Where Machiavelli spent his evenings

The Scholar in His Study
April 17, 1998

The Renaissance idea of a study is familiar from some famous pictures. The dual paintings by Ghirlandaio and Botticelli in Ognissanti at Florence show St Jerome and St Augustine struggling with composition at their desks and surrounded in their dens by all the paraphernalia available to the most well-heeled Florentine: lectern, clock, books, spectacles, scissors, crystal bottles suitable for collection and display, and so on. Antonello da Messina's slightly earlier St Jerome in the National Gallery has him in a room with three of the walls and the ceiling removed, set within a church, but it is unmistakeably an evocation of the same sort of room with books and ceramics on the shelves and the saint earnestly turning the pages of a book. A rather more caricatured Jerome appears in a rough woodcut in the Malermi Bible, also reproduced in Dora Thornton's very well-illustrated book, with his cardinal's hat hanging on a bent nail behind the desk and a most alert lion reclining on the floor. The same setting is referred to in the famous letter of Machiavelli describing the way that, after being out and about in the country during the day, he liked in the evening to put on fine clothes and read noble books, "and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them". This was clearly an ideal of Renaissance living. One imagines that Chaucer, for example, must have had some sort of a study, but Thornton's point is that Renaissance Italy first made the study a standard item in a well-appointed home.

Some of her information comes from inventories and from the known structure of houses. Ideally a gentleman would like to have a bedroom, a bathroom and a study close together. Obviously very few people could do this with the splendour available to Federigo da Montefeltro in his palace at Urbino, but evidently quite a number took trouble to organise rooms where they could read and write in comfort. In his book about cardinals, Paolo Cortese advised that "the room used for study at night and the bedroom should be very near to one another I both these rooms should be especially safe from intrusion". Most studies appear to have been small, but apparently they could also be regarded as having a convivial function. Poliziano described an evening at San Miniato when he and his friends had begun by reading St Augustine, "and this at last turned into making music, leaping up and polishing a certain model of dancing practised here". The study was normally a masculine preserve but Renaissance courts did include a number of important bluestockings. Isabella d'Este, marchioness of Mantua, figures, as one would expect, quite frequently in this book, and her usual high standards were evidently applied to choosing the tiles for her studiolo and many other things. It is interesting to read that the mother of that great courtier and writer Baldassare Castiglione had a "little study" where her son thought of storing some of his possessions.

This is not a book about art in the ordinary sense, but it makes clear that the collection and display of art and antiques was a standard part of upper-class taste, so much so that it could be the object of satire. A study in a villa near Belluno was described as being crammed with "ancient medals and portraits of heroes, and sculptures in marble and bronze, and there are also fine natural marvels, so that the study is appropriately known in that region as the Ark of Noah". More discriminatingly, Pietro Bembo wrote to Cardinal Bibbiena, asking for a loan of a statuette of Venus to put in his study, "between Jove and Mercury, her father and brother, so that I may gaze on her ever more pleasurably day by day".

The passionate desire for antique sculpture and manuscripts of classical authors was a central part of the Renaissance. Lorenzo de' Medici was presented with a supposed bust of Plato when he visited the pope, and later spent considerable sums on collecting Greek manuscripts. One of the subjects that could be developed is the connection between the study and the museum, the treasure house of art and tradition. In the Renaissance this opened the mind to antiquity, beauty and paganism.

Renaissance Italy was extremely rich; without wealth there could have been no Renaissance. Some Italians had that sort of effortless, affluent superiority that 19th-century Englishmen enjoyed. Wealth breeds domestic extravagance, which is the background to the evolution of the study as a room for a superior person with taste and the ability to retire occasionally for quiet reading, writing or business. This broad aspect of the Renaissance has recently been explored by the United States economic historian Richard Goldthwaite. He and others have also shown its relation with the delightful ceramics, manufactured in such large quantities in Renaissance Italy, and, incidentally, a few ceramic tiles and plates provide some of the most brilliant plates in Thornton's book. They are, of course, a product of rising standards of living and luxury demand. This book is in one sense about Renaissance Italy as a consumer society.

Thornton is not concerned with Titian or Michelangelo, but with the more ordinary things that the wealthy liked to have around them. But she shows little interest in the more general features of acquiring and dispersing wealth, in social classes, and economics. There is a subject here which could be developed. In the meantime, this book creates a vivid picture of the lives and houses of the more studious rich.

George Holmes is emeritus professor of medieval history, All Souls College, Oxford.

The Scholar in His Study: Ownership and Experience in Renaissance Italy

Author - Dora Thornton
ISBN - 0 300 07389
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 214

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