Studiolo literally translates into "study" ("Studiolo"), and that is what its owner intended for it to be when he had it installed in the ducal palace in the small town of Gubbio in Italy. Federico de Montefeltro (1422-1482), the Duke of Urbino, commissioned the studiolo in 1476 as an in-house center for intellectual pursuits ("Studiolo"), for the study and perusal of private papers, as well as for keeping precious belongings. It was also an effective conversation-piece for special guests, launching them into conversations they were unlikely to forget for a long time. But walking around the room and marveling at the excellent craftsmanship around me, I couldn't help but feel that it had a much deeper purpose. I imagined that whenever the duke allowed friends and visitors to step into this tiny enclave, it was like he was allowing them a privileged peek through a window, or in this case, many windows into his very soul.
Through a very clever style of wood inlaying known as intarsia, de Montefeltro's designer Baccio Pontelli succeeded in showcasing practically every facet of the duke's personality and vast range of interests in a creatively personal manner. The Metropolitan Museum of Art describes the technique as using "thousands of tiny pieces of different kinds of wood to create the illusion of walls lined with cupboards. Their lattice doors are open, revealing a dazzling array of the accoutrements of the duke's life" ("Studiolo").
At the core of this technique is the use of the illusionistic perspective-an interesting contrast or, some say, complement to the humanistic realism that was prevalent in Renaissance art. The art of illusion, or trompe l'oeil (French for "fool the eye"), presents a scene in order to fool the viewer into mistaking it for reality ("The Illusion"). The pictorial images on the wood panels of the studiolo look three-dimensional, obviously designed to make the viewer think that what he is seeing is real.
As a patron of the arts, de Montefeltro would have belonged to that class of people in Renaissance Italy who could afford to have special works commissioned by expensive artists. Having the studiolo done by a top-calibre craftman showed his prominent stature in society. The tiny room's contents further exhibited his passion for the liberal arts-literature, music, mathematics, astronomy and the military arts-
which, more often than not, were the domain of the learned uppercrust in 15th to 16th century Europe.
His love for learning was evident by the 30 or so books showcased in the cabinets. The presence of citterns, lutes, and harps showed that he probably preferred delicate music, such as medieval chansons and types of Baroque music. Hanging from a hook on the top shelf of one of the panels is an armillary sphere, an astronomical instrument used in the fifteenth century for teaching elementary astronomy ("Studiolo"). One of the most interesting items on display was an octagonal bird cage that is seen through a half-open cabinet, and in it is perched a parakeet and its seed box. Since such exotic birds and animals could only be owned by royalty and other wealthy citizens, one can conclude that the duke was truly a person of great importance during his time. The parakeet, it seems, was a status symbol.