Book review: Frame work: honour and ornament in Italian Renaissance art
by The Frame Blog
Alison Wright, Frame work: honour and ornament in Italian Renaissance art, Yale University Press, 2019, pp. 352, 220 colour ill.; IBSN 9780300238846; £55
This is an interesting, complex and meticulously-researched work which looks at the modes and methods of the presentation during the Renaissance of paintings, sculpture, MSS illustrations, tombs within chapels and churches, pictorial elements of tapestries, relics, and the figures, objects and scenes depicted or enclosed within all these objects. It does not deal so much with the tangible wooden border of the picture frame in its narrower meaning, as with a diffuse cloud of metaphysical significances and varied physical appearances associated with the idea of framing in its largest extent, limited only by period and location.
As Alison Wright suggests, in her final pages,
‘An approach to the art and visual culture of the Renaissance via the frame helps us to sharpen understanding of agents of all kinds operating within complex social arenas. The frame is where distinctions are formulated and secured; framing could be manipulated to claim or affirm honour, compete for prestige and even to catch and hold the sacred. The way frames and framing elements could enforce, absorb and reproduce ritual actions around people and holy things made them in many ways more compelling of attention in the Renaissance than in our own visually saturated era.’ 
As a different approach to the frame, it is certainly fascinating stuff, but it is sometimes necessary to read these densely-phrased sentences several times, in order to grasp their abstractions:
‘Distinctive framing enabled practitioners, and not only commissioners, to present their works as interventions in shifting social fields where the fraught game of distinction offered great opportunities for reward, especially in terms of status.’ 
…and when one has, it may be hard to see Master Antonio di Biagio of Siena (for example) presenting his framework for Masaccio’s Pisan altarpiece in 1426 as an intervention in a shifting social field, rather than as a piece of work which provided his livelihood, and was also to the glory of God.
Introduction: The field of framing
Benozzo Gozzoli (circle of; c.1421/24-97), Two saints standing to front, pen-&-ink and brown wash, drawn mount by Vasari (1511-74), Il libro de’ disegni, 13.6 x 15.8 cm., © The Trustees of the British Museum
Professor Wright’s object, however, ‘is not a frame per se but the act of framing’, and she introduces this object via later interventions which have impinged upon, altered, introduced or remade the frames of the images in question: for example, Vasari’s frameworks in which he mounted the drawings he collected (‘working drawings… which were never intended to be framed’) , corralling them into unified altarpieces, or even into architectural elevations containing niches, pictorial panels aping frescos, and smaller altarpieces, with crowning framelets designed for the artist’s own portrait; elevating the work of the painter in ways which direct – and may, she suggests, have distorted – how we regard the art of the Renaissance today.
Raphael, The Sistine Madonna, 1512-13, o/c, 265 x 196 cm., Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden; clockwise: cartoon by Hans Gyenis (1873-post1926), published 13 Jan. 1908 , and photo from the 1920s (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden), both showing it in the frame made in the 1850s; then, after World War II and its voyage to Russia, in the linear parcel-gilt & blue-painted frame made for its return to Dresden; and its most recent frame made in 2012. Photos bottom left and right: with thanks to Steve Shriver
She touches upon the related interventions carried out by collectors and museums, most notably on works which have been removed from churches into the profane world, such as the Sistine Madonna, bought from San Sisto in Piacenza in 1754 and reframed in the 1850s in a fashion which deified Raphael as a semi-divine creator, rather than respecting the subject and work.
Piero della Francesca (c.1415/20-92), Madonna di Senigallia, Palazzo Ducale, Urbino
At the opposite extreme from this (and especially from the frame on the Raphael copy now installed in San Sisto) are the occasional disenframings:
‘…we may be habituated to seeing Renaissance works…shorn of frames [as they]… appear in books and online. But this is not our expectation in first-person encounters with them as physical objects.’
These interventions, both heroizing and stripping away, are amongst the acts which may have distorted our perception of ‘the intentio auctoris, understood in its mediaeval sense as the intention of the work rather than of the artist’ , and what Professor Wright is concerned with clarifying, giving back to us some sense of the 15th and 16th century viewers’ engagement with those works via the frames of various kinds which introduce them. Certainly, her idea of the religious image as framed by its immediate wooden border and then concentrically (as it were) by curtains or shutters, background architectural elements, aureoles of candlelight, offerings of garlands, masses, the chapel, the church it inhabits, and finally by the city where it is located, is what most frame historians would recognize more succinctly as ‘context’, applying equally to religious and secular art of all eras and nationalities.
Chapter 1: Frame work in Renaissance art
Fra Angelico (painter; c.1395-1455), Jacopo di Pietro (Il Papero, woodworker), Simone di Nanni (sculptor; 1401-65) & Jacopo di Bartolo da Settignano (sculptor) after Lorenzo Ghiberti (designer; 1378-1455), Tabernacolo dei Linaioli, 1432-35, 260 x 330 cm., Museo di San Marco, Florence
The Linaioli tabernacle, which she cites, sets the Madonna against a ‘cloth of honour’ (given a separate chapter in the book) which is drawn up into framing curtains; this central panel has a broad wooden architrave frame painted with angels, wooden shutters with saints depicted on both sides; and the enclosing marble tabernacle with angels in the spandrels and God the Father within a mandorla in the pediment. It is complexly framed even within its own hanging aedicule; it was not designed for an interior within a building, however, but for the façade of the Guild of Linenworkers in Piazza San Andrea (demolished in the 19th century). Here it would have been framed by the elevation of the building, and then, rather commercially, by the rest of the Mercato Vecchio or old market of which it was part:
‘Such a continuum of nested frames places revered images in a civic and, ultimately, in a cosmic order.’ 
Tabernacolo dei Linaioli, 1432-35, detail
However, cosmic order does not apparently exclude the blurring of the frame and a disordering of nests, since the rituals which also ‘frame’ the image mark
‘a creative instability in establishing where the frame begins and where it ends’.
In the case of the Tabernacolo dei Linaioli, the angels painted on the frieze of the inner frame and carved in the spandrels
‘seem to spill beyond the image to occupy a liminal zone between painting and frame.’ 
