Bees in the frame: Part 1 – the Barberini bee

by The Frame Blog

Like other creatures which find themselves adorning picture frames – often on the crest, corners or centres of a trophy frame – the bee has quite a long history. Unlike the hounds, boars and deer found around hunting subjects, however, or the marine life on fishing pictures, the bee, in spite of its relatively unimpressive size, has found itself in the presence of popes and emperors [1].

Caravaggio (1571-1610; attrib.), Portrait of Maffeo Barberini, 1598, o/c, 121 x 95 cm., in (ironically) a ‘Medici’ frame; Palazzo Corsini, Florence

In the first case, this was because a Cardinal – Maffeo Barberini (1568-1644), whose family originated in Barberino Val d’Elsa, near Florence – was elected as Pope Urban VIII in 1623, and remained in the apostolic chair for twenty-one years: a fairly large chunk of time, in which he managed to create three more Barberini cardinals and enormously enrich the family. Some of this wealth was used in patronage of the arts, and the family coat of arms, with its three golden bees on an azure ground, was scattered during the 17th century over buildings, fountains, sculptures, tapestries, furnishings and other artefacts, including frames.

Impresa of the Barberini family, Rome. Photo: Steve Shriver

The Barberini had not always been associated with bees, however; they had earlier been the family of Tafani or horseflies, and had adopted the name of their town – along with a more attractive insect – as an aid to and index of their social rise. Bees were symbolic of moral virtue, after all; they appeared to work extremely hard and produced something very desirable in the almost sugarless wastes of early Christian Europe; their largesse was open to everyone who lived where there were flowers, and didn’t have to be processed expensively and shipped around the world. They were hymned in the Bible, where their honey was compared to the Word of God [2]; and when Samson found that bees had made a hive in the body of a lion that he had previously killed, he used it as a riddle, ‘out of the strong came forth sweetness’ [3] (pinched by Lyle in the 19th century for its tins of honeyless golden syrup). Bees also produced wax for candles, and were thus supportive of the Church.

Bees on engraved frames

Simon de Passe, Pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini), line engraving, early 17th century
7 1/8 x 4 1/2 in. (18.2 cm. x 11.5 cm), published by Crispijn de Passe the Elder; & detail. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D26214

When Maffeo Barberini was elected pope at the comparatively youthful age of fifty-five, his heraldic bees were almost immediately pushed into the spotlight. The engraving by Simon de Passe, which was presumably published to celebrate his election, sets his portrait in a rather avant-garde Mannerist frame with overtones of the Auricular about it, and, in the upper spandrels of the sheet, adds two small oval imprese. The one on the left holds the bee coat of arms, below the attributes of St Peter’s keys and the papal tiara; here it is almost modest in its size and importance. It is presumably meant to be seen as an actual trompe l’oeil insertion, set into the spandrels of a wooden frame, the outer mouldings of which fall outside the scope of the engraving.

Bees on sculptural frames

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), Baldacchino, 1624-34, bronze, 93 ft 6 ins (28.5 m.) high; St Peter’s Basilica, Rome. Photo: Dennis Jarvis

Diffidence was not a dominant trait of this pope, however. Almost as soon as he took office he began to set his mark on St Peter’s, commissioning Bernini (who was then twenty-six) to design the massive bronze baldacchino in the centre of the Basilica, above the high altar and the supposed site of the saint’s tomb. Standing at the crossing with its vistas in four directions, this functions like the grandest three-dimensional picture frame in the world. Later on, after the death of Urban VIII, Bernini was further commissioned to design the throne-shaped reliquary for what was thought at the time to be the wooden chair used by St Peter; it is this which can be seen in the apse at the east end (above), framed by the baldacchino, supported by an operatically extravagant sculptural group of church doctors, enveloped in gilded celestial clouds, and lighted by a sunburst window centred on the Holy Ghost, framed again by a coruscating wreath of angels.

