National Gallery, London: reframing Mantegna’s grisailles
When an atypical size, shape and type of painting is crying out for a better frame, imagination and recycling can produce a startlingly authentic solution.
Andrea Mantegna (c.1430/31-1506), The introduction of the cult of Cybele in Rome, 1505-06, (76.5 x 273 cm). National Gallery, NG902
This is a painting of Mantegna’s old age, from the very end of his career: so late that, of the four paintings intended to form a small cycle for the client, Francesco Cornaro of Venice, only this one was completed before the artist’s death. His brother-in-law, Giovanni Bellini, executed another, in the style and to the design of Mantegna.
Giovanni Bellini (c.1430/35-1516), An episode from the life of Publius Cornelius Scipio, after 1506, 29 7/16 x 140 ¼ in (74.8 x 356.2 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington
Mantegna was intellectually and aesthetically drawn to surviving works of classical sculpture, both in the round and in bas-relief; he himself carved at least one three-dimensional statue, the figure of Sant’ Eufemia in the cathedral of Irsina, and there are three bas-relief panels in the Musée du Louvre (two bronzes and an ivory) attributed either to him or to his circle. However, he also perfected a method of emulating relief sculpture in painting – again, both in ‘bronze‘ and in ‘marble’.
Andrea Mantegna (c.1430/31-1506), Samson and Delilah, c.1500, (47 x 36.8 cm). National Gallery, NG1145
His series of pale, marmoreal figures set against ravishing backgrounds of faux gemstones are striking, and often paradoxically fraught with emotion: as, for example, in the panel with Delilah cutting the hair of the sleeping Samson, where the complex blend of tenderness, betrayal and vulnerability which animates the grisaille scene is echoed in the stormy sky of trompe l’oeil coloured stone. These works derive, as well as from Roman bas-relief sculptures, from antique cameos, which were eagerly collected in the 15th century, and in which the various strata of polychromatic stone were similarly carved away to present light, opaque figures against a darker coloured background.
The Farnese cup, sardonyx agate, 2nd century BC, from Hellenistic Egypt; National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Photo: Ana al’ain. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Lorenzo de’ Medici owned a number of magnificent antique cameos such as the Farnese Cup; this is carved of sardonyx, agate and chalcedony, with a triad of gods and a goddess on the inside, and Medusa’s head on the outside; it is finished in exquisite detail, and was valued at ten thousand florins in an inventory of 1492 . Lorenzo also called Italian craftsmen to Florence to produce contemporary examples of cameos; by the time he died, he owned a total of seventy-six items. There was an equally rich collection in the possession of the Gonzagas, dukes of Mantua, the main patrons of Mantegna for around forty years.
Roman sarcophagus, 2nd century AD, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua
Whilst the compact compositions of Mantegna’s smaller grisaille scenes, such as Samson and Delilah or Judith and Holofernes, are therefore related to the constraints of a cameo, his long, frieze-like faux-marbre paintings are influenced by the scenes carved on Roman sarcophagi. He had already, in the 1480s, begun to work on the great cycle of nine paintings known as The triumphs of Caesar, celebrating Julius Caesar’s victories in war, which utilized the conventions of murals in their organization of numerous figures as processional compositions within a shallow space. These are fully coloured, and form a sort of intermediate stage between the murals of the Camera degli sposi (1465-74), with their landscape settings, and the four grisailles he designed for Cornaro, where friezes of ‘marble’ figures are set against a completely flat ground.
Mantegna, The introduction of the cult of Cybele in Rome, 1505-06, National Gallery
His study of antique bas-reliefs, such as sarcophagi and architectural friezes, had shown him how to choreograph a column of figures with almost no spatial depth, and to depict complex interactions between those figures. His study of cameos had demonstrated how colour could be introduced, through the imitation of polychromatic stone, to give the austerity of pale marble a sensuous twist. In 1505 he received the commission from Francesco Cornaro for a series of four scenes from Roman history which would refer to the latter’s descent from the Cornelius family. They were designed for one room, the Camerino of Cornaro’s house on the Grand Canal in Venice, and would have been displayed well above eye-level, probably within an architectural framework just below or just above the cornice. However, there is little now to indicate exactly how the framing would work; whether there would have been an intermediate wooden frame, or whether the canvases would have been installed like ceiling paintings, directly into the architectural mouldings of the room. This produces an interesting problem for the museum wanting to display Mantegna’s work in a chronologically appropriate fashion. There is no evidence of Mantegna’s own solution for framing these four designs, and the experts involved must extrapolate from analogous objects.
Bellini, An episode from the life of Publius Cornelius Scipio, after 1506, NGA Washington, detail
The second painting of the cycle, which was executed by Bellini and is part of the Samuel H. Kress Collection, has a frame constructed from lengths of antique, carved giltwood architectural moulding, collected specifically for the purpose by the Kress Foundation for unframed or unsuitably framed pictures .
