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A Renaissance of Wood, Not Marble

Lorenzo Lotto, Self-Portrait

Feast your eyes on the face above. Lorenzo Lotto. Painter. Illustrator. Renaissance man. Creator of the cartoons for the choir stall panels of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, one of the most distinguished intarsia cycles in the history of art. Now imagine this Northern Italian gentleman approaching you, clad in his black cloak and beret. He clasps your hand warmly. “Come, my friend,” he whispers in a dialect you somehow understand. “Let me show you the delights of inlaid wood.”

Off he whisks you to sixteenth-century Italy, where the art of intarsia, or decorative wood inlay, is thriving as never before or since. He shows you around churches and cathedrals, around the studioli (private studios) of wealthy secular gentlemen. You run your hand over the panels of sacristies and choirs, walls and vaults, private cabinets and stalls beneath pipe organs. There, depicted in wood mosaics of varying grain and hue, are porticoes, domes, entire illusionistic cityscapes visible through archways. Religious scenes, too: nativities, annunciations. Still lifes of lutes, flutes, and fruits. Geometric studies of the medieval headdress known as the mazzocchio. In the studiolo of Federico da Montefeltro, commissioner of Italy’s second-largest library, an intricately rendered array of desktop items: books, lamps, hourglasses, inkstands. (Also, in one panel, a mischievous squirrel.)

“The makers of these images,” Lotto intones, “are all but forgotten in your century. Fra Giovanni da Verona. Benedetto da Maiano. Pier Antonio degli Abati. Their names do not ring down the corridors of time as do those of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci. Yet they once sought to rival the great painters and sculptors of my age in the passion and precision with which they handled wood. Perhaps these men were dreamers. Perhaps their quest was folly. But do they deserve oblivion? Did they not master techniques of perspective unknown to Europe only a century or two before? Did they not handle light, shade, tone more skillfully with wood than many a draftsman could with pencil? Should they be punished–their life’s work forever judged a ‘minor art’–merely for going against the grain?”

The pun you forgive; the artists you vow not to forget. You linger by Lorenzo Lotto’s side a moment in the sinking Venetian sun. “Well, I should retire to my own studiolo,” you tell him. “It’s getting late, and I’d like to study this art form more.”

“Then I shall leave you with another guide.” He hands you a copy of Abbeville’s Renaissance Intarsia, edited by Luca Trevisan. “If we must part, accept this as my parting gift.”

“Thank you,” you whisper, turning it over in your hands. You glance up and find yourself at home, at your desk, with only the book and a faint wistfulness as souvenirs from your journey. Perhaps Lorenzo will someday return. You knock on wood. You begin to read.