Studiolo of Francesco I de Medici, 1570-75

Studiolo of Francesco I de Medici, 1570-75

The studiolo is a small chamber in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence (Image 1), accessible by a hidden spiral staircase.

The room was decorated between 1570 and 1575 under the direction of Giorgio Vasari, who worked with a team of two dozen painters and sculptors to execute dozens of sculptures and paintings on slate and panels, two rows of which cover the walls almost completely. Behind the oval paintings of the lower row are doors to cupboards which contained Francesco's scientific books, specimens, and instruments (Image 2). Two doors, not distinguished in any way from the others, cover the only windows: Francesco preferred to work by candlelight.

Designed as a space in which the duke could withdraw from his family and court, the studiolo was neglected after his death and dismantled by 1590.  The twentieth-century reconstruction is partial and somewhat speculative: if each painting was supposed to relate both to its neighbours and to the objects in the cabinets below it, the relationships today are not entirely clear.

Yet the thematic unity of the two rows of paintings is immediately apparent. The rectangular paintings in the upper row mostly depict arts and industries involved in the creation of high-value commodities. Extractive industries predominate: these include a diamond mine (3), a gold mine (4), and pearl fishers (5).  Also depicted are an alchemical laboratory (6), a glassworks (7), a jewellery shop (8), a woollen mill (9), and a laboratory manufacturing gunpowder (10).

The oval paintings of the lower row are mythological images several of which also have a technological theme: these include Vulcan's forge (11) and Daedalus and the Fall of Icarus (12) -- a famous parable about the promise and perils of technology. 

Commentary. Howard Hotson (May 2019)