The rise of the all’antica altarpiece frame

by The Frame Blog

George Bisacca, Senior Conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, considers the stylistic transition from the frame of the Gothic polyptych to that of the Renaissance altarpiece. This paper was given as a presentation at the Frame Study Day, National Gallery, London, on 15th May 2015.

Fig 1 Taddeo GaddiMadonna & Child enthroned with saints sm

Taddeo Gaddi (fl. 1334-d.1366), Madonna enthroned with Child and Saints, c.1340, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Sailko

Just what is going on here? Something is obviously wrong.

This is an altarpiece at the Metropolitan by Taddeo Gaddi of around 1340, but it has been radically altered sometime in the last quarter of the 15th Century.

Fig 2 Evangelists Saint & pilaster

Taddeo Gaddi, details of altarpiece.

There are two incompatible aesthetics at work here. The rigidity of the standing Gothic figures has little to do with the relaxed poses of the Renaissance figures of the Evangelists, who hook their elbows over the fictive lilac framing elements; or the decorative pilasters, too worldly for the austerity of the standing Saints.

The Gaddi altarpiece, of course, would originally have looked very different. We can get some idea if we examine some of the relatively unaltered examples of his work.

Fig 9a Taddeo Gaddi San Felicita sm

Taddeo Gaddi (fl. 1334-d.1366), Madonna enthroned with Child and Saints, 1354, Santa Felicità, Florence. Photo: Maestro Joan Yakkey

Here, for instance, is an altarpiece by Gaddi from the church of Santa Felicità in Florence, which retains many of its original framing elements.

Fig 9b at 400

Taddeo Gaddi, figures from Madonna enthroned…, c.1340, Metropolitan Museum of Art, applied to the structure of Madonna enthroned…, 1354, Santa Felicità

We might superimpose on this Gothic altarpiece the figures from the Metropolitan Gaddi; although the effect is still not as it would have looked when completed, because the flat tops of the panels would also have had painted pinnacle panels with finials.

Fig 10 Luca di Tommè 1367 Pinacoteca Nazionale Siena sm

Luca di Tommè (c.1330-1389), Polyptych with the Madonna & Child enthroned with St Anne and other Saints, 1367, Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena

This largely intact pentaptych by Luca di Tommè gives a better idea of the whole Gothic structure of a 14th century altarpiece.

Fig 11 Lippo Vanni sm

Lippo Vanni, trompe l’oeil polyptych, 1360s, Martinozzi Chapel, San Francesco, Siena

We can see another representation of a complete mediaeval altarpiece, including the side buttresses, in this wonderfully accurate fresco of a polyptych by Lippo Vanni in San Francesco in Siena. They’re not exactly analogous, but this gives an idea of the verticality of the Gothic altarpiece, with gabled tops and finials, which dominated the entire Trecento in Italy.

Fig 13

The alteration of the Metropolitan’s Gaddi in the late 15th century would first have entailed the removal of the gables and finials.

Fig 14

The colonets and raised framing elements were then prised off…

Fig 15

… the arched tops of the panels were cut…

Fig 16

…triangular wooden spandrels were inserted to create a rectangle…

Fig 17

… and then these spandrel areas were painted, and Renaissance pilasters added, to replace the original carved colonets.

Fig 1 Taddeo GaddiMadonna & Child enthroned with saints sm

Finally an imposing entablature frame was added, with fluted and reeded pilasters.

Now, why would the Metropolitan dedicate so much precious wall space to something that has been so compromised, so radically altered?

I would like to propose that, rather than focus on its compromised aesthetic, it can be seen as an exceptional example, unique in the United States, of the profound shift that occurred in Florence in the second and third decades of the fifteenth century. That shift can be considered perhaps one of the most, if not the most, fundamental and rapid changes in the history – not only of framing – but of architecture as well. It began in Florence and quickly spread throughout Italy and then the rest of Europe – and the reverberations are still being felt to this day.

Fig 18 Brunelleschi death mask sm

Death Mask of Brunelleschi, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. Photo: sgilliamh

The man who set this change in motion, almost single-handedly, was Filippo Brunelleschi. This is the mask made at the moment of his death in 1446, conserved at the Museo dell’Opera in Florence.

Fig 19 Ospedale degli Innocenti

Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Ospedale degli Innocenti, 1419-45, Florence

Brunelleschi began construction on the Ospedale degli Innocenti in 1419, and it is considered the first building of the Renaissance to transpose a classical vocabulary onto a public and ecclesiastical building.

