The Frame and its History


32.000 years ago, made with black pigment and red ochre, it shows mammoths, horses, lions, buffaloes and rhinos. These are the first painted ‘works of art’, found in the caves of Chauvet in France. All over the world we find examples of mural paintings on mountains and in caves, but the Greek myth tells us that the art of painting first saw the light in Delphi.

Man started to paint his primitive geometric and figurative art on the walls of a cave and later on he used the walls of temples, churches and finally movable objects. In the Middle Ages the favorite surfaces for the painter were wooden panels, on which he painted with tempera on a gold leaf background, mainly to ornate the altars in the new Cathedrals, which rose in this era in all inhabited centers. With time the use of linen became more in use, easier to handle and less instable than the wooden panel, besides the obvious difference in weight.With the arrival of smaller sized paintings, carried out on mobile panels, we see that the frame comes in use, not only because of the need to strengthen the edges and to hide the thickness of the panel, but also to create a closing band consisting of one or more wooden strips applied directly on to the panel, sometimes supported by an external strip of wood placed across the painting.

We could say that frames could be considered as various shaped windows, through which the spectator observe nature or a world created by the artist. Until the 16th century architectonical structures formed the basic repertoire of frame design, but then painting using an easel came in use and the subjects became more profane. It is then that the frame began to gain more freedom and creativity in the decorative elements, which were, however, still based on the old ones until the end of the 18th century, as a transition from the window idea towards greater autonomy, and became a purely decorative function.

As has often been the case in figurative arts of all times, the Italian frame, as the painting itself, gained importance in the art world in the 14th and 15th century, often being imitated at least until the French style, the famous ‘Louis XIV’  became en vogue in the 17th century.

From the Polyptych to the Altarpiece

The creation of the triptych and the polyptych altarpieces was inspired by the architectural elements of the place of worship for which they were designed; the division in three or more parts, recalled the layout of the church that they were to decorate, the highest panel corresponding with the central nave and the lower panels with the aisles. This way they integrated harmoniously in the space, since the design of the frame was also based on the interior of the church and the design of its sculptural elements, like its pulpit and altars.

A fundamental step in the design of the frame as an independent structure is without doubt represented by Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi, in 1423: for the first time a self-supporting and separate receptacle is constructed. During the first half of the 15th century painting was transformed by innovative techniques and the study of the perspective.

With the study of increasingly larger spaces to contain a single scene, the horizontal dimension became more important and the vertical impulse of the gothic style was abandoned and, according to new standards, the form becomes square or rectangular.We are in Florence during the Renaissance; it is here that, as always, rules for new fashions and styles were written, and it is here that a new penchant for single square or rectangle panels is born, also known as altarpieces, sometimes including decorated altar steps and pillars, as a contraposition to the polyptych. The transition from the gothic polyptych to the renaissance altarpiece was actually more gradual. First of all the wooden frame was mounted after painting instead of before. During the first quarter of the 15th century the rectangular panels became more popular and important thanks to the possibility to better organize the perspective in the space. The painted architectural elements started to get the upper hand over the frame work and at the same time the relationship between the painting and the surrounding architecture became closer. In this sense, a milestone was the altarpiece of the Annunciation Bartolini Salimbeni by Lorenzo Monaco (1420-1425), where the scene was included as an integral part of the frescoes of the chapel, repeating the proportions and the color schemes of the mural scenes.

A particularly innovative altarpiece was the Annunciation Martelli by Filippo Lippi (1440 ca) which abandoned all gothic elements like the gables and pinnacles in favor of a strict geometric pattern that was in total harmony of Brunelleschi’s architecture of the church of San Lorenzo which the altarpiece was commissioned for. Beato Angelico took it even further in the Altarpiece for San Marco (1438-1443), when he repeated the design of the church choir by Michelozzo in the architecture for the Maria’s throne.

The Tabernacle

The Tabernacle shaped frame derived from the imitation of the façade of a building, consisting of a base, at the end of which two columns or two pilasters rise, which could be grooved or decorated with plant motives, to support the architrave.

Ab assuetis non fit passio“, goes an old saying: “you don’t notice the normal“; and in fact we are used to seeing the tabernacle placed at the centre of the altar, but it was not always in that position and today, after the Vatican Council II, the tabernacle is often moved to a chapel outside of the central hall of the church, or at least away from the main altar.

From the 6th century onwards the uniqueness of altars in churches is certain; later the number of altars increased, but absolute respect continued for the ‘dominica’ table which excludes everything not related to the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice. Towards the end of the 9th century relics were being placed permanently on the altar as a new significant element. Soon other elements were added, so many actually, that at the beginning of the 10th century an important document, originally from Gallicia, known in the world as Admonitio Synodalis became general law for all the churches in the Western world, stating that on the altar ‘only urns of Saints (capsae), the Gospels and the pyx with the Body of the Lord for the sick are allowed, everything else should be stored in a convenient place’.

The Tabernacle crosses many eras, but has to wait until the 16th century to find permanent placement on the main altar and, even later, be placed on the centre of the table as the last phase in the historical development of the altar.

