Science, gardens and the Baroque frame

In the 17th century the arts, sciences and religion were not separate or separated from each other, and every educated person was, as it were, a pantologist, interested in all things. This was a time when the knowledge of everything was planted, nurtured and flourished, in both metaphorical and physical gardens.

Il Volterrano (1611-90), Cosimo III de’ Medici (1642-1723), c. 1661, o/c, 63 x 51.5 cm., Robilant & Voena

In 1670, at the age of twenty-eight, Cosimo de’ Medici inherited the Grand Dukedom of Tuscany from his father, Ferdinando II de’ Medici. He ruled for over half a century as Cosimo III, and although his marital and political lives could hardly be said to have been successful, his patronage of both the arts and sciences slightly offset his failure to arrest the decline of the state which had begun during his father’s reign.

Cosimo III and gardens

Cosimo would have been formally educated in the sciences had his father had his wish, but his mother wanted both their children to be raised by her own deeply pious standards. However, three years before Ferdinando’s death his father sent Cosimo travelling through Europe, mainly to separate him from the bear-pit of his marriage, but also, perhaps, as a counterbalance to a rather narrow upbringing.  It is notable how many gardens these travels took in, with their schemes of waterworks, sundials and collections of exotic plants, as well as meetings with members of the Royal Society in London.

Willem Isaacsz Swanenburg (d.1612), after Jan Cornelisz Woudanus (c.1570-d.1615), Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, 1610, etching, Leiden University Libraries, COLLBN 315-II N 41

In his first expedition of 1667, for example, the prince visited Leiden, where the university’s botanical gardens had been founded in 1590 as a resource for the medical school; in the ensuing eighty years they had become the repository for a large collection of exotic plants brought back by the Dutch East India Company. They were nearly half a century behind the botanic garden of Pisa, founded in 1543 under the auspices of Cosimo I de’ Medici, but there must have been a competitively inquisitive interest for any member of the family in seeing the extent, academic and medical value, classical significance and exotic content of other such gardens. The Oxford botanical garden, founded in 1621, ‘scarcely deserve[d] to be seen’ by the prince when he visited it shortly afterwards [1].

Cosimo seems to have been innately drawn to the development of many branches of science in the 17th century, from Galileo’s lenses to animals, and from medicine to agriculture, but gardens were high in his esteem and interest. An illustrated journal of his progress through the houses, gardens and cities of England was kept by one of his companions, the Conte Lorenzo Magalotti, and presented to the Laurentian Library in Florence; it was translated into English in 1821 and published with a biography of the prince. Its viewpoint is of course Magalotti’s, and he may have skewed what he wrote about and the judgements he made on it; but ultimately it was Cosimo who would have chosen where the party went and what they saw.

In Somerset they visited Lord Poulett’s house in Hinton St George, where Cosimo ‘amused himself’ by riding in the park and walking in the gardens:

Magalotti, p. 141

Certainly a man interested in botanical gardens would have found these flowery raised beds much more exciting than the municipal-sounding sandy paths and lawns expected of the English, even where their garden rollers were worthy of note.

The influence of the grotto

Wilton House, engraving after Thomas Hosmer Shepherd’s pen-&-ink copy of the original drawing, British Library, made for the 1821 published translation

His party then went on – via Stonehenge (‘supposed to be a sepulchre or trophy’) – to Wilton House, home of the Earl of Pembroke and lots of Van Dycks. And at Wilton Cosimo found a souvenir of his Florentine home, in the form of a grotto designed under the supervision of Inigo Jones by Isaac de Caus, who was also responsible for the layout of the gardens.

Magalotti, pp. 150-51

Inigo Jones (1573-1652), Wilton House: front elevation of the grotto, 1630; drawing, 1712, RIBA

Grottos – those watery, rocky, shelly and statue-bedizened faux caves which sprang up in gardens across the world during the 16th-18th centuries – became particularly important for the development of picture frames, informing their ornament and symbolism throughout the Mannerist, Baroque and Rococo periods. The first modern grotto is credited to Niccolò Tribolo [2], who designed it in the 1530s for Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-74), great-great-grandfather of Cosimo III and first Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Niccolò Tribolo (1500-50), grotto at the Villa Castello, Florence. Photo: Gryffindor

Fifty years later, in the park of the Villa di Pratolino, in the gardens designed and filled with automata by Bernardo Buontalenti for Francesco I de’ Medici, the sculptor Giambologna created what was a sort of personified grotto in the form of the Appennino (1579-80), the giant of the Appennine mountains which rise beyond Florence.

Giusto Utens (fl.1580-d.1609), Villa di Pratolino [southern half of garden, showing the Appennino], Villa La Petraia, Florence; one of 14 (out of 17) surviving lunettes of the Medici villas with their gardens, in original Mannerist frames with imbricated scale crests and cartouches at base

The programme of the gardens seems to have been inspired by episodes or figures from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Francesco’s guests and the scholars in his train, educated as they were in the classics, would recognize what was happening when the sculptures which filled the gardens were either really made to move through hydraulic installations, or only seemed to, because of their lifelike appearance and the movement of the plants and water around them [3].

Stefano della Bella (1610-64), Villa of Pratolino: The Appennino, c.1653, etching, Metropolitan Museum, New York 

The Appennino today and his back view, showing the gates which give access to his insides. Photos: with thanks to Saara Knapp

The Appennino didn’t move, but his pose suggested contained or imminent motion, and the water flowing from the monster’s mouth beneath his hand conveyed movement to its surroundings. He was, in a literal sense, the genius of the place, the genius loci, infusing the gardens with a mythological wonder which brought the spectators closer to the classical past inherent in the landscape, the sculptures, and the stories they suggested. And the Appennino was also hollow; he crouched in a cavelike niche which has now vanished, appearing like the spirit of a grotto, an organic part of the rocks he sat amongst, whilst inside him openings led up through three levels, where there were fountains, and rooms for entertainment, music and theatre. A fire and torches could be kindled after dark, which lighted his eyes whilst he appeared to breath out the smoke.

