The enigma of an Italian Baroque leaf frame

by The Frame Blog

An Italian Baroque leaf frame, constructed of two acanthus branches supporting bunches of narcissi, with a star-crowned male mascaron at the crest, & a flower-crowned female mask at the base, around an inner moulding; carved from four lengths of (?) chestnut wood; finished with off-white or stone-coloured wash; 1660s-70s; 73 x 59.5 cm

This frame recently emerged onto the market, and was fortunately captured by a connoisseur who wanted to explore its probable provenance. This article stems from the subsequent investigation.

It is a frame remarkable for the intensely sculptural and plastic quality of its design, and the vigour and animation of the carving. The relative simplicity of the underlying structure (two branches holding the inner frame), coupled with the complexity of the intertwined and radically undercut leaves on those branches, indicate that the master carver who made it, and – if he did not also design it – the architect or ornemaniste who produced the drawings for it, were both important and adept within the development of Baroque sculpture.

Detail of frame, top centre

It is also notable for the emblem at the top; the faceted eight-pointed star on the leafy top-knot of the central mascaron.  This may perhaps be the emblem and part of the impresa of the Chigi family, which together consisted of a pyramid of six hills with a star above and the motto, ‘shining at the summit’ (micat in vertice).

Wreaths of oak leaves were added in support of hills and star when Pope Julius II allowed his banker, Agostino Chigi, to use the oak trees of his own family, the Della Rovere.

However, the star might also be the device of the Altieri family, which is an upturned pyramid of six stars with the motto, ‘as high as is possible’ (tanto alto quanto se puote). The Altieri intermarried with the Chigi; there was a Chigi pope, Alexander VII (1655-67), and an Altieri pope, Clement X (1670-76), during the period when this frame was most probably executed.

The quality of the frame, evidently the work of a master, along with an heraldic link to two powerful and inter-related papal families, indicates that its provenance is from a Roman collection; it may also indicate a possible stylistic connection to Bernini. Bernini was employed by both Alexander VII and Clement X, and the Palazzo Chigi Ariccia, for example, which still contains its original Baroque furnishings, as well as other items from Roman palaces in the Chigi-Altieri circle, is particularly relevant in relation to this frame.

Giovanni Battista Gaulli (Il Baciccio, Genoa 1639-Rome 1707),  Pope Clement IX (1667-69); frame by Antonio Chicari; Palazzo Chigi Ariccia

The collection of paintings in the palazzo includes a suite of portraits of popes and cardinals in matching frames. These were executed by the carver Antonio Chicari, known as Il Pisano (fl. 1652-71); of the portrait by Gaulli, above, Francesco Petrucci notes that:

‘This portrait, which certainly represents the masterpiece of Baciccio’s already astonishing portraiture production, distinguishes itself as a benchmark of the Roman Baroque, and as one of the greatest achievements of 17th century portraiture.  The painting’s significance is highlighted by its extraordinary carved wooden frame, with gilded moulding and red velvet trim, executed by the great Berninian carver Antonio Chicari, perhaps according to a design by Carlo Fontana or Giovanni Paolo Schor.’ [1]

Gaulli, Pope Clement IX, frame by Chicari, detail

The carving is finely executed, and is an exceptionally rich variation on the ‘Salvator Rosa’ gallery frame, opulently enriched with velvet to match the papal robes in the suite of portraits.  Like Gaulli, who was an artist in Bernini’s train, and was given his great opportunity through the latter’s support (decorating the vault of Il Gesù, including the nave and dome, at the age of 22), Antonio Chicari worked in the orbit of Bernini, carving frames, furniture, and (apparently) carriages to his design or to those of his followers.

Antonio Chicari (fl. 1652-71), frame carved with cherubs’ heads & trophies,  finished in gold & silver leaf, c.1660s-70s, 125 x 105 cm., Liechtenstein Collection

This frame in the Liechtenstein Collection is also credited to Chicari, and described as ‘probably made to a design by the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini’ [2]. This reference to Bernini is based on the cherubs’s heads, which are carved completely in the round, individualized and full of movement. The main body of the frame consists of a wide flat frieze, which would be the reverse of Baroque in its lack of differentiated profile, save for the three-dimensional quality of the carved ornament.

