An abbreviated history of Italian frames from the 12th to the 20th century

This is a quick summary of 750 years of picture frames as they evolved and changed in one country, revealing the evolution of structure, cross-section, ornament, decorative technique and function in a single object, as it responded to changes in architectural fashion on the outside, and the ebb and flow of artistic significance within.  It was originally given as a presentation at The Florence Academy of Art in May 2018.

The Lion Panel, Chauvet Pont d’Arc, Ardèche, France; a panorama composed of eight images, & executed more than 30,000 years ago. Photo: Stephen Alvarez for National Geographic Magazine

Nefertari Playing Senet, c.1255 BC, Tomb QV66, The Valley of the Queens, Upper Egypt

Frames originated for two main reasons. First, to delimit a work of art: cave paintings, for instance, have no boundaries, but when a painting is created as a discrete object, there is a need for a border between the worlds inside and outside the image, in order for the eye to adjust from one to the other. The second reason is purely functional, to protect the painting from damage. Over time, the delimiting border and the protective frame became progressively more decorative, and they were also seen as areas which could tell the spectator more about the painting – either as a space for inscriptions, or as a place where symbols or further images could be added.

Unknown artist, Madonna del Carmelo, c.1178?, Santa Maria Maggiore, Florence

The massive Madonna del Carmelo in Santa Maria Maggiore, Florence, is perhaps one of the earlier surviving large wooden altarpieces in Italy in a complete form. It is over 8 feet high, and analysis indicates that it dates from around 1178.  If this is the date of the work, rather than post 1215, then this upright form of large retable seems to be in advance of its time; however, it may apparently be based on the 5th century mosaic decorations of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome (destroyed in the 1290s) [1].  It has a wide stepped frame of very simple construction, but also one which displays a whole range of the ornamental techniques which would continue to be used for hundreds of years.

To begin with, it is both gilded and painted. Religious images with gold grounds were produced  in order to create a celestial, other-worldly effect, as far removed as possible from the drabness of the worshipper’s daily life; but quantities of gold leaf also provided useful illumination in a dim church, reflecting the light from relatively small windows and few candles onto the picture surface. Therefore even after gold grounds fell out of fashion, gilded frames continued to provide both actual and symbolic light.

Unknown artist, Madonna del Carmelo, detail of top left-hand corner

As can be seen from a detail of the top corner, the frame was originally edged with a high rounded moulding painted black and red, which would help to define it against a bare stone or painted wall.  The gold frieze which takes up most of the width of the frame is also bordered with two painted bands – the inner one studded with red squares which mimic precious stones, but which may possibly also symbolize drops of Christ’s blood. The twelve apostles are depicted around this frieze, carrying books and scrolls which variously refer to the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ and thus to the salvation of Man; these extra references expand upon the significance of the main image of the Madonna and Child and the two scenes at the base (the Annunciation, and the Marys at the tomb).

Unknown artist, Madonna del Carmelo, detail of bottom right-hand corner

The figures of the Madonna and Child were discovered in restoration to have been built up from layers of gesso, rather than carved from wood as had been thought, allowing their heads to be hollowed out to act as reliquaries. The ornamental bosses on the frame are also made from gesso, in an early use of moulded rather than carved wooden ornament. The three star-shaped bosses on either side, and the one at the base, form an oval shape with the halo around the Virgin’s head: this creates a kind of optical mandorla of stars, holding the Madonna and Child and emphasizing their appearance as a heavenly vision. But they also have a symbolic rôle: they can be seen as flowers – either daisies for humility, or sunflowers standing for Christ. In a final touch of sophistication, the giant figure of the Madonna breaches the frame in what seems to modern eyes a surreal tension with the idea of the containing border.  This causes her to float forward of the flat pictorial ground, asserting the reality of herself and her Child, and creating a further tension with the elements which indicate that they are visionary.

Maestro di Tressa (fl. 1215-40), Christ the Saviour with the Evangelists & the story of the True Cross, 1215, Abbey of San Salvatore, Castelnuovo Beradegna; now Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena

The earliest form of wooden frame, from which subsequent altarpiece settings developed, began as part of the first piece of furniture in a church – the front of a box-shaped wooden altar, known as the frontal or antependium. These painted altars go back well before the 10th century, but most of them have vanished in Italy, only remaining in any numbers in Spain  and Scandinavia. The oldest and most complete Italian frontal is probably this one, in the National Gallery of Siena; it dates from 1215, and interestingly the damage to it lets you see how it was made.

Maestro di Tressa, Christ the Saviour…, detail bottom centre left

The bare wood visible at the bottom, where the decorative finish has been worn away, reveals that this layer of embossed gesso does not appear thick enough to account for the depth of the patterned gold bands around each painting, and that therefore each picture surface has probably been lowered slightly by scraping it out, before it was gessoed and gilded. This became the usual method of producing small framed panel paintings from a single piece of wood, by excavating a shape like a tea tray, with a raised frame all round it.

Maestro di Tressa, Christ the Saviour…, detail top left

This particular altar frontal is already fairly sophisticated, with its bands of stamped ornamental pastiglia [2], measured and aligned so that the pattern marries perfectly at the corner joins. Here it has been impressed with raised stars or daisies, with larger flowers in the corners and centres – which again may be symbolic as well as ornamental, referring as flowers to Christ’s qualities, or as stars echoing those on the blue painted mandorla which surrounds Him.  The grid-like arrangement of inner frames with their bands of golden stars or flowers effectively separates each little painted scene on both sides, like graphic scenes in a modern comic book.

The whole frontal also has a canted outer wooden frame with a deep profile, protecting it from damage and dust and giving an extra decorative space; it is here that the inscription is found, with the date of the painting – November 1215.