This may not be a particularly helpful remark, since the frame, almost from its earliest appearance, has provided a border open to images or inscriptions which expand upon the main painting: this is not precisely a blurring of rôles, as the fields of pictorial surface and painted frieze retain their own individual integrity  – it is rather a use of these fields for different purposes, providing depth and nuance to the subject.
Pietro & Tullio Lombardo (c.1435-1515 & c.1460-1532), monument to Doge Pietro Mocenigo, 1476-81, SS Giovanni e Paolo, Venice
One of the driving themes of the book is the honour accrued to an image (or rather the figure depicted in that image, such as Christ or the Madonna) by the appropriate frame given to it, the offerings made to it, the garlands hung about it, the candles lit and the masses sung – ‘any frame can be a reification of honour’ . The magnificence of the work of art then redounded back to the credit (in all senses) of the donor, although there was then the opposite pitfall of dangerous excess. The Venetian Mocenigo tomb by the Lombardo family excited critical awe from visitors, encapsulating as it did classical ideas of honour in its triumphal arch-shaped structure and inordinate number of statues (where the spiritual element was removed to the pediment, leaving the arch itself to present the Doge in secular state between six Roman guards).
Cima da Conegliano (c.1459/60-c.1517/18), Baptism of Christ, 1492-94; Sebastiano Mariani da Lugano (fl. 1483-1518), inlaid marble frame, 1492-94; Alessandro Vittoria (1525-1608), separate Mannerist double marble pediment, c.1595; Ottaviano Ridolfi (attrib.; fl. 1567-92), Sansovineque stucco ceiling, c.1590; San Giovanni in Bragora, Venice. Image: based on a photo by Didier Descouens
The Lombardos’ work had an influence on more purely sacred works in Venice – for example the altarpiece of the Baptism of Christ by Cima da Conegliano, painted for the high altar of San Giovanni in Bragora, and illustrated by Professor Wright. The inlaid marble frame by Sebastiano Mariani da Lugano (without the later pediment) uses a similar triumphal arch structure, and was originally designed to sit on the altar itself, with supporting wooden altarpieces to either side – one containing the receptacle of the Sacrament, and the other a fragment of the True Cross. Professor Wright notes this as an example of the frame designed in a style which harmonizes with the interior of the church in question (as well as in obedience to liturgical requirements), in line with
‘the increasing incorporation of the frame within a comprehensive aesthetic order that is architecturally conceived’ ;
although there is no reason to think that frames were not incorporated in this way from much earlier periods:
The Capella di Sant’ Aquilino in San Lorenzo, Milan, for example, is decorated with 5th century mosaics, including Christ the Law-giver in the apse of a niche, and fragmentary depictions of patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel. The latter are set within architectural frames between pilasters supporting a giant order of double ovolos, which are related to the decoration of contemporary illuminated Christian manuscripts; for example, to the curtained aedicules holding text in the Garima Gospels (4th-7th century); whilst the mosaic of Christ and another apse mosaic in the chapel are framed in running architectural ornaments within red fillets, which echo linear borders in the Garima Gospels and in the Golden Canon Tables in the British Library.
Sarcophagus, c.430, from Hagia Sofia, Istanbul Archaeological Museum. Photo: Ally Kateusz/Wijngaards Institute of Catholic Research
5th century stone-carvings reveal the same use of architectural ornament and aedicules, and there is no reason to think that the evolving vestments of bishops would not also have been ornamented in a similar way; and the same consonance of style must be true of all subsequent periods.
This harmony of architecture and decorative detail would have been an equal feature of mediaeval and early Renaissance churches and their furnishings and images; and – as remarked in the book –
‘Consideration of the changing character of frames to Italian altarpieces in the course of the 15th century encourages recognition that polyptych frames were less “borders” to painted images than substantial architectural scaffolding for the presentation of the saints…’ 
Even more than this, they were a conjuration of the Celestial Church, based on the architecture of the physical church where they stood; not a border to the image, but the image itself, the decoration of which would have been reflected back from other furnishings, such as choir stalls, frescos, silverware, fonts and pulpits. The later classical (or classicizing) ideal of this harmony between architecture, interior, furnishings and altarpiece was expressed in the mid-15th century by Leon Battista Alberti, in his De re aedificatoria (1443-52; referenced in the notes):
‘We have formerly observed, that the Ornaments annexed to all Sorts of Buildings make an essential Part of Architecture, and it is manifest that every Kind of Ornament is not proper for every Kind of Structure. Thus we are to endeavour, to the utmost of our Power, to make our sacred Works, especially if they are of a publick Nature, as compleatly adorned as possible, as being intended for the Honour of the Gods…’ 
‘Ornament’ is used by both Alberti and Professor Wright in the Italian sense, where ‘ornamento’ is the fitting presentation of whatever object or even person is in question, and includes a broad idea of ‘framing’ or furnishing, as well as the narrower idea of the frame as an integral embellishment to the image.
Vittore Carpaccio (1450-1530), The vision of Prior Ottobon in Sant’ Antonio di Castello, 1515, o/c, 121 x 174 cm., detail, Galleria dell’ Accademia, Venice
Professor Wright illustrates the breakdown of this Albertian order as new altarpieces framed all’ antica (often on a grand scale) colonized mediaeval churches, or when older and valued polyptychs were hung alongside the new. George Bisacca has also illustrated very fully and clearly the process of adaptation through which a revered 14th century polyptych was shorn of its finials, cusped arches and barley-sugar colonets, and the separate panels welded visually into one large rectangular quadro which was then put into a classical aedicular frame, in order to fit in with later 15th century ideas of the church and altarpiece .