This is clearly a major trophy frame. An undulating vine grows from the censer swung from the base to the wreath at the top; it includes roses, small sunflowers, violets and daisies, attributes of the Virgin and of Christ, and oak leaves, either for the Della Rovere or the Chigi. The wreath at the crest contains more flowers and oak leaves, and holds three stars sandwiched together. This particular emblem might be a conflation of a Chigi star, an Altieri star, and the Star of Ocean for the Virgin, or any single one or combination of these. In the centre of each side is a large closed clam shell, which may either be an elaboration of the pilgrim’s scallop shell, or, more likely, the representation of a stoup for holy water.  The censer, standing for the incense of prayers rising to heaven, may, through the references to the Virgin, also symbolize her intercession for Man to God; perhaps combined with the shells this may also be a reference to baptism. This frame was presumably carved for the painting of a Madonna and Child; its difference from the suite of frames on the papal portraits in the Palazzo Chigi is a measurement of Chicari’s range of idiom, and technical skill.

Giovanni Maria Morandi (1622-1717), Portrait of Alexander VII in frame with stemma of the Chigi, third quarter 17th century, originally from Palazzo Chigi, Rome; Sotheby’s Rome, 18 May 2004, Lot 479

An even more sculpturally extraordinary frame attributed to Chicari’s carving and Bernini’s design was produced for a portrait of Alexander VII, where seven whole oak trees embrace the structure of the moulding. Professor Francesco Petrucci of the Palazzo Chigi Ariccia describes it as,

‘A spectacular Berniniesque frame, enveloped – as though by some carnivorous plant – with oak leaves and branches,  to the point of suffocation, [which] contained a portrait of Alexander VII by Giovanni Maria Morandi (Ariccia, Palazzo Chigi). This is identifiable with “a carved and gilded frame for a portrait of NS”, for which the artist was given the remarkable sum of 45 scudi on 28th August 1658.’ [3].

This is unmistakably a Chigi trophy frame, all the ornament deriving from the family impresa, and applied to an otherwise starkly simple moulding frame.

Antonio Chicari (fl. 1652-71), console table designed by Bernini, 1663, marble, giltwood & polychrome, Palazzo Chigi Ariccia

Two further items in the Palazzo Chigi, also produced by Chicari, are especially important in connection with the work under consideration, although these are not themselves frames. They are two console tables, designed by Bernini and executed by Chicari. Like the frame with mascarons, the structure is at once extremely simple, and offset by a virtuoso elaboration of complex ornament; in this it is expressive of the height of the Baroque, creating a tension between a fairly minimal organic form and an operatic profusion of decorative detail, between stasis and movement, and between light and shade.  Four large S-shaped cornucopiae balance the table top, whilst smaller versions entwine them at the base. All are wrapped in large acanthus leaves; the large cornucopiae spill roses, lilies and branches of oak leaves, and the smaller ones a bouquet of mixed flowers, including narcissi.

Acanthus leaves: console table (left); frame (right)

Flowers: console table (left); frame (right)

The style of the acanthus leaves and flowers on the console tables and frame are very similar, in the curving forms, serrated contours and heavy veining of the leaves, and in the structure and treatment of the flowers (taking into account that the tables have been gessoed and successively gilded).

Professor Petrucci notes that the mascaron frame under discussion is ‘a typical expression of Roman Baroque decorative art, with a naturalistic, Berninian origin’. He has described it as ‘very similar to the Chigi frames’, but has added that it is also like ‘other Baroque frames of the late 1660s and 1670s’ [4]. He has kindly supplied the image of another frame in the collection of the palazzo; this is part of the Lemme donation, and forms part of the Baroque museum in the building, rather than one of the original Chigi furnishings.

Lazzaro Baldi, The ecstasy of Santa Rosa da Lima, c. 1668, in Baroque leaf frame with roses, Palazzo Chigi Ariccia

Like the mascaron frame, the frame of the Baldi is composed of two large acanthus branches holding an inner moulding frame, and supporting bunches of flowers at the top corners. The inner frame has a decorative knulled moulding, and the crest and base of the frame finish in scrolled leaves and tied curling stems respectively.