Simone Martini (c.1284-1344), St Luke, 1330s,  tempera/ panel, 26 9/16 x 19 ins (67.5 x 48.3 cm.), The Getty Museum

All later frames are in general terms descended from the borders on these altar frontals. They gave birth at first to two distinct kinds of frame – a decorative rectangular border, very similar to many modern frames, with a flat frieze and a gradual accretion of relief mouldings to either side of this, as in the Simone Martini with its engaged frame, above; and (secondly) a shaped frame, imitating the silhouette of a church. In the early 13th century, a change in the way that the Catholic Mass was celebrated meant that the elaborate painted altar frontals began to be moved up onto the altar itself – and their form began to change because of this. From a horizontal or landscape format, they grew upwards from the altar into a vertical shape, and the clients, framemakers and artists together capitalized on this new form and space by transforming it from a plain oblong into the outline of a basilica with a pitched roof.

Duccio (fl.1278- d. pre-1319), Crucifixion with SS Nicholas & Gregory, 1311-18,  closed: 24 ins high (61 cm.), MFA Boston

Duccio, Crucifixion with SS Nicholas & Gregory, open: 24 x 15 1/2 ins (61 x 39.4 cm.)

The whole work of art could now function as a metaphor in for the Celestial Church – the spiritual version of the church on earth – which held a painting like a vison of heaven seen through the church doors. Some altarpieces began to be given actual doors or shutters which could be opened to reveal this vision to the faithful, whilst the inside of the doors showed subordinate scenes in what now approximated to the aisles of the church. This kind of altarpiece frame was not just a protective or even a decorative or symbol-laden border: it was the defining structure which ordered the whole work of art. It would also be commissioned first from the framemaker (who, for large and important works, was frequently a respected architect or sculptor), and the painter would be contracted afterwards to fit the prescribed scenes and figures into a pre-existing design.

Stages in the reconstruction of a panel painting by Jill Dunkerton[3]

In both types of object,  the simple rectangular panel painting and the more elaborate altarpiece in the form of a church, the frame was at first what is called ‘engaged’.  In other words, as well as being visually one with the painting, it was also quite literally inseparable from it because of the way it was made. In those panels where the frame was the border remaining when the inner surface had been lowered by scraping it away, this was true of the woodwork since it was all just one piece; but in more elaborate works, where extra mouldings had been added, the whole object was also made one because it was bound together with the layers of fabric, gesso and gilding which coated it.

Jacopo di Cione (attrib.; 1325-90), The Crucifixion, c.1369-70, tempera/panel, 154 x 138.5 cm., & detail beneath central canopy; National Gallery

The church silhouette frame became more and more elaborate during the 14th century,  evolving with decorative flamboyance into the cross-section of a great cathedral.  The nave in the centre holds the main scene; there are side aisles – usually occupied by saints or bishops; and the predella panel is at the bottom, where the crypt might be. Where architectural canopies were added, they might be painted inside, often with a dome of stars and in spite of the fact that these could not be seen by the worshipper, since, in the same way that elements like carved angels might be installed high in a church roof, if God could see them, that was justification enough.

Lorenzo Monaco (1391-1422), Coronation of the Virgin, 1414, 450 x 350 cm., Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

By the 15th century the church altarpiece had grown tiers, with an upper storey of images representing the clerestory of the building, and also a higher rank of divinity, with God the Father, the Saviour, the Holy Spirit, the Madonna and/or supporting angels beneath the gables of the roof. In many cases, it also became more three-dimensional: some altarpieces became so large and elaborate that pillar-like buttresses had to be attached on either side (as above), and were screwed onto the altar for support – but these then also became part of the pictorial programme, affording space for small figures of saints, disciples, bishops or angels. More architectural appendages (such as finials and flame-like ornaments) were added; however, in many cases such fragile elements have been lost over time, or perhaps when the altarpieces were removed from their churches. This early 15th Coronation of the Virgin, now in the Uffizi, was made for the Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Florence, which was suppressed in 1808 and its art dispersed. The altarpiece was made for the high altar of the abbey church, and in its subsequent life has lost all the original canopies of the upper tier of paintings, along with the flames and finials; they have recently been replaced [4]

Antonio (c.1415/18-c.1476/84) & Bartolomeo (fl. 1450-99) Vivarini, polyptych with the Madonna & Child enthroned, 1450, 393 x 263 cm., & detail, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna

In this late example from the mid-15th century in Venice, where the Gothic style endured longer than elsewhere in Italy, the cathedral structure is embellished with particularly intricate architectural flourishes: faceted columns, a projecting bay, and filigree-like finials (with cresting figures, including God the Father), whilst the carved flames are replaced in this altarpiece by twining roses, symbolic of the Virgin. The predella  has an arcade of arches, rather than a pictorial frieze. The decorative carving of every surface is exceptionally fine, minutely detailed and delicate: for example, the fanlight lunettes above the two tiers of figures to each side, and over the central bay.

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

Although Gothic altarpieces like this continued to be made during the 15th century, especially in Venice and the Veneto, everything changed in Florence – for architecture, for framing, and also for the art contained by the other two – with the advent of Filippo Brunelleschi. Inspired by Donatello, Brunelleschi had walked to Rome, where he was so overwhelmed by the ruins of the classical past that he stayed for three months to study them.  He returned to Florence to start work on the Ospedale degli Innocenti in 1419, the first classicizing Renaissance building, which was designed on a system of cubes and hemispheres and married classical proportion with the structure of a Roman temple. He then began to build San Lorenzo, the church of the Medici, for which he ordered altarpieces in the same classical style in 1425.

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

This fashion diffused and spread, so that by the mid-15th century the prevailing style had changed so completely from Gothic to classical that significant altarpieces were being taken to framemakers to be converted from one to the other [5]. Giotto’s Coronation of the Virgin in Santa Croce is one of these: the arched Gothic framework has been stripped of excess ornament, cut down, and fitted into a classical altarpiece frame, with pilasters and an entablature.