In his treaty on the art of painting Leon Battista Alberti illustrates the principle that characterizes his activity as a painter: a square, as large as the artist wishes, which represents a window through which to observe what is to be painted. It is a revolution which replaces the static concept of the gothic frame that copies the façade of the church it decorates and is the arrival of the renaissance frame: an architectural structure inserted in the wall – a perimeter that defines a window which frames the space and accentuates the depth of the painting.

The Tuscan Frame

It is not a coincidence that Tuscany is still home to 50% of the masterpieces of the 16th century: it is here that the frame and framed art had the most diversified development.

Moreover, already in the 13th century there are examples of a flat frame directly fixed to the edges of big paintings with gold leaf background, for example the famous altarpieces by Cimabue, Giotto and Duccio di Boninsegna – sober frames that share the same gold effect as the painting itself. In the 14th century the Tabernacle shape of the frame is invented, first in Tuscany and later spread all over Europe. In this century the frames become autonomous structural elements, rich in carvings and fretwork, decorated with twisted columns with capitals and shelves as crowning. The frames of the polyptychs had the closet ties with contemporary architecture, especially with the aedichule and niches in the walls of churches and buildings.

This structure is in use until the end of the 15th century imitating the various evolutions in gothic architecture and the formal shift that the renaissance frame underwent is still linked to that of the architectonical style established in Florence by Filippo Brunelleschi. According to the concept of Renaissance vision, the single pictorial composition takes the place of the division into compartments; the wooden structure that surrounds the painting no longer consists of pointed arches and Gothic decorations, but rather of linear entablature supported by columns and classical decorations.

Many of the polyptychs of the previous century were dismembered and adjusted in new frames. The most simple and common box frame, still in use today, appears in the  second half of the 15th century with the birth of not only religious, but rather profane painting, especially portrait painting, works for which the sumptuous carpentry that was used for the altarpieces was no longer necessary. This structure consists of a rectangular frame with moldings on the edges: one on the inside (called ‘alla battuta’) that serves to hold the painting, and one on the outside (called ‘al profilo’) that only serves a decorative purpose. It is a model that has remained the same since then, only varying in minor details and decorations, according to changing taste and fashion.

During the 15th century there was dramatic increase of frames in Tuscany, with the creation of new autonomous models and original designs that became an example. Even today, the majority of frame designs still existing come from this region. A typical example of the rich inventiveness of the craftsmen of this era is the birth of the so called ‘Tondo’, the round frame, that appears around the second half of the 15th century. It is a model that derives from the examples in glazed terracotta by Luca della Robbia, richly decorated with festoons of fruit and flowers carved in high relief, or simple ‘baccelature’ or even architectural elements that are placed at the edge of a central repeating braid, always in a protruding fashion. Another typical example is the tabernacle-frame of simple architectonical structure that hosts paintings and reliefs in terracotta. The use of the ‘Tondo’ continues all through the 16th century although its decoration becomes more dynamic and plastic as we can see in the exquisite example of the ‘Tondo Doni’ by Michelangelo at the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence. During the second half of this century we see the arrival of the richly engraved chestnut frame with fantasy motifs, while the wood is kept natural, only illuminated by gold at the more prominent elements. Here the influence of the venetian ‘Sansovina’ frame is evident. Its name derives from the originally Florentine architect and sculpture, Jacopo Tatti, nicknamed ‘Sansovino’, who moved to Venice in 1527. It is a frame with a strong pattern of shapes, in contrast with the earlier models it was inspired by the decorations in wood or stucco on the ceilings of the churches and the Doge’s Palace in Venice. The typical characteristics of the Sansovino frame are the robust whirls and ribbons evolving towards the centre and the edges.

Between the 17th and 18th centuries a new model, known as the Salvator Rosa or Maratta, was introduced which is still one of the best known and appreciated shapes. The name derives from the Neapolitan painter Salvator Rosa, who preferred to make the frames of  all his paintings personally.  The profile consisting of  alternating  deep and reverse ‘cavetto’ , often enriched by one or more carved orders with motifs of ovuli, ribbons or leaves became popular in Lazio and Campania. The frames manufactured in Lazio stand out for their elegant intaglio with shining gilt; whereas in Naples the finishing touch was done with silver ‘alla mecca’ or ‘mistura’. The bicolor effect of wood-and-gold is obtained by using dark brown argilla as a primer in the stucco.

During the 17th century sumptuous frames were made in the craftmen’s workshops of the Grand Dukes. These  new frames were created for the masterpieces of the collections at the Uffizi and the Palazzo Pitti. These models are characterized by their large carvings ‘a cartelle e baccelatture’, with various decorations, especially plants. Other examples of the Grand Ducal craftsmanship are ebony frames with ‘guilloché’ work and 09’oo multicolor stone inlay. Other examples are ebony frames with gilt bronze applications. During the 18th century the workshops manufactured frames with passepartout, either engraved or plain in hard wood with bronze applications.