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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Italian Renaissance Frames

The study of picture frames in general, and of Renaissance frames in particular, is a discipline in its infancy. Historic frames have always been the poor cousins of important collections of paintings and drawings. Throughout most of the modern (that is, postmedieval) era, original frames were discarded whenever a painting changed ownership, and a new frame more suitable to the work of art’s new surroundings was provided. Only in the late nineteenth century did museums and private collectors develop an interest in historical authenticity that extended to frames as well as to the objects they contained, by which time frames more than one or two hundred years old had grown exceedingly rare.

Structure and Design
The development of frame design is inextricably tied to that of architecture. Whether intended for use on paintings, reliefs, or mirrors, frames were invariably designed as parts of an architectural interior and were frequently meant to harmonize with door and window surrounds. Their color, shape, and ornament were generally determined as much by their settings as by what they contained. Not only did frame design evolve with architectural taste, but frames were also often changed as interior decor was updated in order to conform to the demands of an altered context. No matter whether an eighteenth-century “Salvator Rosa” frame is appropriate to a cinquecento Crucifixion, or whether a Velázquez portrait is flattered by an English Rococo frame: pictures have always been required to live unobtrusively among furnishings of a period not their own, and frames have always been the vehicle enabling them to do so.

In studying the history of frame design, however, it is not enough to chronicle changes of taste in interior decoration—domestic, civic, or ecclesiastic—or the developing vocabulary of architectural ornament. Understanding the materials and techniques used in the fabrication of frames is equally important to their proper classification and dating. Shapes and ornamental motifs are easily imitated and transmitted—more or less quickly—from place to place, but workshop habits of construction and carving are usually hidden beneath decorated surfaces and are often unique to a particular period or region. Such conventions of workshop practice did as much to determine the characteristics of a local frame style as did the more obvious influences of an indigenous school of architecture.

Nowhere is this more true than in Italy during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a period notable for a bewildering variety of frame styles compared to the formal standardization prevalent at almost any other time or place. But despite the richness of their decoration and their seemingly limitless range of types, Italian Renaissance frames are characterized by a simple economy and efficiency in structural and ornamental organization, determined above all else by the intrinsic properties of the materials of which they were made and the tools by which they were fashioned. Decorative motifs derived from the vocabulary of Gothic or classical architecture, for example, were frequently selected not only for their suitability in a given context but also for their facility of execution, often resulting from a sequence of positive and negative shapes created by the cuts of a single tool.

Renaissance craftsmen were extremely sensitive to the properties of different kinds of wood in relation to different structural and ornamental uses. Inexpensive woods of lesser quality, such as poplar, spruce, and pine, were generally reserved for the secondary parts of the frames. Because of its even structure, poplar was also used for the carving of simple profile moldings. Basswood (linden), which is similar to poplar in grain but more even and compact, was better suited to fine detail and complex carving. All these woods were employed in frames that were intended to be gilt, or on areas of a frame not clearly visible. Walnut, a rarer and more expensive wood, was used for frames which were to be left ungilt or parcel-gilt (luminolegno). The rich color of walnut was highly prized—other woods were frequently stained to imitate it—and its dense structure was excellent for carving fine details. Fruit woods such as pear or plum were sometimes substituted for walnut, either because their particular color and texture were preferred or simply because they were more readily available. By the middle of the sixteenth century, ebony was in use for some fine profiles, often in conjunction with semiprecious stones or ivory inlay. Oak is rarely encountered in Italian frames. Chestnut and elm are more common, usually in a structural and not a decorative capacity.

The Tabernacle Frame
In the tradition of Byzantine icons, the earliest Italian panel paintings were carved with their frames from single pieces of wood. Altarpieces could not be constructed from a single plank of wood, but required several boards glued together and then nailed and glued to the framing elements. The frame in such structures served the double purpose of decoration and support, the sections of it running across the grain of the main panels serving also as battens to prevent the picture surface from warping. Countless variations on this basic structural form—the tabernacle or aedicula frame—developed over the course of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Derived in form from the architectural treatment of wall niches and window surrounds, the tabernacle frame is often encountered in the context of religious images for private devotion, such as paintings or reliefs of the Madonna and Child or the Nativity, for which there seems to have been an inexhaustible market in the fifteenth century, especially in Florence.

In 1423, Gentile da Fabriano, a painter who worked extensively in Venice in his early career, introduced a fully independent, self-supporting frame into which was inserted the main painted panel of his altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi (now Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence)—a first, decisive step toward the modern notion of the frame built to contain a work of art, not as an indivisible part of a work of art. The architectural vocabulary of the frame on Gentile’s Adoration of the Magi is essentially Gothic. The renewed interest in classical architecture in Florence in the early fifteenth century was not long in being translated to frames for paintings and reliefs. The Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi is generally credited with providing Masaccio with the design for the painted architectural surround of the Trinity fresco in Santa Maria Novella (1427). Donatello and Michelozzo, who both enjoyed close relationships with Brunelleschi, collaborated on one of the earliest surviving frames to employ classical architectural motifs: the niche of the Parte Guelfa on Orsanmichele (1425). Brunelleschi may also have inspired the design of Fra Angelico‘s altarpiece of the Annunciation in Cortona (ca. 1430; now Museo Diocesano, Cortona). A rectangular panel set into a Corinthian tabernacle frame, the Cortona Annunciation is the earliest surviving example of a long line of such altarpieces to be produced in Florence throughout the fifteenth and into the sixteenth century. These examples directly inspired the earliest generation of classical tabernacle frames for private devotional images that began to supplant their Gothic predecessors in the second third of the fifteenth century.

