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The Story of a Room

The Gubbio Studiolo and Its Conservation:Vol. 1: Federico da Montefeltro’s Palace at Gubbio and Its Studiolo

Olga Raggio
222 pp.

The Gubbio Studiolo and Its Conservation: Vol. 2: Italian Renaissance Intarsia and the Conservation of the Gubbio Studiolo

Antoine M. Wilmering
262 pp. Metropolitan Museum of Art, two-volume boxed set, $125.00


Once there was no limit to the ambitions of museum directors, when it came to the acquisition of works of art removed from the sites for which they had been designed. In 1868, the director of the South Kensington (later the Victoria and Albert) Museum, Sir Henry Cole, wrote a letter from Padua to Sir Henry Austen Layard, the discoverer of Nineveh. “My dear Layard,” the letter begins,

We have been busy all day, alighting on unknown things & new ideas. Here is an idea.

Giotto’s chapel is badly kept & going to ruin. The Custode says it is private property and belongs to the Conte Gradenigo at Venice. If so, why not ask him to sell it & so preserve it? If sold to the State, it will be better kept. If sold to the S.K. museum, it will be best kept. Is this practicable? and worth inquiry?1

The purchase of the Scrovegni or Arena Chapel would indeed have put South Kensington on the map, for it would have netted a large proportion of Giotto’s total surviving oeuvre. Nor was it, perhaps, as totally unrealistic a proposal as one would hope it to have been. Astonishing coups were pulled off in those days.

Only the next year, 1869, the South Kensington Museum was offered the rood screen from the Cathedral of St. John in Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc), in southern Holland. This large Renaissance work, while in no way comparable to the Scrovegni Chapel, was a salient feature of the otherwise Gothic cathedral, but it was said against it that it blocked the congregation’s view of the high altar. The cathedral authorities removed the screen at a cost of 2,000 francs and sold it to a dealer, thereby defraying a mere 60 percent of the costs, 1,200 francs. Clearly they were not in it for the money—the authorities simply hated that rood screen, and put a low value on it. But they were not necessarily typical of their age. For indeed there was an outcry in Holland (too late) which led ultimately to the foundation of the Rijksmonumentenzorg, the state body responsible for the protection of ancient monuments.2

In other words, it was not the case that Holland in this period was devoid of people who put a value on their national heritage. Similarly it was not true of Italy, and Sir Henry Cole could not for a moment have believed it to be true that Italy was devoid of people who valued the works of Giotto. What was indeed the case—and remains the case today, although legislation has completely transformed the situation—was that the conflict had not been resolved between the interests of the private owner of a work of art, or the institutional owner (in the Dutch example, the cathedral authorities), and the nation-state as guardian of the cultural heritage.

The conflict is unresolved because it can never be fully resolved—because it is a conflict. To whom does the ancient silver of an English parish belong? Most assuredly it belongs to the parish. Then is it within the parish’s rights to sell its valuable silver and give the proceeds to the poor, as Christ’s teachings would seem to encourage? Is a cathedral within its rights in selling a screen for scrap (for this practice continued in England well into the twentieth century)? Or a work of art for a large sum? And who owns the Sistine Chapel? Could it be sold off?

The state intervenes against the rights of individual and institutional owners by a set of assertions and definitions. We assert, defensively, that there is such a thing as national heritage. We then define it and/or make an inventory of objects that count as heritage. But our definitions are themselves put under continual stress, and our inventories have to be updated. No doubt many a Belgian, standing in front of James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels, thinks: “This is our national heritage. This should never have been allowed to come to the Getty.” But it takes a long time before a modern work of art becomes accepted as an object of heritage, just as it took time for the idea of heritage itself to be defined and established.

The case of the Gubbio studiolo in the Metropolitan Museum in New York illustrates vividly the difficulties encountered along the way. On the face of it, nothing could have a clearer claim to heritage status. The studiolo is one of three preeminent surviving examples of small, private fifteenth-century rooms that have inlaid (intarsia) paneling, with an illusionistic, perspectival design. The man who commissioned it, Federico da Montefeltro (1422–1482), the Duke of Urbino, is one of the most celebrated rulers of the Renaissance. His portrait by Piero della Francesca hangs in the Uffizi alongside that of his wife, Battista Sforza. The lines Jacob Burckhardt devotes to him—and Burckhardt was no sentimentalist on the subject of princes—delineate the very type of princely honor and benevolent despotism:

Feeling secure in a land where all gained profit or employment from his rule, and where none were beggars, he habitually went unarmed and almost unaccompanied; alone among the princes of his time he ventured to walk in an open park, and to take his meals in an open chamber, while Livy, or in time of fasting some devotional work, was read to him. In the course of the same afternoon he would listen to a lecture on some classical subject, and thence would go to the monastery of the Clarisse and talk of sacred things through the grating with the abbess. In the evening he would overlook the martial exercises of the young people of his Court on the meadow of S. Francesco, known for its magnificent view, and saw to it well that all the feats were done in the most perfect manner.3

And so it goes on. This paragon of the active and contemplative life built many castles and palaces. Urbino, his principal residence, is the setting of Castiglione’s The Courtier, which is set during the rule of Federico’s son. Minor palaces also survive at Gubbio and Urbania (the former town of Casteldurante, well known for its majolica), and have been made into modest art galleries. Visiting these recently, I came upon Federico’s hunting lodge, Il Barco (or Parco) Ducale, just outside Urbania. This strange, imposing structure was converted first into a hunting lodge and later into a rest home, so that a large cupola arises over what would have been the courtyard. Locked and fallen into apparent disuse, it reminds one that Italy has more heritage than it can easily handle—more Montefeltro heritage, indeed, than it can find use for.

