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Italian Frame During the Renaissance

Jul 3, 2008
The development of the frame is inextricably linked to that of architecture.

Frames, whether they are used for paintings, bas-reliefs or mirrors, were designed as integral parts of an architectural space where they often had a harmonizing function against doors and windows.

Not only did the frame design evolve with the evolution of architectural taste, but the frames often changed at the same pace of interior decoration, which in turn changed to respond to the taste of time.

It did not matter if a "Salvador Rosa"- style frame of the eighteenth century was appropriate for a 16th century painting of the Crucifixion, or if a portrait of Velazquez was shown in a Rococo English frame, the paintings have always inadvertently lived in the same environment of a piece of furniture that belonged to a different period and the frame itself was the connecting element of this harmonious coexistence.

Understanding the materials and techniques used in the making of frames is equally important as their proper classification and dating. The work of construction and carving that took place inside a workshop can be found under a decorated surface and is often a unique and distinctive element of a particular historical period and region.

These activities inside a workshop characterized a frame's style belonging to a particular area and period in a distinctive way, rather than the school's influences of the same architectural area and historical period.

In no part of the world was this more true as in Italy during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance; a period that was extremely important for the variety of styles in the frames' production compared to the formal standardization prevailing in any other place and period.

However, for all their decorative richness and unlimited variety of models, the frames in the Italian Renaissance were characterized by a simplicity and efficiency in their structural and ornamental organization, mainly determined by the inherent properties of materials and resources that were used to make the frames.

Furthermore, when talking about the Renaissance Italian frame, we must consider some of the technical problems faced by the artisans of the time as well as the means and procedures they adopted by the same to deal with these.

Early Italian panel paintings carved within their own frame from a single piece of wood. The design was centered on the panel, leaving a border around the perimeter with an internal beveled edge. The practical purpose of this early frame was mainly to protect the painting, as the painter could rest his hand against this border without touching the painting itself.

This same border was then painted, usually red, to isolate the central figure from the surroundings, then gilded and often decorated. Over time the delimitation of the painting became more difficult, given the resources available at that time and considering the increasing sizes of the painting which meant that the quantity of wood to remove grew, the operation became less practical and too expensive.

At the same time it became easier to create mouldings with angles to apply directly to the panels, creating the same result but more efficiently. These strips were shaped according to the geometric profile of the frame continuing along its length, with the decorative function to emphasize the subdivision of the object, or to mediate the transition between two surfaces set at angles, such as the prominent parts.

The mouldings could be smooth or carved with decorations, mainly botanic or geometric motifs. This procedure created a uniform base for the subsequent layers of plaster and isolated the decorated surface of the panel and its frame from movements of the wood. In altarpieces where one panel was often not enough and they needed to glue together several panels, the frame and its elements had the dual function to decorate, but also to support the structure.

In addition, the large altarpieces that were commissioned to an artist living in another city had to be made up of assembled parts that could be taken apart to facilitate transport; and once rebuilt such structures maintained a high tolerance to the movements of natural wood.

The altarpieces were plastered, decorated and then gilded. Such techniques continued to be the norm for the construction and design of frames, especially in Tuscany, through until the middle of the fifteenth century. While in Tuscany the Gothic style remained rather austere, the designers and carvers in the north of Italy felt the French and German influence. It was in Venice itself that for the first time they created a completely independent and self-supporting frame to hold the painted panel. This was the first decisive step towards the modern concept of the frame, built to hold a piece of art, and not as an invisible part of a piece of art.

The Gothic frame was replaced in the second half fifteenth century by the tabernacle frame for private votive images. Some of these frames took inspiration from Brunelleschi drawings.

In Tuscany throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth century the participation by some of the main architects and sculptors in the design and manufacture of frames became more and more frequent. Ecclesiastic architecture always had a decisive influence however, even outside of the religious and liturgical context, the style of painting and the frame evolve through different lines.

The tabernacle frames were used in a private devotional context to contain sacred images, while for secular subjects such as portraits and rural scenes they preferred a different type of frame that had no liturgical reference; for this purpose the so-called "cassetta" frame was born. Its form derived from the tabernacle, but different because it had the same profile on all four sides.

During the Renaissance in Italy the frame which had the greatest success and development was the "Sansovina" frame, which derived its name from the Florentine sculptor Jacopo Sansovino. Nevertheless, this frame became popular in the Veneto region and in particular in Venice. The characteristic that distinguish the "Sansovina" is the profusion of overlapping and intertwining scrolls.

Instead, in Tuscany, the "Tondo" frame became the most representative of that period. The key characteristic of this type of frame is its round form, as well as special features not found in other types of frames; for example, the round form has no axial orientation, leaving the artist free to define the upper and lower parts through decorative elements, or to use continuous decoration, or to impart a sense of rotary movement.

The popularity of this round frame is seen everywhere, in domestic, religious and civic environments, and in the sixteenth century the round became popular even for portraits.

The Renaissance craftsmen were particularly sensitive to the different properties of the various types of wood according to their different structural or decorative uses.

More economic and lower quality wood, like poplar and spruce or pine, were used for secondary frame's parts, like the back or simple carvings; whereas linden, which is more compact, was used for more complex carvings. These types of lower quality wood were gilded. On the other hand walnut wood, rarer and more expensive, was used on un-gilded frames or parcel-gilt "luminolegno". Pear wood was often a good substitute for walnut both for its color and for its grain, but also because it was easily accessible.

Towards the middle of the sixteenth century ebony started to be used often embellished with gems. Oak was quite rare in Italian frames, while the chestnut and elm were often used for their structural capability rather than decorative one.

Before being gilded the frame was covered with plaster and bolus, for this reason the carvings were rarely finished in details; frames with large carvings had a layer of yellow bolus on the surface and red bolus on the prominent parts, in fact red bolus created a better effect during the burnishing, therefore it was placed in the most prominent parts. The frame was then gilded with gold-leaf finish on the complete surface, except the under part of the top edge, where yellow bolus was visible, which was very close to the gold colour.
About the Author
Maselli Frames is an artisan workshop in Florence, Italy
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