Sunday, August 16, 2015

Victoria Ehrlich: “Italian Domestic Interiors”

Victoria H. Ehrlich

Book Review

Erin J. Campbell, Stephanie R. Miller, and Elizabeth Carroll Consavari, eds., The Early Modern Italian Domestic Interior, 1400-1700: Objects, Spaces, Domesticities. Ashgate (Surrey, UK, 2013), 282pp. ISBN: 978-1-4094-6811-0

1> In his De re aedificatoria, Leon Battista Alberti likens the architecture of a house to a city in miniature. Just as a city must be painstakingly arranged so as to anticipate the daily needs of its citizens, so too, should a house be designed to ensure the health of those who dwell within and offer “every facility and every convenience to contribute to a peaceful, tranquil, and refined life.”  The precise dimensions of this daily life are left largely unexplored in his treatise, a lacuna which is addressed in The Early Modern Italian Domestic Interior, 1400-1700: Objects, Spaces, Domesticities. The carefully considered essays in this volume represent an important contribution to the growing body of scholarship that has foregrounded the role of objects and the function of domestic spaces as critical to our understanding of early modern sensibilities.

2> In their introduction, Erin J. Campbell, Stephanie R. Miller, and Elizabeth Carroll Consavari characterize this collective inquiry into early modern domesticity as emerging from a “desire to enter the Italian palazzo or casa” (1) in order to bring into more comprehensive focus the various relationships between objects, spaces, and people that together constituted the domestic sphere.  As defined by the editors, these spaces are “multi-layered, fluid, and contingent environments” that eschew fixity, and can be more productively mapped “over time and space” (3).  To that end, these essays take into account the shifting functions of spaces and objects within the home, as well as their role in fostering sociability and preserving familial identities.

3> The geographic diversity of the case studies in this volume serves to transport readers through domestic spaces in Bologna, Ferrara, Urbino, and Rome, and provides additional stops in the city-states of Florence and Venice. Although their studies employ traditional art historical methods, these scholars frequently venture into an interdisciplinary realm, traversing waters that have, in the not so distant past, been the purview of architectural, social, and economic historians. In so doing, they emphasize the social valence of objects within the nexus of family, patrons, friends, and servants that defined early modern domesticities.

4> The first of four sections, “Domesticities” contains three essays that provide treatments of the domestic sphere and its various iterations. The frequent reformulation of living spaces to accommodate the changing needs of the family is a common theme that emerges from these chapters. Catherine Fletcher’s analysis of the inventory drawn up after Francesco Casali’s death provides insight into the various factors that enabled the movement of occupants and household objects between the family palazzo in Bologna and the country villa at Montevecchio. Just as both the palazzo and villa could be transformed to host guests of the family, so too, could individual rooms be repurposed when the situation required. In her chapter, Adelina Modesti illuminates the multiple functions of Elisabetta Sirani’s family home in Bologna, which simultaneously served as an artist studio and academy for female students. Rooms were adapted to receive and entertain distinguished guests, and contained a display case in which were arranged various gifts she had received from admirers of her work.  Sirani’s “casa-studio” (48) shares elements in common with Cardinal Pietro Bembo’s appropriation of a borrowed residence in Rome. From surviving letters, Susan Nalezyty reconstructs the decoration and arrangement of the cardinal’s living quarters. She argues that by selectively incorporating objects of value from his personal collection into the environs of the Palazzo Baldassini, he successfully created a personalized environment conducive for the “intellectual inquiry and convivial happenings” (33) for which he was known.

5> Part II of this volume highlights the range of associations forged between people, spaces, and objects within domestic interiors. Stephanie R. Miller examines the artifacts, works of art, and spaces associated with raising children, and reads them in concert with contemporary texts on parenting.  Her study presents a picture of growing up in an early modern home as one filled with many passages—from natal home to wet nurse and back again, from infancy to childhood and then adolescence, and from the domestic spaces of the interior to the civic spaces of the city.  Both Margaret A. Morse and Erin J. Campbell focus on the nuanced ways paintings catalyzed social ties. Morse contends that the portego, a central hall and thoroughfare that provided access to adjacent rooms, was a space that held considerable spiritual value for Venetian families. Here, paintings with religious subjects could be displayed to aid and confirm a family’s religious devotion within a semi-public space. Campbell provides a nuanced context for the many unattributed paintings listed in Bolognese inventories that featured subjects important for the moral and religious development of the family. She argues that these works, deemed appropriate for family audiences, were chosen for their educative value and served to mediate social processes within the home. Together these essays indicate that paintings were important vehicles for the transmission of values whether used in the process of raising children, as Miller points out, for forging familial identity, as Morse argues, or for serving as “multi-tasking tools for living” (117), as Campbell contends.