In the nineteenth century, the Scottish historian James Dennistoun found the palace of Gubbio (the smallest of the palaces so far mentioned) in a state of neglect, and wrote:

No traveller of taste and intelligence can be otherwise than shocked to find this once chosen sanctuary of Italian refinement and high breeding, the residence in which Castiglione recounted his reception at the Tudor court, and where Fregoso and Bembo were successively bishops, degraded by vile uses and menaced by speedy ruin. It is now in the hands of a person who there manufactures wax candles and silk, but on my second visit in 1843 was closed-up entirely and inaccessible.4

Neglected though it was, the palace had attracted the attention of a local antiquary and an English connoisseur, for Dennistoun quotes detailed descriptions from both of them, and from the latter we learn that the “small cabinet,” that is the studiolo, with its beautiful wooden inlays, “requires little else than cleaning up to restore it to its original state.” Thirty years later, Sir Thomas Graham Jackson visited the Gubbio palace in the hope of seeing the studiolo. The palace, he wrote later, “where the gay courtiers of the Dukes once held their assemblies, is now degraded into a place for breeding

silk-worms. The old shutters still hang from their windows, though ready to drop from their hinges….” As for the cabinet, he sought in vain for any trace of it. Returning to England, he happened to mention his disappointment to Sir Thomas Armstrong, then director of the South Kensington Museum. “Come downstairs,” said Sir Thomas, “and I will show you part of it.”5

In the intervening period, the palace had been picked over. To the horror of visitors such as Thomas Adolphus Trollope (the brother of the more famous novelist) in 1862, the owners of the wax factory were trying to sell off all the finely carved stonework, together with the paneling, which would no doubt have vanished earlier had it not been for the proprietor’s “refusal to sell any part of the spoils of the palace piecemeal.” A decade later, in spite of Italian protests, the gray sandstone doorways and chimney pieces, the inlaid wooden doors and the paneling and ceiling of the studiolo had been dispersed, not, in the first instance, to museums, but to the trade in architectural antiques and to a private collector.

And this brings us to a familiar paradox in the history of taste. What protects a work of art may often be neglect; what destroys it may be admiration. There are two other great interiors of the same type as the Gubbio studiolo: Federico’s other studiolo in Urbino, and the North Sacristy in the Duomo in Florence. What preserved the interior of the sacristy was the disdain that concealed its Renaissance paneling behind Baroque cupboards. What destroyed so much of the interior of the Gubbio palace was the taste for the Renaissance (that taste for which Burckhardt bears much responsibility). At first, as Trollope pointed out, it was only the cost and difficulty of transporting the

stonework which saved it from the dealers. But when Florence was being reconstructed in neo-Renaissance style, it became worthwhile to pay that cost. Florence in those days was much more than an entrepôt for international dealers in art; it was also a place in which palaces and villas were being constructed and renovated in the most prestigious styles of the past.

The pieces that had made up the Gubbio interior were scattered. Some ended up in a Florentine palace, others in a Swiss and a Viennese collection, the Italian consulate in Berlin, the museum in Cleveland, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, which picked up three stone doorways and a wooden door on the Florentine market. But the studiolo itself had made its way to Rome, to the palace of a certain Prince Lancellotti, who intended to reassemble it for his own pleasure. In preparation for this, between 1874 and 1877 the prince had the room, as Olga Raggio puts it in The Gubbio Studiolo and Its Conservation, “skillfully restored” by a cabinetmaker with experience in neo-Renaissance work.

But the scandal of his perfectly legal acquisition pursued him and in 1888 the prince was informed by the police that Italian law “forbade the removal of structural decorations from a national monument.” In fact the palace at Gubbio was not a national monument—it only became designated as such in 1902.

  1. 1

    Cited in John Fleming, “Art Dealing and the Risorgimento—I,” Burlington Magazine (January 1973), p. 4.

  2. 2

    Charles Avery, “The Rood-Loft from Hertogenbosch,” Victoria and Albert Yearbook, No. 1 (Phaidon, 1969), p. 110.

  3. 3

    The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Vol. 1 (Harper Torchbooks, 1958), p. 65.

  4. 4

    James Dennistoun, Memoirs of the Dukes of Urbino, Vol. 1 (London: Longman, 1851), p. 163.

  5. 5

    Sir Thomas Graham Jackson, A Holiday in Umbria (London: John Murray, 1917), pp. 195–196.

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