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

Two years before Brunelleschi died in 1446, he began work on another Florentine church, Santo Spirito. He probably designed the group of classical altarpieces for this church himself (although they were made later, between the 1460s and 1480s), and they reflect his concern with proportion, a pure and dignified classicism, and subtle use of decoration. Frames like these had an effect on the art they contained: now, instead of the numerous panels in a Gothic polyptych, there was generally a single rectangular panel or quadro, containing one scene in which all the figures interacted – the sacra conversazione.

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

The picture panel was usually free-standing on its altar, but it could also be integrated visually into the interior of the church, since the classical Renaissance frame functioned as a window opening onto a celestial scene. In his Adoration of the Shepherds in the Sassetti Chapel, Santa Trinità, Ghirlandaio has echoed the wooden entablature and pilasters of the frame in the fresco on the wall behind it, and has painted the figures outside the frame in the same scale as those within it.  In this way he has achieved the remarkable feat in his altarpiece of creating a sacred scene that appears more vivid and realistic than the contemporary Florentine world around it.

Giovanni Bellini, the Frari Triptych, 1488, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice

Realism could also be achieved by integrating the architectural background depicted within a painting so completely with the architectural structure of the frame that they seem completely continuous, as Bellini and his framemaker have managed here – so successfully that the vision of the Madonna and Child appears to be taking place in a niche in the church. This particular altarpiece is notable for its perfect partnership between the master carver and the artist, and the carver, Jacopo da Faenza, has signed the frame, just as Bellini has signed the painting, evidently taking huge pride in this tour de force of symbolic and ornamental sculpture.

Meanwhile, in the secular world of the Renaissance, the art of portraiture had also evolved –  adapted from depicting figures of the Holy Family and saints to portraying aristocrats, figures of state, and other notable people. The rectangular engaged frame was also adapted for these paintings – no longer part of the wooden panel, but as a moveable frame, now more often containing a canvas than a panel. The basic pattern, which was in use in the early 14th century on this Simone Martini, is known as a cassetta or little box frame, and it is the ancestor of most of the designs which have followed over the next 600 years. It is very versatile, as the central frieze can be decorated in so many ways.

Simone Martini (c.1284-1344), St Luke, 1330s,  tempera/ panel, The Getty Museum

The frame on the Martini is punched, and painted with trompe l’oeil jewels in red, blue and white, in an echo of early metalwork altarpieces,  frames and bookbindings which were set with real precious and semi-precious stones. The punchwork gives an impressions of the filigree settings of these stones.

Titian (?1485/90-1576), Giacomo Doria, 1530-35, o/c, 115.5 x 97.7 cm., & detail, Ashmolean Museum

The frame now on this Titian has proportionately smaller mouldings and a wider frieze, giving quite a large field around the picture for decoration. The frieze is also punched, creating a subtle damask-like effect which flickers as light moves over it. The punching was executed in the gilded layer of gesso on the wood, often with a series of differently-sized metal punches, which might also have decorative motifs engraved on the end; here a simple small punch has been used to infill the background with a larger circular punch picking out highlights. The overall pattern replicates contemporary designs in brocade hangings and silk and velvet costumes, which could be used to produce a harmony of reflections and echoes within a 16th century interior.

Gerolamo Bassano (1566-1621), Gianfrancesco Sagredo, 1619, o/c, 113.9 x 101cm., & detail, Ashmolean Museum

The frame given to this Bassano, on the other hand, has a much more robust form of carved ornament, which surrounds the portrait like a three-dimensional and realistic jewellery setting, helping to isolate it against a panelled wall, tapestry, or other busy surface.  If this is a later reframing, then the choice has been fortuitously appropriate, the scallop shells in the corners indicating a reference to Venice, Sagredo’s home.

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna & Child, late 1480s, o/ panel, 35 x 28 ins (88.9 x 71.1 cm.), & detail, Metropolitan Museum, New York

Frames can also be decorated with sgraffito, a very effective, delicate and beautiful process. Here, the gilded frame is covered with a layer of paint, and the design is scratched through the paint to reveal the gold beneath. Some of these patterns were drawn free-hand, but the more intricate ones probably involved stencils. The effect could be made even richer with coloured areas: the majority of sgraffito frames are black on gold, but the frame of this Bellini has blue centres and corners, and red (now faded) on the intermediate panels, reflecting the colours of curtain and mantle within the painting.

Michelangelo (1475-1564), ‘The Manchester Madonna’, c.1494-97, tempera on panel, 104.5 x 77 cm., & detail, National Gallery

Michelangelo’s ‘Manchester Madonna’ has been reframed in another type of sgraffito frame, with three orders of ornament executed in different colours, and as continuous running decoration rather than in centre-&-corner panels. The band beneath the top edge is picked out from dark blue paint in an architectural pattern of pearls and astragals; the frieze has black paint and an undulating design of flowers and leaves; and the band above the sight edge was probably once painted white or stone, but has now aged to grey – it is patterned with flowers and flutes.  This complex combination of ornament and colours creates a very subtle shimmering halo of varied light and shade around the painting.

Giovanni Bellini (fl. c. 1459-d.1516), St Jerome reading in a landscape, c.1480-85, tempera/ panel, 47 x 33.7 cm., & detail, National Gallery, NG281

Another ornamental technique involved applying strips of pastiglia to the frame.  This was a stiff paste, made of gesso and rabbitskin glue, which was pressed into a carved mould, and then applied to the wooden frieze with more glue.  When it was dry, it could be gilded like carved wood.  The double guilloche pattern on a convex cushion moulding, seen here as a reframing of Bellini’s St Jerome…, is the most common design, but there are also patterns with peacock feathers and arabesques. Again, this gives a very subtle shimmer of gilded decoration around the painting, which suits small scenes and the portraits this type of frame is now most commonly associated with.  It does not, however, appear to be original to any of the works it now contains; one theory suggests it may have been used for paintings of the stations of the Cross, each series comprising fourteen pictures, for which a fairly rapid and economical decorative technique would have been useful.

