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The Studiolo of Federico Da Montefeltro

January 18, 2012

The intarsia, or wooden inlay, inside the Studiolo di Federico Da Montefeltro is a grand example of the utilization of linear perspective by Italian Renaissance artists. The driving motivation in tromp-l’oeil pieces is to deceive the viewer into viewing 2D surfaces (such as canvas or, as in this case, an interior wall) as 3d objects or landscapes. To achieve this, the utmost care has been taken in considering accurate planning and execution.

We can identify this intarsia as utilizing the linear perspective if we compare it to The Delivery of the Keys to St. Peter by Perugino. In the Perugino fresco, we can trace the lines in the brick roads to a single vanishing point. In the studiolo, if we extend the diagonals of the opened cabinets, each cabinet’s diagonals intersect  along the same horizontal plane, which would be about eye-level if you were actually in the room. Just as in the Perugino fresco, we can also extend the lines of the stone brick paved floor outside the window to the same common horizon line. This technique is used to ensure objects meant to appear farther away from the viewer are scaled down in an accurate fashion.

Another aspect that gives this intarsia the naturalism required for an effective tromp-l’oeil is the selection of wood for the highlights. If you notice the edge of the cabinet door that is opened the most, the shift from light to dark is in a manner that seems natural of a light from above throwing light onto a three dimensional surface. Also, the intensity of the lightest wood (in contrast to the whole it is the brightest) used for the cabinet edge suggests that the opened edge of the door is the closest object to the viewer. This almost falls under atmospherical perspective technique, in which objects have varying value and clarity as they move closer and farther away in a scene. The same can be noticed, perhaps with more clarity, in the qualities of the expansive landscape scene from outside the “window”. As the scene approaches the horizon, the difference between light and dark diminishes in the city scapes details. This is meant to imitate the natural diffusion of detail when great distances are observed in real life.

Beyond great technical detail and discipline, both in linear perspective drawing/planning and wood craftsmanship, there are some design elements of the intarsia that help the viewer “believe” in the illusion. The decision to incorporate the geometric diamond pattern in the lower panel helps bridge the visual gap between the floor (which is composed of some type of stone/masonry brick and in a geometric pattern itself) and the rest of the wall (which is composed of wood but meant to be viewed as being composed of various materials). When I begin to view this piece my eye gravitates towards the brights, that is, the opened cabinet door edge on the left, the window wall trim on the right, and the brightest spot on the floor. As my eye moves around the piece I follow the horizon line described earlier found by the diagonals, but without the aid of lines my eye naturally moves through it by what appears to be a line of “sheen” or light, where the objects and surfaces on that implied horizon line are brighter than those around it. The lines formed by the trim, shelves, and floor/wall intersect also encourage me on this path.

The last thing I noticed that helped made this piece “believable”  or at least gave it a more unified visual experience, was the design of the artwork and architecture that is mimicked in this illusion. The sculpture on the left is designed in a style typical of the time, being seated in a manner exactly like how the niches of the Orsanmichele were filled with sculpture in Florence (from the stance of the subject to the half circle enclosure). Another example is the design of the pillar and arch loggia that can be viewed from the window.

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One Comment
  1. I have to admit something…. during my first reading of the text book I understood that the objects withing the cabinets were illusion but did not catch that the cabinets themselves as well as the doors and inset tables were also illusion. I found your thoughtful and well written description of this work really enlightening in a very embarrassing way. Have to get a better reading lamp….

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