The ‘Medici’ frame

The grotto is perhaps one of the few forms of classical construction not to have been revived in the Renaissance of the 15th century, and stands – with its asymmetry, lack of classical rationality and anarchic ornament – as one of the first markers of Mannerism. Perhaps it is fitting that Niccolò Tribolo’s career began as a woodcarver, since the decorative elements of the grotto helped to give us the Auricular ‘Medici’ frame, with which Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici, Cosimo III’s uncle, embellished his art collection in his apartments in the Palazzo Pitti. The ‘Medici’ frames are balanced on the cusp of Mannerism, looking towards the organic decoration and animated theatricality of the Baroque. They are shaped by the decorative designs and ornament of Buontalenti, creator of the Pratolino and Boboli gardens, and the mascarons and creatures which lurk in them were born in the Mannerist grottos which he, his peers and Tribolo brought to life.

Baciccio (Giovanni Battista Gaulli; 1639-1709), Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici, 1670, 72.2 x 59.6 cm., frame 93 x 83 cm., Galleria degli Uffizi

For frames, these are extraordinarily interwoven and sculptural entanglements of leaf and scroll and sinew and animal: giltwood analogues of the grotto and wild garden. Like northern Auricular frames, they blend curling winglike elements with anatomical and marine forms, hiding masks, tails and paws amongst the foliage. Marilena Mosco has pointed out that, in the frame above, the pairs of sinuous creatures scrolling their way along each rail of the frame from corner to centre, are serpents, which ‘refer covertly to Leopoldo’s enemies, who were envious of his appointment as a cardinal’ [4], although their bulging middles, back nodules and horse faces look rather like dragons as imagined by Stefano della Bella, and exactly the sort of thing you might expect to find lurking in a grotto or a nearby wilderness.

Stefano della Bella (1610-64), Cartouche flanked by dragons, from Nouvelles inventions des cartouches, c.1647, etching, Metropolitan Museum, New York

Stefano della Bella (1610-64), The young Cosimo III de’ Medici drawing the Medici vase, 1656, ink and chalk, 14 x 11.1 cm., Royal Collection Trust

To complicate further the picture of relationships in the Medici courts in the second half of the 17th century (which is a maze of inter-related artists, patrons and scientists, connections across borders and tangled family ties), Stefano della Bella was Cosimo III’s drawing master in the 1650s, and went with him to Rome on perhaps the prince’s first foray from home.  His imagination seems to have fed itself into a muscular super-organ on the work of the generations before, such as Perin del Vaga, Pellegrino Tibaldi, Bartolomeo Ammannati, Jacques Callot and Bernardo Buontalenti; and some of this interest in the natural world as a source of extraordinary creatures barely removed from the mythological, of emblematic and symbolic beings, and of animals which science was only beginning to grips with, must have communicated itself to his pupil.

Stefano della Bella (1610-64), Frontispiece to Ornamenti o Grottesche, c.1653, and detail of owl from another plate in the series, both Metropolitan Museum, New York; Caravaggio, Sleeping Eros, 1608, 72 x 105 cm., Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti

The ‘Medici’ frames were applicable to all genres of painting, from portraits (and the unique collection of artists’ self-portraits) to mythological scenes and sacred paintings. Leopoldo seems to have had two aims in the frames he commissioned: that they should have a similarity of style which would create an harmonious gallery hang[5], and that, within this style, they should be individualized – often strikingly so – and frequently through motifs and ornaments which reflected the subjects of the paintings.

Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94), Adoration of the Magi, 1487, tempera/panel, 171.5 cm. diam., Palazzo Pitti 

The tondo frame given to Ghirlandaio’s Adoration, almost 200 years after the painting was completed, has the same pierced Auricular ornament as the rectilinear paintings in Leopoldo’s collection, but apparently little other connection with the subject than the cherub’s head at the top – carved in deep relief, its naturalism in the shaping of jaw and hair showing the skill of the Medici carvers. However, the spiral moulding which flows from the back of the head and undulates around the curve of the frame morphs into a leafy flourish which stands in for wings, repeating itself in a liquid rhythm around the sight edge. Other motifs are based on the form of blade bones and dorsal knobs, which melt into scrolls and leaf buds.

If this form of framing were also an intellectual game to be played with one’s peers, as well as an idiosyncratic and ornamental method of stamping one’s ownership on a collection, perhaps it could be said that the use of anatomical elements (part of the scientific input into the whole Auricular style) might be a way of symbolizing the Incarnation of Christ in a way which joined the spiritual seamlessly to the temporal, and Christianity to biological exploration.

Raphael (workshop or copy; 1483-1520), Pope Julius II, 1511-12, tempera/panel, 107 x 80 cm., Gallerie degli Uffizi 

The frame on the copy of Raphael’s Pope Julius is, on the other hand, less easy to see as attributive. The bats’ wings and masks on Sustermans’s Portrait of Pandolfo Ricasoli, and the scaly, finned fish on the frame given to Titian’s Portrait of Bishop Ludovico Beccadelli, seem to be used as purely decorative motifs, taken from the marine elements which characterized this branch of Italian Mannerism, and which are also part of the ornament of grottos and fountains [6]. Pope Julius is surrounded by stretched and swooping scallop shells, pierced and gadrooned bony protrusions, and what appear to be monkeys’ masks at the corners.

