Study of a study, and its occupant

This 16th-century man, perhaps pausing from his writing to think, has the abstracted air of a scholar. His dress is not flashy or patrician. His room - apart from the table on which are scattered books, papers, manuscripts, and other writer's accouterments - seems as plain as a monk's cell. Shadowy and private, it is his "inner sanctum."

This painting was used as an apt frontispiece for a book published in 1997 called "The Scholar in His Study" (Yale University Press), by Dora Thornton. The book traces the growing importance of the study in 15th- and 16th-century Italy. The study came to be regarded as a place of retreat not only in palaces and monasteries, but also in houses of the "urban elite." A surprisingly wide cross section of professionals, intellectuals, and artists had studies tailor-made for them in their homes.

Thornton's book illustrates the way in which studies were seen, paradoxically, as both totally private and also as status symbols designed to impress. Some were carefully constructed to display small objects, often antiquities. Books could be for use - and decor.

Utilitarian necessities, like the foot-shaped inkwell and the pouncepot in this picture (a pouncepot contained sand for sprinkling over fresh writing to dry the ink), were also seen as art objects in their own right. Some inkstands of the period were highly sophisticated small sculptures cast in bronze.

The subject of Moroni's portrait is a leading literary figure in 16th-century Bergamo, Italy. At one time, the sitter was thought to be an ecclesiastic named Zanchi. In the 1800s, the painting was known as a portrait of Michelangelo!

It seems the portrait was not painted from life. An inscription translates: "Giovanni Battista Moroni painted him whom he did not see."

A further inscription touches on the limits of portraiture to convey essences: "This painted picture well depicts the image of my body but that of my spirit is given by my many writings."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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