Framing relief sculptures

by The Frame Blog

Carved stone panels have been around for almost as long as paintings, and have been given frames from a very early point, and so – in the light of the 2022 exhibition in Florence on the work of Donatello and his peers [1] – it seemed an interesting idea to look at the ways in which relief sculpture has been framed in order to display it most appropriately.

Frames and borders of antique reliefs

Sculpted relief with procession of Babylonian warriors, 486-66 BC, Persepolis, Iran . Photo: courtesy of Marina Somers

This article, first given as a talk at the Florence Academy of Art, will concentrate on 15th century panels of the Madonna & Child, but includes other Renaissance relief sculpture as well as some earlier comparative carvings. For example, here is a two-&-a-half-thousand year-old frieze of Babylonian warriors from Persepolis, in its integral frame of eglantine flowers. Although three sides of the border are carved all-in-one with the figural panel, the garland occupies a separate field, raised slightly above the procession of figures and contained by plain relief mouldings, just like a modern moveable frame. This is one piece of a number of panels covering a wall within the huge complex at Persepolis, which was probably used for ceremonial occasions, and to welcome guests bearing tribute. Warriors and flowers seem unlikely companions, but in this case the eglantines are symbolic, promising long life and protection to the visiting Babylonians, and demonstrating how the frame can be used to carry messages which comment on or expand upon the meaning of the sculpture itself.

Roman funerary altar for Iulia Victorina, end of the 1st century AD, Musée du Louvre

This much later Roman funerary altar is one of number of such objects, many of which were still visible scattered around Italian cities during the 14th to 15th centuries, and which influenced the form and structure of painted Renaissance altarpieces, as well as of sculptures – especially in the semi-circular pediment with scrolled decorative ends. Each face of the altar is framed by a frieze between flat mouldings or fillets – again, very like a modern architrave frame, or a Renaissance cassetta – decorated with an undulating border of flowers. This is similar to the Persian relief panel, but since the altar commemorates the death of 10 year-old girl the flowers are botanically accurate spring flowers, including anemones, violets and fruit blossom, which stand for renewal as well as mourning the loss of a child in the spring of her life.

Roman funerary altar with sculptor carving an imago clipeata, 69-96 AD, Vatican Museums

It was Roman remains like these as much as the ruins of large buildings which were seen by Donatello and Brunelleschi in the early 15th century, and which radically changed the direction of art, architecture and sculpture in Italy towards the classicizing forms and ornament of the Renaissance. A great many of the structures, moulding profiles and decoration of frames were laid down at this point, merging with or remaking earlier Gothic versions. The funerary altar above, for instance, includes two kinds of frame – a flat cassetta containing the whole image, with a decorative cornice at the top and plinth at the bottom, moving it nearer to the temple-like façade of a Renaissance altarpiece; whilst within it is depicted a plain round or tondo frame, which the sculptor in the relief is in the process of carving.

Sculptor carving an imago clipeata from a funerary altar, and a completed version, 2nd century AD, from the Baths of Mithras, Ostia

The tondo frame contains what is presumably a portrait of the dead husband of the woman looking on: this type of framed image was known as an imago clipeata, or a ‘shield image’, derived from portraits of heroic generals set into their shields, and helping to influence a long tradition of tondo and oval frames, into the present day.

Frames of 15th century reliefs: tondi

Donatello (c.1386-1466), The raising of Drusiana, stucco tondo, Old Sacristy, San Lorenzo; Bernardo Rossellino (1409-64), Tomb of Leonardo Bruni, 1446-48, Santa Croce; Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823),  Cupid & Psyche, 1773, marble, 59.4 x 49.3 cm., RA

Plain versions of tondo frames appear in the early 15th century on Donatello’s stucco roundels in the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo (1419-28), and around reliefs of the Madonna and Child on many of the  vast funerary monuments produced by Bernardo Rossellino and others. These would be echoed through the centuries by round and oval frames on later paintings, and also on relief sculptures such as Joseph Nollekens’s 18th century bass relief of Cupid & Psyche. They consist of fairly wide and plainish borders which cradle and present the image, carved or painted, without competing with it in decorative detail.

Pagno di Lapo Portigiani (1408-70) in workshop of Michelozzo (1396-1472), Altar frontal with the Trinity, 1449-52, and detail, Museo Stefano Bardini.  Photo: Sailko

Ornamental versions of the same frame – the circular ancestors of many modern patterns – and closer to the architectural decoration of the Roman shield, may also have been inspired by the imago clipeata. The sculptor of the altar frontal above has incorporated within it a roundel holding the Holy Trinity, in the form of the three faces of God, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. By reversing the convex border of the shield image to a concave profile and adding radiating flutes and leaves, he has achieved the effect of a sunburst within the very restricted space of two narrow mouldings. Because the carved faces fill the whole inside area of the tondo, and because it is set against the exaggerated strigils decorating the altar, the tension between the undulating S-shapes outside and the densely-packed pictorial and decorative space inside creates a sense of restrained energy and power which is extremely compelling.

Gregorio di Lorenzo (circle of; late 15th century), Madonna & Child, c.1470, marble, diam. 66.04 x 14.61 cm., Nelson Atkins Museum

In contrast with the dynamism of the Trinity roundel and its radiating lines of decoration, this similarly-shaped and bordered roundel of the Madonna and Child uses concentric circles of ornament, flowing tranquilly around the contour and behind the figures, symbolizing the unending circle of eternity.

The catalogue entry for this work suggests that it was produced for a funerary monument , a form of personal memorial which spawned major sculptural erections in the 15th century, climbing the walls of churches and internal chapels and including raised sarcophagi, statues of the dead, the Madonna roundel, angels (sometimes drawing back curtains from the whole thing), coats of arms, candle stands or torches, and representations of Christ or God the Father. In these structures, the dead person lay in the lower earthly stratum, and the Madonna and Child hovered above him/her as a liaison with the celestial realm above. The tondo frame which held them signified the opening through which the soul would pass into heaven, aided by prayers of intercession from the Madonna.

This particular roundel is framed with two palm branches (for martyrdom), with roses for the Virgin carved at intervals. This symbolizes the sacrifice of Christ’s death on the Cross through which heaven has been opened to the souls of the dead, and the Madonna, through whom His incarnation became possible.

Mantegna (c.1431-1506), his funerary chapel: bronze bust, 1490-1506, possibly by Gianmarco Cavalli, possibly after a self-portrait bust of c.1470, terracotta, Sant’ Andrea, Mantua

Mantegna, who was always looking at Roman remains and learning or stealing ideas from them, based the design of the bust and roundel for his own mortuary chapel on classical framed relief sculptures, as well as on Renaissance revivals of the imago clipeata; possibly also on the Madonna roundels in contemporary funerary monuments. Siting the bust in the finished sculpture on the lowest outer moulding of the tondo frame allows the red porphyry disc to halo the head to striking effect, and makes sense of the shaped scoop of the upper chest.

The wide band of decoration adds presence and authority to the stark beauty of the portrait, and the ornament underlines Mantegna’s dedication to the classical past. The outer moulding has alternate lilies and bay leaf sprigs between undulating S-scrolls, and the inner moulding is carved in deep relief as a string of enriched beads. The rhythm of the S-scrolls gives a gentle animation to the whole which is quieter and more subtle than Michelozzo’s dynamic Trinity. There may also be a modest symbolism in the bay leaf sprigs – bay leaves indicate victory, and are also the emblem of Apollo, god of the arts; lilies may stand for the purity of the artist’s ambitions and achievements.