Further to Alberti, his ‘window’ is discussed in terms rather more expansive than are usually employed by those who are only concerned with what he sees ‘through’ it, or what he does with what he sees:
‘I will tell what I do when I paint. First of all about where I draw. I inscribe a quadrangle of right angles, as large as I wish, which is considered to be an open window through which I see what I want to paint…’ 
whereas here the border left outside the rectangle he draws on his painting surface is remembered:
‘Permanent qualities are of two kinds. One is known by the outermost boundary  which encloses the plane and may be terminated by one or more lines.’ ‘Note 11: orlo: rim, edge, outline, border…’ 
This border (which, in early panel paintings, was used as the three-dimensional frame moulding by carving out Alberti’s quadrangle to create a lowered painting surface) is therefore always understood to be present around the picture plane, either physically or metaphysically; as Frame work states:
‘… the frame also occupies a far more ambiguous position in relation to the new complexity ascribed to the single picture field… it can… offer painters the possibility of a play across the threshold between the actually experienced and the represented world…’
Piero della Francesca (c.1415/20-d.1492), Madonna & Child, 1432-39, tempera on panel, The Alana Collection
‘…can invite the beholder to mistake, or simply question, their ontological status’ .
If one were a 15th century worshipper before a sacred image where the painter was performing such a play, a trompe l’oeil ploy like this (for example, as above, the mantle draped across a sill which pretends to be the inner moulding of a movable carved frame) might perhaps cause one to feel more intimately connected to Mother and Child – more able to address either of them in prayer – rather than questioning their ontological status.
Chapter 2: Sculpted pedestals and public space
Nanni di Banco (1385-1421), Four saints, 1414-17, Arte dei Maestri di Pietra e di Legname, originals left and below, Museo di Orsanmichele; copies in the original niche on the façade of Orsanmichele, Florence
Other works beside paintings may be framed (again in the sense of a fitting presentation), and a chapter of Frame work is devoted to ‘Sculpted pedestals and public space’. Sculptural niches are of course more literally framelike, and an example of works ousted from their original niches occurs earlier in the book, in the context of the unframed painting (the discomfort of this, and the distorted view it conveys of the work of art as a whole). The sculptures in question, marble or bronze, are the original statues of the various guild saints which stood in niches around the façade of the church of Orsanmichele; they are gradually being restored, copied, and installed in the church museum, whilst the copies replace them in the niches. Now
‘…monumental figure sculptures unequal in media and scale stand, uncontained, in uncomfortably direct juxtaposition, on a common plinth… as though… herded into a communal changing room… offering unintended views and distorted proportions’ .
This naked display is peculiarly crass, and perhaps the best illustration, through its absence, of what Professor Wright means by the frame (or ornament) conveying honour and value upon what is framed. Her real interest in this chapter, however, is the plinths or pedestals of statues, which,
‘like frames to paintings, are frequently cropped from photographic illustrations in the name of legibility’ .
She notes that the problem is exacerbated for pedestals where they are not original, are later, or are by another sculptor (although these situations are precisely replicated for the painting and its frame); in both cases, undervaluing the supporting art affects the history of the primary work. But she is after more than preserving the plinth of a sculpture: she is concerned for the original space which they occupied (or, in a delightful term, where they were ‘empedestalled’).
Jacopo Bellini (c.1390/1400-1470/71), St John the Baptist preaching, drawing, 38 x 26 cm., Département des Arts graphiques, Musée du Louvre
This involves the use of contemporary or antique plinths, bases, and columns in both public and private spaces, as appropriate presentational devices for statues of the Virtues, or of celebrated men on horseback, or of allegorically-charged figures which comment on painted scenes, or as political machinery – which may be subverted for religious purposes (above) – or even in more intimately-framed exercises of power on royal dining-tables.
Donatello (c.1386-1466), Judith & Holofernes, 1460s, bronze figures on marble & granite column, Palazzo Vecchio
Donatello’s David is discussed in detail, from its integral base and possible pedestal to its later place at the top of a column, with all the implications of the Biblical victor raised high above the viewers, and above the protective harpies carved at the bottom of the column . So is his Judith and Holofernes, which appears to retain its original support. This is of baluster form , its lower drum carved in a strigillated pattern , both of which are elements in the ornamentation of 15th and 16th century frames. Strigillation here is seen as connected with funerary altars and sarcophagi, but it seems more likely that it actually represents the waters of baptism and the passage from death to new life, which the figure of Judith symbolizes for the people of Bethulia in her victory over the pagan Assyrian general who would have destroyed them.
Idolino, Roman bronze copy, c. 30 BC, of a Greek original, c. 5th century BC; pedestal, c.1540s, bronze, Museo Archeologico Nazionale Florence
Another detailed discussion follows, of the Roman bronze of a young man (the Idolino), and the massive bronze plinth commissioned in the mid-16th century on which to display it in the courtyard of the Duke of Urbino’s villa at Pesaro. This plinth is constructed in the form of a classicizing altar, and shares a collection of the architectural, naturalistic and grotesque ornaments of the time with contemporary frames: from the cherubs’ heads, festoons, leaf-tip mouldings and stopped-channel fluting, to the ivy garlands, morphing animals, and Vitruvian wave at the bottom. It could also be imagined as four partially aedicular frames which together form the four sides of the whole – an entablature with a frieze beneath the overhanging fluting, and an inner architrave frame containing the ivy branches; a ‘predella’ panel holding the morphing panthers and vases of snakes, and the lowest decorative moulding with the Vitruvian scroll. This antique vocabulary lay all around the artists of 15th and 16th century Italy; like the Idolino it was being continually dug up, titivated, collected and studied, and influenced them through its power and its ubiquity. Both Donatello and Mantegna designed frames which echoed Roman funerary altars and grave stele; forms which also seem to underlie the Idolino pedestal .
Chapter 3: Elevation and the altarpiece
From these varied bases for displaying sculptures, the book moves on to the pedestals, plinths and raised thrones which elevate the figure of the Madonna in painted altarpieces; fantastic structures built out of the mouldings and ornaments which make up the physical frames around them, and which would have echoed other furnishings in the surrounding church.