Vasari tells us that Brunelleschi was so taken by a description recounted to him by Donatello of his recent trip to Rome and the ancient ruins he had seen there, and in particular the carved figures on a Roman sarcophagus, that he is said to have set out almost immediately and walked to Rome to see for himself. He remained there for three months studying the ruins. He did not slavishly copy the classical forms but assimilated the vocabulary and imbued it with a greater metaphysical sense of pure geometric proportion.

Fig 20 Ospedale degli Innocenti

In the case of the Innocenti, the height of the columns is equal to the spread of the arch, making a perfect square, and again equal to the distance to the back wall of the arcade, forming a perfect cube. Each bay is surmounted by a hemisphere dome, then, half the height of the square.

Fig 21 Arco & detail

Arco di Giano, or Arch of Janus, early 4th century AD, Rome

Brunelleschi must have seen the fourth century Arco di Giano with its rhythmic niches…

Fig 23 Pantheon sm

…and, of course, the Pantheon, already stripped of most of its marble cladding, but thereby revealing its underlying structure.

Fig 24 Duomo 2

Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore, 1420-36, Cathedral of Florence

Such examples became critical to his understanding of masonry, making possible the construction of his matchless dome.

Fig 25 San Lorenzo 2

Basilico di San Lorenzo,1419-1490s, Florence

At the same time that the Innocenti and the Cupola were beginning to rise, ground was broken on the Medici’s parish church, San Lorenzo, for which Brunelleschi is known to have ordered rectangular altarpieces in 1425.

Fig 25b Santo Spirito 4A

Basilico di Santo Spirito, 1444 onwards, Florence. Photo: Massimo Listri

Then came the church of Santo Spirito, planned in 1434 but not begun until ten years later, two years before Brunelleschi’s death.

Fig 25b Santo Spirito Adrian

Considered the most symmetrical of churches, the columns of the nave continue around the transepts of Santo Spirito, creating individual chapels.

Fig 25d Santa Croce 3 sm

Basilica di Santa Croce, 1294 onwards, Florence

Nothing less than a sea change was occurring – as can be seen if we compare Brunelleschi’s churches with the austere gothic interior of Santa Croce.

Fig 26 Pazzi Chapel Sta Croce 3

Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Cappella dei Pazzi, 1441-1460s, Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence

With the near simultaneous construction going on at the Cathedral, at San Lorenzo, at the Innocenti, across the river at Santo Spirito, and finally at the Pazzi Chapel adjacent to Santa Croce, the entire fabric of the city was being transformed. During these years, with the rise of Humanism, Ghiberti, Michelozzo, and the next generation of architects, including Leon Battista Alberti, Guliano da Maiano, and the Sangallos, further developed and refined the classicizing style, leading to new constructions, the renovation of family chapels, and the commissioning of new or updated artworks. The Ricordanze, the workshop logbooks of Neri di Bicci, compiled between 1453 and 1475, cite several examples of existing paintings being brought in to be adapted to the new style – called ‘all’antica’ – specifying pilasters with capitals and friezes. So prevalent did the rectangular format become that we find in the Ricordanze the first references to the painting as ‘il quadro’ – the square (or rectangle) – regardless of its shape. In fact, there are even references to a ‘quadro tondo,’ a round painting, but, literally a ‘round square.’ In modern spoken Italian, the most common word for a painting is still today simply ‘un quadro.’

Fig 27 Giotto Coron of the Virgin Baroncelli Chapel Santa Croce 3A sm

Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), Coronation of the Virgin, c.1334, Santa Croce, Florence. Photo: Richard Mortel

As the surrounding architecture modernized to the new Renaissance classicism, many altarpieces were logically updated as well. Gothic altarpieces might be retained and modified because they held a particular significance or value, as with the reframing of Giotto’s Coronation polyptych in the Baroncelli chapel at Santa Croce.

Fig 28 Fra Angelico Pala_di_Fiesole 2 sm

Fra Angelico (c.1395-1455), Madonna enthroned with Child, Saints and angels, c.1424-25; repainted by Lorenzo di Credi, 1501; Convent of San Domenico, Fiesole

The San Domenico Altarpiece by Fra Angelico at Fiesole was similarly modified; in this case the polytych was turned into a rectangle, and the background repainted by Lorenzo di Credi.

