Tuesday, August 27, 2013



When Duke Federico da Montefeltro had finished decorating his study in Urbino, he sent his workers over to his summer palace at Gubbio (a hill-town southwest of Urbino).
They (Francesco di Giorgio, Giuliano and Benedetto da Maiano, and perhaps Baccio Pontelli) in 1476 created a wood inlay studiolo for him there very like the study in Urbino.
This studiolo is no longer in Gubbio, however; the wood inlay part of it has been transported to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  (See the museum's website and Olga Raggio's terrific pdf article posted there, or look at Luciano Cheles' Urbino studiolo book that includes Gubbio.)
          What I would like to explore here is how Gubbio fits into the chronology of one-point perspective inlay experimentation. After the Florentine sacristy intarsia is produced in 1436, the intarsia artists become more and more sophisticated in their ability to render trompe l'oeil (illusionistic) scenes on the walls so that, by the time the study in Urbino is completed, in 1476, they have a repertoire of lattice-work doors, cupboards with shelves and objects, benches, and even landscape glimpses that appear to mirror reality with one-point perspective.
With their increased skill comes confidence. The Gubbio studiolo is smaller, tidier, and more refined in its imagery than the Urbino study.

It includes a mazzocchio (hat-form) on a bench, musical instruments in the cupboards (cittern and drum), the garter of the Order of the Garter (a knighthood granted to Federico in 1474), scientific and writing implements, and even an attempt to render a ceramic mug in wood inlay (on left upper shelf.)

The benches are given more prominence here than in Urbino. The wall surface is entirely flat, but the illusion is that the benches project out from the wall of the picture plane. Mr. Theodore (Ted) Low, Director of the Education Department at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland, used to say that, when he worked at the Met and led a tour into the Gubbio room, that inevitably someone would try to sit down on the benches in the study

and fall to the floor because there are no real benches, just the intarsia illusion of them. His story certainly speaks to the realistic quality of the wood inlay perspectives. The fictive light casting a shadow on the legs of the benches (in reality just darker wood set into the inlay) makes the bench appear to respond as a real bench would to light, even with the shadow changing direction slightly for refraction.
In this study are also sections of the benches where the sitting surface seems to be lifted up with lattice grillwork underneath.The illusion would have been even more believable when there was real light coming from the window of the palace into the room:

The benches in Gubbio are certainly good examples of FORWARD SPACE in inlay work, but, as in Florence and Urbino, the intarsia workers want new challenges, and the benches are something they already know how to do.
      The new problem the artists pose for themselves in Gubbio relates directly back to the Florentine sacristy candlestick that projected forward from the picture plane. In Gubbio the object they choose to set into FORWARD SPACE is a triangular-shaped lectern with specific printed pages of a book on it. The lectern is placed standing on one of the benches with its octagonal base forward of the cupboards.

The illusion is that the lectern rests on the bench; the shadow the lectern casts gives substance to the fictive air between the pole and the back wainscoting of the wall. When we look at the triangular top of the lectern, where the book rests and which has an open hole for reading rulers, the wood inlay illusion is not consistent, though. Instead of being placed forward of the wainscoting, the book and its support appear to slide back into the cupboard behind the lattice-work doors. What has happened to the intensely perfect one-point perspective of the rest of the study?
       The words written on the book pages of the lectern are a clue. The book is Vergil's Aeneid, 10: 635-84 and the pages displayed describe the death of Pallas, a beautiful youth who fought for Troy:
    Every man's last day is fixed.
    Lifetimes are brief and not to be regained,
    For all mankind. But by their deeds to make
    Their fame last: that is labor for the brave.
                   (Raggio, p.31, trans. R. Fitzgerald,1990, p.310)
These are words chosen deliberately to praise Federico and his deeds as well as the labor of the intarsists themselves.
The memento mori of Vergil's text reminds the viewer that everyone's life passes quickly and that great deeds (such as the creation of the studiolo) are needed to ensure that fame lives beyond death. The round mirror hanging above the lectern has an inscription, "G BALDO DX", the name of Federico's son, Duke Guidobaldo, his heir. The words set out on the fictive lectern reveal to the viewer that the end of the great era of intarsia work has come with the death of Federico, its patron. Federico dies in Ferrara in 1482 and these additions to the room were probably added after his death, not by request of his son, who was only 11 in that year, but probably by the request of Federico's closest advisor, the count Ottaviano Ubaldini della Carda. (Raggio, p.33). The lectern with Latin inscription replaces the lit candle of the Florentine sacristy with a similar object on similar stand. Instead of a positive eternal light for sacred services, though, the lectern provides an image of the inevitability of human death. The great deeds of Vergil's fame are visible in the work required to make a fictive lectern out of colored pieces of wood. The intarsists place wood words to speak of Federico's eternal fame, but as they do, they also leave a lasting impression of their own talent.
If we were unsure that the end of the wood inlay study were spelt out in this image, the exit door from the study would put the cap in place:

The book on the bench is closed rather than open, the musical instruments hung up, and the lute and collar of Ermine stick out of the cupboard door like tongues from the last gasp of an open mouth:

These afterthoughts are the end glimpses the viewer has of the study upon exiting. The art of one-point perspective for wood inlay studioli dies with Federico in 1482, even if the studiolo in Gubbio takes a few months more to be finished. The intarsia workers know they have exhausted the challenges along with the patronage. The illusions they have created for Urbino and Gubbio have reached a climactic finale that is never to be repeated. The developments begun in the Florentine sacristy are finished in Gubbio.
       After the Gubbio palace, the use of one-point perspective in wood inlay moves back into an ecclesiastical setting, into choir stalls produced in churches in the Italian peninsula, and never again do we have intarsia work on a scale or in such a creative burst as in Federico's two rooms.
       Like the musical instruments in wood inlay, an intimation of a lingering note remains. At first there seems to be a possible reference to the Christian faith in a small Tau cross hanging from one of the cupboards. Since the tau cross is associated with St. Francis and Francis is said to have tamed a wolf in Gubbio, the object may obliquely refer to that legend. But the object portrayed, after closer examination, is a tuning key for the harp, so the Christian reference is as slight as its shadow behind, and the tuning note that is meant to be literally hanging in the air is from secular music rather than church music.


The rest of the study is filled with other images of the secular life of the palace; Federico's belief in the rational life, an intellectual life constructed after reading many texts from the classical past, is apparent in both studies, but most emphasized in Gubbio. While in Urbino there were still painted portraits of popes on the wall, in Gubbio, they are eliminated. The paintings that originally hung on the walls in Gubbio are of female figures of the Liberal Arts bowed to by knights who pay them homage.  Even the Latin inscription on blue background that winds around the area above the cupboards and ties the entire study together is a humanistic or pagan caption for the images of the Liberal Arts above it; it is devoid of Christian reference:
 "See how the eternal students of the venerable mother, men exalted in learning and in genius, fall forward, as supplicants with bared neck and flexed knee, before the face of their parent. Their reverend piety prevails over justice and none repents for having yielded to his foster mother." (Raggio, p. 31)

The female figure in each painting here is one of the Liberal Arts: Logic, Rhetoric, and Music, respectively. They are female because the noun in Italian is feminine: la dialettica, la retorica, and la musica. The men paying homage by kneeling on steps before the women (who are seated on thrones and seem to have crowns) are courtiers from the court of Federico, including Federico himself in Dialettica.  (Three paintings are lost - grammar, geometry, and math, two (music and rhetoric) are dispersed to London (National Gallery), and two (dialectic and astronomy) were destroyed in Berlin during WWII.
        The message Federico conveys in these paintings and in the Gubbio intarsia cupboards is unusual in the period in which he lived: men should honor and treasure classical learning exclusively; enrichment and survival of the soul can be provided through the areas of knowledge passed down to us from the classics only. No reliance on Christian stories or saints here. In the privacy of his own home, he feels free to express an almost heretical view:  knowledge of secular music, grammar, mathematics, and geometrical logic are essential to the life of the mind; piety should reside in those areas of "human" specialty, the trivium and quadrivium, the liberal arts. The trivium consisted of la grammatica, la retorica, and la dialettica (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (logic)). The quadrivium consisted of: l'aritmetica, l'astronomia, la geometria, and la musica (math, astronomy, geometry, and music). 
        Secular thought is celebrated here in his shrine to ancient wisdom. The duke presents for his young son as well as for himself, a vision of classical education within a study that stands witness to the power of human creation. Theology has no place in the paintings or cupboards.  Federico was captivated by the rational process of one-point perspective and his one-point perspective art here includes geometry, astronomy, rhetoric, math, and music. This Renaissance duke was sure that the logic of classical learning displayed in the Gubbio intarsia was no illusion.

No comments:

Post a Comment