Sandro Botticelli (1444/45-1510), Madonna & Child with an angel, 1475/85, tempera/ panel, 33 ¾ x 23 ¼ ins (85.8 x 59.1 cm.),  & detail, Art Institute of Chicago

Some frames relied upon displaying the wood of the frame, rather than concealing it with gesso and gilding. Most Italian giltwood frames are carved in poplar wood; but Italy is also noted for its walnut trees, and walnut has always been prized for its colour and beautiful grain. A family of frames developed which were made either of plain wood, stained and polished, or with details of mouldings and carvings picked out in gilding – ‘parcel-gilding’.  The colour of walnut is a good foil for flesh tones, and was frequently used both for secular portraits and sacred figures.

Michelangelo (1475-1564), vestibule of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, 1524-34, & later

Just as the rediscovery of classical architecture by Brunelleschi had fuelled the stylistic changes of the Renaissance, so the inventive rule-breaking of Michelangelo converted Renaissance classicism into Mannerism.  Mannerism is the playful distortion of structure and proportion achieved by elongating shapes like windows and columns, breaking elements like the pediment open, putting two pediments together, or adding large swooping scrolls and brackets. The serene and static classical vocabulary is pushed out of kilter, acquiring disruptive energy and movement.  This can be seen in Florence in the vestibule of the Biblioteca Laurenziana, which contains all these subversively exaggerated motifs within an ironically refined and balanced interior.

Michelangelo (1475-1564), Porta Pia, Rome, 1561-65, & detail of blind window

The same is true of the façade of the Porta Pia in Rome.  This has had a great deal of influence, not only on 16th century architecture, but also on picture frames. The small windows on the first story have outset or eared corners supported by scrolled brackets, and the scrolled top – or  swan’s neck pediment – is open, and contains an extra semi-circular pediment in the gap. The lower windows are elongated, and supported by large brackets; and the central door is seething with piled-up and exaggeratedly large elements.

Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530; school of), St Sebastian, Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence

Mannerist frames take advantage of all these distortions, and they frequently use parcel-gilded walnut wood instead of overall gilding.  The contrast of dark wood and gold heightens the explosive energy of these frames, or emphasizes the S-scrolls and elongations which echo the paintings they contain, whilst maintaining a contrary tension of generally sober colouring.  The frame of the St Sebastian (above) is original to the work, and displays a characteristic collection of geometrical drops, bosses and elongated brackets.

Michelangelo (1475-1564), The entombment, c.1500-01, o/panel, 161.7 x 149.9 cm., National Gallery

The frame of the Michelangelo is not original to the painting, but – although dating from later in the 16th century – is a brilliantly fortuitous reframing. Like the frame of the Andrea del Sarto, it shows the tension generated by rich ornament held in check by a linear form, and by the contrast of dark wood and partial gilding. The scrolls, brackets and swooping open pediment reflect the turning bodies and S-lines of the composition.

Bronzino (1503-72), Madonna & Child with SS John the Baptist & St Elizabeth, c.1510, o/panel, 101.6 x 81.3 cm.,  National Gallery

Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1557),  Portrait of a halberdier (Francesco Guardi?), o/panel, transferred to canvas, 37 ½ x 28 ¾ ins (95.3 x 73 cm.), 1528-30, J.Paul Getty Museum

There are also, of course, a lot of non-aedicular Mannerist frames: moulding frames, where the flat architrave-like profile of the early Renaissance has gradually altered since the 15th century, producing designs with a much more plastic and 3-dimensional cross-section. This sculptural profile is also a reflection of the exaggerated curvaceous ornaments which characterize such frames, as well as of the dynamic compositions of Mannerist painting.  Both the Bronzino and the Pontormo have been reframed, but not only are their new settings correct in both period and region, but they actively support the respective compositions – their inward-pointing ornaments enhancing spatial depth and perspective, and reflecting the contrapposto poses of the various figures.

Alessandro Vittoria (1525-1608), ceiling of the Scala d’Oro, Palazzo Ducale, Venice

The frames shown above are Florentine and Romans versions of Mannerism: Venice had its own idiosyncratic style – the ‘Sansovino’ (although it has almost nothing to do with the sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino). It was influenced by stuccowork in the French Château de Fontainebleau, created in the 1530s by Florentine craftsmen  , which travelled back to Italy via engraved prints of ornament, stimulating the Venetian stuccoist, Alessandro Vittoria [6], who worked in the Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace.  This backwards and forwards passage of styles and ornament is extremely important for the development of picture frames and the spread of fashion; it was caused partly because craftsmen were always travelling, looking for work, and partly by the international trade in engravings and pattern books, which by the 16th century was growing exponentially.

Giovanni Bellini (fl. c. 1459-d.1516), Madonna and Child with Doge Barbarigo, 1482, in a frame dated 1634, San Pietro Martire, Murano, Venice

Titian (fl. c.1506-d.1576), Portrait of Girolamo Fracastoro, c.1528, o/c, 84 x 73.5 cm, NG3949. © The National Gallery, London

Alessandro Vittoria produced extremely opulent and elaborate plaster frames on the ceilings of the Palazzo Ducale, and these in their turn influenced wooden frames.  This Bellini Madonna & Child was reframed in the 1560s by the church which owns it, so although this is not its first frame, it is closely associated with the painting [7]. The National Gallery Titian has also been reframed; this Sansovino frame is slightly later than the portrait, but they are both Venetian, and the flamboyant pose and costume of the sitter is reflected in the richly carved and very sculptural frame.