Central portrait in garland frame, Roman sarcophagus for Semne, late 3rd – 4th century AD, Christie’s, New York, 4 June 2008, lot 277

Francesco Botticini (1446-97/98), Madonna & Child with a breviary, post 1475, 42 ¼ ins diam. (107.3 cm.), Cincinnati Art Museum

Further sources for circular frames were found in Roman sarcophagus portraits wreathed in garlands of fruit, leaves and flowers (an attribute of the harvest goddess Ceres, and so a symbol of resurrection and rebirth). These were extremely influential for Renaissance giltwood tondo frames, and came to be used for a large number of painted images of the Madonna and Child, where each fruit was invested with a symbolic Christian meaning.

Luca della Robbia (c. 1400-82), Ascension, 1442-45, glazed terracotta, Sagrestia dei canonici, Duomo, Florence

However, the most ubiquitous use of garland frames for relief images is in the glazed terracotta sculptures of the Della Robbia dynasty and its workshops. Luca della Robbia’s earliest works in this medium with its secret glazes are undocumented, but his first large-scale commission, in the early 1440s, was for lunettes of the Ascension and Resurrection over the Sacristy doors of the Duomo in Florence; these are already extremely sophisticated and developed, but as yet have no integrated self-frames – they are set straight into the architectural structure of the doorway, and have no inner ornament.

Luca della Robbia (c. 1400-82), Madonna & Child & angels, c.1450, glazed terracotta, 100 cm. diam., Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence

By 1450, however, the characteristic Della Robbia garland frame was emerging. On this Madonna tondo it takes the form of a flat architrave profile with the garland as a shallow relief cushion moulding. There is an architectural leaf ornament at the sight edge, but the garland itself is very naturalistically modelled, although its purpose is already a symbolic one. It comprises three flowers – single white roses for the purity of the Virgin; marigolds, which refer to her name and have a bitter taste, representing the sorrow she suffered at the death of her Son; and daisies for innocence and humility. An easily-remembered symbolic language like this was helpful for the great majority of Florentines who were unable to read, since it could suggest qualities, virtues and narrative elements in the life of Christ, the Virgin and the saints for worshippers to contemplate; so in this respect the garland frame is like a caption to a picture, or a verse in a prayer book.

Luca della Robbia (c. 1400-82), Madonna & Child, plaque for the Guild of Doctors & Apothecaries, c.1460, glazed terracotta, diam. 180 cm., Orsanmichele, Florence

The city of Florence has fortunately retained numbers of Della Robbia reliefs set into the walls which they were designed for, so that their original architectural context can still be seen and appreciated. The Madonna and Child for the Guild of Doctors and Apothecaries has a double frame, with an arched all’ antica niche holding the two figures; this is set into an outer stone tondo frame decorated with a geometric dentil moulding. The spandrels around the niche are filled with lilies, another of the Virgin’s flowers, symbolizing her purity but also alluding subtly to the lily as the emblem of Florence.

The ability to vary the frames of their work in this way meant that Luca and his nephew, Andrea della Robbia, who joined his workshop in 1451, could produce very versatile designs – smaller relief tondi and panels suitable for private chapels and domestic interiors, monumental altarpieces (and even tombs) for churches, and coats of arms or sacred madonnelle for the exterior walls of both public and private buildings. The glazed finish made them weatherproof and practically indestructible, and the purity of the colours meant that they could be seen at a distance, and the symbolic meanings of the frames easily read.

Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525), Head of a youth (two views), mid-15th– early 16th century, glazed terracotta, diam. 55.9 cm., Detroit Institute of Arts

Andrea, in particular, developed the settings used for these different works, deploying them in much the same way that giltwood frames were designed and developed for different forms of painting. The wreaths of fruit were adapted for portrait busts, and also for the imprese or coats of arms which could be set into the wall of a palazzo to identify the family of the owner. These secular frames used NeoPlatonic rather than Christian symbolism, since this was the century when a Renaissance interest in the natural world was idealized in man-made gardens, and the fruit and flowers growing there represented growth and harmony. Their colours and scents stood for classical, non-religious virtues which could be summed up as grace, spiritual health and moral goodness.

Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525), Adoration of the Magi, c.1500-10, with the arms of the Albizzi family, glazed terracotta, 221.7 x 184 cm., Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Giovanni della Robbia (1469-1529/30), fountain, 1499, glazed terracotta, Sacristy of Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Giovanni della Robbia (1469-1529/30), overdoor tympanum with the Resurrection of Christ, c.1520-25, glazed terracotta, 174.6 x 364.5  cm., Brooklyn Museum, New York

Sacred works by the Della Robbia dynasty could be remarkably large – they were made of a jigsaw of irregularly-shaped pieces, separately fired and fitted together later, like a stained-glass window, which meant that full-scale altarpieces, tabernacles, funerary monuments and even water fountains could be produced. The ornamental framing elements were pressed, probably in carved hardwood or even metal moulds which would last for a long time, and in fact the pilasters of both the altarpiece in the V & A and the fountain in Santa Maria Novella have been made from the same moulds. Architectural ornament, such as the capitals, the swags of foliage, and the egg-&-dart moulding at the bottom of the altarpiece and on the cornice of the fountain, would similarly have been made from moulds.

Andrea’s compositions, illustrated in the V & A altarpiece, were amongst the most sophisticated in the workshop, articulating groups of figures readably and creating distant perspectival vistas in a very shallow space, which, with the vibrant colouring and the frames (as imaginative, decorative and beautifully-proportioned as any contemporary giltwood frame), were a popular alternative to painted altarpieces, especially for guilds and other bodies.

Mino da Fiesole (c.1430-84), Julius Caesar, c.1455-60, garland by Mino’s workshop, marble with limestone frame and traces of original polychromy, 83 x 84 cm., and detail, Cleveland Museum of Art

Some of the earlier Della Robbia pieces may even have provided inspiration for framing sculpted marble reliefs. For example, Mino da Fiesole’s portrait bust of Julius Caesar has a stone garland frame carved by his workshop, suitably reminiscent of the classical sarcophagus version which Caesar might actually have been given on his death. It has been remade in terms of Renaissance composition and techniques, possibly in the light of Della Robbia garlands, and – interestingly – the frame was also originally painted, and the wreath of bay leaves which Caesar wears was gilded. In the light of the research currently being made into the painted finishes of antique Greek and Roman sculpture, this may perhaps indicate how much colour might still have remained on classical statues and reliefs in the 15th century.

The portrait of Caesar depicts him as senator and politician rather than a military leader. It was presumably made within the court of the Medici to which Mino was attached, and therefore functions as a sort of contemporary analogy with the political leadership of Florence. The frame, like the bust, looks back to the classical past through a 15th century humanist lens; and, like the Della Robbia secular garlands, uses the imagery of fruit to signify harmony, goodness and abundance. In other words, this may be a compliment to Medici governance – comparing Lorenzo the Magnificent with Caesar, and implying – partly through the frame – that his rule is wise, strategic, supportive of the arts (Caesar was also an author), and beneficent. It would be nice to think of a 21st century politician who might deserve such a portrait and such an accolade.

