From Medea through Love to Terpsichore. New comments to the representations of the Muses in the studiolo of the Belfiore villa
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When Leonello d'Este and Guarino da Verona were planning to adorn the studiolo of the Belfiore villa outside Ferrara with pictures of the muses, they were not thinking in concepts of form and content, of course, but longed - unwittingly - to revive the antiquity in its totality through the projected cycle. The humanist outlined his ideas about each muse and its possible representation in a letter of 1447. With few exceptions, these are conventional. So far, it has always been inadequately explained why he connected two of the nine muses (Polyhymnia and Thalia) with agriculture. The spirit of the place must have played a decisive role in the re-union of the muses and nature. The antique concept of the museion as the dwelling place of the muses was intertwined with nature in general, with a pastoral setting. The Belfiore buildings can be taken as the precedent of the humanist villa, its residents enjoyed mental and physical recreation between its walls. What is more, the revival of an interest in pastoral poetry did take place there and then, in the environment of Leonello and Guarino. Polyhymnia was the first modern-time personification of the pastoral muse. The conspicuous puritanism of her figure and clothing so different from the rest can also be attributed to the idealization of pastoral simplicity. Guarino's letter cannot be understood as a program for the cycle. Underlying several details of the paintings (similarly opening dress, Thalia's head-dreass, Erato's slippers, the loop in her hand) there must have been discussions between the humanists and the painters, and various verbal and literary associations can be presumed. The artists did their best to endow the muses with an antique aura. When - unlike Michele Pannonio - they did not rest content with the superficial archaizing motifs of squarcionism, they were totally left to themselves, without any help from the humanists. What was available to them as an ample repository of antique art was the Roman sarcophagi and the drawings of them. They did pick motifs from them, but they were not aware of their meanings. The painter of Terpsichore borrowed motifs from a Medea sarcophagus, while Urania's model was the representaiton of Mars and Venus. In these cases Panofsky's 'principle of divergence' holds just as true as in the antique-christian divergence, the painters using the dictionary of the old language with new zeal and a new intention. When it came to the representation of Polyhymnia, the artist picked a drawing of an antique Muse sarcophagus, hence it is the earliest extant renaissance painting - as far as we know -that presents an antique theme in an antique form. It is not impossible that some of the drawings attributed to Anonimo dell'Ambrosiana, as well as the Muses Urania and Polyhymnia, are the work of Bono da Ferrara.
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