Neri di Bicci (1419-92), Coronation of the Virgin, 1460, San Giovannino dei Cavalieri, Florence. Photo: Sailko
Professor Wright explains the burgeoning cult of Marian devotion, responsible for the numerous altarpieces showing the Coronation of the Virgin; she also explains how raising the figure of the Virgin in such a painting can symbolize both the ‘spiritual ascent’ of the worshipper, and the hierarchies of the courts of heaven. This was relatively straightforward to depict when a gold ground polyptych was in question, and the Holy Trinity and the Virgin could be shown hovering in the nave of a Celestial Church, elevated only by air and angels (for example, in Gentile da Fabriano’s Polyptych de Val Romita, c.1408, Brera; frame 19th century, or in Neri di Bicci’s world of the quadro all’antico, above, where Christ and the Virgin are haloed in a mandorla of cherubs). But Professor Wright has assembled an extraordinary roster of Virgins lifted up on thrones, plinths, pedestals, altar-like tables, columns, flights of stairs and even an octagonal bandstand-like structure in Ercole de’ Roberti’s Pala Portuense in the Brera.
Giovanni Bellini (c. 1435-1516), the Frari Triptych, 1488, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice
Giovanni Bellini (c.1435-1516), Pesaro altarpiece, c.1472-75, o/panel, 262 x 240 cm (without crest), Museo Civico, Pesaro; crest with Pietá, 106 x 84 cm., Pinacoteca Vaticana; overall outer measurements 630 x 400 cm. (approx. 15 x 11 feet 6”)
One of the most striking depictions of a Coronation – the Pesaro altarpiece – fails to elevate the Virgin at all, but has a particularly fabulous original frame, reflected within the painting by the structure and ornament of the high-backed throne occupied by Christ and His mother, pierced by an open ‘sight’ with a window-like view onto a landscape and castle. Professor Wright sees the conjunction of the carved frame and its painted reflection as opening
‘the possibility of its symbolic function, namely in allusion to the Virgin as Gate of Heaven. Mary… becomes the entry place to salvation… the Frari altarpiece describes the Virgin as IANUA CERTA POLI (Sure Gate of Heaven)’ ;
although this seems to be one of the most salient metaphors about any aedicular frame, Gothic or classicizing, of a sacred work: that it is there partly to provide an imagined entrance into the realm of the divine for the worshipper who is meditating on the scene or subject it encloses.
This correspondence of wooden frame and painting demonstrates – as with the Frari triptych – how closely painter and framemaker worked together. The same carver, Jacopo da Faenza, may have been involved in both cases, since the ornament of the main friezes is similar, as is the decoration of the running architectural mouldings; whilst the vertebrate ornament on the pilasters of the crest frame of the Pesaro altarpiece (and the central frieze of the painted throne) might be described as a radical simplification of that on the Frari pilasters. . However, the Frari triptych is upwards of thirteen years later than the Pesaro altarpiece, and Carolyn Wilson has suggested, as have other historians, that both painting and frame may reflect contemporary fashion in Urbino. Ambrogio Barocci has been mentioned as a possible framemaker, ‘a Venice-trained sculptor active in the decoration of Federico da Montefeltro’s palace in the 1470s’ ; likewise Francesco di Simone Ferrucci, who also worked on the palace interiors .
Bellini, Pesaro altarpiece, detail
Whilst the main panel takes the form of a sacra conversazione painted on a unified panel in its all’ antica frame, the pilasters are occupied by eight small panels with – in comparison to the major figures – miniature painted saints, inlaid behind flat fillets (which have probably replaced the original mouldings). They look back to the saints, prophets, patriarchs and angels which filled the lesser panels of Gothic polyptychs in a descending hierarchy of size, and which might also be relegated to the outer, pillar-like buttresses of a particularly large altarpiece. In this way, although the painting itself, with its symbolic landscape seen through the ‘frame’ of the throne, and the reflection of the latter in the carved giltwood frame, are both quite avant-garde, the figures of the tiny auxiliary saints in their tiered arches at the sides survive from an earlier epoch. The small aedicule on the crest, which ought to hold the Pietà now in the Vatican Museums, is also both older in concept (like the central Gothic aedicule on Lorenzo Niccolò’s 1402 Coronation of the Virgin, illustrated earlier), and fashionably new, like the attic storey of a Roman temple colonized by the divine, and revived for the Italian Renaissance .
The Pesaro altarpiece is unusual, however, in its low viewpoint relative to Christ and the Virgin. Most enthroned Madonnas of the 15th century are seated on soaring architectural follies, and – most notably in Venice and northern Italy – the altarpieces they occupy soar with them, generally into great vertical arches which raise them above the altar and celebrants below, and draw the painted images of saints and donors with them. Like the tall triumphal arch of the Venetian Mocenigo tomb, this visible, vertical form conveys credit on the donor as much as it glorifies the Madonna:
‘… height and ornament become readily legible ciphers of the patron’s prestige’ .
Let us pretend that Professor Wright didn’t actually requote ‘phallic verticality’ in connection with an sacred image, however much 20th century hindsight might associate this description with ‘the religio-political dimensions of the city state’ .
Giovanni Bellini (c.1435-1516), San Giobbe altarpiece, c. 1480, o/ panel, 471 x 258 cm., shown montaged in situ in its church rather than as now, frameless in the Gallerie dell’ Academia, Venice
Bellin’s altarpiece for San Giobbe uses this soaring format to conjure a full-blown trompe l’oeil apsidal chapel (to match the physical chapel on the opposite side of the church), where the Virgin is loftily but not unbelievably seated in another throne with an aedicular, frame-like back, inside a feigned architectural elevation which almost seamlessly continues the real stone structure and ornament of the frame. As Frame work is declaredly about ‘the act of framing’ and ‘the intentio auctoris’, it is rather a shame that its author doesn’t even mention the outrage committed on this particular altarpiece by its not being returned to the original frame from which Napoleon’s minions stole it, or the excision of ‘the intentio auctoris’ by displaying it in the Accademia, naked and (in the terms of the book) un-ornamented; without honour.
Chapter 4: Cloth of honour
Jacopo della Quercia (1374-1438), Virgin Annunciate, c. 1421-22, polychrome wood, 175 cm. high, displayed against a fresco’d damask hanging, Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta, San Gimignano
Another Bellini, the Madonna della Vittoria, now in the Louvre, had a carved giltwood polychrome inscribed frame and was displayed against a painted brocade-like spalliera , in the way that treasured paintings might be hung in domestic settings, or sculptures in churches ; and this, amongst other uses, is the subject of chapter 4, ‘Cloth of honour’:
‘In this capacity, the cloth of honour is a framing mechanism aligned with the ground of painting itself and relates to what Louis Marin recognizes as the broader functions of the ground or background as frame to figures within the structure of pictorial representation’ .