Framed relief Madonna panels in the Bode Museum, Berlin. Photo: with thanks to Peter Schade

The majority of 15th century marble relief carvings, are, however, sacred; and of these a good proportion of the survivors are panels of the Madonna and Child. Some of them are circular, occasionally framed like Mino da Fiesole’s bust of Caesar, in a garland frame; and amongst those an interesting example is a stucco replica connected to one of the earliest of these Madonnas – a moulded and painted version of Donatello’s 1420s Pazzi Madonna (for which, see below) [2].

Donatello (c.1386-1466), stucco copy (late 15th-early 16th century) of the Pazzi Madonna, post-1422, 70 x 103 cm., Rijksmuseum

Luca Signorelli (c. 1450-d.1523), The Holy Family with St Catherine, 1490-92, diam. 99 cm., Palatine Gallery, Palazzo Pitti

It has been given a giltwood frame which dates from much later than Donatello’s original marble panel – from the second half of the 15th century, and more probably from c.1475-1525 – and one which is very similar to the carved and gilded garland frames of painted Madonnas from the same period. This pays tribute to the fact that it is itself a painted as well as a three-dimensional moulded work. The garland is decorated with many of the same fruit and leaves which can be found on the frames of, for example, Signorelli’s painted Holy Family in the Palazzo Pitti, as well as Della Robbia tondi: grapes and ears of wheat, representing the Eucharist, pine cones for the renewal of life, and apples for the Fall of Man; with the addition of flowers: lilies and roses for the Virgin, poppies and poppy heads for the transience of earthly wealth. This frame may be contemporary with the stucco relief – it gives the appearance of having been with it a long time – but may also have been applied to it later.

Early 15th century relief sculpture: Donatello and others

Donatello (c.1386-1466), Pazzi Madonna, c.1422, marble, 74.5 x 73 x 6.5 cm., in antique frame reduced to fit, Bode Museum, Berlin

The original model for these replica stucco panels, Donatello’s marble Pazzi Madonna of c.1422 in Berlin, is unlike the Rijksmuseum copy in colour, shape and trompe l’oeil background, and has unfortunately come adrift from whatever frame it may first have had. It was seminal for all later relief carvings, in that Donatello has created an apparently deeply recessive, perspectivally accurate space in a stone panel only 6.5 cm. thick, providing an answer to the stacked and out-of-scale compositions of mediaeval carved ivories and stone relief panels (see, for example, the 1335-39 shrine of St Peter Martyr, Cappella Portinari, Sant’Eustorgio, Milan).

Donatello’s Madonna and Child appear to have much greater volume than is possible; she is standing in a window niche with what seems to be deep, panelled embrasure, and the Child braces Himself with one foot on the sill. It is clear from His trompe l’oeil interaction with this sill, the strange way in which the Virgin seems to be growing up through it, and the fact that the suggested perspective of the niche parts company from the illusion where the sides hit the sill, that the panel was designed to be placed quite high on the wall. It needs to be displayed high enough so that only the forward face of the sill can be seen, hiding both inconsistencies and bringing the Christ Child almost into the same space as the viewer. The original frame would unquestionably have helped the illusion: the present very narrow wooden frame does nothing to maintain it.

Donatello, Pazzi Madonna, montaged in window from Spedale degli Innocenti, Florence

As well as continuing the idea of a fictive window, the frame originally intended to hold the panel would either have been made separately as a workshop piece (like Mino’s garland frame for Julius Caesar), or was part of the wall which was the destination of the Madonna; alternatively (although much less likely), it might perhaps have continued the trompe l’oeil element of the setting in painted or stained wood.

This montage of the panel (above) shows it inside a stone window which was designed at almost the same time as the sculpture was carved – one of the windows of the Spedale degli Innocenti, outside which foundling babies were left. It is Brunelleschi’s work, and is therefore appropriate for a sculpture which brings Brunelleschian perspective to life [3]; it is also very much wider that the current giltwood frame, giving the relief more authority and presence. All the ornament is pushed out to the back edge, between the outset corners. Finally, the jutting sill of the frame effectively continues the sill of the relief, so that the Madonna and Child now stand inside a real window, opening onto the chapel or other space for which they were first made [4].

Michelozzo di Bartolomeo Michelozzi (1396-1472), Madonna & Child (the Orlandini Madonna), c.1426, marble, 82.1 x 70 x 10.5 cm., Bode Museum, Berlin

Another example of how the Pazzi Madonna might have been framed is illustrated by Michelozzo’s Orlandini Madonna, which is also in the Bode Museum. It was bought by the Museum in the 1840s as a Donatello, but lacks the particular innovation of his work – the background space, perspective and volume – although it looks superficially very similar to the Pazzi Madonna and has many beautiful details. The frame, however, is pioneering for a work of this kind.

Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Old Sacristy, 1419-29, San Lorenzo, Florence

Donatello (c.1386-1466) and Michelozzo (1396-1472), funerary monument of Antipope John XXIII, c.1422-28, Baptistery, Florence

It is architectural, classicizing, and extremely close to Brunelleschi’s interior of the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo, with the same fluted pilasters, capitals, pedestals and stepped cornices. It is also identical to the frame of a carved figural triptych on the tomb of the Antipope John XXIII in the Baptistery, carved by both Donatello and Michelozzo, and so providing more evidence as to its maker [5]. It appears to pre-date the wooden frames in the so-called all’antica form of classical, temple-like structures which became the archetypal Renaissance setting for painted altarpieces [6].

This triptych and the Orlandini Madonna together give some rare evidence as to how marble relief sculptures were originally framed in the innovatory classical aedicular style, but there were naturally rectilinear borders too; usually integral with the carved panel, and having architrave or simple moulding profiles.

Antonio Rizzo (fl.1440-post-1499), Angel holding a shield, c.1470, marble, 57 × 44 × 35 cm., Sam Fogg,   now private collection, on loan to Metropolitan Museum, New York

Because they were made all of a piece with the figural image the whole work could either be considered as complete, and installed on a wall as it was, or it could be displayed in a separate outer frame – perhaps another marble moulding in a different colour, or an aedicule of stone or wood. Antonio Rizzo was from Verona and worked in Venice [7]; it is suggested in the Museum catalogue entry that this angel was one of a pair set either side of a door, where it might have been installed on a pier or sill, thus completing the three-sided frame. The latter, with its deeply carved torus below the top fillet, has much in common with contemporary wooden moulding frames, save for the steeply-canted sight edge which allows for the illusion of impossible depth – as in the Pazzi Madonna.

Donatello (designed by; partially executed by and workshop of; c.1386-1466), The dead Christ tended by angels, c.1430-35, and/or carved later (c.1520-40),  marble, 80.5 x 114.3 x 6 cm., and detail, Victoria & Albert Museum

This framed relief of the dead Christ, designed and partly executed by Donatello [8] and finished in his workshop (possibly well after his death), seems to have been intended as an altar frontal, with the concomitant probability of there somewhere being, or having been, a matching dossal. It has an integral frame with a deep recession to the ground of the carving, and a shallow profile on which shaped mouldings are suggested, with a leaf tip ogee at the sight edge. The wide frieze-like band with its parallel markings and modest enrichment, together with the shadow created by the difference between forward and back surfaces, conjure up the idea of a sarcophagus, so that the worshipper appears to be looking simultaneously in at the angels through a horizontal door in the rock, as they try to support the body of Christ, and down into the sepulchre where He will lie.

