The Virtual Studiolo

The Virtual Studiolo  team presents this video as a preview of coming attractions. IDEA‘s The Virtual Studiolo  aims to reassemble in an immersive, 3D environment the magnificent rooms in the Palazzo Ducale of Mantua where Isabella d’Este displayed her collection of art, books, musical instruments, and antiquities. These rooms, known as the studiolo and the grotta (together sometimes called the camerini, or “little rooms”) were travel destinations for Isabella’s contemporaries, who vied for opportunities to see them. Our goal is to make these Renaissance treasures accessible to anyone with a connection to the Internet, a smart phone, or a tablet device, and  to offer even richer immersive options that may best be experienced in a museum or CAVE space. The project is conceived for students, educators, tourists, artists, and other curious explorers.


The studiolo and grotta were moved in Isabella’s lifetime and relocated from the Castello San Giorgio to the Corte Vecchia. Both versions survive in Mantua’s Ducal Palace but are largely emptied of their Renaissance contents.  Isabella’s collection is now dispersed in a number of museums around the world (principally the Paris Louvre and Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum). We are working with these and other museums to photograph these objects in 3D  for reassembly in The Virtual Studiolo.

With initial funding from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, The Virtual Studiolo Team has employed photogrammetry, 3D modeling, and digital animation to make a prototype sketch of the studiolo and grotta spaces in the Corte Vecchia. For a video featuring a tour through these rooms as they appear today (beginning at 00:05:36) and a music performance inside them, please watch Anne MacNeil’s film Ad tempo taci: Songs for Isabella d’Este.

Collaborators in The Virtual Studiolo project include the digital engineers, animation artists, and 3D modelers of VisitLab  at Italy’s supercomputer center, Cineca, who have joined project lead Deanna Shemek and a team of  historians of art, literature, and music;  musicians; museums; the State Archive of Mantua; and the University of California, Santa Cruz. Relying on open-source software (primarily Blender), we have created  3D models of several items once housed in these rooms, and extrapolated from a sample set of surviving tiles an initial model of the studiolo floor.  From these materials we have produced the concept-demonstration video available for viewing at the top of this page. Our video highlights and points to other projects within IDEA (Letters, Music, Ceramics). We emphasize from the outset the importance of Isabella’s correspondence as a source of historical information about the studiolo,  presenting images of many original letters from her archive, and  a 3D animation illustrating the Renaissance technique used for folding and sealing one of these letters.

The Virtual Studiolo borrows its conceptual framework from three domains: the humanistic field of Renaissance art history; museum theory and practice; and the technical-creative disciplines of digital 3D modeling, animation, remixing, and remastering. Our plan is to offer an interactive environment that may be accessed either in two dimensions (desktop, flat-screen projection) or in three or four (immersive Virtual and Augmented Reality experiences). We want users to interact with The Virtual Studio‘s contents in both analytical and creative ways.

Our desired outcome is a “remastered” studiolo, a virtual space in which both visual and acoustic elements will be as faithful as possible to historical records, yet enhanced with respect to previous experiences of the space. On the other hand, the loss of many original objects, and historical uncertainty about numerous details in Isabella’s arrangement of  her collection, require that we present, and celebrate, The Virtual Studiolo as itself a hypothetical and interactive remix: a media artifact that inevitably alters the original through processes of reconstruction, supplementation, subtraction, and reorientation to create something unquestionably new.

The Virtual Studiolo is meant to foster understanding of collecting and display, of Isabella’s Studiolo as a  personal project, and of Renaissance culture broadly conceived in ways that have been unattainable for centuries.  We view The Virtual Studiolo as an opportunity  to acknowledge the dynamism of collecting and curating as cultural practices, today as well as in the sixteenth century. And we relish the possibility of sharing  the beauty of Italian Renaissance art, music, and letters through  the new media of today’s technological revolution.

In tune with these transhistorical aspirations, we will  offer both our own curation of the studiolo as it has been researched and documented by historians, and options for users to move virtual objects in and out of the studio, rearranging its contents in newly authored configurations—remixes—that may be saved for personal use or publication.

— Deanna Shemek
August 2016