Titian (fl. c.1506-d.1576), St Margaret of Antioch, 1565-70, o/c, 116.5 x 98 cm., Gallerie degli Uffizi

The frame of Titian’s St Margaret, however, is very much suited to her divine deliverance from inside a dragon; it includes overlapping dorsal scales, scaly tails, monstrous masks and vestigial wing forms.  Perhaps the point of the ‘Medici’ frame and the grotto/grotesque, with its trail of marine and anatomical imagery, is that sometimes it can be tied expressively to the subject it frames, and sometimes it is just a decorative jeu d’esprit, using fashionable interests.

The knowledge of everything

The arts, sciences, and even religion, were not separate or separated from each other at this time, and every educated person was, as it were, a pantologist, interested in all things. This was partly an effect of the study of the seven liberal arts – a curriculum established in classical Rome, and used as the template for university education from the 12th century. Men passed through six years of studying these subjects (grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music) to obtain a master’s degree; and since artists followed in the train of the wealthy and educated man, along with the clergy, doctors, poets and philosophers who formed his entourage, there would be a natural diffusion of theories and ideas – which might be described as a trickledown process – affecting all the arts beyond just poetry and music.

Andrea Mantegna (c.1431-1506), San Zeno altarpiece, 1456-59, San Zeno, Verona

Keith Christiansen has suggested that Mantegna, for example, is the fulfilment of Leon Battista Alberti’s vision of a new, idealized form of Renaissance painter –

‘…a new breed of artist: someone with a literary background, some knowledge of geometry, and the ambition to emulate the achievement of those legendary geniuses of ancient Greece and Rome so that he, too, might leave his mark on posterity…’ [7]

A generation after Mantegna,  another instance of this process (and one of the most famous) is Lorenzo de’ Medici’s sculpture garden, set up in the early 1480s for painters and sculptors (as well as adolescent noblemen) to study classical antiquities in a setting which tried to replicate Plato’s outdoor academy, and where there was also intellectual education available through discussion with the humanists and NeoPlatonists in the Medici circle; it was in these surroundings that Michelangelo was educated.

Lorenzo Magalotti, Saggi di naturali esperienze…, Sotheby’s, 4 October, Lot 2

In 1657 Cosimo III’s father and uncle, Ferdinando II and Leopoldo de’ Medici, set up further hub for academic interchange in the form of the Accademia del Cimento, an informally-organized group of scholars in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, anatomy and geology.

It included the same Lorenzo Magalotti who would, ten years later, travel to England with Cosimo III,  and who wrote and edited the society’s one collection of papers, Saggi di naturali esperienze fatte nell’Academia del Cimento [8]. The Cimento was a version of the Royal Society in England [9], whose members Cosimo and Magalotti would meet in 1667, and to whom Magalotti would present a copy of Saggi... These were essays concerned with the accuracy of experiments, as against old wives’ theories of the physical world; the production of similarly accurate instruments, such as vacuum pumps and barometers; and the standardization of measurement, at a time when length in Italy was still named after arms and palms, and in France after thumbs and (as in Britain) feet. 17th century  Italian inventories, commissions and bills describe picture frames and canvases in terms of braccie and palmi, and measurements with the same or related names in different countries – or even different regions – never corresponded exactly: sometimes quite a lot was lost in translation. The braccia, for example, was approximately 23 inches, or 58.3 cm., depending upon which braccia was in question.

Scientific knowledge, research and experimentation in the 17th century were, through the omnivorous interests of those concerned with them, so much a part of all other aspects of life, as this divagation is attempting to illustrate, that there is no division between the artist and art collector (Leopoldo de’ Medici, commissioner of all those ‘Medici’ frames, amateur painter, graphic artist and poet) and the scientist (Leopoldo de’ Medici, follower of Galileo, overseer of the agricultural enterprise attempting to replace the revenues from the Medici bank, founder of the Cimento). The spirit of inquiry into the physical universe was the same spirit which saw the garden as an expression of NeoPlatonic harmony, an allegorical reconstruction of the garden of Eden, a collection of plants with symbolic significance, a cache of raw materials for medicines, and a scientific museum of species from across the world.

Frans Jansz Post (1612-80), View of Olinda, Brazil, 1662, o/c, 107.5 x 172.5 cm., Rijksmuseum

The painting and frame of Frans Jansz Post’s View from Olinda seem to be the products  of this view of the collector’s garden. Post was a travel-artist in the service of the Governor-General of the Dutch West India Company, employed to record in drawings and watercolours the terrain of (in this case) Brazil, with its landscapes, inhabitants, animals, plants and settlements. For seven years, from 1637 to 1644, Post drew his way around Brazil, returning to work them up in his Haarlem studio into finished oil paintings [10].

This is the only example of his Brazilian paintings with a surviving attributive frame, made to reflect and expand on the painted subject. There may have been others, since lost; or perhaps this is a lone outlier – possibly specially commissioned by the Governor-General, Johan Maurits, as a record and summary of the land where he was stationed, or by a collector of exotica for his kunst kabinet. The profile of the frame is a torus, and relates to French Louis XIII designs from the second and third quarters of the 17th century, which were carved with garlands of bay leaves, oak leaves or spiralling acanthus, and appear in contemporary Netherlandish as well as French  collections. It is also connected to cushion profiles, which were wider and flatter and form the basic of the Netherlandish ‘Lutma’ frame, decorated thickly with European flowers. Post’s frame has a conventional ground of bay leaves and acanthus corners, but is overlaid with leaves of passiflora and watermelon, and the fruit of hops and beans [11].

