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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 at war at the moment and you are not engaged in fighting, it would be a good thing if you were to have yourself well greased and stowed away in a cupboard with all your fighting equipment, so that you avoid getting rustier than you are already.”

Fra Sabba was not eccentric in wanting arms and books to decorate his home. Swords were kept in studies as proof of gentility, along with riding equipment and the trappings of office. Anything bearing the coat of arms of the owner would be carefully kept from falling into the wrong hands. If it appeared on the secondhand market, a blow would have been dealt to the family’s honor. The studies of the period were not only places where family records were kept; they were also the places where such records might be written. Just as the collections housed by these studies were a miscellany of valuable or curious objects, so the books written in them might be miscellaneous in character. Ghiberti’s Commentarii, for example, consists of an account of the history of art, a short autobiography of the sculptor himself, and a treatise on optics.

Arms, then, had their proper place alongside books, and Fra Sabba wanted the books to be used and studied “and not so dusty that one could write on the boards with one’s finger. For to have books, and not use them, is as good as not having them.” Using a book meant writing in it, adding learned marginalia. In Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Saint Jerome in his Study we see, hanging on the edge of the writing desk, two horn inkwells—black for writing, red for rubricating, or making marginal notes, and there are splashes of red ink on the desk, to make the scene that much more vivid. The intimacy of a scholar’s relationship with his books is illustrated by a tomb monument in Bologna in which the scholar is depicted asleep among his books on a lettuccio, a piece of furniture which combined the functions of bookcase or chest with that of daybed. If one studied at night (a practice sanctioned by classical precedent), one might well end up—like the scholar on the Bologna tomb—using one’s books as a pillow.

And if by chance you were to ask me,” Fra Sabba goes on,

which item of furnishing or which ornament it would please me most to have in my house, Iwould immediately respond: a steel mirror. It would be one of the large and beautiful ones made by the German Giovanni della Barba, most excellent at making mathematical instruments such as solid spheres, globes, astrolabes and mirrors. I would hold it more dear, because it represents reality more than the others.

In The Courtier, Castiglione mentions a trick of seeming to avoid self-praise while actually indulging in it, and he gives an example of a man “who said he didn’t keep a looking-glass in his room because when he lost his temper his expression was so terrible that if he saw it he would frighten himself to death.” (The underlying implication being that his terribilità, that useful quality in a warrior, was particularly well developed.)

Mirrors were rare and precious and had marvelous powers. Dora Thornton, in her admirable and absorbing, concise, scholarly book, points out that one of their early uses (despite the fact that they reversed the script) was in reading: a small convex handmirror might be used as a magnifying glass. Secondly, it might be used to reflect and focus light onto the desk, to “preserve the sight and comfort it during constant writing.” Metal mirrors had been in continuous production, she tells us, since antiquity:glass mirrors, invented in Germany, were imported into Italy through Venice from the fourteenth century. Precious in their day, early mirrors are extremely rare now, since it would have been natural each time a better reflecting surface became available to replace the old one.

As the practical uses of convex mirrors declined (owing to the rise of optical lenses and spectacles), their uncanny qualities remained. Such a mirror reflected a whole room as it were in epitome. Morally, a mirror was associated with both virtue and vice, with the Magdalen’s former vanity and with the truth revealed to her. Fra Sabba rests a case upon the authority of Socrates: “Because you must know that vanity and frivolity are not inherent in the mirror but derive from our use of them.” A worldly man uses a mirror to distort reality to serve his own ends;

when he is moved by love or affection, he uses a convex mirror, which gives such a magnified reflection of the natural object that his eye-lashes, hair and the hairs of his beard look like the bristles of an old wild boar, or the twigs of a besom, and his teeth like those of an old Turkish horse, older than mine, which was fifty years old. But when a man is moved by envy, and by hate, he uses another mirror, made of glass, but very small, which reflects the object so much diminished from its real size that it makes it tiny, so that it reduces a man’s face from its actual size to that of a child.

