One of the best things about living in NYC is the museums. I have my favorites, and I have favorite exhibits within those favorites. In the case of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I’m enthralled by the Gubbio Studiolo, an Italian Renaissance room created for a ducal palace. It’s one of the most important works of art of the Italian Renaissance in America, and it has the power to blast your head right off your body.
If you innocently walk into this room without knowing what to expect, it’s baffling. Objects that appear to be three dimensional are not, everything is made of wood, and the details are so intricate, your brain will be doing somersaults trying to understand what you’re looking at. And once you understand what you’re seeing, it doesn’t seem possible.
First thing to realize once you’ve arrived through these entry doors: the walls are flat. Anything that appears three dimensional is an illusion.
The entire room is intarsia. Intarsia is a wood working technique of hand cutting tiny pieces of wood, then fitting them together to create intricate pictorial images with an illusion of depth. It originated in the Arabic world and spread to Europe, arriving in Italy in the mid-1300s.
The Gubbio Studiolo is an irregular shape, about 13 by 17 feet. The walls are flat surfaces. Thousands of tiny pieces of different kinds of wood have been used to create the three dimensional illusion of walls lined with cupboards, as if intended to fool us into thinking the objects are real. This device is called trompe l’oeil (French for “fool the eye”). It’s mind boggling. Here’s one wall of the study, and a close up.
By using different types of wood with their natural grain patterns and colors, the craftsman can create a range of tones, just like a painter. Each piece of wood is individually cut, shaped, and finished. The pieces are fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, then glued to a wood backing. In the studiolo, the craftsmen used walnut, beech, rosewood, oak and a selection of fruitwoods, all inset into walnut.
Do you see how it’s done? Every color change is a new piece of wood. Thousands of pieces of wood have been fitted together to create this scene. It’s about three feet tall. Look at the intricate details of the tops of the columns that flank the doors, and the braided pattern that runs around the frame.
Let’s get a little closer. Of course, the shadows are also made of wood. Everything is wood.
Can you imagine the precision it takes to cut these tiny pieces of wood, not to mention the ability to understand how they will look when fitted together? It’s extraordinary.
The studiolo, or study, was commissioned around 1476 by Federico da Montefeltro (1422–1482), duke of Urbino, for his palace in the small Italian city of Gubbio. Here’s our Duke, painted by Piero della Francesca around 1472.
The studiolo provided a place for intellectual pursuits, examining confidential papers or private possessions, or receiving special visitors. It was most likely designed by Francesco di Giorgio (1439–1502) and was executed by the workshop of Giuliano da Majano (1432–1490) between 1478-82.
All of the objects displayed in the cabinets reflect Duke Federico’s wide ranging artistic and scientific interests, are specific to his achievements or are symbolic. Armor and insignia refer to his prowess as a warrior and wise governor; scientific and musical instruments and books declare his love of learning.
The Gubbio Studiolo is exceptional in that it enhances the illusion of three dimensionality by incorporating the Renaissance’s newfound understanding of linear perspective, only recently formulated by the architects Brunelleschi and Alberti. Known as the Florentine style, this type of intarsia is unusual for its intricate play between light and shadow in the service of perspective.
With this striking innovation, Renaissance “intarsiatore” gained recognition equal to that of painters, and Florentine intarsia craftsmen dominated the field until the end of the fifteenth century. In the Gubbio Studiolo, its designers even used the windows that actually existed in the room as the perceived light source within their intarsia design, so the “shadows” cast made sense to the eye.
The Gubbio Studiolo was dismantled and sold in 1874, shipped to Rome, and later sent to Venice and sold in 1938 to Adolfo Loewi. He transported it to New York in 1939, where it was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and reassembled as part of the permanent collection.
This is one of my favorite panels, an exotic caged bird.
After about 1620, marquetry, which uses glued wood veneers, started to replace intarsia in cabinet work, and intarsia slowly became a lost art.
It could be depressing to dwell on the loss of the artistry that created something so beautiful, intricate and unusual, but instead of pondering that, I’d rather visit the studiolo and be thrilled by the magic found in this little room.