Bernini, Baldacchino, detail of canopy, St Peter’s Basilica

The baldacchino is thus half altarpiece, half ceremonial canopy above St Peter’s tomb; a multi-functional, celebratory structure of breath-taking size and magnificence. The elephantine columns are 66 feet high, supported on marble plinths, and with a partial entablature in which the classical and architectural likeness is retained in the portions which are carried by the four capitals, whilst the central stretch of the frieze has been replaced by a trompe l’oeil valance depending from the cornice (and ’embroidered’ with Barberini bees), to mimic the cloth canopy  which is the source of the structure.

One of the niches on the supports of the dome, containing two of Constantine’s Solomonic columns, St Peter’s Basilica

The dramatically twisted form of the columns, known as ‘Solomonic’ or ‘Salomonic’, follows the form of twelve antique marble columns which had been brought from Greece by the emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD and given to the Basilica in its original incarnation. A myth grew up around these columns that they had come from Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, and even that Christ had been tied to one of them when he was scourged. Bernini used eight of them in the niches on the supports of the gigantic dome which hangs above the baldacchino; their ornament is classical – two spiralling fluted sections alternating with two decorated with vines and grapes – which could fortuitously be understood as symbolizing the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist.

One of the Solomonic columns of the baldacchino, central section, with bay leaves, putti and bees

The columns of the baldacchino have three, rather than four, sections; the lower one like its model – spiralling flutes – but the two upper parts are decorated with sprays of gilded bay leaves, in which putti or wingless cherubs play and bees flutter. Both the bay leaves and – of course – the bees were used emblematically by Urban VIII, and here, by scattering them decoratively all over the ornamental sections of the columns, Bernini reinforces the powerful, omnipresent sense of his patron.

Impresa of Urban VIII, incoporating Barberini coat of arms with papal insignia; pedestal of a column in the baldacchino

Urban is brought to mind more directly in the imprese carved on the four pedestals of the columns – carved eight times, on the two outer faces of each plinth, at a scale which is almost the height of a man. These take exactly the same position as the shield or emblem of a donor would take on a more conventional altarpiece, heightening the resemblence of the baldacchino to a massive aedicular frame. In this case, however, the fact of there being eight, rather than two, imprese has enabled Bernini to use them as a different sort of ‘frame’, which would be recognized today as the narrative frames in a comic book. They are varied subtly and progressively, from façade to façade of the pedestals, in the expressions sculpted on the woman’s face above the bee cartouche and immediately below the heavy scrolls which rear in front of the papal keys, and it is suggested that these expressions refer to the stages of childbirth, the last face being that of a smiling infant.

The woman represents the Church and its sufferings in bringing forth the faithful, and also the sufferings of Christ which precede His resurrection [4]. The Barberini bees operate symbolically in this context to indicate the rôle of the Pope as a type of Christ, and the healing power of the papacy generally. Since the bee was at that time supposed to produce offspring without sexual congress (wonderful expression), it is also an emblem of virginity, standing for the Virgin birth, and the purity of Christ and of the Pope [5]. This makes the baldacchino into an attributive frame, replete with symbols which illustrate the central tenets of the Catholic Church, and simultaneously indicates through the doubly emblematic bee impresa the temporal representative of Christ, who will uphold these tenets and act on behalf of Christ to heal His people.

Bees on tapestry borders

Many other types of frame, complete with their impresa, were generated by the Barberini family; some of them – like the baldacchino – not picture frames in the conventional sense, but still borders containing pictorial or symbolic images, and borders which often reproduced the architectural mouldings, ornaments and cartouches of the more usual carved wooden frame.

Pietro da Cortona (1596/97-1669, designed by); Jacob van den Vliete (otherwise Giacomo della Riviera; made by); Canopy of heaven, 1633, tapestry, wool & silk, & detail; Museo di Roma. Photo: HEN-Magoza

In 1627 Cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew of Urban VIII and raised by him to ecclestiastical power, founded the Arazzia Barberini – a tapestry manufactory which continued production for half a century, until the death of Francesco in 1679. In 1633 Pietro da Cortona designed what was, coincidentally, another baldacchino: not, this time, a gigantic work in cast bronze, but a flat tapestry known as the ‘Canopy of heaven’, which would presumably have hung above the Pope when he was enthroned, or might have been carried over him as he moved from place to place. This tapestry is mainly composed of elements which reproduce those of a wooden frame – linear outer mouldings, with an astragal-&-bead; a Mannerist leatherwork structure with voluted and beaded cartouches containing bees filling the spandrels; and an inner frame mimicking a gilded convex oval carved with scrolling foliage. The gilded bees in the ‘frame’ echo their paler brothers, who fly into a cerulean sky seen through a wreath of realistic bay leaves, in the pictorial centre of the tapestry.