Marco da Faenza (c.1528-88), grotteschi in the Sala di Ercole, 1555-57, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Michelangelo (1475-1564), sculpted portrait of Giuliano de’Medici,  Medici Chapels, San Lorenzo, Florence

Florence produced another very specific and eccentric version of the Mannerist frame. This was inspired by the 16th century fashion for grotteschigrotesque masks and strange beasts which morphed into leaves and scrolls   . Once again, Michelangelo can be found at the cutting edge of this fashion, moving ornament away from the staid classicism of the Renaissance; employing mascarons and fantastic creatures.

Andrea di Michelangelo Ferrucci (1559-1626), Fontana dello Sprone, 1598, Florence

Pietro Tacca (1577-1640) & assistants, fountain, 1629, in Piazza della SS Annunziata, Florence

From the late 16th century this style appeared in sculpted and bronze fountains, door knockers and carved brackets, which can be seen all over Florence. The association with fountains combined with Mannerist scrolls and curves to produce shells, fish, dolphins, segmental worms and mythical sea creatures.

Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

Then in the late 1650s to 1670s, Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici, who had assembled a major art collection in his apartments in the Palazzo Pitti, began to reframe the paintings in custom-made  Mannerist frames, created by master carvers and gilders in the Medici workshops. These are so-called Auricular frames, which have a particular flowing and melting style, like liquid metalwork, as though carved out of golden mercury.

Caravaggio (1571-1610), Sleeping Cupid, 1608, o/c, 75 x 105 cm., & detail, Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

The frame for Caravaggio’s Sleeping Cupid was probably commissioned in 1667, when Leopoldo bought the painting [8]; the main body of the frame is formed of shells, masks, fins, and curving shapes like sinews and cartilage, but with added trophies of carved bows and arrows, appropriate for the subject.

Titian (fl. c.1506-d.1576), Portrait of Bishop Ludovico Beccadelli, 1552, o/c 117 x 97 cm.., Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The ‘Medici’ frame for the portrait  of Bishop Beccadelli by Titian, however, has nothing whatsoever to do with the painting; it is a glorious riot of scaly fishes’ bodies, fins, gills, bulging eyes at the centres, and segmental forms like worms or spines in the corners. These marine and anatomical references derive partly from the earlier fascination with grottoes, grotteschi and fountains embellished with strange sea creatures, but are also influenced by the current surge in sea trade with and exploration of the New World, and by the growth of a scientific interest in human and animal anatomy. The frame was the perfect way for a collector like Cardinal Leopoldo to advertize the scope of his interests, and to put them on view along with his paintings, as though his picture gallery was also a kunstkabinett conserving arcane knowledge.

Gradually, the forms of Mannerist ornament become more and more organic, including plants, fruit and flowers, at which point they merge into the Baroque. The profiles of the ‘Medici’ frames are very prominent and 3-dimensional, like all Mannerist frames: this feature is enhanced in Baroque frames by having the mouldings fold in and out like waves, illustrating the literal derivation of the word, from an irregular pearl.

Filippo Brunelleschi, Santo Spirito, Florence, 1446-81, ground plan

Francesco Borromini (1599-1667), San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, 1638-41, Rome, ground plan

The growth of the Baroque style is all tied up, again, with architecture. The ground plan of a typical Renaissance church, like Santo Spirito, is linear and regular on all sides; the doors at the bottom of the plan are all set in a straight line. The plan of a Baroque church, like Borromini’s San Carlo in Rome, is a series of concave and convex curves, advancing and retreating. The architect of a Baroque church is building with light and shade, as well as with stone; so the concave areas will hold shadow, emphasizing the mass, volume, and sense of drama in the building.

Guido Reni (1575-1642), Bacchus & Ariadne, 1619-20, o/c, 38 x 34 ins ( 96.52 x 86.36 cm.), Los Angeles County Museum

Baroque frames have a very similar profile, constructed of convex and concave curves. Many of them are bolection frames: in other words, the moulding flows backwards towards the wall (often with an ogee section or series of S-shaped ogees) and pushes the picture plane forward, towards the spectator.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653), Judith & the head of Holofernes, c.1623-25, o/c 72 7/16 x  55 ¾ ins (184 x 141.6 cm.), Detroit Institute of Art

Light and shade emphasize this, and the decoration underpins it by its scale and density – although the carving itself often appears quite fluid and soft.  Gilding is very important again, sometimes combined with coloured mouldings or motifs. The whole impetus of Baroque paintings and their frames is theatricality, expressive emotion and rhythm – rather like an opera.

Italian Baroque carved giltwood looking-glass frame, 1680-1710, limewood or poplar, 278 x 150 cm., V & A

Anon. Tuscan artist, Flowerpiece, c.1690, Still Life Museum, Poggio a Caiano, near Florence. Photo: Steve Shriver

The combination of sculptural profile and ornament helps to isolate the painting from the Baroque interior, which would be colourful, and packed with other decoration – such as damasks, tapestries or embossed leather wall hangings, different shades of marble, carved and parcel-gilt panelling, or panels of inlaid wood. In a palace where every surface is busy with colour and detail, and the furniture is equally decorative, a painting needs an assertive frame as a buffer between it and the wall, and as a means of attracting the spectator’s attention. The frame, as well as being highly ornamental, is once again also very functional.

Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1659), St Peter’s Chair & Gloria, 1666, gilded stucco, glass, gilded bronze, wood & marble, St Peter’s Basilica, Rome

The Baroque altarpiece is very different from the church silhouette of three centuries earlier. It may lack any symmetry; it is extremely theatrical; it uses sculpture, painting, gilding, stucco, wood, glass and light in many different combinations to achieve the apotheosis of a divine vision. Bernini’s Gloria in St Peter’s in Rome is not a conventional altarpiece, but more like a reliquary, since the elaborate bronze throne below the centre of the frame of angels was designed to hold what was thought to be St Peter’s actual wooden chair. The clouds and sun-rays which rise behind and above this throne are the base for a garland of flying angels, which frame the central stained glass window with its image of the Holy Ghost.