Fig 29

Diagram of the original format of the San Domenico altarpiece

Fig 30 Fra Angelico Cortona 3

Fra Angelico (c.1395-1455), Madonna enthroned with Child and Saints, c.1437, Museo Diocesano, Cortona. Photo: Sailko

The configuration of Fra Angelico’s original polyptych must have been shaped like a contemporary polyptych by him at Cortona (which has lost its finials).

Fig 31 San Martino a Mensola 2 sm

Master of San Martino a Mensola (Francesco di Michele?), Madonna enthroned with Child and Saints, 1381, San Martino a Mensola, Florence. Photo: Matteo Bimonte

Other examples may have retained the earlier paintings simply as a cost-saving measure, like the example (above) from San Martino a Mensola, north of Fiesole. The unknown Master painted the panel in 1381 and it was modernized in the third quarter of the 15th century. All three altarpieces in the church received a similar treatment.

Fig 32 San Martino  a Mensola Taddeo Gaddi c1350 sm

Taddeo Gaddi (fl. 1334-d.1366), Madonna enthroned with Child & Saints, 1350, San Martino a Mensola. Photo: Sailko

In fact, one of the others also happens to be by Taddeo Gaddi, like the Metropolitan’s panel.

During this transitional phase, many artists and panel-makers with a less sophisticated understanding of correct classical detail and proportion produced very curious conflations of Gothic and classical elements.

Fig 33 Pala di Ripalta of 1436 by Andrea di Giusto sm
Andrea di Giusto, Triptych with the Adoration of the Magi 1436, Museo d’Arte Sacra della Collegiata di Figline. Photo: Sailko

In the Pala di Ripalta, above, by Andrea di Giusto, currently in the storerooms of the Uffizi, the pointed arches have been rounded and additions have been made above the gables, to adapt it to the new all but obligatory rectangular format, but basically it’s a Gothic altarpiece.

Fig 34 Andrea di Giusto

Andrea di Giusto (1423-50), Madonna della Cintola, 1437, Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence

This is another example, also by Andrea di Giusto, painted in the following year (1437), now in the Accademia in Florence. The colonets have been eliminated and the design is more open, but the triptych organization still persists – albeit with some rather squashed interrupted ogees. The curious overhang (also present in the previous example), which functions almost like a baldachin, is present in other transitional works.

Fig 35a Bicci di Lorenzo & detail sm

Bicci di Lorenzo (1373-1452), Nativity, 1435, San Giovanni dei Cavalieri, Florence

This altarpiece by Bicci di Lorenzo of the 1430s in the church of San Giovanni dei Cavalieri in Florence incorporates the same device.

Fig 35b Monte Oliveto Maggiore choir stalls Richard Welty & Photo dvdbramhall sm

Fra’ Giovanni da Verona, carved and inlaid choirstalls, Abbey of Monet Oliveto Maggiore. Photo: Richard Welty; detail: dvdbramhall

It derives from the supracelia of choirstalls like these, from Monte Oliveto Maggiore, south of Siena.

Fig 36 Neri di Bicci Incoronazione della Vergine sm

Neri di Bicci (1418/20-92), Coronation of the Virgin, San Giovanni dei Cavalieri, Florence. Photo: Sailko

Another altarpiece by Neri di Bicci in the same church runs this element, with gold stars on a blue field, around three sides of the painting.

Fig 37 Fra Angelico Cortona Annunciation sm

Fra Angelico (c.1395-1455), The Cortona Altarpiece ( The Annunciation), 1432-34, Museo Diocesano, Cortona. Photo: Phillip Capper

The solution in Angelico’s Cortona Annunciation of the early 1430s moves closer toward a proper entablature, but still retains the curved supracelium instead of a proper frieze.

Fig 38a Bicci di Lorenzo with panel shape diag sm

Bicci di Lorenzo (1373-1452), Coronation of the Virgin, 1430, Santa Trinità, Florence. with outline showing the panel size, & a view of the reverse. Photo: Richard Mortel

This Coronation of 1430 by Bicci di Lorenzo at Santa Trinità also doesn’t completely escape the Gothic idiom by incorporating a gabled entablature. The construction here is still very Gothic in that the panel extends nearly to the edges, and all framing elements are attached flat against the face of the panel, as you can infer from the oblique image of the reverse at the bottom left, above.

Fig 39 Sant’Agostino in Montepulciano sm

Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (1396-1472), Sant’ Agostino (from 1285; façade 1437-39), Montepulciano, Siena.