Domenico Veneziano (1410-61), Madonna & Child, 1435-37, 86 x 61 cm., Collection of Bernard Berenson, Villa I Tatti, Florence; and the painting displayed by Berenson against a length of silk, photograph, 1903, Biblioteca Berenson, I Tatti, the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies
The cloth of honour could, in other words, be a silk hanging against which a painting or sculpture was displayed, or a depiction in fresco of such a hanging on the relevant wall, or the representation within a painting of a hanging as the background for a figure worthy of such an honour. The cloth of honour has lasted into our own period as the setting for monarchs and other state figures, particularly as the background, in the 17th -19th centuries, for coronation portraits of kings and queens, which would be given trophy frames ornamented with the crown and other symbols of kingship. Presented to ambassadors, these framed portraits, hung against their distinguishing brocade or velvet backgrounds and often beneath matching canopies, would stand in place of the throned monarch in embassies overseas .
In the Renaissance in Italy, however, the value of these cloths, which were made from ‘gold, silver, silk and rich, sometimes rare, dye stuffs’ , was extremely high and correspondingly unobtainable except by the very wealthy and powerful, and was used to accrue glory to and from God by their donation to churches, or by their use as a visible symbol of power. Professor Wright highlights the blurring of
‘the already porous boundary between the value of the painting as an object (signalled later by the damask cloth Berenson would hang behind [Veneziano’s Madonna]) and as an image’ .
Carlo Crivelli (c.1430/35-c.1494), Madonna della rondine, post-1490, oil & tempera/panel, 150.5 x 107.3 cm., National Gallery, London
She then discusses in detail the work of Crivelli, who is shown to be adept at depicting illusionary brocades which use both actual and faux gold or silver leaf, modulating patterns and colour contrasts in keeping with the scene or figure involved, and exploiting illusionistic gambits to direct the attention to the significance of the painted cloths. Many of the altarpieces he produced for local clients in the Marche were old-fashioned polyptychs, and his single unified panel of the Madonna della rondine in its original all’ antica frame cunningly subverts its new-fangled integration to ‘frame’ each saint and the Virgin in individual splendour:
‘The effect of separate backdrops compensates for the loss of the firm hierarchical structure provided by the multi-panel polyptych…’ 
Sodoma (1477-1549), St Benedict absolves two dead nuns, from the Life of St Benedict, 1505-08, fresco cycle, with a detail showing the curtain on an altarpiece; Abbazia, Monteoliveto Maggiore
Strangely, whilst comparison is made between the precious fabrics used to cover liturgical vessels and those used in various paintings to lay beneath the body of Christ or partially to cover (‘honour’) it, no mention is made of the curtains used to cover or display altarpieces at set times and on specific occasions, save in a more than minimal appearance in the list of concentric elements around the frame itself , mentioned much earlier in this review, and later as sculpted curtains on monuments. As Alessandro Nova remarks,
‘For altarpieces of a certain prestige, hangings were an integral part of their furnishing…’ 
Giovanni Bellini (c.1435-1516), Madonna & Child, c.1480-90, oil & tempera/panel, 90.8 x 64.8 cm., with the metal eyelets at the top of the frame, used for mounting a curtain rod; National Gallery. Photo: with thanks to Peter Schade
He goes on to explain that,
‘…around the 11th century, with the intensification of the Marian cult, the hanging became the Virgin’s special attribute…’
‘The 15th century inventories of Siena Cathedral record that Duccio’s Maestà was once covered with a vermilion hanging. Filippino Lippi’s altarpiece for the Florentine Otto di Pratica… was protected by a blue hanging that when open was held back by white and red silk bows’ .
Given its liturgical significance – over the image as a symbol of the temple veil which was rent at Christ’s death, and of the revelation of the New Law – and because it was physically attached to the altarpiece frame, the drawable curtain seems quite as much within the act of framing as the cloth of honour: indeed, to be in some senses another version of it.
Chapter 5: Staging the Annunciation
Framing, openings and coverings become fraught with more specific symbols in chapter 5, which examines the depiction of the Annunciation in paintings and sculpture, and the ways in which current (15th century) metaphors used to explain the metaphysical concepts of the Immaculate Conception, the Annunciation and Virgin Birth might be integrated with the manner in which paintings and sculptures were presented. Such metaphors might also be given an expression influenced by dramatic presentations of the Mystery plays, set inside churches where the architecture framed and commented upon the action (e.g. by setting the Virgin and Angel Annunciate on either side of the high altar).
Filippino Lippi (c.1457-d.1504), fresco of the Assumption enclosing parcel-gilt stone-framed fresco of the Annunciation, 1489-91, Carafa Chapel, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome
The comparative poverty and humble genealogy of the Virgin were, Professor Wright points out, compensated for by giving her splendidly opulent apartments in which to receive the Angel Gabriel, whilst ‘the richly inventive frame’ of Filippino Lippi’s fresco’d Carafa Annunciation was similarly enriched with matching ornament, its heft ‘redoubled by a painted baldachin apparently suspended above it’ . This also honoured the Virgin as ‘prime intercessor with Christ’, and as the physical tabernacle which had held the Lord.
‘Above all, the frame in the Annunciation stands at, and as, a highly charged margin between separate spheres in time and space: heaven and earth, inside and outside, before and after’ .
Nanni di Bartolo (fl. 1419-37) & Pisanello (pre-1390-c.1455), monument to Niccolò Brenzoni, marble, Annunciation, fresco, c.1424-26, San Fermo Maggiore, Venice
These dichotomies might be expressed through the separation of the Angel and the Virgin, often painted or set as carved figures to either side of a representation of Christ: an Ecce Homo, a Pietà, or a resurrected Saviour, just as, in the Mystery plays, the actors might flank the altar . A example illustrated is the funerary monument, above, where the fresco’d Angel and Virgin occupy the top spandrels of the framed sculpture and are separated by the risen Christ, thus neatly bringing together the extreme ends of the earthly life of Christ, and highlighting the divine aspect in marble (revealed to the world by the drawing of curtains). On a wooden polyptych, Angel and Virgin might be divided by the opening of shutters (the Ghent altarpiece), or in a sacra conversazione by positioning them in different sections of an architectural setting (Francesco Cossa, Annunciation, Dresden).