Ercole Ferrata  (1610-86; circle of), modello for an altarpiece, terracotta, 96.5 x 58.5 cm., V & A

The whole work was enormously influential, giving rise to sculpted glories and frames of clouds and angels in many different countries. The V & A’s clay modello for a glory, created thirty or forty years later than Bernini’s altarpiece, illustrates how enduring this dramatic, asymmetric frame would be. It grabs the worshipper’s attention relentlessly, aiming to present a celestial vision in the most vivid, awe-inspiring, and yet believable way possible.

Pompeo Batoni (1708-87), Don José Moñino y Redondo, c.1776, o/c, 39 ¼ x 29 5/8 ins (99.7 x 75 cm.), Art Institute of Chicago

Those altarpieces and the Baroque leaf frames are very much of their period in the 17th century; but there was another frame design which remained fashionable from the mid-17th right through the 18th, and was revived again in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Pierre le Pautre (1659-1744), base of a Doric column

Pompeo Batoni (1708-87), St Paul, 1740-43, o/c, 28 ¾ x 23 ¾ ins (73 x 60.5 cm.), and detail, Basildon Park, National Trust

This is the Roman or ‘Salvator Rosa’ frame, which encapsulates the opposition of convex and concave mouldings, but in a much simpler, more timeless and also a more classical form. It is supposed to derive from the concave and convex mouldings at the bottom of a Doric column, and can be completely plain (as in the frame on the Batoni portrait of Don José…, top), or have various numbers of differently-enriched mouldings – the most usual combination on the Batoni St Paul.

Pompeo Batoni (1708-87),  The Holy Family, c. 1748,  in giltwood & silvered frame, Palazzo Corsini, Rome

It could be transformed into a trophy frame or a Baroque altarpiece, by adding a crest of ornaments at the top or by distorting the rails to give a shaped silhouette, and it could also be made of ebonized wood with gilded ornaments. It was taken back to Britain, along with portraits (often by Batoni) acquired by young men on the Grand Tour, and was copied there as the ‘Carlo Maratta’ frame. This versatility and diffusion gave it one of the most extended lives of any type of frame, and it is still being copied and used today (although often in a very diminished style, with degraded compo ornament).

A hang of ‘Salvator Rosa’ frames in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, Rome

Plain versions of the ‘Salvator Rosa’ were used as gallery frames in some of the large Roman palazzi, to frame art collections so that they appeared uniform and harmonious. Here, the function of the frame was to tie the painting it contained to the internal architecture of the room, where the same mouldings were used on doors, cornices and dados. This meant that pictures from different periods and even different countries could be hung together with as little friction as possible.

The early Baroque period of the 17th century was the last era when Italy dominated the art world. The Renaissance had begun in Florence, later being rivalled by Venice and Rome; now France was becoming the arbiter of fashion. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries the Louis XIV and Régence styles spread rapidly throughout Europe, influencing architecture, furniture, art, the decorative arts, and of course picture frames – the one item in a room which mediated between the painting and the interior.

Francesco de Mura (1696-1782), Count James Joseph O’Mahoney, Knight of St Januarius, c. 1748, o/c, 99 x 75.2 cm., Fitzwilliam Museum

By the 1720s the Rococo was firmly established: this is the last blast of the Baroque, when all the organic ornaments – acanthus leaves, flowers, watery motifs and clouds – gather into a  flourish of frothy, filigree decoration known as the genre pittoresque. The portrait here, of Count O’Mahoney, is in a relatively sober Italian version of a French Rococo frame, with swept or S-scrolled sides, and centre and corner ornaments. The latter were an important invention for the artist. All artists painted knowing more or less how their work might be framed: indeed, they often acquired the frame on behalf of the client or advised him what to buy.  This meant that they could exploit the anticipated ornamental structure to support their compositions.  Here, the focal lines set up between the corners and centres cup the face in an inverted cone, bisect the centre of the face, isolate and highlight the hands in separate segments, and echo the diagonal line of the arm. This is why artists liked to finish a work in the frame, and why pentimenti may often be due to adjustments which make the most of the setting.

Canaletto (1697-1768), St Paul’s Cathedral, c.1754, o/c, 20 ½ x 24 ¼ ins (52.1 x 61.6 cm.), & detail, Yale Center for British Art

There were also indigenous versions of the Rococo in Italy, owing nothing to French fashion, and expressing its pastoral lightness and airy foliation in idiosyncratic and very decorative ways. The most notable of these is the Venetian panel frame (sometimes called the ‘Canaletto’ frame by association). The main moulding is a gentle  ogee; it is decorated with textured areas in the corners (and sometimes the centres), which are carved in low relief with delicate, undulating sprigs of foliage and florets between plain, shaped panels (reposes). Everything about this style – its flattened S-curved profile, the shallow-relief organic ornament – is founded in the Baroque, but expresses it both in the softer, more fluid terms of the Rococo and with the subtlety of, specifically, the Italian Rococo.

Anon., Italian School, Portrait of the patrician Pietro Barbarigo, C18, in frame carved with the figures of Patriotism, Charity, Constancy, Magnanimity, Prudence, Justice & Faith, & detail, Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice. Photos: Aidan O’Boyle

At the opposite extreme from the panel frame is the full, flamboyant Rococo style, which could also be found in Venice: an example of the genre pittoresque, airy and curving, with a great deal of pierced foliate ornament as well as figural sculptures.  This example is a trophy frame – one which includes attributes of the subject portrayed, deriving originally from the association of a painted or sculpted portrait with military trophies, which were designed to show off the achievements of a soldier or commander. Trophy frames had become increasing popular during the 17th century, but it is perhaps easier to accommodate symbolic objects than personifications of moral virtues to different styles of ornamental frame. The figures, although beautifully carved, are fundamentally Baroque rather than Rococo and fail to meld with the innately frivolous structure; moreover the whole frame overwhelms and reduces the sitter whose moral qualities it was designed to exhibit.