Domenico Gagini (fl.1449-92), Nativity, c.1460, marble, 90 x 52 cm., National Gallery of Art, Washington

Domenico Gagini was one of a family of sculptors from Genoa and Sicily, and was responsible with his nephew for the chapel of John the Baptist in the Cathedral of Genoa. Its façade has been compared with that of the Pazzi Chapel, and this Florentine, Brunelleschian influence can also be seen in the perspectival coffering of the internal arch on this relief panel. The border which (mostly) contains the whole panel is like a flattened cassetta with a very slightly rounded frieze, decorated with delicate vertebrate arabesque ornament.

However, Gagini has deployed the potential trompe l’oeil power of this frame to extend the space of his composition outwards, into the everyday world, just as Donatello used the Christ Child’s foot and His mother’s mantle in the Pazzi Madonna to suggest that they occupied a space forward of the imaginary façade of the window. In Gagini’s panel, instead of acting as the door frame which divides the sacred spaces of the interlocking Trinity and Holy Family from the viewer, the frame has opened, as it were, a bridge between our world and the celestial, stretching out a landscape of tussocks, winding stream reflecting the sun, ducks and a cottage, which beckons us in, between the guard of angels to the stable itself.

There were already, therefore, a variety of ways in the 15th century in which a relief sculpture might be framed, employing various effects of illusionism, symbol and classical references. These might have helped to influence the ways in which later collectors and curators organized wooden frames to display their Madonnas, although it is mostly the presentation of paintings which seems to have been followed.

Stefano Bardini and frames for relief sculptures

Museo Stefano Bardini, Florence, exterior and interior. Lower photo: Alison Clarke

This was especially true, perhaps, of the large collection of carved relief panels in the Bode Museum, many of which were bought from the dealer Stefano Bardini (1836-1922). Bardini was a painter who had turned to dealing, and whose art and furnishings were half collection and half stock: his gallery was left to the city of Florence when he died in 1922, and is now the Museo Bardini.

Photograph of Stefano Bardini’s gallery (now the Museo Bardini), with a collection of Madonna panels, c.1900

He was as skilled as the dealer Joseph Duveen in Britain at spotting impoverished aristocrats from whom he could extract striking examples of fine and decorative art, and he became an agent for curators such as Wilhelm Bode, director from 1905 of the Berlin Museums. Bode, after whom the Bode Museum is named, was particularly interested in works of the Renaissance, campaigning for a separate museum in Berlin which would show paintings, sculpture and decorative art from the period all together, in one integrated interior.

Wilhelm von Bode examining a framed relief, c.1912, © Zentralarchiv, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In 1883 he became director of the department of sculptures from the Christian era, and by 1892 he had achieved his integrated display of various forms of art. Part of this display required paintings and relief sculptures to be framed in an authentic fashion, rescuing them from later collectors’ frames as far as possible, in order to give a better impression of how they had been seen originally. In 1912 Bode wrote an essay on the work he had done, reframing the paintings in his care with antique frames, where he noted that,

‘Some… relief sculptures have also been furnished provisionally with antique settings which are better than their former frames, but not quite the ideal solution’ [9].

Antonio Rossellino (1427-79), Portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici, c.1460, marble, 49.5 x 53 x 14.5 cm. overall with frame, Bode Museum, Berlin

These frames were frequently obtained, like many of the sculptures themselves, from Bardini, with his magpie capacity to scoop up antique frames, as well as parts and fragments from which further frames might be made with the help of Florentine carvers and gilders. This striking bass-relief bust of Cosimo de’ Medici (acquired by the Berlin museum before Bode’s time, in 1842) has at some point been given half of a 16th century Venetian frame, with an early moulded gesso decoration of overlapping peacock feathers, which may well have been provided by Bardini. It is difficult to know how such a relief would originally have been displayed in a domestic interior – perhaps it was built into a wall? – but this frame, although decorative in itself, has a strangely DIY air, having been brutally cut in half and fitted to a shaped sill, so that Cosimo and his frame now look as though they are being engulfed by the rising waters of the Arno.

Donatello (c.1386-1466), Pazzi Madonna, c.1422, marble, 74.5 x 73 x 6.5 cm., Bode Museum, Berlin

Donatello (after; c.1386-1466),  Madonna & Child, polychrome stucco, collection of Stefano Bardini, Sotheby’s, New York, 26 January 2012, Lot 328

A painted stucco relief which was in Bardini’s own collection until 1913 is yet another version of Donatello’s Pazzi Madonna. This one has the perspectival background of the original, but, rather than emphasizing the window-like composition, Bardini has adapted a later all’ antica altarpiece frame to hold the panel. This may well be due to his knowledge of the relief carvings in Berlin, including the Orlandini Madonna with its integral aedicular frame. Although the structure of this wooden altarpiece frame also suggests an architectural opening, the carved and painted ornament and the closely-harmonizing colours of the frame and the stucco Madonna negate the trompe l’oeil recession of the marble sculpture; they also soften and sentimentalize the bitter-sweet interaction of Mother and Child.

Donatello,  Madonna & Child, polychrome stucco, detail of frame

The frame must have been cut down, since the moulding at the top of the capitals is sawn off at the ends, and the carved leaf moulding at the sight edge has been cut at the corners.  This implies that there may originally have been a different sight edge to the frame – perhaps a much plainer moulding. The carved leaf moulding, which may have come from elsewhere, adds to the collision of colour and texture; the stucco relief looks much busier, but also flatter and less volumetric than Donatello’s marble sculpture.

Donatello (after; c.1386-1466),  Madonna & Child, c.1450, polychrome stucco, 70 x 55 cm., Musée du Louvre

A more successfully-framed stucco replica of the Pazzi Madonna, now in the Louvre, passed through Bardini’s hands quite a lot earlier; it was sold to the museum in 1886. This is another version of the original model without the perspectival window embrasure, and the frame suits it well, and looks authentic, although the pilasters with their capitals and pedestals have been trimmed on the inside to accommodate the stucco. The finish also looks convincing, and the little figure of the Salvator Mundi and angels painted in the pediment add to the feeling that this is at least a fairly accurate shot at authenticity.

Photograph of Stefano Bardini’s gallery with a collection of framed Madonna panels, c.1900, with a detail of one panel, together with the Louvre stucco of the Pazzi Madonna

One of the photos of Bardini’s gallery taken in about 1900, one wall lined with Madonna relief panels, reveals how many of these Bardini had managed to collect, including variations of the Pazzi Madonna. Although in this crowd of Virgins there are round-arched frames, tondi and rectilinear frames, the most popular format seems to have been an upright frame all’ antica with a triangular or pitched pediment.

Photograph of Stefano Bardini’s gallery with a collection of empty frames, c.1900

Botticelli (workshop of; c.1445-1510), Madonna & Child with John the Baptist and an angel, c.1490, tempera/panel, 84.5 cm. diam., National Gallery NG 275, in the Bardini frame in which it was displayed from c.1938  (since returned to its original frame), possibly by the Del Tasso family, 1510-40, poplar and walnut, gilded with blue ground, V & A

Fra Filippo Lippi (imitator; c.1406-d.1469), Madonna & Child with an angel, c.1480, tempera/panel, 69.9 x 48.3 cm., National Gallery NG589, in the Bardini frame in which it has been displayed from 1938, possibly from the workshop of Giuliano da Maiano, c.1480-1500 or later, parcel-gilt and polychrome, V & A

The photo of another wall in his gallery shows part of Bardini’s collection of empty frames, waiting for the right painting or relief panel to turn up, unclothed and ready to be fitted out from this wardrobe of Renaissance styles. One of the tondo frames (circled top centre) was bought by the Victoria & Albert Museum for £208. 2s. 6d in 1892, and subsequently lent to the National Gallery in the late 1930s to hold a Botticelli workshop Madonna & Child. A tabernacle frame (circled in the bottom right-hand corner) is similar to and may be the same frame as the parcel-gilt and polychrome setting also purchased from Bardini by the V & A for £35. 7s. in 1890, and also lent to the National Gallery for the Filippo Lippi painted Madonna, above. It has been suggested that this frame was actually intended to house a relief sculpture in terracotta, and that it would have been

‘…hung high on the wall… with a candle on a separate bracket just below it. The cornice, which is now broken, would have been surmounted by a segmental pediment or lunette, probably with painted decoration’ [10].