Carlo Crivelli (c.1430/35-c.1494), The Annunciation, with St Emidius, 1486, o/c, 207 x 146.7 cm., with details, National Gallery
Crivelli appears again, in respect of the fascinating construction of his Annunciation. It happens in a Marchigiano palazzo, from which, for the worshipper’s convenience, a section of the outer wall has been removed to reveal the Virgin receiving the Holy Spirit:
‘…this is not just the conventionalized open side of a viewing box, but a frame to a privileged locus… Crivelli offers the ornamented aperture within the larger actual framing of the altarpiece as a nested frame for the Holy of Holies’ .
The original frame of this work has unfortunately been lost, like the frame of the Cossa mentioned above; in both cases, however, the artist has included a detail (for Crivelli, a cucumber; for Cossa a snail) which appears to break out of the picture plane and across the barrier of the frame, underlining
‘…the marginal situation of the Virgin herself who, elected by her very humility, is situated at the threshold with the divine’ .
This idea of the frame as playing with concepts of what is inside, outside, liminal, or indeed partaking of all these states, is an intriguing analogue for contemporary efforts to explain or clarify the position of one who was simultaneously a poor peasant girl, the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven, a Virgin receiving the announcing Angel, the bereaved mother at the foot of the cross, and the intercessionary bridge between the worshipper and Christ. Subsuming all of these, the frame may also be a literal expression of Mary as a tabernacle containing the divine (for example, the Tabernacolo dei Linaioli, illustrated near the beginning of this review), and one which could be closed with shutters or curtains, as above; otherwise symbolized by the hortus conclusus.
Donatello (c.1386-1466), The Annunciation, c.1435, pietra serena, parcel-gilt, 218 x 168 cm., Cavalcanti Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence
Besides this specific interpretation of the frame, Professor Wright mentions the transforming of the humble pietro serena used by Donatello for his Cavalcanti Annunciation in Santa Croce by a contemporary coat of pale golden paint, picked out with parcel gilding, and, ‘on the frame, a silvery gold leaf laid over tin’ , as another metaphor for the exaltation of the Virgin:
‘… the tabernacle represents a visual commentary on the nature of the Annunciate and of the Annunciation’ .
She quotes Vasari commenting (‘most unusually in his descriptions’) on this particular frame:
‘But that which gave him [Donatello] his name was… an Annunciate Virgin of pietra di macigno for which he made a frame [ornato] composed in the manner of grotesques [alla grottesca], with a varied and curved [attorto] base and crowned with a quarter circle; adding to it six putti who hold up garlands, who seem as though afraid of the height and clinging to one another for reassurance…’ 
Chapter 6: Framing, tomb and Sacrament
Having dealt with the frame as symbol and vehicle for the ultimate conception, the sixth chapter of the book turns to ‘Framing, tomb and Sacrament’, where funerary monuments are seen as expressing somewhat comparable relationships to the earthly and heavenly, human and divine, liminal and transitional states, as those explored in regard to images of the Annunciation.
Cardinal of Portugal’s chapel, 1460-73, San Miniato al Monte, Florence: clockwise from top, view into altar niche; funerary monument; outside of entrance looking towards altar; throne wall with Annunciation. There is a further tier above all these, holding tall arched windows in fresco’d lunettes and supporting the domed ceiling with Della Robbia roundels [centre]; at the base of the ceiling image can be seen the painted porta claustra which replaces one of the arched windows
A section of this chapter is given to the chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal in San Miniato al Monte, Florence: a tiny but terrifically tall mortuary chapel, built on the pattern of a Greek cross where all the arms are very short indeed – so short as to be merely three niches and an entrance  – and where the structure is a skeleton of interlinked frames. Aedicular frames, lunettes, both vast and small round-headed arches, tondi and rectangles, they are all here, choreographed into a sort of cotillion of geometrical forms which are so many as to provide (even in such a small space) an enfilade of retreating alternating shapes.
Alesso Baldovinetti (1427-99), Annunciation, throne wall, Cardinal of Portugal’s chapel, San Miniato al Monte, Florence
Funerary monument and Annunciation are brought together here, as the twenty-five year-old cardinal’s tomb faces a chilly marble reimagining of his throne beneath an Annunciation painted on oak panelling by Alesso Baldovinetti. The Della Robbia Holy Spirit in the middle of the (celestial) dome arrives via gold rays in the upper left of the fresco’d treescape above, which shoot through the tondo of the window frame into the earthly scene below, to arrive beneath the Virgin’s protective hand . The roundel of jasper in the top of the throne, which echoes the window and the Della Robbia roundels, is apparently made from the same stone as the jasper roundel in the winged wreath on the apron of Donatello’s Cavalcanti Annunciation in Santa Croce. Professor Wright connects stone and seat with the book of Revelation:
‘And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone…’ 
Antonio (1427-79) & Bernardo (1409-64) Rossellino & workshop, funerary monument, 1460-73, Cardinal of Portugal’s chapel, San Miniato al Monte, Florence
The architecture of the chapel is attributed to Brunelleschi’s follower, Antonio di Manetto Ciaccheri, the sculptures are by the Rossellino brothers (Giovanni executed the architectural ornament), the ceramic ceiling by Luca della Robbia, and the paintings by Baldovinetti and the Pollaiuolo brothers (the altarpiece is sadly only half the real thing; like Raphael’s St Cecelia, the painting is in a museum – in this case, the Uffizi – in a replica frame, whilst the real frame is still in place, around a replica painting). This chapel is an extraordinarily integrated work, articulated by the doorways, windows and other openings which pierce like intercessionary passages from the earthly through to the divine, aided by the Virgin and the saints; and by the temple-like aedicules which hold the entrance, the earth-bound lower tier, the tomb, the altarpiece, the altar. The Holy Spirit descends through successive roundels to the earthly Virgin; the heavenly Virgin and Child look down from heaven through the marble tondo of the monument; revelation exists behind curtains drawn by angels; the soul of the dead cardinal ascends through the arched and round windows; the visitor enters through aedicular doorways, and his prayers mount like smoke to the dove in the roundels of the dome.