(?) Biagio d’Antonio (fl.1472–1516), Scenes from the story of the Argonauts, c.1465, 24 1/8 x 60 1/8 in (61.3 x 152.7 cm) overall, gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1909, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 09.136.2
The fact that the moulding is carved and gilded, and that Bellini’s painting is, like Mantegna’s Cult of Cybele…, exceptionally long and narrow, emphasize its likeness to the major painted panels on a cassone – for instance, this cassone panel in the Metropolitan Museum, still with its carved and gilded engaged acanthus ornament. It can also be compared, in terms of its dimensions, to a spalliera (the upright panel mounted on top of a cassone), which is often framed in similar style. Although the moulding used for the Bellini has an emphatically deep and dramatic (even Baroque) profile compared with the panel above, and might be considered overwhelming for a less strongly defined composition, this is a relatively satisfactory solution for this particular work. However, Bellini’s painting is starker than Mantegna’s, lacking the refined detail of the figures in the latter, and the opulent patterning of the marble background.
Mantegna, The introduction of the cult of Cybele in Rome, 1505-06, National Gallery; previous frame
The previous frame of the Mantegna – a modern reproduction cassetta with gilded foliate corners, centres and demi-centres – demonstrates the perils of combining an apparently valid design (in terms of period and profile) with such an idiosyncratic painting. Although in cross-section the frame is minimalist and simple, it is too wide for this work; the ground colour does not harmonize with the painting, and the decoration, sited at intervals along the rails, conflicts with the compositional rhythm. However, there are other sources to look to, apart from the cassoni panels which may have inspired the frame of the Bellini.
Mantegna, Casa del Mantegna, via Acerbi, Mantua
Mantegna’s own work provides examples of ‘framing’; the frescoed façade of his house in Mantua, for instance, in which the scenes of painted figures and panels of inscriptions are contained in trompe l’oeil frames of very simple architectural ‘mouldings’.
Mantegna, Madonna della tenerezza, pen, ink & tempera on parchment, Musei Civici agli Eremitani, Padua (on permanent loan from a private collection)
An even more relevant model might be the ruined classical building in the background of the Madonna della tenerezza. Here, Mantegna has offset one of the most beautiful drawings of a Madonna and Child in the history of art by a painted setting: a small weed-grown courtyard, a distant landscape, and the remains of a Roman temple.
Mantegna, Madonna della tenerezza, detail
A carved panel like one of his own grisaille paintings decorates the building above the entablature; it seems intended as a marble bas-relief (possibly depicting the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs – the conflict of the pagan world, redeemed by the birth of Christ), in a frame of a stone such as jasper. Here again, the moulding is extremely plain and simple – a cassetta, with the suggestion of fillets and small friezes.
It was obviously impossible to look out for a frame of this sort with the right dimensions for the painting, since nothing so eccentrically proportioned could have survived, once separated from its contents. Peter Schade, Head of the Framing Department of the National Gallery, is, however, nothing if not resourceful; he took a parallel route to that of the National Gallery, Washington, when framing their Bellini with an antique architectural moulding – although the result is completely different in effect.
Walnut cassapanca, acquired by the framing department, National Gallery
He found an antique walnut cassapanca (above), with enough continuous, plain architectural mouldings to provide the material for framing the Mantegna. A cassapanca is a bench, in use from quite early in the Renaissance through the 17th century, and revived in the 19th century. The seating part is an abnormally long and narrow chest, providing extra storage in a world with few cupboards, and there are often a back, arms and feet. The whole thing may be elaborately carved, parcel-gilt, painted, or inlaid with bone, ivory or marquetry.
Few of them survive in perfect condition; this one had a new base moulding at the end, but the chest compartment was otherwise intact, enabling the framing of the panels to be extracted and reconstituted to fit the Mantegna.
Mantegna, The introduction of the cult of Cybele in Rome, 1505-06, National Gallery; detail of new frame
This solution has the advantage of using antique wood and existing mouldings, recycling a piece of furniture which had passed the point of rejuvenation, providing a type of frame observable in Mantegna’s own works, and also harmonizing perfectly with the colours and tones of the painting. In all respects, this is an admirable and imaginative example of reframing.
With many thanks to Peter Schade of the National Gallery for providing images and information used in this article; thanks also to Steve Wilcox of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
National Gallery reframings: Mannerist frames > here
National Gallery reframings: a Venetian pastiglia frame> here
Reframing the Renaissance: Museums and Madonnas> here
National Gallery frames: an interview with Peter Schade> here
National Gallery exhibition: Sansovino frames> here
 In the Archivio di Stato, Florence; see The art collection of Lorenzo de’ Medici.
 Information from Steve Wilcox, Senior Conservator of Frames, National Gallery of Art, Washington.
 See also the frame of Antonello da Messina, Portrait of a man, c.1475-76. National Gallery NG1141, in National Gallery, London: a Venetian pastiglia frame.