Raphael (1483-1520), Madonna of Loreto, c.1509-10, o/ panel, 47 x 35 ins (120 x 90 cm.), frame c. 1780-1800, & detail, Musée Condé, Chantilly

The Rococo style allowed a final burst of idiosyncratic Italian individuality, falling from popularity in the late 1760s and 1770s, just before the country succumbed to the pan-European style of NeoClassicism.  This was a linear form with classical architectural ornament, which developed partly in reaction to the curvaceous asymmetry of the Rococo, partly through the publication of new excavations at Herculaneum, Pompeii and elsewhere, and partly in the intellectual pressure-cooker of the French Academy in Rome, where students studied painting and sculpture under teachers such as Piranesi.  In Italy, as in Britain, NeoClassicism also built on an underlying inclination towards the classical, which had given rise to the long popularity of the ‘Salvator Rosa’ and ‘Maratta’ frames, the most classicizing of Baroque designs. The NeoClassical profile in Italy featured an S-curve with a wide concave at the centre of the rail, and was decorated with lines of classical architectural ornament.  In the frame which has been given to the Raphael (above) there is egg-&-dart, a very finely carved separate moulding of cross-cut acanthus applied in the hollow, and beading at the sight edge.

Raphael (after; 1483-1520), reduced scale replica of The deposition of Christ (1507, in the Galleria Borghese Rome), early C19 Empire frame, & detail, Galleria Sabauda, Turin

By the turn of the 19th century the Empire style of Napoleon was fashionable, and was made alongside NeoClassical patterns. Travel and communication were easier than ever before, and new styles spread – even through countries at war with each other – very rapidly, and also more accurately than previously, so that there was progressively less difference between a French Empire frame, and the example shown here, of an Italian Empire frame made around 1805-1820 (again anachronistically, on a small copy of a painting by Raphael). This style was the beginning of the mass-produced frames of the 19th century, where wooden mouldings shaped in sawmills were decorated with pressed plaster or composition ornament. The very shallow surface ornaments of the ‘Greek corners’ on this frame are moulded in this way, like the inner frieze of decoration near the sight edge, whilst the ovolo ornament is more likely to be carved still. The corners themselves are versions of motifs created by Percier and Fontaine, designers to Napoleon.

Telemaco Signorini (1835-1901), Aspettando nello studio, 1867, Galleria d’Arte Moderno, Ca’ Pesaro, Venice

Paintings of interiors are always useful in revealing how paintings may be framed, although of course a domestic room may be furnished in an earlier style, or in a mixture of fashions. An artist’s studio, however, is much more likely to reveal his choice of contemporary frame, and – as the 19th century passed, and more such scenes were painted – might give an idea of the varieties of frame in general use. In the canvas above they include saleable paintings in mass-produced frames (under the window); sketches in flat ‘studio’ frames or thin batons (on the back wall), and a couple of antique frames which have been reused.

Giacomo Favretto, In the picture gallery, c.1875, Museo Correr, Venice

Paintings in museums and exhibitions can be similarly informative: Favretto’s scene in a gallery reveals large ‘Salon’ frames with wide gilded rails, chosen to isolate the painting from its very near neighbours on the gallery wall, where they would habitually be hung extremely close together. These are mass-produced mouldings again, probably shaped mechanically and with minimal ornament, almost certainly moulded composition or plaster.

From the beginning of the 19th century, the carvers and gilders who had lived and worked alongside Italian artists for the previous five or six centuries were as much at the mercy of new industrial processes and the push away from craftsmanship to factory production as their peers throughout Europe. They were only able to continue in greater numbers than elsewhere because the tradition of commissioning carved frames lasted longer than in some other countries (the frame on Raphael’s Madonna of Loreto would probably have been decorated with moulded acanthus leaves in Britain), and this enabled their skills to survive long enough to be in demand during the wave of revivalism which swept Europe and America later in the 19th century.

Raphael (circle of; 1483-1520), The Holy Family with the infant St. John in a landscape, ‘The Kingston Lacy Raphael’, c.1516-17, o/panel, 30 x 21 in (76 x 53.3 cm), carved walnut frame by Pietro Giusti of Siena, 1853-6, & detail, Kingston Lacy, Dorset, NT 1257083

They carved replica frames and imaginative ‘historic’ frames for institutions such as the National Gallery in London, artists from various other countries, and collectors who wanted their Old Master paintings reframed.  Piero Giusti of Siena, for instance, specialized in extremely finely carved frames which have nothing chronologically or stylistically to do with the paintings inside them, but are  very beautiful objects in their own right. This one, dated 1856, was carved for William Bankes of Kingston Lacy, whose coat of arms can be seen at the bottom centre surrounded by naturalistic lilies for the Virgin; the bust at the top centre is of Raphael.

Apart from the creative energy which went into these very imaginative historicizing frames, there seemed to be no concerted artistic movement in Italy to design or commission avant-garde frames for contemporary work. This was unlike most other European countries in the second half of the 19th century, where artists themselves became suddenly immensely productive of designs for their own frames.

Giovanni Costa (1826-1903), To be or not to be: who loves not is not, c.1879, 51x 52 cm., Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome

Giovanni (Nino) Costa’s frame for his historicizing painting To be or not to be… appears to be an early and unusual individual effort amongst Italian artists. However, he actually spent longer in Britain than in his own country, working closely with the English artist Frederic Lord Leighton, who designed all his own frames, and is thus an exception, directly open to influences from outside Italy. The frame above is a curious amalgam: three sides of a cassetta, with an inner frieze patterned in what look like simplified Leonardo knots [9], are perched on top of an altarpiece plinth; the main frieze has high relief bunched leaves and fruits, like the garlands of fruit and flowers used symbolically around sacred works in the 15th century.   It is more a mongrel assemblage of replica parts than a rethinking of an historic style for a contemporary genre, like Leighton’s designs or Holman Hunt’s.

