A Room of One’s Own

In 1546, Fra Sabba di Castiglione (not to be confused with Baldesar Castiglione, the author of The Book of the Courtier) published the first edition of I Ricordi, a collection of essays designed for the edification of his great nephew. Among the topics discussed was “the Suitable Decoration of Grand Interiors.” Fra Sabba himself was not grand. He was a knight of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and had spent three years on Rhodes, during which time he had to collect antiquities on behalf of Isabella d’Este, but had fallen out with his fellow knights from north of the Alps, who thought that a devotion to classical sculpture amounted to idolatry. In fact Fra Sabba was deeply devout, and his next posting in Rome shocked him:he believed Rome to be utterly corrupt, he thought the Church was riddled with heresy, he believed Luther to be the Antichrist, and he lived in earnest expectation of the end of the world.

Perhaps all this became too much for his fellow knights. In 1518 he was put in charge of a minor commandery or branch of the order in Faenza, near Bologna. The church and its buildings had been laid waste by war, and he set about restoring them, in the course of which he made himself a little study, or studiolo, whose contents he describes in loving detail. He owned a bust of John the Baptist as a young man, which he believed to be by Donatello. He had a terra-cotta relief of St. Jerome, painted (as was often the case) in imitation of bronze, by Alfonso Lombardi. This still survives, as does the intarsia board which served him as a writing desk, with its edifying inscriptions recommending temperance of the body for the sake of the health of the soul, frugality over voluptuousness, and so forth. He had a fine alabaster cinerary urn, the best he had seen in Rome or elsewhere. “If by chance you were to ask me,” he adds,

which ornaments I would desire in my house above all others, Iwould reply without much pause for reflection, Arms and Books. The arms should be fine, fit for every test, by an excellent hand such as a good Italian or German master. Iwould wish them to be kept limpid, burnished, shining and polished, as the arms of a noble knight should be, and not rusty like those of a tipstaff or sergeant.

Arms and books—like Don Quixote with his books and his rusty old visorless helmet—except that the arms were to be kept in the best condition. Rusty arms appear to have been a source of great potential amusement. In The Book of the Courtier a man refuses a woman’s offer to dance, on the grounds that music and such frivolities were not his business.

And when at length the ladyasked him what his business was, he answered with a scowl: “Fighting…”

“Well then,” the lady retorted, “Ishould think that since you aren’t…

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