Frans Jansz Post, View of Olinda, details of frame. Photos: with thanks to Rob Markoff

Frans Jansz Post (1612-80), watercolour of lizard, c.1638-44, Noord-Hollands Archief, Haarlem; and detail of lizard from frame

The most striking motifs are the animals and insects carved amongst the leaves, which include snakes, lizards, scorpion, praying mantis, tarantula and stick insect [12]; some of these were copied from published works on Brazil, but others are based on Post’s own drawings, and in one case of a lizard, on his watercolour. Katharina Schmidt-Loske and Kurt Wettengl note the political content of Post’s work, in its presentation of a Netherlandish colony successfully reft from Portuguese rule, and achieving economic value for the colonizers [13]. However, the overriding impression given by painting and frame together is of a scientific record of the teeming life in a particular location, illustrated through accurate depictions of the plants and animals, and in both cases, carved and painted, woven into an aesthetic composition which, like a beautifully-painted map, would be both attractive to hang and intellectually satisfying in its information.

Bernard Palissy (follower of; 1510-90), platter, 1575-1600, Metropolitan Museum, New York

The frame has been stripped of its original finish, but Hubert Baija, formerly of the Rijksmuseum framing department, has suggested that, rather than being gilded, it might have been painted and possibly parcel-gilt, with the animals and fruits picked out against the ground [14]. In both senses – as a scientific record and attractive composition, as well as a colourful naturalistic sculpture – it is closely related to the work of the French Huguenot Bernard Palissy, whose earthenware dishes, bowls and ewers were decorated with moulded fish, plants and animals taken from the life, and painted in natural colours with lead glazes. Palissy built a grotto in the Tuileries gardens; he opened his own museum of natural history; he wrote essays and delivered lectures on the scientific aspects of his work, and was also interested in geological formations, fossils, chemistry and alchemy, physics, mineralogy, meteorology and embalming [15].

The cabinet of curiosities

Cabinet of curiosities, engraving from Ferrante Imperato, Dell’ historia naturale, Naples, 1599

 The domestic analogue of a mind with all these various interests is perhaps the cabinet of curiosities. From perhaps the 15th century the idea of a collection housed in anything from a room or studiolo to a small closet, a wall-sized display cupboard to a decorative chest on a stand, became the recognized adjunct of the educated man, whether he was aristocrat, gentleman, saint or scholar. It might contain exotic objects from faraway countries; geological and mineral specimens; dried or preserved plants, stuffed animals, horns and hooves; scientific instruments and mechanical objects. It could include paintings, drawings, prints and books as well, and here – for instance in the genre of botanical illustration – scientific and aesthetic interests overlapped completely:

‘On the one hand scientists were quick to appreciate its practical applications; botanical drawings could capture and summarize information in remarkably memorable form and hence be used to document new knowledge for the purposes of research, teaching, and the exchange of information with colleagues. At the same time, kings and private collectors fascinated by the infinite variety and complexity of the natural world, where new discoveries were being made every day, sought to add botanical and zoological paintings to their Wunderkammern and encyclopaedic collections; these works would eventually take the place of actual specimens that collectors were unable to obtain for their gardens and museums’ [16].

Frans Francken II (1581-1642), Cabinet of a collector, 1617, o/panel, 76.7 x 119.1 cm., Royal Collection Trust

Frans Francken II (1581-1642), A kunstkabinet, 1619, 84 x 139 cm., Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp

Frans Francken’s paintings of such collections include many of these classes of things, with an emphasis on pictures – landscapes, sacred and still life paintings, drawings, albums, and miniatures – as well as classical and foreign items, medals and coins, and shells. Many of them have religious, moral or political significance, as well as the celebration of intelligent inquiry, and a wish to gather together objects which might inform, entertain and enlighten those who studied them.

Tradescant and Ashmole collections today, the Ark, © Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Collections of curiosities like these became the foundation of many museums: for example, one of the very first was founded by Elias Ashmole around the core of objects collected by the Tradescant family in an earlier museum, opening to the public in 1683 as  the Ashmolean, Oxford. John Tradescant was, coincidentally, a gardener, creating the gardens at Hatfield House and at Canterbury, and caring for those at Chilham, Newhall, and Charles I’s gardens at Oatlands. He travelled widely – to north America, Russia and Greenland, Italy, Turkey, France and Palestine – collecting specimens of plants and trees and other exotica, and eventually, in 1626, setting up an outdoor equivalent of the kunst kabinet or wunderkammer in the form of the Ark, a large estate in Lambeth [17].

Cornelis de Neve (attrib; 1609-78), John Tradescant the Elder (c.15702-1638), Ashmolean Museum

His portrait, attributed to Cornelis de Neve, has an integrated painted Mannerist frame in the form of a scrolled cartouche made out of what looks like sheet lead (appropriate to a gardener), and carrying on it the things for which he was noted – swags of fruit, flowers and vegetables, along with a group of shells at the bottom. It is closely related to engraved portraits of celebrated men shown in trompe l’oeil frames, often surrounded by attributes or trophies appropriate to them. The outer physical frame is decorated with metal appliqués of angels’ heads in the corners, acanthus buds at top and bottom, and twists of vine leaves at the sides. Both painted and wooden frames mark out a notable person, who introduced scores of plant species of all kinds to Britain, along with precious objects such as Powhatan’s mantle, the robe of Pocahontas’s father. The appliqués on the outer frame seem to cast him as a man who balanced the sacred and the temporal in his approach to life, achieving the classical goal of harmony through the perfectly-tended garden. Both frames together might be seen as an earlier equivalent to what the ‘Medici’ frames were doing, in terms of decorative fashion and metaphor.

John Riley (attrib.; 1646-91), Elias Ashmole (1617-92), c.1681-82, o/c, 124 x 101 cm., with carved limewood frame by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), after restoration, © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The portrait of Elias Ashmole, fifty years later, presents him as the aristocratic author and collector par excellence. It was commissioned to accompany the donation of his and the Tradescants’ collection to the newly-founded Museum, and was naturally far grander than the latters’ portraits. However, it is increased exponentially in grandeur, beauty and attention-grabbing power by the extraordinary frame carved for it by Grinling Gibbons [18].

