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Self-Fashioning from the Screen into the Studiolo: Reframing the Renaissance in Remote Learning

Alexis Culotta
School of the Art Institute of Chicago

The repercussions of the 2020 pandemic moment are far-reaching, with some of the greatest transformations occurring within the field of higher education. With the transition of so many college classrooms to remote learning formats for much of spring term comes the ever-present concern of connectivity. These issues can take many forms, but for this essay, connectivity is defined as the ways in which faculty members connect (or can no longer connect) with their students: no longer seeing students in the classroom, not having regular (unscheduled) conversations, and, for an art historian like myself who is fortunate to have access to an impeccable “study collection” in the form of a world-class museum, disconnecting from the valuable exercise of close looking and engagement with an art object’s physical presence.

Since this transition, we have become insular in our own “places of learning,” the new title granted to our home offices, living rooms, or whatever space has become the site from which we continue to teach and encourage critical thinking on Renaissance topics. What has struck me during this transformative experience in my own space, however, is how much this new landscape revisits the Renaissance concept of the Italian studiolo.1 In the fifteenth century, Italian nobility ushered in the practice of creating a space within the home that functioned as a site for contemplation and as an outward showcase of one’s intellectual achievements through the display of worldly possessions.2 Spectacular examples abound, including the now-lost studiolo of Lionello d’Este in Ferrara’s razed Palazzo Belfiore (ca. 1447) that celebrated the Muses, the much-studied studiolo of Federigo da Montefeltro once ensconced within the Ducal Palace at Gubbio (ca. 1478–82) and comprising illusionistic inlaid cabinets overflowing with symbols of learned knowledge, or the elaborate studiolo developed by Isabella d’Este beginning the late fifteenth century in the Ducal Palace at Mantua that, once complete, overflowed with antiquities and art.3 Within these small escapes, nobles could showcase their affinity for contemporary intellectual culture while also finding a respite from it. Accordingly, the studiolo became a space in which they could be at one with their own thoughts (or, at least, pretend to be).

The concept of the studiolo endured in many respects. One can note, for example, the parallel tradition of the Wunderkammern that gained in popularity in the sixteenth century, or even the small cabinets of curiosities made popular when put on display in homes in the centuries that followed. The collections assembled by Horace Walpole at his Strawberry Hill abode in greater London, for instance, reflect the acquisitiveness of the eighteenth-century Grand Tour and the relationship between display and reputation.4 Still today, we surround ourselves with the artifacts of our own experiences. Although on a much more humble scale, we build our own personal spaces where we put such learning on display. Whether it is our collection of books or selection of original or replica prints and paintings carefully conserved and displayed on our walls, we, as scholars of the Renaissance, often bear the trappings of this role in various ways.

In modern remote landscapes there is no better demonstration of this continued practice. For example, before logging into a Google Meeting, we need to make sure that the lighting is right; that the background is suitable; that children or pets do not wander into the scene. Some people go further to connect themselves with the physically distant cultural and intellectual world. How many Zoom meetings have involved a colleague who appears as if seated on the Spanish Steps, or enjoying a private audience in the Sistine Chapel? To be sure, this practice adds levity and pleasure to otherwise sterile online environments, but it also implies a gloss of history. Just like those illusionistic veneers depicting objects such as literary volumes and musical instruments that Federigo da Montefeltro lavished across the surfaces of his Gubbio studiolo, when we introduce these backdrops into our meetings we create a personalized intellectual space while also conjuring a visual escape. While this gesture says, “I’d rather be here,” in the depths of physical distancing, travel bans, and closed borders, who could disagree?

From this perspective, this new virtual landscape and its message, which most likely will be a part of our scholarly/professorial experience for some time to come, presents an intriguing moment for Renaissance scholars. Both the performance and the messages sent encourage a bridge between practices past and present. Particularly for those teaching the history of Renaissance art and thinking, the limitations of the computer screen actually present a limitless space in which to recreate some of the implications of how one displays themselves and their work environment.

Remote landscapes furnish students with the opportunity to think critically about self-fashioning, a practice in which many of them have engaged in various capacities and one that has become ever present in our social media age. What is at stake in the contemporary practice of self-fashioning is assuredly distinct from the Renaissance era—one is left to ponder how figures like Isabella d’Este or the Duke of Montefeltro might have engaged with Instagram or the like; would they have attracted the same number of followers as today’s celebrities?—but it is nevertheless a relatable act that the contemporary student can use as a gateway to understanding Renaissance practice and patronage particularly in our new virtual learning environments.5

Take, for example, an assignment that first tasks students with creating a tableau of objects in their home that symbolizes their interests or ideals. Asking students to select such objects and share them can encourage careful thinking about which artifacts in their daily environment mean the most to them or best reflect what they value. While the task here would be for the student to narrate a tour of these objects for their colleagues, either in presentation form via videoconferencing or digital modeling with the class, the students can at the same time reflect upon what these objects broadcast about themselves independent of such narration.6 Such an assignment component thus creates a space for introspection on the part of the student not only in regard to the symbols with which they identify and the means of fashioning the self as it communicates that identity to others.