Carlo Bugatti (1856-1940), frame, 1895-1902, vellum, hammered copper, pewter, walnut, beechwood, & ebonized beechwood, 42 x 35 ¾ ins (106.7 x 90.8 cm.), Art Institute of Chicago

When modernizing frames finally arrived in Italy, it seemed to be more as a function of interior design generally than as a necessary adjunct to contemporary art.  The designer Carlo Bugatti, father of the car designer Ettore, exhibited his work at the 1902 International Exhibition in Turin, winning the top prize, and appearing to wake the country to a belated appreciation of modernism. This particular frame by Bugatti looks forward to art deco, and is particularly inventive in the materials it uses. It was probably made for a looking-glass rather than a painting, but it was also a declaration that there were ways of framing apart from the reproduction Baroque and NeoClassical French patterns customary for Salon exhibitions.

After this, Italy finally discovered the artist’s avant-garde frame – or, rather, the avant-garde frame was re-invented by the Futurists. This was a movement founded in 1909 by a poet, Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944), to celebrate modern science, cars, motorbikes, planes and industry, and also to glorify violence, destruction and war (he suggested filling in the canals of Venice with the buildings above them, and raising an industrial utopia on the result).  Futurism employed a painting style which was the reverse of conventional to represent abstract ideas such as speed, and – living up to Marinetti’s statement, that ‘We want no part of it, the past’ – it also produced frames which were a very long way from the traditional gilded setting.

Umberto Boccioni  (1882-1916), Officine a Porta Romana, 1910, o/c,  145x 75 cm.,  & detail, Gallerie d’Italia, Milan

Boccioni’s design for his industrial landscape is certainly gilded, and also fluted like a classical column, but what it looks most like is a car radiator, or an art deco cocktail cabinet.

Gino Severini, Ritmo plastico del 14 luglio, 1913, o/c, 66 x 50 cm., Museo di Arte Moderna, Rome

On the other hand Severini’s painting, which celebrates the dynamic energy of an urban café, appears to employ the frame as a 15th century artist might have done, to express something more than the picture surface alone can do. Rather than by adding discrete auxiliary images or inscriptions to the field of the frame, however, Severini has painted elements of the composition continuously across the frame, negating its role as a limiting and liminal area. He uses it, in other words, to suggest that the life of the café cannot be contained by conventional boundaries, but erupts outwards to influence the world around it.

Giacomo Balla (1871-1958), Scienza contro oscurantismo, 1920, tempera & oil/ panel, 24 x 35.5 cm., Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome

It was Giacomo Balla of all the Futurists who created the most inventive frames, and the ones which best reflected the kind of art they were trying to produce. Each of his designs was tailored to the individual picture, and most of them were made in low-relief laminated and painted wood. They echoed his paintings of aspects of life as geometric patterns, and they used those patterns to produce an idea of speed and vibrancy. They were completely different from the traditional gilded academic frame, but they were also far more closely aligned with the art they contained – so much so as to be an inseparable part of it, in a similar (although not the same) way as the engaged frame on a 14th century panel painting.

Giacomo Balla, Le frecce della vita (The arrows of life), 1928, & detail, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome

These are economical frames: if assessed for their craftsmanship and the materials used, they are relatively worthless, but they have also been painstakingly created as integral parts of the individual works, and any decision to photograph or reproduce the paintings without the frames is an act of vandalism. Balla might theoretically have celebrated artistic vandalism as part of Marinetti’s vision for the future, but hardly for his own work; it is altogether a great shame that the frame of a self-portrait, executed at the height of his interest in Futurism, is now by itself in a private collection in Rome, and that the whole work of art can only be seen in a photo, which also contains Balla himself in a jacket designed by him to echo the dynamic and geometric forms of his paintings [10]. His understanding of how a frame could form an integral element of a whole work of art is clear, and just as acute as the understanding between Giovanni Bellini and Jacopo da Faenza, when they produced between them the remarkable and interdependent work known as the Frari triptych.


[1]  See Susannah Fisher, ‘The Tabernacle of the Most High: the Florentine Santa Maria Maggiore Madonna’, Arte Medievale, anno VI (2007), 2, pp 75-85

[2]  Pastiglia is a stiff paste of gesso and size, worked to the consistency of marzipan or pastry so that it will hold an impression as it dries. There are variants based on other stiffening agents: pasta di riso is a moulding material based on ground rice, and carta pesta is a form of papier mâché.

[3] From Dillian Gordon, National Gallery catalogues: the Italian paintings before 1400, National Gallery Company/ Yale University Press, 2011, fig.1, p. xvi: ‘The application of a gesso ground…’ from Figs 1-6: ‘The stages in the construction of a panel painting, using the techniques described by Cennino Cennini in Il libro dell’arte (The craftsman’s handbook)… courtesy of Jill Dunkerton.’

[4] See Churches of Florence: Santa Maria degli Angeli

[5]  See George Bisacca, ‘The rise of the all’antica altarpiece frame

[6]  In the 1550s, when he was in his twenties, Vittoria had worked in the Palazzo Thiene in Vicenza; here he created fictive frames with many of the hallmarks of the later, more opulent stucco frames in Venice

[7]  See The Sansovino Frame, by Nicholas Penny, Peter Schade & Harriet O’Neill, exh. cat., National Gallery Company Ltd, 2015, £9.95

[8]  See Marilena Mosco, ‘Anthropomorphism and Zoömorphism in the “Medici” picture frames

[9]  See, for example, Jessica Hoy & Kenneth C.Millett, ‘A mathematical analysis of knotting and linking in Leonardo da Vinci’s Cartelle of the Academia Vinciana’, Journal of the mathematics & the arts, 3 November 2014

[10]  Illustrated in Emily Braun, ed., Italian art in the twentieth century, 1989, p. 426