Antique Frames

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.