This particular work is a reminder of how frequently tapestries are composed with borders which replicate carved frames – they use architectural ‘mouldings’, sculptural ornaments, and corners and centres, all of which are often coloured in shades of gold – thus presenting the woven pictures or emblems they contain as integral framed works of art, complete in themselves and needing no other setting to display them on a wall.

Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (1610-62, designed by); Jacob van den Vliete (otherwise Giacomo della Riviera; made by: signed at bottom right); also by his daughters Caterina & Maddalena, & by Gaspare Rocci; The Annunciation, Life of Christ cycle, tapestry, 1643-56 & detail; Cathedral of St John the Divine, Manhattan

This is vividly illustrated by the Life of Christ tapestries, a series of twelve pieces which were designed and begun in 1643, the year before Urban’s death. The advent of another pope, Giovanni Battista Pamphilj, who was inimical to the Barberini, drew the process of completing the tapestries out until 1656, when they were finally hung in the Palazzo Barberini. Here, the carved and gilded ‘frames’ are strikingly reproduced in the form of a cassetta, with a trompe l’oeil convex top edge decorated with stopped channel fluting and leaf corners, with beading below it, and – at the sight edge – more beading, a trompe l’oeil ogee with palmettes, and an astragal-&-double bead. The central frieze has naturalistic coloured garlands of ribbon-twined bay leaves, with vignettes in the centre scrolling cartouches, and the Barberini bees appear at the corners in further cartouches, surrounded by wreaths of gilded bay leaves. The images in the cycle are thus presented as a set of huge framed paintings, with the patron’s impresa and auxiliary motif clearly visible all round the border.

Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (1610-62; attrib.), after Agostino Venziano (1490-1540), portière with putto in a floral garland, tapestry, c. 1650-60, 9 ft 10 x 7 ft 2 ins (301 x 219 cm.); Sotheby’s, 9 June 2015, Lot 158

A later use of the bee and bay leaf wreath is found in a decorative tapestry portière, again presented as though framed in a carved and gilded cassetta, with plain ‘convex’ and stepped mouldings, accented with astragal-&-double bead, and a fantastic scrolled device holding the pictorial oval, and centred on a gilded bee at top and bottom. The frieze holds a gilded braid of leafless branches and bay leaf garlands, interrupted at intervals by wreathed golden bees.

Pietro Cortona et al., Urban VIII consecrates St Peter’s Basilica, Life of Pope Urban VIII cycle, 1663-79, tapestry, wool & silk, & detail; Vatican Museums

Pilaster panel, Life of Pope Urban VIII cycle, 1663, tapestry, wools & silk, 222 x 48 ins (563.9 x 121.9 cm.), one of four, MFA Boston

A final set of tapestries, made late in the productive life of the Arazzia Barberini, is a cycle of ten based on the life of the Barberini pope. These were designed for the hall of the Palazzo Barberini, and were on such a grand scale that the looms in the manufactory could not cope with them. The tapestries were woven as shown above (top), and then detachable framing borders were woven separately – framing side ‘pillars’ (lower image – another is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art), inscribed panels to go above the main pieces, and ‘predella’ panels to go below. The borders on the main tapestries are thus vestigial inner frames, with a narrow vine-leaf frieze defined by a flat outer fillet and a cotton-reel moulding at the sight edge. The Barberini bees are much more subtly present in this cycle; single golden insects crawl across the corner cassettes, and the pilaster tapestries also contain single gilded bees on the architectural pillars imposed on the background panels. All these details are created to produce the effect of large trompe l’oeil frames.

