top of page



For a guided tour of the Virtual Studiolo, see our video below.

Can we go to places that no longer exist? And if Virtual Reality could in some sense take us there, what would we want to do, once inside? Humanists, computer scientists, and digital artists at IDEA: Isabella d’Este Archive are exploring answers to these very questions through The Virtual Studiolo Project, an immersive, 3D environment inspired by two miniscule and magnificent rooms made famous in sixteenth-century Mantua by Isabella d’Este. 


This pair of adjoining chambers in Isabella’s apartments, known as the studiolo  (study) and the grotta (cave or grotto), were conceived by their owner as signature spaces for displaying her culture.  These camerini  (“little rooms,” as she often called them) had several reasons for being. Primarily, they were a showcase for Isabella’s humanist taste and learning, a place to display her collections of paintings, sculptures, antiquities, books, coins, gems, musical instruments, clocks, and natural curiosities. As suggested by their acoustic features and visual program, they also served as an intimate performance chamber for Isabella the musician. And last but not least, they offered a solitary retreat from the stresses of court life: surrounded by a personally ornamented space and the carefully assembled objects that projected her values, the marchesa of Mantua sought silent reflection in these quarters and the enclosed, secret garden they accessed.


To Isabella and her contemporaries, the studiolo’s contents spoke volumes, both as individual pieces and in conversation with each other. Many of the 366 items once held in the grotta and the 39 in the studiolo are forever lost, as are the 140 books in the studiolo library and all of Isabella’s musical instruments. Those that remain are dispersed in museums around the world. The ambition of the Virtual Studiolo is to harness our own knowledge and creativity to build a virtual space where the surviving objects and approximations of those that are lost may meet again in Virtual Reality, in new conversations that we, too, may hear.


Why are Isabella's rooms worthy of our attention? The studiolo and the grotta are an important example of Renaissance women's humanistic culture. In 1490, shortly after marrying Francesco II Gonzaga, Isabella began to design a room similar to those that were made by princes at the time. The studioli created by men were usually furnished with books, weapons, scientific and musical instruments, and other objects that conveyed the knowledge of the man who owned them. Studioli created by women, on the other hand, were more modest, often containing family portraits and objects of devotion. Isabella decided to embark on a revolutionary adventure by building a studiolo that reflected her culture and her tastes; in this way she managed to project a feminine version the male-sponsored studioli, reinterpreting the gender difference that characterized these rooms. Her collections and the way they were displayed were admired and recognized as noteworthy wonders. Indeed, Isabella's studiolo and grotta were the forerunners of personal art galleries, serving a models for future American collectors such as Peggy Guggenheim, Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Cone sisters, all founders of some of the most important museums and collections existing today. Today, surviving objects from Isabella's collection are exhibited in museums around the world.

What did the studiolo and the grotta look like? They were tiny. And very intricate. Gilded ceilings, inlaid wood panels, frescoes, custom tiles, bas-reliefs, paintings and enigmatic emblems covered both rooms. Collections of books, cameos, Roman antiquities, Renaissance bronzes and musical instruments were all on display, serving the crucial role of conveying Isabella's culture to anyone who visited. Seven large paintings, now preserved in the Louvre, dominated the studiolo: two each by Andrea Mantegna, Lorenzo Costa and Antonio Allegri da Correggio, and one by Piero Perugino. The grotta was furnished with shelves to display small objects, while bronze sculptures were arranged above the door frames. The walls of the room were decorated with cabinets, the doors of which were inlaid with figures of urban landscapes and musical motifs; the ornate seems to have been designed to create special acoustic effects.

Are the rooms completely lost? Isabella's studiolo and grotta were assembled twice in her lifetime: the first in the San Giorgio Castle, during the first years of her marriage, and then a second time, after the death of her husband, in a new apartment on the ground floor in the Corte Vecchia, also located in the Gonzaga palace. Both areas are still present in the Museum of Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, but their state is far from the former splendor they boasted at the time of the marchesa. The rooms show signs of plunder and structural alterations that have occurred over the centuries. The spaces are almost completely empty and access is restricted for security reasons. Professor Molly Bourne shows the current state of the camerini in the film Ad Tempo Taci, Songs for Isabella d'Este (starting at 5:34), a film by Anne MacNeil and Mario Piavoli, which is available in our Video Archive.

How is it possible that we have so much information about Isabella's? A year after the death of the marchesa (the year of the death of her son Duke Federico II Gonzaga), a meticulous inventory of all the objects present in the Ducal Palace of Mantua began. This inventory, completed in 1542 by Odoardo Stivini, reported the contents of each room, including Isabella's studiolo and grotta, and often specified where the objects were placed in the rooms. Another source of information is Isabella's correspondence, in fact she managed the construction of the rooms and the acquisition of her collections mainly through letters sent to artists, artisans, and merchants. Many of these missives survive to this day in the State Archives of Mantua and are consulted in historical research on the studiolo, the grotta and numerous aspects of the culture of the Italian Renaissance. To explore Isabella's correspondence you may consult the IDEA Letters project.