It is designed with a fall of drapery on each side, embellished with swags and garlands of fruit and flowers, and joined at the top by airily scrolling acanthus leaves which lead into more flowers at the corners, and by festoons of flowers at the bottom. Altogether around fifty separate species have been identified: most of them growing in England in the 17th century, but others from much further afield. As well as buttercups, poppies, peaches, plums, cherries, grapes, Turk’s cap lilies and roses, they also include cedrela and Virginia spiderwort flower (Tradescantia virginiana) from the Americas, camellias from East Asia, figwort from Hungary, tuliptree flowers and passion flowers, Ethiopian hartwort and freesias from Southern Africa [19]. They reflect a knowledge of plants and the collection of exotic species which is the province of the Tradescants rather than Ashmole, just as the collection donated to the embryonic museum was much more theirs than his, and had been rather nefariously obtained from the younger Tradescant’s widow.

Ashmole knew Gibbons before commissioning the frame from him, having produced a horoscope for him the year previously. And just before that, in 1680-82, Gibbons had been commissioned by the king, Charles II, to carve a panel for him to present to Cosimo III de’ Medici as an emblem of the diplomatic ties between Britain and Tuscany.

Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), the Cosimo panel, 1682, Palazzo Pitti

This panel now hangs, with rather nice symmetry, in the Grotticina or small grotto inside the Palazzo Pitti. It incorporates, besides the billing and cooing doves of peace at the top, festoons of fruit and flowers, acanthus leaves and ears of wheat, around a trophy of musical instruments, sheet music, a quill, palette, the crowns of Britain and Tuscany, bay leaves and a sheaf of arrows. All of this symbolizes the prosperous harvest and harmony through the arts which are engendered by peace. The hanging piece of Venetian lace and garland of roses beneath the doves seem to have been added as a virtuoso ornamental touch.

Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), Elias Ashmole frame, details

The creation of the beautifully organized still life which is the Cosimo panel, its fruit and flowers obviously copied closely from life, led on to the Ashmole frame, which is in effect a hanging cabinet of curiosities. It must have been deliberately composed by Ashmole himself to suggest that he, rather than the Tradescants, was the discoverer or cataloguer, as well as in many cases the donor to the country, of the living models of the plants which Gibbons was depicting. In this sense it is also a series of scientific illustrations in the form of a frame.

The stars and the frame

Ashmole had began his career as a lawyer, and studied mathematics, astronomy, and physics at various points in his life. He was a founder member of the Royal Society in London, like Robert Boyle (1627-91), although not so deeply engaged as the latter: he was a reader, whereas Boyle was an active experimenter. The 17th century had not, however, the same view or the same boundaries to the sciences which operate in the 21st century, and both Ashmole and Boyle were interested in alchemy, just as Ashmole and the 17th century’s scientific hero Galileo practised astrology. These were respectable areas of study in universities; astronomy and astrology were intertwined, and for Ashmole to produce a horoscope for Grinling Gibbons, for example, was as unremarkable an action as it was for Galileo to cast a horoscope for Cosimo II de’ Medici .

Justus Sustermans (1597-1681), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), 1635, o/c, 56 x 48 cm., Gallerie degli Uffizi

It is not clear when Sustermans’s portrait of Galileo was framed, although the emphatic volutes might possibly date it to the first half of the 17th century. It is weighty and sculptural, more assertively Baroque than fluidly Mannerist. It demonstrates the range of style and ornament within this type of frame, and the need for some overall consistency through the wider collections, as well as the variations within them. Portraits of popes, bishops and theologians were important, but so also were those of the scientists; Leopoldo de’ Medici was a follower of Galileo, and collected instruments associated with his work and that of others.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), lens, 1609/1610, glass set in gilt bronze, 3.8 cm.; Vittorio Crosten (fl.1669-1704), ivory and ebony frame, 1677, 41 x 30 cm. overall; Museo Galileo, Florence

Galileo worked in Florence during the reigns of Cosimo II (d. 1621) and Ferdinando II (d. 1670), but it was to Cosimo II that he presented the lens through which he had discovered the moons of Jupiter in 1610 (naming them ‘Medicean Stars’ [20]). In 1642 it passed into Leopoldo’s collection, but it was not until two years after the latter’s death in 1675 that his nephew, Cosimo III, commissioned a frame for it from the Netherlandish carver, Vittorio Crosten.

The result is in the tradition of an exquisite miniature frame, using ebony and ivory – precious black and white materials as foils to the glass and gilt bronze – carved with great delicacy into a trophy around the lens itself, and into an outer torus of imbricated bay leaves bound with acanthus spirals, clasped with three foliate scrolls and finished at the bottom with an inscribed cartouche. The trophy is composed of Galileo’s instruments – a diagram of the solar system at the top, supported by the sun and moon on either side, telescopes, a sextant, dividers – along with a ribbon inscribed with his discovery of ‘Jupiter’s stars’ and sunspots. The inscription on the cartouche at the bottom reads:


[‘The sky opened by the lynx-like thought of Galileo with this first glass lens showed stars never seen before, rightly called Medicean by their discoverer. The wise man indeed dominates the stars as well’] [21].

This is a monument to and a striking celebration of invention and discovery; an area which was less often captured in sculpture or painting than military or artistic achievements.

Baroque fruit frames

Vittorio Crosten (fl.1669-1704), tympanum of the Alcova (now the Chapel), late 17th century, Royal Apartments, Palazzo Pitti

Crosten could change the scale of his work from the 1 foot high frame of Galileo’s lens to the large giltwood foliate tympanum carved in the arch of the Alcova in the Palazzo Pitti; he also carved various scrolling and pierced acanthus leaf frames for Cosimo III. However, the Medicean work he is best known for is the group of attributive fruit frames made for a series of paintings by Bartolomeo Bimbi.

