- The Cabinet of Eros: Renaissance Mythological Painting and the Studiolo of Isabella d'Este
Stephen J. Campbell's exemplary new book investigates the imagery of classical mythology and its place in Renaissance court society. It focuses on the studiolo of Isabella d'Este, a figure who has long stood at the center of discussions of art and court culture on account of her much-studied collection of antiquities and mythological paintings. While the vast quantity of archival evidence about Isabella's activities has enabled scholars to reconstruct her collection and its physical context, the documents reveal little about the meanings of the images she commissioned. Consequently, the seven large-scale mythological paintings created [End Page 862] for her studiolo between 1497 and 1530 by Andrea Mantegna, Perugino, Lorenzo Costa, and Correggio are traditionally interpreted as moralizing allegories designed to teach the Marchesa of Mantua exemplary behavior while advertising her own moral integrity. If not wholly wrong, such interpretations are, according to Campbell, superficial and unsatisfying, especially since these meanings are typically projected back onto Isabella's overfamiliar personality. Instead, he argues that the Mantuan paintings "require a creative reader, [one] who is aware that his task is not simply to retrieve an idea preformulated in words, and that what is ultimately being sought is a dimension to his or her own self" (21). Isabella's studiolo demonstrates that the Renaissance did not simply rediscover classical myths, but recreated and adapted them in an effort to legitimize and define its own cultural identity. Campbell's aim is to reposition the Mantuan paintings within the broader cultural milieu of reading and the humanist literary enterprise at the Gonzaga court.
The book is divided into two parts. The first examines relationships between cultural ideologies and the physical spaces where mythological painting emerged in the later Quattrocento. Chapter 1 provides a historiography of the Renaissance studiolo, taking issue with recent scholarship that defines these spaces as loci of consumption, giving little attention to the meanings of the images they displayed. For Campbell, mythological paintings served as a sort of "hinge" between the reader's inner self and the collector's outer self, enabling the beholder to relate to other objects in the study (23). In the second chapter we turn to Isabella's studiolo, considering how the marchesa's gender and status contributed to her creation of a space radically distinct from its predecessors, adorned with mythological paintings concerned with the ambivalent nature of Eros (and not, as is often stated, constructed around the opposing forces of Eros and Anteros). An examination of Isabella's interest in Eros continues in chapter 3, where her collecting of images of Cupid (including the famous "Sleeping Cupid" sculptures) is considered in the context of poetry about Eros-Amor composed by members of her circle, including Mario Equicola, Niccolò da Correggio, Pietro Bembo, and Paride da Ceresara.
The second part of the book examines Isabella's studiolo paintings in detail, with a chapter dedicated to each. Chapters 4 and 5 present Mantegna's two mythologies as "fables about the status of fable" (25), signature works indicative of his reputation as court painter and antiquarian. Chapter 6 offers a refreshing new reading of Perugino's Battle of Chastity and Lasciviousness, while chapters 7 and 8 identify the traditionally-ignored subject matter of the two paintings by Lorenzo Costa. In chapter 9, Correggio's two mythologies are considered as a reply to the catastrophic Sack of Rome and its aftermath, circumstances that called into question the reputation of the Gonzaga family and Isabella in particular. The complex, layered themes that Campbell locates in each of the seven paintings are rigorously filtered through a close analysis of Isabella's interests as a reader, indicated by two inventories of the books kept in her studiolo. An annotated, alphabetical collation of both inventories is given in appendix 1, while appendix 2 presents a synopsis and checklist of documents related to her studiolo paintings...