Acanthus leaves: frame of Baldi (left); mascaron frame (right)

The curling leaves in both frames are very similar (as are the sprays and disposition of the naturalistic flowers), evidently originating in the same structural and ornamental vocabulary which must have been diffused through the circles which surrounded Bernini in varying degrees of proximity. Professor Petrucci noted that ‘even the two masks [on the frame in question] recall those by Bernini’.  However, the mascaron frame is more freely arranged and fluidly executed than the Baldi frame, the acanthus branches falling into a more natural relationship with the inner moulding they support; and the flowers are more closely tied to botanical realism.

Mascaron & mask (left); plinth of Bernini’s baldacchino (right)

The masks themselves are interesting; the mascaron at the top manages to be both a caricature, and – in all its constituent features – physiologically convincing, indicating (as with the bunches of  daffodils and narcissi) that  it was made by a master sculptor. It is also differentiated in style from the mask at the base, which is completely naturalistic and human with no element of caricature. In this the two faces follow those on the plinths of Bernini’s baldacchino in St Peter’s basilica. On each of the eight outer façades of the supporting plinths, the sculpted marble arms of Pope Urban VIII include a large Mannerist cartouche with the Barberini bees, with a naturalistic face at the top, and a grotesque mascaron at the bottom. The baldacchino was executed between 1623-34, the thirty-forty year gap between marble colossus and wooden frame explaining the movement from Mannerism to Baroque; otherwise the use of contrasting types – human and fantastic – is very close, and may perhaps suggest the use of drawings or models by Bernini.

The human faces at the top of the Barberini cartouches are supposed to represent the eight phases of childbirth, ending with a baby’s face, whilst the Mannerist mascarons are decorative grotesquerie, and are practically identical. This may have a bearing on the mascaron frame, since it is hard to believe that this is a unique sculpture. Like Antonio Chicari’s console tables in the Palazzo Chigi, it was almost certainly originally one of a pair; it might even have been one of a suite of four.

Painted finish on the frame

In order to explore what this might mean in relation to the carved masks, it is necessary consider various possibilities regarding the location and function of the frame(s) in a Baroque palace or villa; and here the finish is important. Unlike the other examples of Chicari’s work mentioned above, and unlike the frame on the Baldi Ecstasy of Santa Rosa,  the mascaron frame is not gilded, but finished with a wash of stone or off-white paint which remains in remarkably good condition, especially where protected by the undercutting of the leaves. This sort of finish, imitating a plain pale stone, would not have fitted into the decoration of the state apartments in a Baroque palazzo, where the materials used were richly-coloured pietre dure, gold, precious woods, silks and velvets, or painted faux marbre.

A pair of Baroque Italian frames with a faux stone finish, 18 x 14 ins, 1680-89, John Bly

A plain stone finish on a piece of furniture or a frame suggests a location closer to the outside world: probably in a room which gives onto a garden, and which might accommodate a summer dining-room or reception room. In this sort of space a collector might hang paintings of the hunt, pastoral mythological scenes, flowerpieces, game pieces, pictures of food, series of the seasons or the elements – or, of course, a series of looking-glasses to reflect the light and views of the garden.

Summer dining-room, Palazzo Chigi Ariccia

Dining-room hung with The seasons by Mario Nuzzi et al, Palazzo Chigi Ariccia

Mario Nuzzi & Carlo Maratta, Summer, Palazzo Chigi Ariccia

The Palazzo Chigi has examples of some series of paintings; for instance a group of the seasons, by Mario Nuzzi and other artists, which – although not in faux stone frames nor hung in a summer dining-room – do approximate a similar tone in their parcel-gilt wooden mouldings and the gold background against which they hang.

Arcimboldo (1526-93), Flora meretrix, c.1590, o/ panel, 74.5 x 57.5 cm., cassetta in pietre dure designed by Federico Zeri, c.1970; Private collection

The mascaron frame could be part of such a series; perhaps Spring or Summer might once have smiled from it, reflected in the flower-crowned mask at the base. It would have been a simpler portrayal than in Nuzzi’s scenes, peopled as they are with several figures, set in landscapes and elaborated with still life arrangements of fruit and flowers; perhaps a single figure, like Arcimboldo’s Flora meretrix…?