Hanging the frame relatively high and lighting it from beneath would have negated the deep shadow cast by the projecting cornice, as evidenced in the image above; for the original relief sculpture, it would also have enhanced any trompe l’oeil perspectival effect such as might have derived from the influential design of the Pazzi Madonna, and have increased the mystery and power of any image painted in the pediment (probably God the Father or a Salvator Mundi).

It is very probable that a number of other frames on this wall of Bardini’s could be traced to museums across the world, or to important private collections; however, the history of three frames which he gave to a single terracotta Madonna relief in his possession sheds more light on how problematic the presentation of these sculptures might be. The story was disentangled by Sir John Pope-Hennessy in an article written in in 1983 [11].

Donatello (c.1386-1466), San Felice Madonna, painted and gilded terracotta, 85.8 x 68 cm., tabernacle frame, Christie’s, London, Bardini Collection, 30 May 1902, Lot 558

This image and the one which follows are coloured montages made from the black-&-white photos of the stucco which Pope-Hennessy published, and they show that when Bardini first put his Donatello up for sale in 1902, it had a pastiche frame in a tabernacle format, designed from different parts assembled to give the impression of a Venetian baluster frame [12]. The pedestal, the apron of the frame and the entablature may possibly be antique pieces, or include antique elements, whilst the baluster-shaped columns may have been taken from a piece of furniture or even have been made from old wood to complete the illusion of a genuine Renaissance tabernacle.

Donatello, San Felice Madonna in 20th century gilt shaped frame, in Bardini Collection, 1907 [13]

The second frame, given to the relief between 1902 and 1907, is so different from the frames which Bardini usually supplied with his treasures that it’s quite disconcerting. It looks like a 1930s fireplace, and seems to have nothing at all to do with any historical precedent. Perhaps he had used his baluster frame for another item, or perhaps he wanted to entice younger buyers with the suggestion that this antique sculpture could fit happily into an early 20th century interior.

Donatello, San Felice Madonna, painted and gilded terracotta, 85.8 x 68 cm., Sotheby’s, New York, 24 January 2008

In 1918 he put the relief up for sale again, and this time it was in the frame in which it was sold again by Sotheby’s in 2008. Bardini must have been much more satisfied with the effect it created, as the whole thing made $4,200 in the New York sale (and $5,641,000 in the 2008 sale). Pope-Hennessy remarks that it

‘…was sold in a modern frame with painted pilasters at the sides, a perspective inner element, and three finials at the top’ [14].

Only the predella panel at the base looks as though it might, at a pinch, be earlier. The rest of the frame seems to have been designed with less care for an historical model than might have been expected; the pilaster panels are carefully painted with leafy drops, but entirely flat, without mouldings or capitals, and the different elements sit together without being properly integrated or having the joins concealed. Still, the effect of an architectural niche, with a hint of trompe l’oeil recession in the coffered ‘ceiling’, looks towards the Brunelleschian idea of linear perspective which Donatello would have used himself, and the colour harmonizes with the relief without overwhelming it. Wilhelm Bode might have accepted it as

‘better than [the] former frames, but not quite the ideal solution’

Michelozzo (1396-1472), Madonna & Child, c.1440, terracotta, 83 x 53 x 23 cm., Bode Museum, Berlin

One of the not-quite-ideal frames in the Bode Museum has been given to Michelozzo’s Madonna & Child. It is a particular pattern associated with paintings of the Madonna and Child from the second half of the 15th century, and is distinguished by its round-arched top and by a wide flat or slightly canted frieze, painted dark blue and scattered with gilded stars (an attribute of the Virgin); also by the three acroteria which finish the ends of the outer arched moulding and act as a central crest.

Francesco Botticini (c.1446-97), Madonna & Child with Tobias & the Angel Raphael, c.1470, tempera/panel, 96.7 x 59 cm., The Cleveland Museum of Art, Holden Collection 1916.789

An example from around 1470 frames Botticini’s Madonna & Child in the Cleveland Museum of Art, in comparison with which it can be seen that the frame of the Michelozzo – like the peacock feather frame on the portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici – has been noticeably shortened, making it proportionately dumpier. As well as this reduction in height, a raised plinth has been added to the sill of the frame and painted to match, more or less, the painted finish of the friezes; whilst the gap between the sight edge and the terracotta figures has been covered with what looks like a narrow band of sheet brass.

Altogether, a much larger frame has been cut about, rebuilt and infilled to display a terracotta Madonna quite a lot shorter and slightly narrower than the original occupant of the frame. In many ways it should be a good setting for the Michelozzo: it is classical and arched, it was made to frame a Madonna and Child and is decorated emblematically, and it is inscribed on the predella panel with the first two lines of the  Hail Mary ( ‘Ave Maria gratia plena/ Dominus tecum’). However, the overall proportions of the frame have been changed quite radically, bringing the lateral acroteria intrusively far down the sides, whilst the inserted plinth supporting the sculpture seems to push it uncomfortably upwards, away from the ledge it should rest on. The scrolling foliated apron feels too shallow to balance the chunky arch; and (like the new pendant at the centre of the apron) the brass edging cannot be anything but an eyesore.

15th century stucco reliefs: Antonio Rossellino and his workshop

Many relief panels in stucco still retain their original frames. These are the all-in-one versions of the original marble carvings, which were produced with integral frames in various styles, and with various degrees of enrichment. The figural panels themselves bore the same relation to the marble panels by the master sculptor as high street clothes do to designer dresses today. They provided the bread-and-butter income for large workshops, where the journeymen, who were paid by the day, would copy the highly-priced commissions of the master and sell them to middle-class Tuscans: merchants and tradesmen who couldn’t afford Medici prices, and who wanted to furnish their homes with small domestic altarpieces and sacred works to bring good fortune.

Fine stucco for this kind of use was made mainly of gesso, with various additions: powdered white marble, refined sand, ground bricks and sometimes alabaster dust. It was bound with water or size, and might also contain oil, resins, or fibres [15]. It took some time to set, but when dry it was very hard and could be polished or painted. It was no lighter than a marble sculpture, but could be adapted with almost any contemporary style of frame, making the results even easier to sell as complete works of art. The moulds in which the stucco was formed could also be used time and time again, providing copies for many years, and a regular stream of income for the workshop. In Cennino Cennini’s instructions for casting life masks and ‘whole figures’, he notes that, when the plaster mould has been completed (and joined together, if necessary),

‘…you may have the mask cast from this mould in copper, metal, bronze, silver, lead, and, generally, any metal you please’ [16].