Villa La Topaia and garden, Florence. Photos: Giulio Monasta and Sailko

Slightly to the north of Florence is one of the so-called secondary Medici villas, the Villa La Topaia, a small but elegant hunting lodge or casino in the park shared by the Villa di Castello and the Villa La Petraia. It was, in spite of its size, one of Cosimo III’s favourite houses, and he created his own botanical garden in its grounds, enlarging it so that he could grow exotic plants and flowers, and also an impressively large collection of fruit trees. His garden was decorative, ornamental and productive, but it was also a museum where he nurtured as many contemporary varieties of each species as he could obtain. For example, fifty-two different apples were recorded, of which perhaps not even one is still cultivated today.

Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1729), a hang of three of Cosimo’s fruit paintings, frames by Vittorio Crosten, now in the Museo della Natura Morto, Villa Poggio a Caiano, Florence

Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1729), Still life with apples, 1696, frame by Vittorio Crosten (fl.1669-1704), and detail with of list of apples depicted; Museo della Natura Morto, Villa Poggio a Caiano, Florence. Photo of detail: Federmanager Toscana

Bartolomeo Bimbi first entered the circles of the Medici via Cardinal Leopoldo, but was then recommended to Cosimo III as a flower painter. At La Topaia he expanded into a versatile artist of every sort of flora and fauna, executing twelve paintings of all his client’s fruit collections – citrus, grapes, pears, peaches, cherries, apricots, apples, figs and plums – as well as smaller ‘portraits’ of especially large single specimens of cardoons, melons, etc. The twelve fruit paintings were produced in two sizes, and the larger sizes included painted lists, either on trompe l’oeil sheets of paper or on ornamental cartouches at the bottom of the image, with the names of all the varieties included of the particular fruit which was the subject. They were both aesthetic, decorative compositions and informative catalogues of whole species of contemporary fruits.

Bartolomeo Bimbi, Still life with apples; details of Crosten’s frame

They were finished off with spectacular frames carved and gilded by Vittorio Crosten (who had a workshop at La Topaia [22]) . Unfortunately Crosten died in 1704 or thereabouts, so the four large paintings by Bimbi needed to cram in every variety of citrus fruit, and painted in 1715, lack the fantastic and beautiful frames of their slightly earlier peers. Crosten’s frames are still life sculptures of the same complexity, expert composition and naturalistic detail as the paintings; arranged along the four rails, but not confined by them, they play with the structure of the more mundane forms of corner-&-centre Baroque frame by piling themselves into gentle heaps and bunches at the centres, whilst the corners curl into great flourishes of layered acanthus leaves, like particularly rampant cabbages.

Greek garland sarcophagus with festoons of mixed fruit, c. 250 AD, ?Phrygian marble, 17 3/8 x 48 ¼ x 21 ¾ ins (44.1 x 122.6 x 55.2 cm.), Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

They are developments of the Renaissance garland frame, which was derived from classical festoons and garlands carved on antique Roman sarcophagi [23], but given a theatrical, even dynamic presence characteristic of the Baroque approach to profile and ornament. The fruit are carved in deep relief, partly concealed amongst curvaceous, spiralling acanthus or dense handfuls of their own leaves, partly sitting on top of the leaves, which overlap the sight edge at the tips; they exert a solid three-dimensional presence underlined by strong contrasts of light and shade, in keeping with the dark backgrounds and brightly-lit painted fruit. However, the uniform gilded finish ensures that they never overwhelm the paintings: these are perfect partnerships of frame and picture, where the frames echo, heighten and focus the attention on the subjects, giving Bimbi’s work the emphasis which these vast and scattered still life compositions need.

Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1729), Still life with pears, 1699, frame by Vittorio Crosten (fl.1669-1704), catalogued by the months when the pears ripen, Museo della Natura Morto, Villa Poggio a Caiano, Florence

Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1729), Still life with festoons of grapes, frame by Vittorio Crosten (fl.1669-1704), Museo della Natura Morto, Villa Poggio a Caiano, Florence

Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1729), Still life with cherries, 1699, o/c, 116 x 155 cm., frame by Vittorio Crosten (fl.1669-1704), 156 x 205 cm., Museo della Natura Morto, Villa Poggio a Caiano, Florence

Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1729), Still life with peaches, frame by Vittorio Crosten (fl.1669-1704), Museo della Natura Morto, Villa Poggio a Caiano, Florence

Interestingly, the frames are not defined by the specific fruit in the paintings they contain. In other words, although the painted fruit is recognized sometimes by a heap of it at the top centre or sometimes at the bottom centre – or at the side, or occasionally more than once on that frame – these attributive fruit are only a part of the long, continuous still life arrangements of many different fruit which run around each painting, whether large or smaller. They are performing, in this sense, a different task from the painted catalogues of varieties: they are setting each fruit species within a gilded representation of the whole orchard at La Topaia – creating a shorthand version of Cosimo’s work in collecting and nurturing this other ‘ark’ of fruit, which was hung inside the villa. If each painting is a catalogue of named types within the species, then the frames are the golden bookcases which hold them.

The whole project forms the kind of resource which Cosimo may have anticipated. His ‘ark’ has sailed down the centuries to become the library from which lost varieties can be resurrected. A viticulturist called Ugo Fiorini, who describes himself as an ‘archaeologist of plants’, is researching and reviving the grapes shown in the grape painting by Bimbi:

‘Many species have been rediscovered and put back into production: from the Passerina grape to the Barbarossa grape, from the Sultanine grape to the Gallette, from the Aleatici to the Occhio di Pernice, the Zibibbo, to the black Jerusalem grape’ [24].