Bartolomeo Ligozzi (c.1620-95), Flowerpiece, late C17, Still Life Museum, Villa Poggio a Caiano. Photo: Steve Shriver

It might equally have held a flowerpiece, also perhaps representing the seasons – these were a popular Baroque decoration; see, for example, the paintings by Bartolomeo Liggozzi in the Villa Poggio a Caiano, near Florence.  These, being  painted in Florence, are framed in the ‘Medici’ style of the period, rather than in a Baroque Roman leaf frame.

Giusto Utens (fl. C15 – d.1609), Villa di Poggio a Caiano, c.1588

The villa where they hang was begun in the late 15th century by Giuliano da Sangallo for Lorenzo de’ Medici, and is, coincidentally, an apposite example of the country house opening to the outside, natural world, where a cool garden room, or room opening on a loggia, might hold furniture and frames with a similarly cool ‘garden’ cast.

Italian Baroque leaf frame looking-glass with original plate, late 17th century, natural pale wooden finish picked out with dark paint, Richard Shapiro Studiolo

Maestro Giuseppe (attrib.), Italian Baroque leaf frame looking-glass in walnut, embellished with figural scenes of the four elements, putti & Green Men mascarons; late C17; Parma or Brescia; Dalva Brothers, New York

The most convincing argument for the use of the mascaron frame in this situation, however, is for a looking-glass; again, probably as one of a pair, or a group of four. Of the two looking-glasses illustrated above, the first leaf frame may well be a single, non-series example, as it has no  ornament, trophy or attribute which reaches out beyond itself to form a link within a group. The second walnut frame is also complete unto itself, since it carries all four scenes depicting the elements. However, the mascaron frame, with its one grotesque and one realistic head, seems to point to further variations on these.

‘Writing in 1691 architect Augustin-Charles d’Aviler described a mask as a human face that was traditionally sculpted in the keystone over a door or window opening. The images might represent the gods, the seasons, the continents or more esoteric ideas such as the ages or human temperaments. In contrast, a mascaron was a grotesque image, a representation of something or someone unreal, and was used on doors, grottoes and fountains.’ [5]

Mascaron and mask

The mascaron at the top of the frame is one of these grotesques, designed originally to ward off evil spirits or (in the form of the Green Man) to placate the pagan presences in nature, and latterly often changed to a satirical spirit of laughter and mockery. The individualized head at the base is, as suggested, the personification of a continent (possibly Africa), an element (earth), or a season (Spring or Summer). A relevant example in the case of the continents would be Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in the Piazza Navona, Rome, where the gods of the appropriate rivers represent their land masses.

Martin Droeshout (1601-c.1639), The Four Seasons:  Spring, engraving

Personifications like these were frequently disseminated by engravings, often from the Netherlands or the north, such as in this early 17th century English engraving of Spring. The possibility that the mask on the frame does represent Spring is supported by the bunches of daffodils and narcissi carved at the top, and makes it less likely that two seasons (Summer and Spring together) are intended. Summer was generally depicted with sheaves of wheat, Autumn with grapevines, and Winter with fire.

In conclusion, perhaps the most likely history for this frame is that it is one of a series of two or four, probably depicting the seasons, and probably made for a suite of looking-glasses to decorate the garden room in a villa or palazzo in the vicinity of Rome. It may well have been executed by Antonio Chicari or his workshop, and probably owes its design, either directly or at a short remove, to Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It was almost certainly also made for a member of the Chigi or Altieri families in the late 1660s or the 1670s.


With thanks to Rollo Whately for permission to publish this article on a frame in his collection


[1] Francesco Petrucci, Papi in Posa: 500 years of papal portraiture, 2011, no XXXII, p.116

[2]  Online catalogue of Liechtenstein: the Princely Collections

[3] See Francesco Petrucci, ‘Bernini inventore: disegni Berniniani per arti decorative’, a paper presented at the conference Bernini disegnatore: nuove prospettive di ricerca, Biblioteca Hertziana, 2015

[4] Communication by email, 16 April 2018

[5]  Dawn Hoskins, assistant curator, Furniture, Textiles & Fashion, V & A