Bees on painted frames

Faux framed cartouche with bees on the lateral corners & base, fresco, 1580-83, Galleria delle Carte Geografiche, Vatican Museums. Photo: Steve Shriver

Faux framed cartouche with bees in the upper corners, fresco, Galleria delle Carte Geografiche, Vatican Museums. Photo: Steve Shriver

Another sort of frame is the painted kind, of which there is a range in the Gallery of Maps at the Vatican. This was a project of Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century, and consists of 40 maps of Italy, which together amount to 1200 square metres of fresco; each map being presented as a sort of aerial view, including hills, valleys, towns, and features such as lighthouses . It was executed between 1580 and 1583, but by the time that Maffeo Barberini was elected pope in 1623 had begun to deteriorate.

Detail of another cartouche, fresco, Galleria delle Carte Geografiche, Vatican Museums. Photo: mym

The Pope instituted a scheme (from 1632-37), not so much of restoration but of repainting, in which land was covered by sea or reclaimed from it, and even the architectural trompe l’oeil frames came in for titivation. It was probably at this point that the decorative gold-framed cartouches on the maps, all different, varying from extremely plain to a busy cotillion of strapwork, caryatides and putti, were either added, or were updated with the Barberini touch of gilded bees. The maps have now been restored to their original appearance (2012-16), but the bees remain. This appropriation of the artistic patronage of an earlier pontificate is rather staggering, but roughly equates to the reframing of paintings by different collectors (or different generations of the same family), as an assertion of ownership.

Bees on architectural frames

Pietro da Cortona (1596/97-1669), framing cornice decorated with lily flowers & bees, The Triumph of Divine Providence, c.1633-39, Sala del Trionfo, Palazzo Barberini. Photo: Dario Lorenzetti

There are related frames of the interior architectural kind which also sport bees; for example, surrounding and containing the operatic perspectival fresco, The Triumph of Divine Providence, painted by Pietro da Cortona on the ceiling of the great hall in the Palazzo Barberini. As with the tapestries, the ceiling has been given a picture frame-like border: a parcel-gilt stucco confection of ornamented mouldings, including egg-&-dart and fluting, with an innermost frieze decorated with repeats of four lilies and a bee. These motifs are probably barely visible by the naked eye when seen from the floor, particularly in conjunction with the tangle of striving, flying, falling, pushing and jostling bodies which cluster above them and throng upwards, breaking through the barrier of the plaster ceiling to riot in the apotheosis of the divinely provident heavens. The impression of the little stucco bees must be subtle, subliminal; reinforcing the message of the three gigantic golden bees in the central section of the painting. Perhaps their relationship with the four lilies is to create and then interrupt a short rhythmic chord, adding to the drama of the whole.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), design attrib., framed stucco sculpture with inscription referring to Pope Urban VIII, dated 1634, & detail; Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Rome

The bees in Santa Maria in Aracoeli are rather larger and more visible. The west wall of this church features a vast architectural frame in white and gold egg-&-dart, containing a eulogy of Pope Urban VIII inscribed on a sweeping scroll supported by two angels. The centre of the scroll supports in its turn a scrolling, fluted Mannerist frame, carrying the papal mitre and keys; the frame is pierced by a stained glass window where the Barberini bees frolic again in an ultramarine and azure sky. The corners of the outer architectural frame are shaped, and gilded stucco bees, the size of the glass bees, have alighted on fan-shaped white fields to which the eye is inevitably led, from the curved top edge of the scroll. Pope Urban has, in effect, claimed the whole width of this wall for his own, and stamped it repeatedly with his impresa.

Bees on picture frames

There are conventional picture frames with bees as well, of course – although due to the changing hands into which paintings fall over time, and the consequent reframing to remove the stamp of one collector and replace it with that of a new owner, too few of them have survived.

Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, 1628–29, o/c, 100 x 74 cm.), The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photos of frame: Paul Mitchell

A striking example now contains Poussin’s modello for his altarpiece, The martyrdom of St Erasmus (1628, 320 x 186 cm.; painted for St Peter’s; displayed in the Vatican Museums). The modello is approximately one-ninth the size of the altarpiece (subsequently replaced in the chapel for which it was designed by an 18th century copy in  micro-mosaic), and would have seemed a most desirable perquisite for the commissioning client – who must have been Pope Urban himself. No bees seem to have perched on the frame of the finished altarpiece in the Chapel of St Erasmus, but the original frame of the modello would almost certainly have been decorated with papal bees. The NG of Canada has been able to reframe it in a genuine and splendid Barberini frame with bees at the corners – where they perch amidst scrolls of rose branches and flowers, and at the centres – with leaves but no flowers. The Barberini bee usually prefers a habitat of bay leaves; the rose may be something to do with the Virgin (indicating the original contents), or possibly with the Golden Rose presented by the Pope to a significant person, church or state. The plain cassetta is a good foil for such a crowded painting; and, because the bees point inwards, the focal lines of the composition are enhanced, and the eye drawn inward to the gruesome heart of the saint’s martyrdom.

Barberini frame, with details of suns & bees, National Gallery

The National Gallery, London, possesses one of the most decorative and majestic of all Barberini bee frames in its store; this has unfortunately come adrift from its painting and has also been altered at some point, so that it is difficult to say whether it was acquired as an important empty frame by some far-sighted purchaser, or whether it contained one of the paintings in the collection when it arrived.

The work closest to it in size is Guercino’s Elijah fed by ravens of 1620. This was commissioned by the papal legate to Ferrara, Cardinal Jacopo Serra, who was one of Guercino’s important early patrons; he commissioned Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph the same year. Serra died in 1623, and his successor in Ferrara inherited Jacob blessing..., but the immediate fate of Elijah fed by ravens is unclear. If it was also inherited by that successor, Cardinal Giulio Sacchetti, it may have been presented as a gift to someone (he gave Jacob… to the Viceroy of Naples) [6].  Elijah fed by ravens was documented as in the Barberini collection from 1655, but perhaps might have entered it much earlier: it is tempting to think that Sacchetti might have given it to that prodigal art collector, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, on his election the same year to the papacy.

Barberini frame, detail of parcel gilt & black-painted bee; National Gallery

The National Gallery frame almost certainly belongs to the period of Urban VIII’s tenure, since the combination of emblems seem to relate specifically to him as pope: not only bees and branches of bay leaves, but rayed suns, like those that are found above the capitals of St Peter’s baldacchino, and on the gilded cartouches in the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican. It may originally have appeared even more spectacular than it does now, with its finish worn and veiled in dust; one of the bees has had subsequent layers of regilding lifted, revealing that it was parcel gilt and painted black, like a naturalistic bee. This is altogether an important and beautiful work of art, and historically significant, given that so few Barberini bee frames seem to have survived; how splendid if it could be put on view in the Gallery – most fittingly on Elijah fed by ravens.

Carlo Crivelli (c.1430/35-94), Demidoff Altarpiece, 1476; reframed by Prince Anatole Demidoff, 1850s; National Gallery

Another very striking but different style of bee frame contains a panel from the ‘Demidoff Altarpiece’, by Crivelli, most of which is now in also the National Gallery, London, in its Gothicizing frame of the 1850s – apart from the putative predella panels, which, if they existed, are now lost. The panel in question is a Pietà or Lamentation, which sat originally above the main panel of the Virgin and Child, between the upper tier of arched paintings of saints. 

Carlo Crivelli (fl. 1457- d. 1495), Pietà, 1476, tempera on panel, 28 1/4 x 25 3/8 ins (71.8 x 64..5 cm.), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The catalogue entry on the website of the Metropolitan Museum, where it now lives, suggests that Antonio Barberini, cardinal, art collector and nephew of Urban VIII, may have abstracted it from the original altarpiece in Ascoli Piceno. He would thus have been responsible for its slight extension at the bottom and around the arch to create a more satisfyingly-proportioned shape for a single panel painting, and then – of course – for its framing in a defiantly Barberiniesque frame.