A second component, or its own exercise altogether, can ask students to examine a given studiolo space from the Renaissance. This can be performed either with still images, like those available of the Gubbio studiolo installed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Alternately, students could investigate studioli such as that of Isabella d’Este originally in the Ducal Palace of Mantua, which fortunately has been brought to life in the digital realm thanks to resources like The Digital Studiolo, developed in collaboration with several universities and the Archivio di Stato di Mantova e di Milano. In examining these spaces, students can explore the symbols and images included, seeking out their potential meaning in a Renaissance context, and drawing parallels to the contemporary world.

Such an activity introduces students to a Renaissance mindset, but more importantly it creates a space for students to bridge self-fashioning practices across epochs and contemplate the legacy of the self that these studioli leave behind. Do these studioli, for example, present a portrait of their real or idealized patron? How does such a portrait compare to that the student built in the student’s individual tableau? Accordingly, these exercises in close looking with such digital resources can transcend the insights possible in a traditional college classroom because they encourage students to engage with these spaces with an eye for the intricate detail of each commission. Inspiring students to think more carefully about the choices these patrons made can help garner insights into the early modern era that can be extended to a larger study of the art of the period.

As this bridge between the contemporary computer screen and the Renaissance studiolo relays, embracing the potential of the online classroom when studying the Renaissance bears fascinating potential thanks to the ever-growing network of virtual resources that can enhance learning. In these online spaces, the ability to practice close looking at the art and design of Renaissance spaces can take on new meaning and can serve as a gateway for students to better appreciate the practice of self-fashioning and how it influenced art and patronage hundreds of years ago. Moreover, exploring such personal spaces of the past can be a marvelous means to enhance interpersonal connectivity within the online classroom, bringing students and faculty together in a shared investigation of Renaissance artistic practice at a time when distance learning is so prevalent.

Alexis Culotta is a Lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an Adjunct Online Instructor at Park University. Her research emphasizes the working relationships of artists in sixteenth century Rome. She also holds an interest in exploring new ways of teaching art history for the contemporary student and has contributed resources to sites such as Art History Teaching Resources in the past.

1 For more on the history of the studiolo, see: W. Liebenwein and C. Cieri Via, Studiolo: storia e tipologia di un spazio culturale (Modena: F.C. Panini, 2005); D. Thornton, The Scholar in His Study: Ownership and Experience in Renaissance Italy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997). For specifically the Venetian perspective, see: S. J. Campbell, “Giorgione’s ‘Tempest,’ ‘Studiolo’ Culture, and the Renaissance Lucretius,” Renaissance Quarterly 56, no. 2 (2003): 299–332.

2 For more on the significance of these cabinets, see: Clive Wainwright, The Romantic Interior: The British Collector at Home, 1750–1850 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 74.

3 The Gubbio studiolo was moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1939: “Studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio, ca. 1478–82,” The Met. German artist Thomas Demand’s narrated video tour (“Urbino—Studiolo del Duca Federico da Montefeltro,” YouTube) of the reinstalled studiolo offers fantastic insights for the virtual viewer, as does the virtual reconstruction of the studiolo (YouTube) created in collaboration between the Università degli Studi di Urbino “Carlo Bo” and the Museo del Gabinetto di Fisica della Facoltà di Farmacia. For more on Isabella D’Este’s studiolo and its contents, many of which have been disseminated around the globe in various museum collections, see Rosemary San Juan, “The Court Lady’s Dilemma: Isabella d’Este and Art Collecting in the Renaissance,” Oxford Art Journal 14, no. 1 (1991): 67–78.

4 This virtual tour provided by Strawberry Hill House & Garden can be helpful to visualize how Walpole showcased his extensive collection: “Introducing Strawberry Hill,” YouTube. Yale University has also developed a helpful compendium of resources on the rooms and objects included in Walpole’s showcase: “Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill Collection,” The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

5 Though not specifically focusing on the Renaissance era, an interesting article discussing the implications of the “selfie” in the legacy of documentary imagery is T. Goodnow, “The Selfie Moment: The Rhetorical Implications of Digital Self Portraiture,” in In the Beginning Was the Image: The Omnipresence of Pictures; Time, Truth, Tradition, ed. A. Benedek and A. Veszelski (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang AG, 2016), 123–30.

6 Given the prevalence of social media use among today’s student population, a potential variation of this assignment is to add in a “selfie” option in which students could document themselves either in front of their constructed tableau or within another environment that somehow contributes to the notion of a symbolic self-portrait. Incorporating such a component will likely encourage valuable discussions about the visual currency of the self-portrait—both symbolic and literal—as well as underscore the nuanced parameters of the creation of such likenesses during the Renaissance versus today. Students may find it helpful to read about the work of Cindy Sherman exploring similar notions of self-portraiture across time, as illuminated in J. Woods-Marsden, “Cindy Sherman’s Reworking of Raphael’s ‘Fornarina’ and Caravaggio’s ‘Bacchus,’” Source: Notes in the History of Art 28, no. 3 (2009): 29–39.

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