In other words, a master sculptor’s workshop could create, from a plaster mould taken from the original marble relief sculpture, a reproduction of that marble original in lead, etc., from which other plaster moulds might be taken at any time another stucco reproduction was needed (the plaster mould was usually broken each time it was used, by being chipped off the finished stucco; although Cennino notes that very small moulded reliefs could be levered a little way out of their moulds and lifted completely away by blowing into the gap [17]).

Antonio Rossellino (1427/28-79), Madonna & Child, 1460s, marble, 67 x 51.5 cm., State Hermitage Museum

After the era of Donatello and his circle, the name of Antonio Rossellino appears frequently in collections of relief sculptures. He’s an interesting figure, who seems to have trained with his much older brother, contributing as a teenager to Bernardo Rossellino’s monument for Leonardo Bruni in Santa Croce. When he graduated to working for himself he produced complete funerary monuments, including the grand tomb for the Cardinal of Portugal’s Chapel in San Miniato, as well as sculpture in the round and numbers of relief panels. His workshop also seems to have had a thriving trade in stucco copies of his own sculptures.

One of the latter is the marble Madonna and Child, above, in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. It is displayed there without a frame, making it look strangely incomplete and without context. Both Mother and Child have a strong effect of illusionary volume and are finely carved and detailed; they also have the tender relationship which is such a striking feature of Donatello’s work, so it’s little wonder that this particular relief seems to have been very popular, judging by the number of stucco copies which have survived.

Antonio Rossellino (1427/28-79), Madonna & Child, 1470, polychromed stucco in wooden frame, 79.06 cm. high, and detail, Currier Museum of Art, New Hampshire

Six of the examples included or mentioned here have integral frames which are part of the stucco panel itself, whilst the version above, with a background of painted roses, has a moveable wooden tabernacle frame; this is original, apart from the carved apron at the bottom, which is a replacement.

The Madonna & Child it holds is so completely different from the original marble model  that at first glance it appears to be a different work entirely. The painted finish extends to the frame, and – beneath the pilaster on the right, at the end of the frieze – a small shield can be seen, with the arms of the family which owned the panel. This has allowed it to be connected to a Florentine merchant, Battista d’Antonio Veneri, who married in 1462, indicating that this may have been a present or a commission for his wedding [18]. Because of this association, the purity and fertility of the Virgin have been emphasized in the painting of both stucco and frame. The hedge of roses behind her refers to the ‘hortus conclusus’ or enclosed garden which symbolizes her chastity, whilst the tympanum of the frame is painted with the dove of the Holy Spirit, and the frieze beneath it is inscribed with a biblical quotation in Latin, which translates as ‘Behold, a Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son’.

Vittore  Carpaccio (c.1465-1525/26), Arrival of the Ambassadors, from the St Ursula cycle, 1490s, detail showing St Ursula with her father, with further detail showing the framed painting of the Madonna & Child, from Scuola di Sant’Orsola, now Accademia, Venice

Paintings and sculptures of sacred subjects were habitually hung in bedrooms, so that the occupant or occupants could focus on them whilst praying; such works were known as a colmo da camera [19]. In the detail, above, from Carpaccio’s St Ursula cycle, the saint and her father the king are speaking in her bedroom, and a painted Madonna & Child in a giltwood aedicular frame is hung prominently and quite high on the wall between bed and window.

Ursula was a virgin, dedicated to God, but it was believed at this time that, if a pregnant woman contemplated images which were beautiful, her children would also be beautiful, and that images of religious and moral goodness would have an equal effect on mother and child. A Madonna & Child such as Rossellino’s workshop produced would therefore almost certainly have hung in the bridal bedchamber as a sort of insurance that the wife would be chaste and bear healthy, beautiful, obedient children; and its frame could become a field where a symbolic language might be employed to highlight the virtues of the image.

Antonio Rossellino (after; 1427/28-79), Madonna & Child, second half 15th century, parcel-gilt and white stucco in integral frame, 81.5 x 50.5 x 5cm., and details, Musée du Louvre

For example, the frame of the stucco Madonna & Child in the Louvre is extremely elaborate and finely detailed, with four orders of decoration on the carefully-defined profile of the moulding, and a similarly rich mini-programme of symbolic elements. There are paired dolphins in the top corner spandrels and sunflowers in the scrolled ends of the pediment, all representing Christ; whilst the lunette or tympanum itself is occupied by two gryphons, which stand for the duality of Christ’s nature as God and Man, and an urn of fruit representing the abundance of Love, or the fruitfulness of a life of faith and prayer. The fruit is picked up in the festoon and drops hanging behind the Madonna, and is echoed again by the beautifully elegant cornucopiae on the predella panel, where the fruits are topped by vine leaves and a bunch of Eucharistic grapes. This concentration of symbolism in a work less than a metre high may indicate that – rather than for a bride and her putative babies – perhaps such versions were produced for the daughters of noble or wealthy mercantile families who were destined for life in a convent.

Antonio Rossellino (after; 1427/28-79), Madonna & Child, last quarter 15th century, parcel-gilt and polychrome stucco in integral frame, Museo di San Domenico, Forlí

The integral frames of the stucco panel in the Musée du Louvre and this one in the museum in Forlí are completely different in structure and style from the moveable frame on the Madonna & Child in the Currier Museum. They consist of three sides of a moulding ‘frame’ with architectural ornaments, a segmental pediment and a version of a predella panel.

Antonio Rossellino (after; 1427/28-79), Madonna & Child, late 15th-early 16th century, parcel-gilt and polychrome stucco in integral frame, 70.5 x 44 cm., detail of top right corner, Vanderkindere Auctions, Brussels, May 2020, Lot 87

The whole piece is, in the Forlí version, held in a rectilinear tray-like structure which may replace a lost outer contour but also suggests the way in which the various elements were assembled – something which becomes clearer still when examining the details of yet another version of this stucco, sold in Brussels in May 2020.

Rossellino (after), Madonna & Child, details, Forlí

The difference in quality of both the Forlí and the Brussels Madonnas from the panel in the Louvre is immediately and strikingly visible, and prompts the question as to whether this particular design might have been pirated by other workshops, and perhaps sold more cheaply to those less able to afford a stucco Madonna from Rossellino’s own workshop, or whether there were many levels of workmanship available which might be bought for more or much less in the same shop. Every aspect of these two pieces has been pared down and treated much more cursorily, from the relief itself to the elaboration, symbolism and enrichment of the frame, and the finish of both.

Antonio Rossellino (after; 1427/28-79), Madonna & Child, last quarter 15th century, parcel-gilt and polychrome stucco in integral frame, Palazzo Datini, Prato. Photo: Sailko

The stucco in the Palazzo Datini, Prato, is closely related to the last two; it lacks the segmental pediment (which may be due to later damage) and has a different predella panel, but the inner frame is a crisper and cleaner version of the Forlí Madonna’s, now contained in a giltwood aedicule of uncertain date. The predella panel is different again from the other two stuccos, and implies quite a wide range of decorative elements and ornaments which could be combined as the client wanted, or could afford.

Antonio Rossellino (after; 1427/28-79), Madonna & Child, last quarter 15th century, stucco in integral frame, lost parcel-gilt and polychrome finish, Lempertz Auctions, 5 June 2021, Cologne, Lot 2202

Another stucco, very similar to both the last two, appeared on the art market recently and, in its loss of finish, provides a glimpse of what these stuccos would have looked like before being painted and gilded [20]. All the examples shown here – in the Louvre, Forlí, and at auction in Brussels and in  Cologne – provide a space for the owner’s arms to be added (usually on the predella), just like the painted arms on the moveable wooden frame of the stucco in the Currier Museum; the only exception is the Prato Madonna. Again, this may indicate that they were definitely destined for marital bedrooms, where the brides could model themselves and their future children on the Queen of Heaven and her Child, and the family coats of arms would provide the stamp of a respectable lineage.