Carlo Crivelli, Pietà, 1476, detail

This is a Baroque cassetta, with a pierced and undercut running branch of bay leaves and berries carved out of the convex top moulding, with four very sculptural bees in the corners; a butt-jointed frieze engraved with scrolling foliate and floretted corners and centres; an astragal-&-double bead, and a bird’s beak moulding ornamented with stopped channel fluting. The spandrels have further incised floral motifs. It is a decorative and not unsuitable frame, given that the panel has been removed from its native altarpiece; however, the symbolism of bay leaves and bee as associated with Christ has little application here. This bee is simply the family emblem of a collector (even though an ecclesiast), and the bay leaves, which might be thought vaguely appropriate for the Resurrection (victory), are not really symbolic of the Lamentation. The frame can be seen purely as conveying the stamp of ownership onto a piece of art; and probably as an indication that there must have been many similar examples in Antonio Barberini’s collection. It is interesting that on the frames which seem to belong to Urban’s pontificate, the bees point inwards towards the pictorial image (whether painting or tapestry), but in this frame, which seems to have been commissioned by the pope’s nephew, they point outwards.

High altar: Gioacchino Bombelli, Immaculate Conception, 1813, after original by Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647), Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, Rome

Very different types of frame were commissioned by Antonio Barberini’s uncle, Antonio the Elder and brother of Urban VIII, for the altarpieces in the Capuchin church in Rome, Santa Maria della Concezione. Antonio the Elder had become a Capuchin friar at the age of sixteen, but when his brother became pope, he was created a cardinal like Antonio the Younger. Urban VIII then provided land near the Palazzo Barberini for a convent to be built for the Capuchins, as they had outgrown their original foundation of fifty years earlier, and Antonio commissioned the church itself (built 1626-30) and the altarpieces to furnish it.

High altar: pedestals of columns with gilded bees; Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. Photos: Kelly Medford

These included The Immaculate Conception by Lanfranco above the high altar, which was destroyed by fire in 1813 and replaced with a copy by Gioacchino Bombelli.  It has a vast aedicular marble frame in which the pedestals of the columns are evidently based very closely on the pedestals of the baldacchino in St Peter’s. The cartouche, with its scrolled surround and grotesque mascaron at the base, is imitated almost exactly from Bernini’s work, as is the combination of coloured, black and white stone. On the cartouche the Barberini bees fly in their accustomed triangular formation, but here they are gilded. This is probably a 19th century intervention, however, dating from the restoration after the fire in 1813; the simple white interior was updated at that point with an elaborate ornamental skin of stucco and gilding. In their original pale marble incarnation, these bees would have been quite retiring and modest, in keeping with the austere life of the Capuchins and in contrast to the papal bees in the Vatican.

Guido Reni (1575-1642), St Michael the Archangel, c.1635, o/c, 115 2/5 x 79 1/2 ins (293 x 202 cm.), & detail of pedestal; Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, Rome. Photo: Kelly Medford

On the frames of the wooden altarpieces which fill the side chapels of the church, they are reduced in size and impact even further. Antonio the Elder chose prestigious artists to decorate his new church in spite of its general spartan aesthetic, one of the most important contributions being Reni’s balletic and colourful Archangel Michael subduing a muscly Satan. The polished wooden aedicular frame is a subtle variation on the marble frame of the high altar; it has a dramatically Mannerist pediment but a minimum of carved ornament. The capitals and bases of the columns and elements of the pediment which are now gilded were presumably not so originally, since other altarpieces in the side chapels are gilded only on the sight moulding.

One of the most decorative features is thus the band of marquetry in the predella panel, across the bottom of the frame, and the corresponding inlaid imprese on the pedestals of the columns. Here the bees are represented (beneath a marquetry cardinal’s hat) in different coloured woods – whispering, rather than shouting like some of the tapestry, painted, carved and moulded stucco bees which flutter through the rest of this article. They are all Barberini bees, however; bees belonging to three different members of the family, and showing an amazing variety and inventiveness in their different media, appearances and uses. For a small insect, the bee acquired a commanding presence and symbolic clout during the rise to power of this family; something which would only be equalled during the reign of Napoleon in the early 19th century.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), sculptural niche with false perspective (and bees), 1629-33, staircase of the Palazzo Barberini


CODA: The Barberini inventories and other documents

In 1975 Marilyn Lavin published Seventeenth century Barberini documents and inventories of art, two volumes of selected documents from the archive of Barberini papers in the Vatican; these provide a priceless source of information on the paintings, maps and sculptures in the collections of various members of the family in the 17th and 18th centuries, and on the artists and craftsmen whose work filled those collections.

