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My main scholarly interest is the art, architecture, and culture of the Della Rovere dukes of Urbino, 1508-1631. I have spent years reading the Della Rovere’s personal correspondence to learn as much as possible about the private life and character of each duke and his family members. An insider’s view, I decided, was essential for understanding their ambitions and intentions, and for evaluating their achievements. Occasionally the letters lured me down unexpected byways—as happened with the turkey, "stranger than anything an artist could ever imagine drawing." That excursion resulted in an article and a book on the arrival and fate of the New World turkey in Europe.
The letters also sparked an interest in food history. The Della Rovere never tired of discussing their health and diet, and the regular references to gifts of food—figs, cheeses, and exceptionally good fruits and vegetables—reminded me of the extent to which their lives were synchronized with the cycles of the year, resulting in a natural harmony that we, in modern times, have sacrificed for convenience. The lessons learned from their letters will form the basis of a future cookbook.
A question always at the back of my mind when I delve into the history of the dukes of Urbino, or of earlier societies in general, is how information and ideas were communicated and interpreted. Thus when I happened upon a type of document known in Italian as avviso, I felt as though I had struck an especially rich vein of gold. Avvisi are the manuscript forerunners of our printed newspapers, a collection of facts, views, and gossip just waiting to be mined systematically by modern scholars. They can be found in archives and libraries throughout Europe, although Italy is likely to have the most extensive holdings.
Lately I have broadened my area of expertise to include Italian architectural drawings from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Collaborating with Henry Millon on a project for the National Gallery of Art of Washington, DC gave me the opportunity to examine nearly 50,000 drawings in collections around Europe. This led to two discoveries that were particularly significant for my own work: among hundreds of miscellaneous drawings deposited in the State Archives of Florence I found the long-lost project by Costantino dei Servi for Prince Henry’s gardens at Richmond in Surrey, which includes the only known scale plan of the Tudor palace destroyed in the mid-seventeenth century; and in the midst of a pile of papers formerly owned by the eighteenth-century collector John Talman, and now in Westminster Abbey Library, I identified an unknown drawing by Andrea Palladio, which shows detailed studies of an ancient theatre and stage set.
After years of publishing articles in scholarly journals I felt the need to reach a wider audience and began to write also for more popular venues— a rewarding departure. From there it was a short step to fiction. My first (unpublished) novel is bursting with as much exuberance as a mute who has suddenly acquired the power of speech. I cannot wait to rewrite it. At present I am chronicling the escapades of a mouse that lived in our house in Germany when I was a small child. My Grandmother called her Lola and taught her to dance. My Father captured her in photographs. I have endowed Lola with a litter of grandchildren and embroiled them in adventures that take them not only to foreign parts but also back in time. When not writing about Lola, I am composing children's stories in rhyme, inspired by the books of Julia Donaldson, which my neighbour's children love to lend me.
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This page last updated: January 14, 2006.
Photograph © Sabine Eiche