Antonio Rossellino (after; 1427/28-79), Madonna with a garland, second half 15th century, stucco, 71 x 45.5 x 6 cm., Bode Museum, Berlin

A variation from the moulding frame to an aedicule all’ antica was also produced, converting the same stucco Madonna & Child from Rossellino’s workshop into something more formally an altarpiece; perhaps, rather than in a bedchamber, this might be installed in a small domestic chapel, a study, or a closet arranged for personal worship. Overt symbolism is replaced by the connection of the form with an altarpiece in a church, and by the architectural opening revealing (like a window in the wall) the Madonna and Child in close proximity with the worshipper.

A version combining both variations of integral frame also exists.   It has the same pilasters and some of the cornice of the Bode stucco, but a different predella panel and the semicircular pediment of the previous Madonnas; it is also held in a similar outer contour moulding. In this frame symbolism is almost totally absent (unless the two sphinxes placed as acroteria on the pediment can be seen as embodying lust, as against the virtue and chastity of the Virgin). This is another instance where the ornamental detail seems coarsened or blunted, and the moulding of the sphinxes and the spider-like crest motif is less than refined.

All the frames of these Rossellino-based stucco reliefs, both the architectural moulding frames and aedicular altarpiece frames all’ antica, indicate that the bourgeois Florentines who acquired them wanted up-to-date, fashionable settings as much as they wanted copies of the marble sculptures bought by the aristocracy.

16th century cartapesta reliefs: Jacopo Sansovino

As well as stucco, which was relatively hard-wearing but was as heavy as stone, the much lighter cartapesta or reinforced papier mâché was used as a medium to reproduce relief sculptures – notably in a group of Madonna and Child panels by Jacopo Sansovino in the mid-16th century, of which about a dozen survive in two versions.

Jacopo Sansovino (1501-70), Madonna & Child, c.1540, cartapesta, in ‘Sansovino’ frame fitted to relief with an inlay, Bode Museum, Berlin

Jacopo Sansovino (1501-70), Madonna & Child, c.1540, cartapesta, in modern stained wooden frame, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence

Jacopo Sansovino (1501-70), Madonna & Child, c.1540, papier mâché and stucco, 119.4 x 95.6 cm., in parcel-gilt and polychrome Mannerist frame, possibly Kress Collection like the relief panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Jacopo Sansovino (1501-70), Madonna & Child, c.1550, cartapesta, parcel-gilt and black frame, ex-Castle Howard, Sotheby’s, 8 July 2015, Lot 17

Jacopo Sansovino (1501-70), Madonna & Child, mid-16th century, cartapesta and wood, 153 x 129 cm., in contemporary carved polychrome frame, Bode Museum, Berlin

Like Rossellino’s workshop stucco panels, they are painted in various colour schemes; however, this may not be the original finish for any of them.

Jacopo Sansovino (1501-70), Madonna & Child, c.1540, Museo del Cenedese, Vittorio Veneto. Photo: Peter

Jacopo Sansovino (1501-70), La Vierge et l’Enfant, c.1550, cartapesta, 143.5 x 108 cm., Musée du Louvre

The entry for the sale of the Castle Howard Madonna notes that the first mention of this group occurs in in a letter from Francesco Marcolini to Pietro Aretino in 1551, referring to the ‘great picture of low relief and of composite marble hardness’ given to Aretino by Sansovino, and goes on to remark that,

‘Marcolini’s letter would suggest that Sansovino may have conceived the cartapeste as fictive marble reliefs. This reading was recently substantiated by the conservation of two of the cartapeste, the examples in the Museo del Cenedese… and the Musée du Louvre… in which later paint layers were removed to reveal white-grey surfaces with details picked out with gilding and polychromy, thereby simulating tinted marble all’ antica’ [21].

This finish, if similar in the other panels, would also suggest that – following the examples of the earlier real marble reliefs by Donatello and his peers in their marble frames (where they have survived) – Sansovino’s replica marble Madonnas might have been displayed in faux marbre frames: that is to say, in wooden frames with architectural profiles finished with painted marbling.

Sansovino, Madonna & Child, detail, Bode Museum, ID no: 285

The frames which they have now seem all to have been applied later, save possibly the left-facing Madonna in the Bode Museum in her parcel-gilt and polychrome frame with a frieze of alternating lilies, scallop shells and scrolling leaves between bands of flowered enrichment. It would be tempting to connect this decoration of the frieze with the painted pattern of florets and scrolling leaves on the Virgin’s mantle, were it not for the probability that this relief, too, was originally marbled greyish white and picked out with gilded details.

Sansovino, Madonna & Child, detail, Bode Museum, ID no: 287

The ‘Sansovino’ frame on the right-facing Madonna, also in the Bode Museum, although nominatively almost too appropriate, has been fitted to the panel with an inlay at the sight edge. The entry from Frida Schotmüller’s catalogue of the furniture and decorative arts in the Berlin museums describes it like this:

‘So-called Sansovino frame. 171×153 cm. Gilded. About the same date as, or slightly earlier than, the relief by Jacopo Sansovino (No. V. 394). The relationship with decorative carvings in the Doge’s Palace and in other buildings in Venice may have been the reason for naming this later widespread type. Venice, after 1550’ [22]

Unfortunately there seems to be no way to find the relief and its frame in the Museum’s online collections, nor to discover the provenance of either piece, leaving open the possibility that the ‘Sansovino’ frame may have been purchased from Bardini.

Sansovino, Madonna & Child, c.1540, Museo del Cenedese; montaged with a 17th century Italian moulding frame finished in faux marbre (colour adjusted), from the collection of Rollo Whately

Whatever the source of the ‘Sansovino’ frame, it can be suggested with a fair degree of confidence that its use for one of these relief panels was fortuitous, and that the sculptor himself was more likely to have conceived of his work being presented in something like the style of the montage above – in a wooden frame with a faux marbre finish.

Depictions of relief sculptures

We know comparatively little about how relief sculptures were displayed in the home, since visual evidence depends mostly on the background detail in painted interior scenes of the time, and the evidence in inventories, etc., is generally summary. Small ivory or painted wooden altarpieces, often in the form of diptychs and triptychs, could stand on chests and shelves when in use, and then be folded up and stored in bags inside the chests. As for larger paintings and relief sculptures,

‘…mention must be made of the way in which all these works of art were displayed, as detailed in the inventories of the Medici and Minerbetti collections, or as suggested by the form of the works themselves. Most of the paintings were hung on the walls: some, however, were placed above the doorframes as overdoors. As to relief sculptures, the lighter ones were also hung on the walls, the heavier ones were either displayed as overdoors or were embedded in the wall’ [23].

