Hi, I’m Curator Nat Silver, and in this space I feel transported to Italy during the 1300s and 1400s, the early Renaissance. Move into the center of this room, and let your eyes take a sweep around. There’s a profusion of Christian devotional paintings with gold backgrounds. They would have glittered in the candlelit churches of the time—to evoke heaven on earth. Position yourself with your back to the big fireplace. To the right of the doorway you’re facing, is a non-Christian masterpiece. That very large, semi-nude figure, is Hercules. The only clothes he’s wearing is the skin of the lion he’s killed as one of his labors, or tasks. He’s carrying the club he used to do it. The artist Piero della Francesco made this as a wall painting—or fresco—for his own home. See the way Hercules stands with his hand on his hip? Try it yourself! For me it feels like a confident, stylish swagger. I think it’s an appropriate kind of image that an artist with many accomplishments already under his belt would’ve created for his own décor, as a kind of stand-in for himself.
At this time in Italy, people celebrated Roman, pagan heroes, like Hercules as well as Christian ones. We’ll find an Early Christian hero—also on a big scale—by looking past the doorway and turning to the wall on the left. Move to the huge panel painting with a pointed top that’s almost touching the ceiling. It’s between two windows, and it has hanging panels of cloth extending in front of it.
This is St. Anthony. He was a hero to Early Christian hermits because he’s the founder of western monasticism. He also founded a monastic order. The long thin staff he’s holding is actually a crutch. Anthony was considered to have healing powers, and most of the hospitals in Western Europe through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were dedicated to him. The throne he’s sitting on is covered by a magnificent piece of silk cloth. It's embroidered with all sorts of animals and vegetable patterns that are just so wonderful! I think Isabella must’ve thought so too—because look what she placed underneath the painting. That textile is a deacon’s garment—from about the same time as the painted version—with similar patterns.
Now I want to show you a painting in this room that’s easy to miss—and I wanted to make sure you didn’t—because it’s one of my favorite works in the collection. Move to the window to that’s to the far left of St. Anthony—the one without the table and chair in front of it. Now, turn to your left. Do you see that narrow section of wall, with two paintings? We’ll look at the one on top. It has two episodes within the painting, divided horizontally. Across the bottom we see the Virgin Mary laid out on her deathbed, shrouded in blue. She's surrounded by the Apostles. The artist Fra Angelico has brought these figures to life. The man at Mary’s feet, dressed in pink, grabs hold of the poles sticking out her support. He points to the man positioned at Mary’s head as if to say ‘Are you ready to lift?’ There's a sense of imminent movement. And then, in scene, above it, the Virgin is now spiraling up into heaven, with the movement of the angels around her. To the accompaniment of the music that they’re playing on their instruments. Quite a performance! Isabella often placed her favorite paintings next to windows, for better lighting. That’s why it’s here in this corner.
As you move out of this corner, I have one more thought to share: Before Isabella made this her Early Italian Room, it was her ‘Chinese Room’. You can still see some Asian objects here. There’s one I especially like, which is just to the right of the Hercules fresco. On the windowsill, you can find a little pigeon!
It’s a Japanese roof tile. The bird is peering into the courtyard, enjoying the view. It’s one of the small, humorous touches Isabella tucked into her spaces. She always wanted to surprise us.