The principal sources for Thornton’s information about Renaissance studies are the inventories made by the Office of Wards, whose job it was, when a man died intestate, to list the contents of the house on behalf of the heirs. Five hundred such inventories were examined in Florence and Venice, along with memoranda and account books. Ownership of studies in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was not confined to the highest echelons. Fra Sabba, as we have seen, considered himself a poor knight; he couldn’t even afford a decent horse, but he had a study. Such a room might be specially built, or it might be created by boxing off part of the bed-chamber. In Antonello’s depiction of Saint Jerome in his Study we see a large churchlike interior within which a wooden hutch has been constructed. The artist has, for the sake of comprehensibility, eliminated the ceiling and two of the walls, making the arrangement less cozy than it would have been in real life.

In a Florentine house the principal public room would have been the sala on the first floor. Next came the more intimate camera principale or main bed-chamber. Depictions of childbirth, the birth of John the Evangelist for instance, show such rooms as crowded with visitors and ministering women. Beyond this semipublic space lay the penetralia of the house—the camerino, the small room that was the forerunner of the English closet and the French cabinet, and the studio or studiolo. Here lay privacy, security, and quiet. Erasmus mocks the idea in The Ciceronian, but his dialogue enumerates the practical considerations involved:

Nosoponus: I have a shrine of the Muses in the innermost part of the house, with thick walls, doors and windows, and all the cracks carefully sealed up with plaster and pitch, so that hardly any light or sound can penetrate even by day, unless it’s a very loud one, like quarreling women or blacksmiths at work.

Bulephorus: True, the sudden boom of human voices and workshop crashes destroy one’s concentration.

Nosoponus: Iwon’t allow anyone to use any of the nearby rooms as a bedroom, because I don’t want the voices even of sleepers, or their snorts, breaking in on the sanctuary of my thoughts. Some people talk in their sleep, and a good many snore so loudly that they can be heard quite a long way off.

Hypologus: When I’m trying to write at night I’m often troubled by mice as well.

Nosoponus: In my house there’s no place even for a fly.

A polished or, better still, a tiled floor was considered a good arrangement. Isabella d’Este’s daughter’s governess wrote to her ladyship on July 8, 1494:

Today your Ladyship’s Studiolo was paved with square tiles painted with the devices of our most Illustrious Lord, which match each other very well, and in truth it was an excellent bit of foresight and almost necessary since under the floorboards were found many rats’ nests.

A hard floor, possibly heated from below, and good insulation from paneled walls would be considered conducive to health. Sometimes a studio was without windows, an unpleasant thought to us, a healthy arrangement for those who believed that the air through a drafty window was particularly unhealthy. Erasmus again, writing solicitously to the Bishop of Rochester in 1524:

Your being near the sea and the mud which is repeatedly laid bare at low tides means an unhealthy climate, and your library has walls of glass all round, the chinks of which let through an air which is tenuous and, as the physicians call it, filtered, which is very dangerous for those who are sparely built and not robust. Nor have I forgotten how you sit continually in that library, which to you is paradise. Personally, if Ispent three hours together in such a place, Ishould fall sick. You would be much better suited by a room with a wooden floor and wooden pannelling all round the walls; some sort of miasma issues from bricks and mortar.

The study should be in a private part of the house, well insulated against the kind of miasmas that would plague someone studying at night, and it should be secret and secure, both because of its personal nature and because of the treasures it might contain. When the study is for an elevated figure such as a cardinal, the dirty tricks begin: “There should be listening devices through which disputants in the auditorium can be heard, as well as a spiral staircase which provides an inside passage down into the library.” At the innocent end of the spectrum, here is an account by Felix Platter, a Swiss medical student, of his study at the top of a house in Montpellier in 1553:

…I installed myself in a little boarded study on the upper floor. I decorated it with my pictures, and my master put in a gilded armchair…. At the top of the house there was a fine terrace, or platform, reached by a stone stair. It commanded the whole town, and one could see as far as the sea, the sound of which could be heard when the wind was in the right quarter. This was where I liked to study. I grew an Indian fig-tree there in a vase—my master had been sent a leaf of it from Spain.