Vittorio Crosten (fl.1669-1704), giltwood chandelier, 1697, Sala Celeste, Palazzo Pitti

The series of fruit paintings in Crosten’s frames apparently all hung together in the salone of La Topaia, together with the vast carved giltwood chandelier, also by Crosten, which today hangs in the Sala Celeste of the Palazzo Pitti. This explains the fruit and acanthus theme of the chandelier, which is decorated in an identical style to the fruit frames, with whorls of acanthus in which apples, grapes, plums and other fruits hide, crusted like barnacles and seaweed on parts of a shipwreck. The chandelier was later enlarged with more branches.

Baroque flower frames

Giusto Utens (fl.1580-d.1609), Villa di Castello, Villa la Petraia, Florence

Botticelli (1445-1510), Primavera, 1482-85, tempera, 203 x 314 cm., Gallerie degli Uffizi

Bimbi also painted flowerpieces for Cosimo III; these were kept at the Villa di Castello, where the gardens contained Niccolò Tribolo’s original grotto and his complex of fountains. This was, coincidentally, the place where Botticelli appears to have painted in the 1480s his allegory of Primavera, or Flora, goddess of flowers, which hung at first in the Palazzo Medici on the via Larga (now Palazzo Medici-Ricardi on via Cavour), although by 1550 it was back in the Villa di Castello.

Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1729), Two carnations, 1700, o/c, 87 x 69 cm., frame by Vittorio Crosten (fl.1669-1704), 127 x 109 cm., Museo della Natura Morto, Villa Poggio a Caiano, Florence

As with his paintings of fruit, some at least of Bimbi’s flowerpieces were framed by Crosten. This Dürer-like image of a carnation plant with two blooms (possibly two views of a single flower) has an anthropomorphic resonance to it, like the double portrait of a couple at odds with each other but was presumably painted as the record of a particularly handsome and possibly rare plant, worthy of being framed in a handsome giltwood sculpture. Crosten has given the frame a similar structure to the series he carved for Bimbi’s fruit paintings, save that the smaller size allows for only one centre, at the top. The corners have the same swooping flourishes of acanthus leaves, which also curl along the rail; and wound amongst them are the flowers and leaves of roses, lilies, what are either Tuscan poppies or paeonia officinalis (which grows wild in Italy), and, on the right of the top centre, a large carnation flower. It appears in an inventory of 1700 as a

‘frame entirely carved with grotesques and flowers all of them gilded, made by Vettorio [sic]’ [25].

Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1729), Flowerpiece with ‘Boule de neige’ paeonies, 1700, o/c, 130 x 100 cm., frame by Vittorio Crosten (fl.1669-1704), 190 x 140 cm., Museo della Natura Morto, Villa Poggio a Caiano, Florence; one of a pair with Flowerpiece with sunflower

The flowerpiece above is much larger and one of a pair; it has at some point been christened after the ‘Boule de neige’ paeony, although that was a variety developed in France only in the 19th century. The paeonies available in 17th-18th century Tuscany were, however, fairly numerous, having arrived, probably from Turkey, several centuries earlier. They were grown for their medical use as much as for their ornamental appearance, and it is notable that Cosimo III’s daughter, Anna Maria Luisa, who married the Elector Palatine, Johann Wilhelm II, apparently gave a Viennese noblewoman some very effective infant convulsion powder containing paeony roots and seeds [26].

Bimbi’s painting also includes roses (used medically to treat stress, depression and sore throats) carnations (used for inflammation, swelling, PMT and the menopause) orchids (for headaches), passion flower (for insomnia) and lilies (for burns, coughs and ulcers). Both this picture and its pendant are therefore not mere decorations, but a commentary upon the scientific uses of the flowers growing outside the villa, in the gardens at Castello. Crosten’s frames for them echo the subjects of the paintings, with (on this frame) carved passion flowers, tulips, paeonies, sunflowers and roses. As with the fruit paintings, the frames of these flowerpieces focus the spectator’s attention on the image, echo the subject, and emphasize the importance of both – not only as beautiful compositions, but as records of a medical resource.

Bimbi painted a number of animals for his client as well; these are naturalistic observations of individual creatures – bears, dogs, parrots – as well as of aberrations, such as a two-headed lamb. They were kept separately at the Villa Poggio a Caiano, where all Bimbi’s works have now been brought together in the Museo della Natura Morto, and (unlike the fruit and flower paintings) they don’t seem to have been framed in the richly embellished frames made by Crosten and  his peers. This may be because Crosten had died in 1704, or because scientific illustrations of animals were seen as less inherently decorative, especially where abnormalities where concerned.

Integral trompe l’oeil Baroque frames

The story of how Bartolomeo Bimbi was brought to the attention of Cosimo III from his somewhat lowly position in the train of Cardinal Leopoldo involves an anecdote rather similar to John Evelyn’s finding of Grinling Gibbons by looking through a window and seeing him carving a version of Tintoretto’s Crucifixion on a limewood panel with a frame of flowers [27]. Bimbi’s story, apocryphal or not, has him painting a garland of flowers, and being seen by another artist working for Francesco Redi, the medical doctor, experimental scientist and philosopher in Cosimo III’s circle. The garland was judged so striking that Redi recommended its maker to Cosimo, and Bimbi spent much of the rest of his career in the service of the Medici court.

A garland per se, however, is really a decoration more than it is a still life or other subject painting. Was there more to it? Cosimo was, after all, not just a scientist manqué and a botanical enthusiast; he had had a religious education and became increasingly pious over the course of his life, even instituting antisemitic laws in Tuscany.