For some reason – perhaps because the exquisite jigsaw of interlocking forms, images and meanings shrugs off banality – this passage of the book comes most alive; it is the least littered with excluding jargon and the least to look at its subject-matter with the chilly eye of an anthropologist investigating a minor cult.
Antonio Vivarini (1415-80), Giovanni d’Alemagna (1411-50), carved by Ludovico da Forlí, 1443, Altarpiece of the Body of Christ, San Zaccaria, Venice
Following upon funerary monuments comes the tabernacle of the sacrament; a symbolic tomb where the door has opened, the occupant has risen and is offering resurrection to the earthly worshipper. These took various forms, according to local custom and use ; they might form part of an altarpiece, as in the polyptych above – the cupboard of the sacrament enclosed in a pierced rectilinear frame carved with foliate roundels holding the busts of prophets, and Christ as the Man of Sorrows; the risen Christ carved in the round, stepping out of the tomb under the cathedral-like canopy at the top. Vivarini and his brother-in-law worked with various carvers , but three of their polyptychs in the chapel of San Tarasio in San Zaccaria are by Ludovico da Forlí, and display the same jewel-like workmanship of pierced designs, Moresque ornament and bands of quatrefoils, impossibly slender columns and soaring finials.
Mina da Fiesole (1429-84), Tabernacle of the Sacrament, c.1473, Santa Croce, Florence
The move of the altarpiece from Gothic polyptych to the unified panel in a frame all’ antica left much less opportunity to unite a place for the sacrament with the framed image standing on the altar, and led to the development of the wall-hung tabernacle all’ antica, comprising a ‘safe’ to preserve the transformed Host which was decorated with its own revelatory imagery, standing for and explaining the mystery within. Professor Wright notes, of Mina da Fiesole’s tabernacle, above,
‘…the Host is alluded to directly in the roundel which appears beneath the door, underscribed: HIC EST PANIS VIVUS QUI CELO DESCENDIT (‘Here is the living bread, which descends from Heaven’). Ingeniously, the act of transmission is referred to in abstract terms by the large tondo which fills the ‘heavenly’ sphere of the pediment, which then effectively ‘descends’, piercing through the entablature by the power of the Holy Spirit…’ .
Desiderio da Settignano (1428-64), Tabernacle of the Sacrament, 1461, San Lorenzo, Florence
The inner part of the image which held the cupboard itself and its angelic guardians was developed further, as a trompe l’oeil space which withdrew the mystery further back into itself, under the protection of a faux barrel-vault, which finds very descriptive expression in the tabernacle in San Lorenzo, by Desiderio da Settignano . Desiderio was admitted to the guild of master carvers in stone and wood, the Arte dei maestri di pietra e legname, in June 1453, and opened a workshop with his brother near the Ponte Santa Trinità in Florence.
He has achieved a remarkable illusion of spatial recession in this work, where the outer aedicular frame becomes the doorway into the nave of a basilica, with the cupboard of the sacrament replacing the altarpiece, and God the Father in the lunette above. In the ‘crypt’ below is a Pietà, framed by panels with candelabrum ornament, above which stand two angels with functioning candlestands. The keystone of the basilica arch points upwards, to where the Host, which would have been hidden behind the (missing) cupboard door of the main panel, is revealed – in the perfect image of transubstantiation – as the actual body of the young Christ, poised on the chalice of the Eucharist against a classicizing lunette with scrolled and flowered ends. Bits of this, such as the pediment, pedimentary angels, and aedicular form with pilasters, may be influenced by Donatello’s Santa Croce Annunciation, yet its sheer inventiveness with the metaphorical ideas which it is expressing in solid form is breathtakingly impressive .
‘Tuscan tabernacles, in their inventive framing of the desire to see “beyond”, make frustrated vision the very means of access to the sacred’ .
Chapter 7: Monuments as miniatures
Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, De re rustica, Book I, Italy (probably Milan), 1469, MS M.139 fol. 2r, vellum, written for a member of the Del Carretto family, The Morgan Library
Finally, the seventh chapter looks at the use of frames in illuminated MSS and early printed books, as illustrations, containers for panels of text, the borders of painted scenes, or even objects shown in those scenes; but mainly as the frontispiece – the entrance to the book. An early example of the framed portrait is cited – a century or more before Vasari’s busts of artists in little aedicular frames were used in his Vite, and added to the mounts in Il libro de’ disegni; it dates from c.1430 and displays Cicero in a frame of Rex Whistlerish invention for De oratore. This is a delightful trailer for the large genre of Netherlandish portrait engravings which flourished from the 16th century , by which time these were also established as the introduction to a book, conveying authority and respectability by way of a sculptural altarpiece-like frame, a decorated moulding frame (perhaps with festoons or inscriptions), a Mannerist strapwork or Auricular frame.
The temple of Love, Franceso Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, 1499, pub. Aldus Manutius, Venice
The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is important in regard to book and MSS illustration, since it contains a small settlement of architectural interiors, entrances, ruins, ornaments, sculptures and fountains, follies, pergolas, and carriages which have escaped from Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar; and its images blend with the text both visually and illustratively. The narrator is moved by the architecture he encounters, especially, perhaps, the temple entrance, with its classical proportions and carved ornament, signifying an order imposed by man and an historical pedigree:
‘At length being come to this ancient porch, a worke woorthie the looking vpon maruellously composed by exquisite rules, and by art notably beautified, with diuers and sundry sorts of cuttings…’ 
Attavante degli Attavanti (1452-1525), Biblia dos Jéronimos, frontispiece to vol. I, 1495, Arquivo Nacional Torre do Tombo, Lisbon
In connection with the chapel of the Cardinal of Portugual, pages from the eight-volume bible, the Biblia dos Jéronimos commissioned in Florence by Manuel I of Portugal, are also illustrated. They seem to share with the chapel elements such as the tall coffered arches with rosettes, aedicular forms, roundels and angels, revealing the consistent stylistic echoes in different objects executed at the same time and place as can be found in the early Christian gospels, mosaics and sculpture alluded to much earlier in this review:
‘Like the Florentine architect Michelozzo… Attavante is as much a builder of sacred space as a maestro di prospettiva… Manuel’s act of honour to God and the saints is reified by being rendered as a jewelled building’ .