The extracts which follow include as many references as possible to frames decorated with bees (and/or suns and bay leaves) culled from the first volume, since this covers the collections inventoried within the lifetime of Pope Urban VIII and within five years of his death; along with the craftsmen who might have been concerned with making those frames, taken from the complete ‘List of Artisans…’ at the end of volume 2.

Vol. 1

Section I – Documents


P. 14, under Pietro da CORTONA:
105) 28 December 1639

Made by Signore Pietro da Cortona, a Madonna with Our Lord and an angel with a gift of flowers in a landscape, on copper, 2 palmi wide. December 1639 [this entry is completely cancelled]

Donated by His Eminence to the Duke of Parma a painting with the Madonna and Our Lord and an angel with flowers and landscape depicted on copper, two palmi wide, made by Signore Pietro da Cortona. In a carved Silver Frame with frieze with bay leaves and bees, parcel gilt, of about five lb weight. Made by Francesco Spagnia.

265. Items sent to the Cancellaria: January 1633

P. 33:
85) A Mary Magdalene painted on copper, with frame of ebony and a silver bee attached


Section II – Inventories

lnventory of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, 1626-31

[1597-1679; nephew of Pope]

P. 82:

163) A large picture with the Madonna sitting with Our Lord in her arms, putting His arms around her neck, with St Anne on her right hand, and St. Joseph in perspective on the left, in a large gilded frame with bees, and with other carvings; from the hand of Passignano


List of Paintings entering the Collections of Cardinal Francesco and Don Taddeo received from ‘Coppiere’, 1627-40

P. 99:
2) A large painting, 12 palmi high, 9 palmi wide, with St Michael the Archangel painted by Cavaliero Giuseppino, in a gilded frame with bees and suns, with arabesques


Inventory of Don Taddeo Barberini, 1648-49

[1603-47; nephew of Pope]

P. 196:

172) An octagonal painting on copper of a landscape, rivers, men on horseback and dogs, in an ebony frame with eight bees

175) An octagonal painting on copper containing a landscape and some figures playing the [***?], in a gilded and textured frame with eight bees

P. 200:

252) A painting of the Madonna with a crown of roses on her head and the Child in her arms, and other heads, in a gilded frame with carved silver-leaf foliage and bees

253) Another painting with the figures of the most holy Annunciation, in a black moulding frame decorated with gold arabesques, with bees

254) Another painting with the figures of Our Lady and St. Joseph with the three Magi, in a black moulding frame with gold arabesques and bees

P. 202:

316) A little painting of the Blessed Rita in yellow taffeta with an Ebony Frame inlaid with Six bees, six suns and silver foliage around, a silver cherub in the ogee; a bow of red silk with some [?? seeds??]

P. 203:

325) A picture executed on canvas of the Blessed Nicola speaking with Our Lord Jesus Christ, ten palmi high, eight in width, in a black frame with bees and suns and gilded fillets

326) A large picture on canvas depicting the Blessed Felix with his cloak over his shoulders, nine & a half palmi high and 6 1/2 palmi wide; its frame crowned with bees and gilded fillets

P. 204:

341) A large painting on canvas depicting a Pope in ancient Greek dress, standing and giving a blessing with a book in his hand; 9 palmi high and 5 3/4 palmi wide, in a black frame, bees, lilies and gilded fillets

342) A large painting on canvas depicting the Blessed John of God who is kneeling with a Crucifix in his hands, seven and a half palmi high & 5 1/2 wide, in a Frame with a turquoise background and arabesques, and a gilded moulding, with eight carved and gilded bees

343) A half-sized painting depicting Our Lord Jesus Christ with St. Peter kneeling, with the other Apostles behind, and the sheep and goats; in a frame gilded overall, and embellished with carvings of two Cherubs, a bay tree with Bees above and below and other Foliage all gilded

345) A large painting on canvas depicting Pius V under a canopy, with on one side the King of Spain, on the other the Doge of Venice, with an angel advancing holding a sword in his hand and two hydras’ heads; 8 palmi high and 9 1/2 palmi wide, in a Frame with bees, suns and gilded fillets

