Tuesday, August 20, 2013


The use of one-point perspective in intarsia begins in the North Sacristy of the Cathedral of Florence in 1436, when Antonio Manetti displays his skills in creating illusions of liturgical cupboards:
The trompes l'oeil he created were so astonishing that patrons of the arts in other cities soon learned of the magical scenes produced with intarsia and wanted them for their own. It seems likely that the early intarsia artists in Florence either were hired by Duke Federico da Montefeltro or that they instructed others in the arts of intarsia for Federico. In either case the perspective knowledge on display in Florence by 1436 in wood inlay is transferred and even expanded by 1474 in Urbino in Federico's studiolo (study) in the Ducal Palace, a study finished in 1476.

Above spectators' heads Federico originally had installed painted images of famous men (no longer in situ), but on the walls below on every side of the studiolo, he commissioned intarsia work for his secular palace. To the sacristy motifs of cupboards ajar in one-point perspective with objects on shelves, he had the intarsia artists add benches with objects, a portrait of himself, and a closet full of his armor.He is a condottiere (mercenary soldier with a private army) which means he makes his living by defending city-states from attack; he was unusual in his time, however, because he could not be bought off, so if he gave his word that he would fight for one side, he honored the contract for its duration. What that meant is that he was sought-after by many wealthy city-states who paid him large sums to defend their cities with his army; just the knowledge that he was the defending commander would sometimes be enough to deter other armies.  The armor, spurs, and map in the intarsia image complement his portrait with a spear; his identity as a virtuous warrior is what has financed the studiolo and it is appropriate for him to present himself next to the armor in the corner.

        But the armor is hung up, unused, while he is at home, and his spear points down. In his portrait he wears a toga and faces away from the armor and out toward the study because he wants to show that his humanistic interests occupied him when he was away from war-making. He faces in the direction of an open book on a bench near one of the doors. With his new-found wealth Federico bought many books to establish a large palace library (after his death incorporated into the Vatican Library.)
The book towards which he looks is perched on the edge of one of the intarsia benches in forward space. The intarsia artists have rendered the book as though someone were flipping through the open pages or as if someone had just left the room after leafing through the book. But the book that is displayed is not a manuscript (hand written), as many of Federico's books were, but an early printed book (incunabulum -rare - a book printed before 1500). Much like someone showing off an I-pad in the year of its invention, 2010, Federico here is showing off his up-to-date knowledge of the latest revolution in book-making. The type on the pages is even, regular, and the intarsia displays page after page of regular, printed text, highlighting the new technology of Gutenberg's invention in 1452, the printing press, which made the production of books fast, efficient, and laid out in even lines. We know that Federico owned several printed books in his collection, including an Historia Fiorentina by Poggio Bracciolini printed in Venice in 1476. Could this book be that one? Bracciolini's son, Iacopo Bracciolini, dedicated his Italian translation of his father's Latin history in 1476 to Federico, and Federico's military exploits are mentioned in it (see pages 7 and 230 of the digital facsimile online). The wood inlay book's subject and author are not ascertainable because the inlay pieces are not individual letters, but Federico is clearly proud that he owns a book produced by printing. 
        Federico's palace in Urbino was a place much like that described by Baldassare Castiglione in Il Cortegiano later in 1508, a place of civilized conversation, reading, entertainment, dancing, and festivities. Some of the other riches of Federico's life are also on display in the studiolo intarsia:
         Music and musical instruments in the guitar and lute:
          Science and scientific instruments in the hour-glass, astrolabe, and armillary sphere:

Writing materials and mathematical tablet next to a wood hat-form, a mazzocchio:
The word "FEDE" is inscribed on the inkstand here; it is meant to be the beginning of the duke's name, FEDERICO, but it also represents his Christian belief as well as the "FAITH" he kept with the cities that hired him; his word is his security, his "fede".
            The range of interests even includes two caged birds and a pet squirrel:

For the most complete discussion of the iconography of the study, see Luciano Cheles, The Studiolo of Urbino An Iconographic Investigation (Pennsylvania State University Press, Univ. Park, 1986). But another scholar, Luca Trevisan, has understood the symbolic importance of the squirrel and the basket of fruit on one of the walls of the study. In his 2012 study of Renaissance Intarsia, (New York, Abbeville Press), p. 61, Trevisan sees the squirrel as representing providentia, the foresight to gather nuts before a harsh winter; the laden basket suggests abundantia, or abundance or plenty, the result of thoughtful preplanning. Setting the two together on a ledge with a landscape background would not necessarily connect them to Federico's virtue, but when the viewer looks closer, it is clear that the building in the distance of the wood inlay landscape is the Ducal Palace at Urbino in which the studiolo is built. The intarsia planners have had the foresight to set wood inlay pieces in the main projection in the room that represent a play within a play: the palace at Urbino within the palace at Urbino.



As with all intarsia
workers, they cannot stop there; their statement is even bolder than it appears at first.

Directly opposite the image of the faux squirrel in the faux landscape is the door of the studiolo (the one with the birds in the cage) that leads out to the uppermost balcony of the real palace and to what is a real landscape view, the countryside around Urbino. 

The intarsia artists are not just interested in the play within the play; they challenge the viewer at every turn to compare and contrast real musical instruments with intarsia ones, real benches with intarsia ones, real palace with wood inlay one, real landscape with wood inlay one. The illusion they create is one they hope is so real that the viewer will have to stop and look twice to make sure they have understood what is reality. It is the same sensation that Brunelleschi wished to give to his friend the Grasso legnaiuolo in 1409; he manipulated the space the carpenter moved in until his perspective changed. In the studiolo with all the doors closed, it is hard to know which doors are actual and which are wood inlay latticework doors. Which door ajar is an illusion and which will lead to the balcony? The perspective of the viewer is transformed into questioning reality because the intarsia artwork of one-point-perspective is so strongly convincing as reality. Is the cupboard door really open? Is that a book or flat surface?

When a visitor to Urbino drives over the Appenine mountains to the city from Borgo San Sepolcro, there are only slight glimpses of the ducal palace from hills as the visitor winds around the road that probably follows the route used by travellers in the Quattrocento from Florence. After hours of travel, the visitor comes around one last final curve, and there is the ducal palace revealed in its sunset pink glory, a magical fairy-tale castle with two turret towers and the balconies outlined in white.
The magical vision of a first encounter with the town continues in the wood inlay magic set within the confines of its ducal study. The condottiere knew the harsh realities of warfare, but when he came home, he wanted to be reminded of what is joyful about human civilization: its books, its music, and its art.

No comments:

Post a Comment