Rubens (1577-1640) and Jan Brueghel (1568-1625), Madonna & Child in a garland of flowers, c.1616/18, o/panel, 185 x 209.8 cm., Alte Pinakothek, Munich

In the 17th and early 18th centuries there was a fashion for paintings of the Madonna and Child, Holy Family or saints framed in an integral garland of flowers. Here, however, the flowers were symbolic rather than of scientific or medical interest, and refer to specific aspects of the lives of Christ and the Virgin [28]. Many such paintings are Flemish, Netherlandish, or Spanish, and may – like those by Rubens and Brueghel – include a trompe l’oeil ebony or fruitwood frame behind the garland.

Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1729), Madonna in a garland of flowers, o/c, 75 x 55 cm., Lucas Aste, 23 May 2023, Lot 32

Andrea Scacciati (1642-1710), Adoration of the Christ Child with a floral garland, 115 x 97 cm., Van Ham Kunstauktionen, Cologne, 16 November 2012, Lot 561

There was, however, an Italian variant of this genre, where the Madonna appears in a meticulously painted Baroque giltwood frame inside the outer wreath of flowers, and quite a large number of these seem to have been produced by Bimbi and his collaborator at Cosimo’s court, Andrea Scacciati. They are idiosyncratic versions of the Netherlandish and Spanish examples, but seem to fit perfectly into the style of work which Cosimo would have appreciated – paintings faithful to their theme, and also depicted in such a way as to fit them into the interiors of his villas and palazzi. It seems more plausible that this was the kind of garland which introduced Bimbi to the prince, and that the paintings and the carved and gilded frames which followed during the next thirty or forty years became a metaphor for a century in which knowledge, art and religion were seamlessly integrated facets of the lives and interests of aristocrats, collectors, scholars, gardeners, artists, scientists and philosophers.


[1] A.M. Crino, ed., Un principe di Toscana in Inghilterra e in Irlanda nel 1669. Relazione ufficiale del viaggio di Cosimo de’ Medici tratta dal ‘giornale’ di Lorenzo Magalotti, 1968, Rome; the original, by Lorenzo Magalotti, was translated as Travels of Cosmo the third, Grand Duke of Tuscany, through England during the reign of King Charles the second and published in 1821; see p. 262

[2] Tribolo also designed one of the world’s oldest botanical gardens for Cosimo I – the Giardino del semplici, now the Orto Botanico of the University of Florence. Cosimo III gave it into the care of the Società Botanica Fiorentina in 1718

[3] John Dixon Hunt, Garden and grove: The Italian Renaissance garden in the English imagination, 1600-1750, pp. 55-56

[4] Marilena Mosco, ‘Anthropomorphism and zoömorphism in the “Medici” picture frames

[5] Marilena Mosco, Cornici dei Medici: La fantasia Barocca al servizio del potere/ Medici frames: Baroque caprice for the Medici princes, 2007, Florence, pp. 40-41

[6] Marilena Mosco, ‘Anthropomorphism and zoömorphism…’, op. cit.

[7] Keith Christiansen, The Genius of Andrea Mantegna, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009, ‘Preface’. See also ‘National Gallery, London: reframing Mantegna

[8] Saggi di naturali esperienze fatte nell’Academia del Cimento sotto la protezione del Serenissimo Principe Leopoldo di Toscana e descritte dal segretario di essa Accademia (Essays of natural experiments made in the Academia del Cimento under the protection of His Most Serene Highness Leopoldo of Tuscany and described by the secretary of this Academy)

[9] The Cimento was founded in 1657 and the Royal Society in 1660; however, the latter seems to have been based on the so-called Invisible College, which met in Oxford and Gresham College, London, from the mid-1640s; Robert Boyle was involved with both incarnations of the group

[10] Katharina Schmidt-Loske and Kurt Wettengl, ‘Framing the frame: Frans Post’s View of Olinda, Brazil, 1662’, The Rijksmuseum Bulletin, no 68, 2020, p. 101

[11] Ibid., pp. 104-08

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., pp. 112-14

[14] Ibid., pp.110-12

[15] Jerah Johnson, ‘Bernard Palissy, prophet of modern ceramics’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol.14, no 4, Winter 1983, p.400

[16] Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi and Gretchen Hirschauer, The flowering of Florence: Botanical art for the Medici, exh. cat., NGA Washington, 2002, p. 28

[17] Francis Terry, ‘Tradescant family’, Vauxhall History, January 2012, The Vauxhall Society

[18] Jevon Thistlewood, ‘Restoring a Grinling Gibbons frame

[19]  Ibid.: ‘In 2014 the frame was central to a temporary gallery display organised and supported by the University Engagement Programme. Ex Uno Omnia: ‘Everything Out of One’ was a collaborative project with six postgraduate students from Oxford University who were invited to study the frame from a variety of perspectives in parallel with its restoration’. Sadly, this project seems no longer to be available online

[20] Mara Miniati, ‘Birth and life of scientific collections in Florence’, Museologica & Interdisciplinaridade, vol. 5, no 9, Jan-June 2016, p. 20

[21] See the entry for Crosten’s frame in the Museo Galileo

[22]  Marilena Mosco, Cornici dei Medici…, op. cit., p. 230

[23] See ‘Fruit, flowers, foliage: the symbolism of Renaissance frames

[24] See the Belfiore Vivai di Lastra a Signa

[25] Marilena Mosco, Cornici dei Medici…, op. cit., p. 234

[26] Ashley Buchanan, ‘Paeony: pretty and powerful’, Dumbarton Oaks, Plant Humanities, 2022 

[27] The story and the panel can be found in the National Trust Collections entry for the piece, now at Dunham Massey in Cheshire

[28] ‘Fruit, flowers, foliage…’, op. cit.