The new, classical style came so quickly to be preferred that many earlier polyptychs were forcibly modernized. In the Metropolitan Museum’s collection is an altarpiece by Taddeo Gaddi probably painted in the 1340s. A century and a half later, it was updated to conform to prevailing fashion. Its original framing elements were removed, the arched top of the taller central panel was cut off at the height of the lateral panels, and new spandrels were inserted between the arches to fill the panel out to a rectangular shape. An artist from the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio was engaged to paint busts of the four Evangelists to fill the new spandrels and pilasters—with classical anthemion decoration and fashionable, modified Corinthian capitals—to cover the newly exposed seams between the five original panels. The entire structure was then inserted into a tabernacle frame with fluted and reeded Corinthian pilasters and a heavy entablature, all in the latest taste. Altarpieces by the most revered masters in the most important places were not exempt from such treatment.

The Cassetta Frame
The design of altarpiece frames continued to develop in tandem with changes of taste in ecclesiastical architecture. Outside the liturgical context of the Church, however, painting and frame styles evolved along more diversified lines. For secular subject matter—portraiture, for example—or, in the second half of the fifteenth century, allegorical painting based on literary sources such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Poliziano’s Stanze, frames that made no overt liturgical reference were preferred. For such purposes, the cassetta (“small box”), or entablature, frame became the dominant form throughout the Italian peninsula.

The cassetta frame is essentially an extended entablature wrapped around all four sides of an image, rather than resting only across the top of column supports. It derives in appearance from a number of sources, including the engaged moldings often found on devotional paintings in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, and from the ornamented borders of painted cassoni or wainscoting panels, but its structure evolved from a simplification of the tabernacle frame. Through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the profiles and decorative motifs employed on cassetta frames often developed regional tendencies, allowing many of them to be recognizable as characteristically Tuscan, Venetian, Bolognese, or Neapolitan.

The Gallery Frame
A fundamental distinction between the cassetta and the tabernacle frame is that the former has the same profile on all four sides. One type of frame that blurs the distinctions between the two can be called, for lack of a better name, the gallery frame. As in cassetta frames, the principal reference of gallery frames is to the picture or objects they enclose and the secular interior to which they belong. Common from the sixteenth century to modern times, these frames may derive their often exuberant ornament from classical architecture, from the natural world, or from fantasy. They may be architectonic and bilateral but lack the structural members that would classify them as a tabernacle frame, or they may be symmetrical across the horizontal as well as the vertical axis and share construction techniques with cassetta frames, differing from them only in profile.

In the period of the Italian Renaissance, the most successful and widely diffused type of gallery frame is that which has come to be known as the Sansovino frame. Especially popular in Venice and on the Venetian mainland, the distinctive characteristic of Sansovino frames is a profusion of overlapping and intertwining scrolls and volutes, often rusticated, sometimes pierced and freestanding, sometimes contained within the squared silhouette of a colored back frame, occasionally enlivened with birds, rows of pearls, festoons, cartouches, clasps, cherub heads, or escarpa. So successful was the type that its popularity survived through most of the seventeenth century, when increasingly simplified versions of the basic design, in a wide range of materials, could be found throughout the Veneto and in provincial centers all along the Adriatic coast.

As the Sansovino frame has come to symbolize Venetian style, so an earlier type, the circular frame, or tondo, is invariably associated with Tuscany, though it was common in Umbria and Rome as well. The tondo, like the tabernacle frame, is characterized not by its profile but by its shape, and it presents several peculiarities of design and construction not encountered in other types of frame. In itself, the tondo has no axial orientation, leaving the designer free to define the top and bottom by means of applied decoration, to employ continuous, static decoration, or to impart a sense of rotary movement through decoration. If the frame is too large to be carved or molded in a single piece, the designer may choose to mask the joints between component members, as cassetta frames most often do, or to incorporate them as a feature of the decoration, as is usually the case with tabernacle frames.

The popularity of the tondo form is less easy to explain than it is to chronicle. Whether it derived from the painted deschi da parto traditionally presented to new mothers on the birth of a child; whether it developed from circular spandrel, pinnacle, or predella decoration sometimes included in altarpieces; or whether it was translated from painted or sculpted oculi on architectural elevations, by the last third of the fifteenth century the tondo was ubiquitous in domestic and civic (rarely ecclesiastic) commissions. It was generally employed for religious narratives and for heraldic devices—a market virtually monopolized by the della Robbia family workshop in Florence. As the sixteenth century progressed, portraits in tondo form became more common, undoubtedly an extension of the popularity of the shape for mirrors.

With the advent of the Baroque and the later triumph of Rococo, Neoclassic, and Romantic taste, such characteristically Renaissance types of frame as the tondo and tabernacle were supplanted by a gallery frame in the latest style, enriched with the most fashionable ornament. Gallery frames were to harmonize with the lavish interiors of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, interiors that were frequently filled with works of art of disparate periods and styles, all of which required to be framed alike. The uniform gallery frame enabled an owner to place a personal stamp on his collection, a stamp that identified not only ownership but also status, and gallery frames were for this reason frequently changed, sometimes every generation, lest they betray neglect of fashionable taste or a falling-off of the family fortunes. It is hardly surprising, then, that Renaissance frames are far rarer than other works of art from the same period, for their survival is purely a matter of historical accident.