It should be noted that even pre-eminent architects struggled with this transition, as we can see here with Michelozzo’s façade for the church of Sant’Agostino in Montepulciano of the 1430s. The first storey, with classical pilasters and entablature, sits uneasily beneath the Gothic crest of the tympanum, and the row of blind pointed arches.

Fig 40 Santo Spirito Ubertini Baldelli Chapel Agnolo di Domenico del Mazziere Adrian sm

Donnino (1460-post 1515) & Agnolo (1466-1513) di Domenico del Mazziere, Madonna & Child enthroned with SS Bartholomew & John the Baptist; paliotto by Bernardo di Stefano Rosselli (1450-1526), Santo Spirito, Florence

A much purer use of a classical vocabulary is illustrated by a small group of five altarpieces of similar size and proportion but individualized detailing, displayed in the west transept of Santo Spirito in Florence, which very probably reflect Brunelleschi’s own original designs – although they were only built between the 1460s and 1480s. Most of the paliotto panels below the altars are 15th century as well.

Fig 41 Del Mazziere Trinity  Adrian sm

Donnino (1460-post 1515) & Agnolo (1466-1513) di Domenico del Mazziere, The Trinity adored by Mary Magdalene & St Catherine and paliotto, Santo Spirito, Florence

Fig 42 Cosimo Rosselli Madonna & Child with saints & angels Adrian sm

Cosimo Rosselli (1439-1507), Madonna and Child with SS Thomas & Augustinepaliotto by Bernardo di Stefano Rosselli (1450-1526), Santo Spirito, Florence

Fig 43 Raffaellino del Garbo Madonna and Child Adrian 2 sm

Donnino (1460-post 1515) & Agnolo (1466-1513) di Domenico del Mazziere, Madonna & Child with SS Bartholomew & Nicholas of Bari, paliotto by Bernardo di Stefano Rosselli (1450-1526), Santo Spirito, Florence

Fig 44 Botticini and altar Adrian sm

Francesco Botticini (1446-98), St Monica establishing the order of Augustinian sisters, 1470, Santo Spirito, Florence

These designs clearly show the more accurate architectural or structural underpinnings of Renaissance classism, when compared with the more superficial or decorative elements in previous examples.

Fig 45a 2 sm

The proportions of these frames were similar to those of the frame on the Taddeo Gaddi in the Metropolitan with which this piece began, and so we used the base of the Botticini frame (above) in Santo Spirito as a source to complete the predella of the Gaddi, which was missing.

Fig 45d

Piero del Pollaiolo (c.1441-before 1496), Coronation of the Virgin, Sant’Agostino, San Gimignano; detail

It is interesting to note that most of these 15th century frames do not have pedestal bases which break forward beneath the pilasters, as in later examples; in this one from 1483, for instance, which is for the Pollaiuolo altarpiece in San Gimignano.

Italian walnut aedicular frame poss by del Tasso Met Mus NY

Del Tasso workshop (attributed), parcel gilt tabernacle frame in walnut & poplar, c.1510, Metropolitan Museum of Art

These types of frames are properly called ‘entablature frames’ but are often referred to as ‘tabernacle frames’; although to my mind, these usually refer to smaller domestic examples, such as the one above, which often incorporate an apron beneath the frame. The use of the word tabernacle probably derives from the wall-mounted marble surrounds of actual tabernacles, that is, the place where the consecrated Host was stored in the Catholic liturgy.

Fig 46 Desiderio da Settignano Tabernacle S Lorenzo sm

Desiderio da Settignano (c.1429-64), tabernacle, 1461, San Lorenzo, Florence.  Photo: Sailko

This famous example of a tabernacle by Desiderio da Settignano in San Lorenzo illustrates the structure – although the arrangement of elements as it stands here is not necessarily correct. The tabernacle had originally been incorporated into a rood screen, or ‘tramezzo’ in Italian. It was dismantled when the tramezzo was removed from the nave, and no record has yet come to light to confirm the original configuration. Several scholars have questioned the present arrangement. What concerns us here is the central section with the door, now missing, at its centre, which formed the actual container for the Host.

Fig 47 Domenico Ghirlandaio Adoration of the Shepherds sm

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1485, Santa Trinità, Florence. Photo: Jean-Louis Mazières

By the 1480s, the predominance of the new classical style was taken for granted. This example designed by Guliano da Sangallo in 1485 is in the Sassetti Chapel of Santa Trinità in Florence.