What will visitors find in the Virtual Studiolo? The virtual studio environment is designed to show rooms on a flat screen. The publication of the first phase of the project includes: A photogrammetric rendering of the current studiolo and grotta in the Corte Vecchia. A navigable model of these spaces that includes measurement tools, a chronology, adjustable lighting, links to our catalogue, and other useful tools to support research. High-resolution three-dimensional models of seven objects contained in Isabella's collection: three statuettes by Antico, a bas-relief and a door decorated with reliefs ascribed to Gian Cristoforo Romano. A powerful relational database (our Catalogue) containing information on the objects in the studiolo and in the grotta, their current location and scholarly references to them. This database is linked to the IDEA Bibliography (Zotero) and is gradually being augmented with objects of which we have no models because they have been lost, but which are present in the Stivini code that lists the contents of the rooms. See our Guided Tour of the studio shown below.

How is the Virtual Studiolo progressing? Thanks to the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Ducal Palace Museum in Mantua, the International Museum of Ceramics in Faenza and other generous contributors, the Virtual Studiolo team is creating an open-access virtual experience of these rooms. As we continue to work on this project, we advise visitors to begin their exploration by watching the Virtual Studiolo Preview video. This award-winning short film, directed by Giovanni Bellavia, evokes the sensory density of the rooms and highlights Isabella's letters from which we extract much of our knowledge about these environments. Don't forget to look also at the end credits, where images of the technologies that make this project possible are reported!

Why is the Virtual Studiolo sometimes blurry? We are working to optimize the resolution of the Virtual Studiolo. At the moment the maximum resolution makes the application too heavy to be displayed on most PCs. Stay tuned for future improvements! Want to dive even deeper? Put on a virtual reality headset or Google Cardboard and immerse yourself in the animated prototype of the Virtual Studiolo VR. Here you can move through the camerini and see the spaces as well as several objects contained in them, in a three-dimensional experience that serves as a prototype for future developments.

Prefer to dive in deeper? Don a VR headset or Google Cardboard and immerse yourself in the animated Virtual Studiolo VR prototype. Here you can move through the camerini and view the spaces and some of their contents in a 3-D experience that serves as a prototype for future development. 

Check out also our "how we built this" videos (linked below) to learn about techniques that were employed by Cineca in the 3D modeling process using Blender.


More objects and tools will be added to the Virtual Studiolo and the Virtual Studiolo VR in subsequent releases. Isabella’s camerini were a sight and sound experience that was meant to be immersive: in-the-round, floor to ceiling, and textured by music and reading. The Virtual Studiolo aims to be not a replica but a modern “remastering” of these celebrated Renaissance chambers that we hope will inspire new questions, new research, and new insights about the studiolo and grotta of Isabella d’Este and the culture that inspired it.






Guided tour  (Italian)


Guided tour  (English)


VR Prototype (requires VR viewing device)


Timelapse of shading in Blender


Timelapse of modeling in Blender


Making a wax seal animation in Blender

Anne MacNeil, Co-principal Investigator

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Deanna Shemek, Principal Investigator

University of California, Irvine

Virtual Studiolo Phase 1 ROLES






Cineca Supercomputing Center Design Team, Bologna

Project Manager

Antonella Guidazzoli, MEng, MA


Researcher and Content Coordinator

Maria Chiara Liguori, Ph.D, MA, MPS


User Interface Designer and Analyst, Software Developer,

Hardware and Software Adviser

Silvano Imboden, MCS


Computer Graphics Designer, Blender Artist, Computer Graphic Supervisor and Coordinator,

Pipeline Manager, Software and Hardware Integration  Manager

Daniele De Luca, MCS


Art Director for Immersive Environments,

Visual Interface Coordinator, User Experience Analyst

Giovanni Bellavia, MPhil, BFA


3D Modeler, Computer Graphics Contributor

Federica Farroni, MEng


Designer and Developer of 3D Web Application, User Interactions Analyst

Beatrice Chiavarini, M Arch


Intern, User Interface Analyst

Eleonora Peruch, MA Digital Humanities & Digital Knowledge, BA Humanities



Kunsthistorisches Museum Photographer

Christian Mendez


Inventory Advisor

Daniela Ferrari, IDEA Co-director


Art Historical Advisors

Molly Bourne, Ph.D, Syracuse University in Florence 

Stephen Campbell, Ph.D, The Johns Hopkins University



National Endowment for the Humanities

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Museo del Palazzo Ducale, Mantua

Humanities Center, University of California, Irvine

Office of Research, University of California, Irvine

University of California Humanities Research Institute

The Humanities Institute, University of California, Santa Cruz

Samuel H. Kress Foundation

International Museum of Ceramics, Faenza Italy

Archivio di Stato, Mantua

Dorothy Ford Wiley Fund, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

bottom of page