Although church sacristy cabinets containing Bibles and other religious texts had existed in the Medieval period and continued to be popular in the Renaissance, secular bookcases to house a Humanist's library were only making an introduction during the Renaissance. These bookcases or biblioteche usually were found in a room known as the studiolo or gentleman's study. That the Dumbarton Oaks bookcase cabinet is such a secular rather than a religious piece is evident from the absence of religious iconography as well as the inlaid inscription QVIESCIT ANIMA LIBRIS (the soul finds repose in books).
The proportional balance and harmony of the design of this cabinet as well as the implied architectural vocabulary - especially the upper fluted pilasters supporting the inscribed entablature - are typical features of what Italian designers understood to be the heritage of ancient Roman design, which they desired to revive. Most important, however, to the beauty of this piece are the expensive panels of inlaid, naturally colored woods - a decorative technique known as intarsia. Renaissance intarsia was influenced by the importation of Islamic bone- and wood-inlaid boxes that reached Italy via trade routes from the Middle East and the Islamic provinces in the west. Known generically as Damascene work, these luxury pieces quickly engendered the Italian intarsia pieces.
Several of the carved composite capitals of the upper-cabinet pilasters were later inlaid with unidentified coats of arms, undoubtedly due to a change in the bookcase cabinet's ownership. The Dumbarton Oaks bookcase cabinet is another of the Italian Renaissance pieces that the Blisses acquired from the Villa Farnese Collection at Caprarola.
Bühl, Gudrun, editor. Dumbarton Oaks, The Collections. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection (distributed by Harvard University Press), 2008, 314f, ill.
Collection of Giuseppe Brambilla, Villa Farnese, Caprarola.
Inherited by the Countess Mazzarino (his sister), Milan.
Purchased from Countess Mazzarino, Milan, through Toledano & Co., Paris, by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, ca. 6/28/1929.
Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., ca. 6/28/1929-11/29/1940.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, House Collection, Washington, D.C.