Intarsia in America

Studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Thanks to Abbeville’s new volume Renaissance Intarsia, as well as mysterious artist/time traveler/cicerone Ludovico Lotto, you’ve taken the first steps toward becoming a connoisseur of wood inlay. But if you live in North America, you can’t always afford to travel to Verona or Naples or Bologna to view classic intarsia for yourself.

Fortunately, some masterpieces of this so-called minor art lie closer to home. In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection contains several notable examples of Renaissance intarsia, particularly the walls of the studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio. Designed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439-1501) for one Duke Federico, the images lining this room are ranked among the world’s great masterpieces of Renaissance intarsia. The objects depicted reflect “Duke Federico’s wide-ranging artistic and scientific interests”; they include books, musical instruments, a plumb bob and set square (used by builders and architects), and a candle of the kind he no doubt burned at both ends as he dispatched his ducal duties.

Also in the Met’s collection: a credenza with intarsia panels dating to 1440-50; Last Supper and Finding of Moses panels by Fra Damiano da Bergamo and Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, respectively; and Scipio Africanus, by Mattia di Nanni di Stefano (1403-1433), which the museum’s catalogue describes as follows: “part of the intarsia bench made for the council chamber of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena and placed under Simone Martini’s (1284-1344) fresco the Maesta. The bench incorporated several panels with figures from Roman Republican history, all models of civic virtue, such as the illustrious general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (237-183 B.C.).”

Smaller-scale treasures of wood inlay are scattered throughout other American museums, among them a cassone (marriage chest) from the workshop of Domenico del Tasso, dating to about 1500 and held by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and a Spanish intarsia casket dating to the fourteenth or fifteenth century and held by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Though they may not boast the epic sweep of the great Italian intarsia cycles, such works remind us that intarsia is at heart a craft, a patient, precise, artisanal process of fitting together one small piece at a time.

Leave a Reply