This Indian fig-tree is a vivid little novelty of the time—it is of course the prickly pear, brought over from Mexico.

While the possession of studies was common among men of the urban elite, women who owned studies were exceptional. The earliest Thornton has found is Ippolita Sforza, who married the Duke of Calabria in 1465 and went from Milan to live in the Castel Capuano in Naples. She was well educated in Latin and Greek and possessed, among other manuscripts, an illuminated Virgil bearing her portrait.

In announcing her desire to study, Ippolita was claiming unusual status. Aristocratic women did sometimes have collections of books, but those tended to be devotional or addressed expressly to women in some way. Men who had studies were modeling themselves in some way on Pliny the Elder. Women, as far as Iknow, had no such classical precedent. Withdrawal from the world, for them, usually had a religious meaning associated with the convent’s narrow cell. Isabella d’Este, mentioned above, made two studies for herself, and set up an inscription in a secret garden adjoining one of them which announced that she was the granddaughter of a king, the daughter of a duke, and the wife of a marquis. An exceptional woman, then, and entitled to an exceptional status symbol.

One would like to have been told more about the Venetian courtesan Julia Lombardo, whose inventory survives and who appears to have had serious pretensions to culture. At her death in 1569 her study contained a bronze statuette, jewelry, a gold flask and needlecase, majolica and porcelain, a small group of pictures including a portrait of Dante, and some books. A courtesan, unlike other women, could model herself (as Thornton points out) on the hetaerae of classical antiquity. Her beauty and her accomplishments constituted her stock in trade.

The studies used by Renaissance men and women were not entirely consecrated to solitude. One might welcome the visits of fellow scholars, collectors, and connoisseurs. Thornton suggests also that one might get together in a study, with no more than four people, to make music. This is a thought that fires the imagination, for of course many of the instruments of the period make a soft sound appropriate for a small place, and while we often hear singers of early music relishing a harsh reedy sound with plenty of attack, it might well be that a noblewoman in her private space would have treated a privileged audience to a kind of singing of “soft Lydian airs”—which had to be gentle because it should never distort the face.

Throughout this account of mainly Florentine and Venetian studies, one is always expecting Montaigne to put in an appearance. Here he is, in Venice, viewing an auction of the effects of the late Cardinal Orsini:

Among other rare things was a taffeta coverlet lined with swansdown. In Siena you see a good many of these swans’ skins complete with feathers, and I was asked no more than a crown and a half for one, all prepared. They are the size of a sheepskin, a few of them would be enough to make a coverlet of this sort. I saw an ostrich egg, decorated all over and painted with pretty pictures. Also a square box to put jewels in which contained a certain quantity of them; but since the box was most artfully arranged with mirrors all round, when it was opened it appeared much wider and deeper in every direction, and seemed to hold ten times as many jewels as were in it, since one and the same thing were seen many times by the reflection of the mirrors, and the mirrors were not easy to detect.

And here, finally, Thornton quotes Montaigne’s moving view that, while we should have wives, children, property, and good health if we can, we should not become so attached to them that our happiness depends on them:

We should set aside a room, just for ourselves, at the back of the shop, keeping it entirely free and establishing there our true liberty, our principle solitude and asylum. Within it our normal conversation should be of ourselves, with ourselves, so privy that no commerce or communication with the outside world should find a place there; there we should talk and laugh as though we had no wife or children, no possessions, no followers, no menservants, so that when the occasion arises that we must lose them it should not be a new experience to do without them. We have a soul able to turn in on herself; she can keep herself company; she has the wherewithal to attack, to defend, to receive and to give.

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