Attavante degli Attavanti (1452-1525), Biblia dos Jéronimos, frontispiece to vol. III, 1496, Arquivo Nacional Torre do Tombo, Lisbon
In conclusion, the book indicates that styles, ornaments and influences were widely diffused, and lasted over longer periods than are generally allowed for. It also wonders whether some of the more arcane interpretations given to various frames throughout the work might have been lost on contemporary eyes:
‘The remarkable volubility, of the frames I have studied related… to their immediate, material forms of address, their site specificity and ownership. Yet one might still ask who, at the time, was attending to their messages…’ 
Perhaps, actually, many people? – since this was a period and a country when the common faith was the background to so much of life; prayers, festivals, sacred texts, symbols and metaphors part of the general vocabulary, and what are seen here as abstruse riddles were accepted mysteries. This is in many ways a great work of scholarship; but, in treating the Christian religion, which was then oxygen in the atmosphere, like a weird chthonic sect, only comprehensible to the anthropologist who has devoted years to investigating its strangenesses, it risks seeing sometimes more than is there, and sometimes much less.
Neri di Bicci (1419-92/93), God the Father with adoring angels & seraphim, 1472, giltwood polychrome frame; now containing Neri di Bicci and Desiderio da Settignano (1428-64), Madonna & Child, c.1460-65, polychrome and gilded stucco, Yale University Art Gallery
 Alison Wright, Frame work: honour and ornament in Italian Renaissance art, Yale, 2019, p. 293
 Ibid., p. 26
 Ibid., p. 15
 Ibid., p. 17
 Ibid., p. 21
 Ibid., p. 29
 It is not until the work of, for example, Jan Toorop in the late 19th century or, in the 20th century, Howard Hodgkin, that frame and pictorial surface really do begin to blur, become unstable, or even to merge
 Wright, op. cit., p. 32
 Ibid., pp.44-45
 Ibid., p. 44
 Ibid., note 65 to ch. 1, p.297; and The architecture of Leon Battista Alberti, Book VIII, ch. I
 Wright, op. cit., p. 50-52
 Ibid., p. 18
 Ibid., p. 57
 Ibid., pp. 70-74, and note 75, p. 302
 See ‘National Gallery, London: reframing Mantegna’
 Wright, op. cit., p. 115
 Peter Humfrey, however, sees the differences between the internal and external framing as confirming ‘that the collaboration between the painter and the framemaker was not here as close as with Bellini’s Venetian altarpieces’ – Humfrey, ‘The Venetian altarpiece of the early Renaissance in the light of contemporary business practice’, Saggi e Memorie di storia dell’ arte, vol. 15, 1986, p. 79. For the carving and painting of altarpieces in Venice in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the subsequent shipping out of panels and frame, see Dr Kiril Penušliski, ‘Girolamo da Santcroce’s polyptych in Košljun, Croatia’
 Carolyn Wilson, Bellini’s Pesaro altarpiece: a study in context and meaning, PhD thesis, New York University, 1977, p. 322
 Ibid., pp. 479-80.
 See, also, Perugino’s Decemviri altarpiece (1495, Pinacoteca Vaticana), reassembled with its Man of Sorrows above, in the Cappella dei Priori, Palazzo dei Priori, Perugia, where the latter belongs; the two pieces of the altarpiece were separated after being looted by Napoleon, just as with the Pesaro altarpiece. 1
 Wright, op. cit., p. 120
 Ibid., p. 119, quoting H. Lefebvre, The production of space, 1974, transl. D. Nicholson-Smith, 1991, pp. 235-37 & p. 98. How French… but see also Alexxa Gotthardt, ‘Why ancient Greek sculptures have small penises’, Artsy, 21 January 2018, and consider Michelangelo’s David, as a Renaissance example
 Ibid., note 148, p. 310, & 153, p. 311
 Ibid., pp. 152-53
 Ibid., p. 154
 See the section, ‘Trophies for monarchs and rulers’ in ‘Trophy frames’
 Wright, op. cit., p. 162
 Ibid., p. 168
 Ibid., p. 177
 Ibid., on p. 29
 Alessandro Nova, ‘Hangings, curtains and shutters of 16th century Lombard altarpieces’, in Italian altarpieces 1250-1550: Function & design, ed. Eve Borsook & Fiorella Gioffredi, 1994, p. 179
 Ibid., p. 181
 Wright, op. cit., p. 188
 Ibid., p. 186
 Ibid., p. 191
 Ibid., p. 195
 Ibid., p. 199
 Ibid., p. 211
 Ibid., p. 216
 Ibid., p. 214
 See Linda Koch’s analysis of models for the chapel in ‘The Early Christian revival at S. Miniato al Monte: the Cardinal of Portugal chapel’, The Art Bulletin, vo. 78, no 3, September 1996, pp. 527-55
 Wright, op. cit., p. 228
 King James Bible, ‘Revelation’ 4:2-3; Wright, ibid., quotes Frederick Hart’s connecting the chapel throne to the throne of David and Christ’s heavenly throne
 Wright, ibid., p. 238
 Ibid., p. 244
 Ibid., p. 246
 Wright, op. cit., p. 251. See also ‘Renaissance symbols: the iconography of a 15th century frame’
 The Project Gutenberg EBook of Hypnerotomachia, by Francesco Colonna, translated by Robert Dallington, London, 1592, F2. See also ‘Fruit, flowers, foliage: the symbolism of Renaissance frames’for a tondo in a garland frame, and its description by Colonna
 Wright, op. cit., p. 275
 Ibid., p. 288