P. 205:

361) A half-size painting on canvas with the birth of Our Lord and the adoration of the shepherds, in a black frame, bees and gilded fillets

P. 207:

408) A picture of Tancred dressed in a red cloak with a woman advancing, a putto, women behind weeping, and a rider holding a black horse by the bridle; seven palmi high, and eight & three-quarters wide; in a carved walnut-coloured frame with gilt arabesques, and the Barberini coat of arms

P. 208:

432) A tondo panel, painted with a Madonna, Christ and John the Baptist, in a gilded frame carved with the Barberini coat of arms, six piedi or palmi high and six palmi and a quarter wide

433) A pendant, painted on canvas, of the Madonna, Christ naked and three other figures; six palmi high, and five and a half palmi wide; in a gilded frame with arabesques, with the arms of the Signore Barberini

Pp. 213-14:

557) A painting on leather with five academic emblems [?], seven palmi high and seven palmi wide, in a walnut frame carved with the imprese of the family

P. 216:

620) A painting of the Madonna, who is sitting with a book in her hand which Our Lord is reading, as is St John who holds it; in a solid silver frame with a garland of copper fruits and four gilded bees; two and three-quarters palmi high, and two and a half palmi wide, with a red leather case to protect it

621) Another painting of Our Lord, sitting above a balustrade with Mary Magdalene and St Martha, in a solid silver frame with four bees … as high and wide as the pendant, and also having a red leather case


Inventory of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, 1649

[1597-1679; nephew of Pope]

P. 229:

363) A painting in a frame of black Ebony worked with embossed leaves in silver and bees the same, with the painting of a half-length figure of the Saviour…


Vol. 2

List of Artisans in Barberini Employ not included in Documents or Master lndex

P. 720

Castelli, Battista, carver
Catanio, Manfrè, carver
Colleoni, Corinto, gold and silversmith
Enzi, Benedetto, ivory worker
Frangi, Francesco, silversmith
Guidotta, Danielo, carver
Lancellone, Lelio, fumiture maker
Massorati, Francesco, woodworker
Nave, Alessandro, woodworker
Osmida, Michele, ebony worker
Sardi, Jacomo, woodworker
de Vese, Gasparo, work of ‘pietra dura’
Arigucci, Luigi & Arrigo, woodworkers
Bacci (or Bacchi), Lodovico, carver
Badesio, Fabrizi, carver
Bocciardi, Vincenzo, woodworker
Borgonzone, Paolo, carver
Bruni, Domenico, woodworker
Cori, Stefano, woodworker
Fangarecci, Giuseppe, frame maker
Gargoli, Clemente, carver
Kilkolz, Remegio, ebony worker
Monzanino, Francesco, woodworker
Piccino, Giovanni, carver
Rossi, Bartolomeo, carver
Salenti, Giovanbattista, woodworker
San Gregi, Gioseppe, frame maker
Soria, Giovanni Battista, woodworker


With thanks to Paul Mitchell, who first took note of Barberini bees on picture frames; to Steve Shriver, for his always splendid and observant photos; to Kelly Medford, who went out of her way to photograph the altarpieces in Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini for me; and to Christopher Etheridge of the National Gallery of Canada for information on the Poussin frame.

Bees in the frame: Part 2 will deal with Napoleonic and later bees


[1] Another frame which has carved insects amongst its decorations contains Frans Jansz. Posts’s View of Olinda, Brazil, 1662, in the National Gallery of Budapest; this work was the subject of a study presented at the Rijksmuseum in 2016, which will, it is to be hoped, be published here at some point.

[2] Psalms 119:103, ‘How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!’

[3] Judges 14:14, ‘Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.’

[4] See Irving Lavin, ‘Footsteps on the way to redemption…‘, Bernini at Saint Peter’s: The pilgrimage, 2012, pp. 47-81

[5] Ibid., p.83-88

[6] Lilian Zirpolo, Ave Papa/Ave Papabile: the Sacchetti family, their art patronage and political aspirations, 2005, Toronto, p.121