6> The penultimate section, “Domestic Objects and Sociability,” is the most extensive. The five essays that fall within its parameters bring to light a variety of social processes and rituals that fostered relationships within and between families. Maria DePrano’s chapter fills a gap in our knowledge of the types and forms of entertainment Florentine families enjoyed at home.  Her interpretation of the late fifteenth-century inventory of the Tornabuoni reveals that the family strategically used certain ground floor rooms, positioned near the entrance of the palazzo, to entertain visitors and distinguished guests. Replete with objects that announced the Tornobuoni’s distinguished status and wealth, she argues that this room positively represented the family “as gracious, civic-minded, and cultured hosts” (136).  The art collections amassed by Venetian families in the sixteenth century share similar connotations. Elizabeth Carroll Consavari augments what is known of how such collections could be deployed to foster an atmosphere of culture and refinement within the home. She interprets the growing presence of such “proto-art galleries” (153) in the homes of the urban elite as their awareness and semi-public statement of “what it meant to live nobly” (153).

7> Spaces dedicated to the preparation of food and its consumption provided other opportunities for sociability.  Katherine A. McIver investigates how, where, and with whom people dined in the sixteenth century, drawing our attention to the variety of experiences one might expect when sitting down at the early modern table.  Dinner with friends could be enjoyed inside the sala or outdoors in the loggia, depending on the season and occasion.  McIver’s emphasis on the performative aspects of preparing and consuming food resonates, too, in Jennifer D. Webb’s essay, which examines the rituals that ordered daily life within Federico da Montafeltro’s court at Urbino.  From an instructional manual detailing the proper management of the household, Webb presents a picture of the duke’s household as a space designed to demonstrate his magnificence, intelligence, and powerful status. While learned conversation and courtly entertainment were important forms of sociability, Webb maintains that cleanliness and proper etiquette were no less critical for conveying the magnitude of the duke’s glory.  Allyson Burgess Williams analyzes the strategies Lucrezia Borgia used to articulate a public image within her semi-private Ferrarese living quarters.  Because Borgia was acutely aware that her chambers would also occasionally serve a public function, as they did during the ceremonial viewing of her infant son, she chose fabrics, colors, and historiated tapestries that associated her with the Este family and served to reflect her virtue.

8> Part IV, “Objectifying the Domestic Interior,” concludes this volume, featuring two essays that evaluate the state of current scholarship on early modern domesticities. Adriana Turpin’s essay chronicles historical interpretations of domestic furnishings, focusing in particular on nineteenth-century collections and their continuing influence on modern scholarship of domestic interiors. Curators and collectors took various approaches to recreating the early modern home. As her study reveals, different notions of “authenticity” guided the formation of these assemblages, which might include a combination of copies, restorations, and genuine objects. Susan E. Wegner’s account of a more recent exhibition indicates that current museum approaches to the period room have significant aspects in common with exhibition practices of the nineteenth century.  Although the material artifacts that comprised the exhibition at Bowdoin originated in different time periods and regions, she argues that the resulting effort was nevertheless effective in providing modern viewers with a sense of the “authentic” dynamism that characterized the early modern home.

9> The self-described efforts of the editors to answer Richard Goldthwaite’s call to “breathe a little social life into the Renaissance palace” (1) have resulted here in a thoughtful contribution to the growing field of scholarship concerned with the domestic sphere.  As with any truly good conversation, the essays in this volume articulate possible avenues of inquiry that will continue to enhance our understanding of lived spaces in the early modern period.

Victoria H. Ehrlich is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Art at Cornell University. Her dissertation examines the role of mythological heroes in the visual construction of the heroic ideal in Quattrocento Florence. Her broader research interests in Italian Renaissance art include classical mythology and its representation, the impact of humanism on the visual arts, and early modern collecting practices.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Eight (2015): Dialogues & Exchanges

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