place of retreat for individuals of lesser means. Vittore Carpaccio depicted a Dominican friar, presented in the guise of Saint Augustine, sitting at his writing desk surrounded by books, works of art, and scientific instruments.
Paintings and sculptures with complex imagery of various kinds, both religious and secular, formed part of the studiolo decoration. Andrea Riccio’s large bronze relief depicting the Entombment of Christ, teeming with figures and displaying an elegant classicizing style, would have provided a superb object for religious meditation. Paintings presenting moral themes were also appropriate studiolo decorations. One example is Piero di Cosimo’s Allegory of Chastity Triumphing over Lust, in which a winged Chastity delicately holds the bridle of an out-of-control rearing horse, and a mermaid signifying luxury swims in the waters below, which was possibly designed as a cover for a portrait.
Scholars could adorn their desks with attractive objects that were indicators of a cultivated taste but also utilitarian. An inkwell fashioned as a sleeping classical figure—the mask below her arm held ink—advertised the owners’s appreciation of antique sculpture. A bronze box for a scholar’s desk, produced in Padua in about 1510, is particularly interesting as a life cast made from a living crab; this bronze-casting technique was being perfected in Padua in the early sixteenth century. The crab form suggested knowledge of the natural sciences.