Fig 48 Ghirlandaio Adoration

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the Shepherds

In the painting it contains, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, even the traditionally rustic stable where Christ was born is now depicted with fluted classical pilasters, and the trough from which the animals feed is a Roman sarcophagus. The procession in the background even winds through a Roman triumphal arch much like the Arch of Titus.

Fig 49 Filippino Lippi 2 sm

Filippino Lippi (1459-1504), The vision of St Bernard, 1485, Badia Fiorentina

This is another example from the 1480s on Filippino Lippi’s great Vision of Saint Bernard in the Badia Fiorentina.

Fig 50 Botticelli Annunciation sm

Botticelli (c.1445-1510), Annunciation, 1489, Galleria degli Uffizi

Notice the deep carving of the decorative motifs on the pilasters and frieze of the Lippi, as contrasted with this elegantly restrained contemporary version on Botticelli’s Annunciation of 1489 at the Uffizi, commissioned for Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi.

It should be mentioned that the simplification to an uninterrupted rectangular format was not merely a function of the changing architectural taste; it also served a growing need to bring narrative painting from the predella up into the primary pictorial plane. Technically, it served another innovative function: the fabrication of the frame and the panel as two separate and independent objects. This allowed them to be made simultaneously, shortening the fabrication time and making the construction more efficient. For the first time, the panel could be inserted into a routed track behind the inner sight edge. The ‘rabbet,’ as it has come to be called, could then mask the space necessary for the eventual expansion and contraction of the panel. This is nothing less than the birth of the modern picture frame.

Fig 1 Taddeo GaddiMadonna & Child enthroned with saints sm

The purpose of this extended introduction has been to explain why this curious and ultimately unsuccessful re-framing of Gaddi’s Madonna enthroned… encapsulates a larger story about the transition from Gothic to Renaissance and the evolution of architectural frames. This evolution was centred in Tuscany; it took a little longer to reach the outlying regions of Italy – such as Venice.

Fig 52 Bartolommeo Vivarini San Marco Altarpiece

Bartolomeo Vivarini (c.1432–1499), Triptych of St Mark, 1474, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice. Photo: Sailko

Bartolomeo Vivarini, for example, is still producing florid Venetian Gothic altarpieces in 1474, such as the San Marco Altarpiece in the Frari.

Fig 53 Bartolommeo Vivarini Virgin & Child enthroned 1487 Frari

Bartolomeo Vivarini (c.1432–1499), Virgin enthroned with Child and Saints, 1482, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice. Photo: Sailko

Eight years later in 1482, however, he has finally moved on to the new classicizing style – this example is also in the Frari.

Fig 54 Giovanni Bellini San Vincente Ferrer altarpiece 1464to68 Santi Giovanni e Paolo Venice

Giovanni Bellini (fl. c.1459-d.1516), Polyptych of San Vincente Ferrer, 1464-68, Basilica dei Santi Siovanni e Paolo, Venice

Much of the credit for the adoption of this style in Venice should probably go to Bellini, who had already produced the San Vincente Ferrer altarpiece in San Giovanni e Paolo in 1464 [1].

Fig 55 Giovanni Bellini Frari Triptych sm

Giovanni Bellini (fl. c.1459-d.1516), Frari Triptych, 1488, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice

The treatment of the San Vincente Ferrer frame is decorative and superficial, but by 1488, in the sacristy of the Frari, Bellini has integrated his triptych frame with plausible fictive architectural spaces within the painting, something he continues to refine in successive years.

Fig 56 Bellini San Zacharia altarpiece sm

Giovanni Bellini (fl. c.1459-d.1516), San Zaccaria Altarpiece, 1505, San Zaccaria, Venice. Photo: Peter

Here, finally, is Bellini’s San Zaccaria altarpiece of 1505, where the stone framing elements and frieze continue into the painting: the apotheosis of the Renaissance classical frame.


George Bisacca has been Conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 1983. He is also co-chairman of the Getty Panel Paintings Initiative, and – with Timothy Newbery and Laurence Kanter – the author of Italian Renaissance Frames (1990), the invaluable book/exhibition catalogue based on the Met’s own collection. Although out of print, this can now be downloaded from the Museum’s website.


[1] See W.R. Rearick, ‘Restoration of Polyptych of Saint Vincent Ferrer, in Santi Giovanni e Paolo’.