Michele Ciampanti (c. 1463-99), Antiochus and Stratonice, c.1470, 43.2 x 109.2 cm., cassone panel with details, Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino. Photo showing black-&-white detail, Fondation Zeri

One of the two cassone panels by Michele Ciampanti in the collection of the Huntington [24] shows on the right some lunching ladies in a bedchamber where, in the background, a tabernacle is installed above the bed. Unlike the bedhead and foot, the tester, festoons on the wall at the left and candle sconce, this tabernacle isn’t coloured: or rather it is a similar colour (allowing for shadow) to the marble statue on its plinth in the foreground, suggesting that this is a marble relief and aedicule. The frame, which may be integral or perhaps attached over the relief as with Mino da Fiesole’s tondo of Julius Caesar, has a scrolled-end segmental pediment and a scrolling apron with a coat of arms. The figure of God the Father or the Salvator Mundi seems to be carved in the tympanum, and the main panel appears to hold a figure of Christ, possibly an Ecce Homo, or a saint.

This is evidently a fully-realized work by a sculptor such as Rossellino, framed in the manner he would have offered to his wealthier clients, made all of marble, and ‘embedded in the wall’ as Schiaparelli describes.

Francesco Durantino (fl.1543-75), bowl from childbirth set, mid-1540s, maijolica, and detail, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Another much later interior showing a relief sculpture may be this scene of childbirth painted on the bowl from a majolica birth set. Such sets were used to carry food and soup to a newly delivered mother, and usually included a bowl with a cover and a plate. The mother in the painting reclines on the floor with her swaddled baby, whilst nurses and servants remake her bed, prepare the baby’s cradle and encourage the fire to burn.

In the background, what appears to be a relief with the figure (possibly) of the Madonna in a blue roundel is framed in a Della Robbia-like ceramic, or white marble, setting, designed in Mannerist style. It is mounted directly on (‘embedded in’) the white-painted brick or plaster wall. Beneath it stands a cassone or chest, which could be used for candlesticks and bibles, and may be where husband and wife knelt to pray at night. It indicates how much these sacred objects were a part of the Renaissance home; a bedchamber might hold a coloured print for the poorer citizen, a painting or stucco relief for the middle classes, and a marble sculpture or more elaborate painting for the wealthy.


With thanks to Peter Schade, National Gallery, London, and Dr Neville Rowley, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Gregorio di Lorenzo (workshop; fl.1461-73), Madonna & Child in a wreath of angels, 1460-1523, marble, 73.5 x 60 x 11 cm., Bode Museum, Berlin


[1] Smaller versions of the exhibition will move from the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence to the Staatliche Museum, Berlin, from September 2022 to January 2023, and to the V & A, London, from February to June 2023

[2] There are at least sixteen surviving copies of the Pazzi Madonna, including this one, and at least nine of them are of moulded stucco. Also like this one, they don’t copy the receding background, and they are naturalistically painted

[3] See Neville Rowley, ‘Donatello and the two Madonnas: a short history of the Berlin Museums’ sculpture collection’, in Igor Borodin (ed.), Twice saved, exh. cat., Chennai, Russian Centre of Science and Culture, 3 September 2020-2021, p. 4

[4] The Pazzi Madonna was made for the Palazzo Pazzi, and it has been suggested that it might have been installed in the courtyard there; although according to Attilio Schiaparelli, ‘We know that Donatello made a marble bas-relief depicting the Virgin with her son for the chapel of the Palazzo Pazzi’ (La casa fiorentina e i suoi arredi nei secoli XIV e XV, 1908, p. 191

[5] Neville Rowley also cites the 1426-28 funerary monument of Cardinal Rinaldo Brancaccio in Naples as further backup for Michelozzo’s authorship of the Orlandini Madonna; ibid., pp. 13-14

[6] Masaccio’s 1427 fresco of The Trinity in Santa Maria Novella, Florence, has an integral classical aedicular frame painted around it which may possibly have been designed by Brunelleschi, and the latter apparently ordered ‘rectangular altarpieces’ for San Lorenzo in 1425 (see George Bisacca, ‘The rise of the all’antica altarpiece frame’). That same year, however, work was halted on the church, and only recommenced in 1442, after an injection of Medici cash. Aedicular wooden frames did not begin to develop in any numbers until the 1430s

[7] See Treccani Italian Encyclopaedia, 1936

[8] The V & A catalogue entry for this work suggests that Bellini knew it, and based his 1474 Pietà on it (Pinacoteca, Rimini)

[9] Wilhelm Bode, ‘Reframing the paintings in the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum with antique frames’, translated by Peter Schade. Originally published in Amtliche Berichte Aus Den  Konigl. Kunstsammlungen, XXXIII. Jahrgang, Nr.9, June 1912, Berlin

[10] Nicholas Penny, A closer look at frames, 2010, National Gallery, p. 40. A tiered altarpiece frame in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, also attributed to the workshop of Giuliano da Maiano, retains its lunette/segmental pediment which has been painted with an image of The Holy Trinity by Bartolomeo di Giovanni (fl.1488-d.1501); the frieze of carved rosettes on the frame is very similar to that on the V & A frame

[11] John Pope-Hennessy, ‘A terracotta Madonna by Donatello’, The Burlington Magazine, February 1983, vol. 125, no 959, pp. 83-85, plus colour ill., p. 66

[12] See ‘National Gallery, London: reframing Bellini’ for frames with baluster columns

[13] Published in this frame in Paul Schrubring, Donatello: Des Meisters Werke, 1907, p. 30; Pope-Hennessy, ibid., p. 83

[14] Ibid.

[15] Gianluca Gariani et al., ‘First insights on the mineral composition of stucco devotional reliefs from Italian Renaissance masters: investigating technological practices and raw material sourcing’, Journal of Cultural Heritage, 2017 [online 4 May 2018]

[16] Cennino Cennini’s Il libro dell’Arte (The craftsman’s handbook), translated by Daniel Thompson, and republished by Dover Books in 1954 & 1960, from the original, published by Yale University Press in 1933; pp. 123-29

[17]  Ibid., p. 130

[18] See catalogue entry for the work, Currier Museum of Art, New Hampshire

[19] At first the name for the shaped painted pinnacles of Gothic altarpieces, the term ‘colmo da camera’ came to describe a point-arched panel painting, and also its round-arched and quadro all’ antica counterparts

[20] See also the version sold by Pandolfini, Florence, on 31 May 2019, lot 185, in which the stucco has been left unpainted or gilded, and polished to resemble ivory; this one is a more detailed and refined incarnation of the Brussels Madonna, and has been placed in a Mannerist black and parcel-gilt frame

[21] Sotheby’s, 8 July 2015, Lot 17

[22]  Frida Schottmüller, Die italienischen Möbe unde dekorativen Bildwerke im Kaiser Friedrich Museum, 1922, Plate 36a: ‘Sogenannter Sansovinorahmen. 171 x 153 cm. Vergoldet. Etwa gleichzeitig oder wenig jünger wie das Relief von Jacopo Sansovino (Nr. V. 394).  Die Verwandschaft mit dekorativen Schnitzereien im Dogenpalast und in anderen Bauten Venedigs dürfte der Anlass für die Benennung dieses später weit verbreiteten Typus gewesen sein. Venedig nach 1550’

[23] Schiaparelli, op. cit., p. 194; he notes that he has derived what he knows about the way art was presented in the home from the inventory of Lorenzo de’Medici (1492), and the ricordanze of the Minerbetti family (see Guido Biagi, Due corredi nuziali fiorentini, 1320- 1493, da un libro di ricordanze dei Minerbetti, Florence 1899)

[24] Reference from Peter Thornton, The Italian Renaissance interior 1400-1600, 1991, p. 285, fig. 311