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Framing Italian Renaissance Paintings at the National Gallery, London

by Jacob Simon

The new National Gallery catalogue, The Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings, vol. 1, Paintings from Bergamo, Brescia and Cremona, 2004, can be obtained from the National Gallery.

In his magnificent new catalogue, Nicholas Penny catalogues the 16th-century Italian pictures in the National Gallery from Bergamo, Brescia and Cremona. He also provides an insight into picture framing of the period and more specifically into the picture frames now found on the paintings in the National Gallery collection. This is the first catalogue of paintings to treat picture frames at length, with highly informative results which not only illuminate the history of picture framing but also the history of the National Gallery itself. Some of Penny's most important conclusions are easily overlooked, coming as they do in appendices within catalogue entries. This review is intended to draw attention to the richness of his treatment of picture framing in the catalogue. (Note 1)

In the course of his text, Penny provides an insight into the framing of altarpieces in the 16th century. However, since none of the catalogued pictures retain their original frames, his main focus is on how pictures have been reframed during the past 150 years. He traces the taste of the 1860s and 1870s for displaying Old Master paintings in frames that recalled the period in which they were made, discussing at length the approach adopted by the archaeologist and collector, Austen Henry Layard (1817-94), and singling out for reproduction his Giovanni Bellini Adoration of the Kings (NG inv. no. 3098, p. 375) in its neo-renaissance frame. By the end of the 19th century, European collectors were using genuine old frames or careful reproductions, as Penny explains in his treatment of the National Gallery benefactor, George Salting (1835-1909), whose Sebastiano del Piombo Daughter of Herodias (NG 2493, p. 389) is in a very fine gilt cassetta frame with moulded ornament, contemporary with the painting but not original to it. (Note 2)

Penny outlines changes in taste at the National Gallery, highlighting the employment at first of standard frame patterns, intended to give unity to the displays, an approach which was modified by the 1860s to allow for frames appropriate to different schools, whether black or tortoiseshell for early Netherlandish and German paintings, or Renaissance-revival cassetta frames for Italian pictures and altarpiece frames for altarpieces (p. 355).

Italian renaissance frames

In considering how Renaissance paintings would have been framed originally, Penny illustrates several Italian altarpiece frames from the first two decades of the 16th century. The earliest is the fine tabernacle frame with baluster columns on Andrea Previtali's Virgin and Child with two Saints, c. 1503 (p. 278) in the church of S Giobbe in Venice, which he describes as perhaps the finest Venetian frame of this period remaining on the small devotional picture for which it was made.

In an extended discussion on Girolamo Romanino's altarpiece, The Nativity with Saints (NG 297), he reproduces three great altarpiece frames: Romanino's Virgin and Child with four Saints of 1513-14 (Padua, Museo Civico, p. 314), Gaudenzio Ferrari's polyptych, dated 1511 (Arona, Collegiata, p. 326) and Tommaso Aleni's polyptych, with frame commissioned in 1503 (Cremona, Santa Maria Maddalena, p. 330). Documented case studies establish that it was normal for altarpiece frames in Lombardy and the Veneto to be commissioned in advance of the paintings: the contract for the Arona polyptych specified that the frame should be made to the artist's design and approved by him before the painting was begun. The lost original frame for the National Gallery's Romanino was made in whole or in part by Stefano Lamberti, one of the great early 16th-century wood carvers, whose major surviving altarpiece frames are among the most elaborate of the period.

Sansovino frames

Two of the portraits in the collection have Sansovino frames: Giovanni Cariani's Francesco Albani? (NG 2494, p. 43), probably an English frame made for the former owner George Salting on acquisition in 1879, and Moretto's Portrait of Conte Fortunato Martinengo Cesaresco? (NG 299, p. 177), just conceivably a frame of about 1600 but so refinished as to make it more likely that it was made in England about 1880 (it was acquired and fitted to the picture in the early 1960s).

In an illuminating appendix (pp. 179-80), Penny traces the taste for Sansovino frames in Venice and the Veneto in the second half of the 16th century and their later influence, distinguishing various different models. Although documented Sansovino picture frames do not appear to be known, it is possible to date the style through stone or stucco frames, in manuscript and printed book illustrations, in Venetian wooden ceilings where Sansovino motifs are incorporated and in frescoes in Veneto villas with painted frames of this kind. Penny draws attention to the large Saint Ambrose canvases in the Milanesi Chapel of the Frari Church in Venice which retain their original Sansovino frames of about 1600, perhaps the only datable wooden frames of this kind that remain in the place for which they were made.

Penny suggests that some frame types incorporating basic elements of the Sansovino may have developed in the 16th century outside Venice and the Veneto and he draws attention in particular to the way that the style inspired some of the more elaborate frames made in England in the 1630s. The Sansovino frame enjoyed a revival in the 19th century, probably by the 1840s in Venice. (Note 3)

Covers on Venetian paintings

In yet another extended appendix, in his entry on Lorenzo Lotto's Portrait of Giovanni della Volta with his Wife and Children (NG 1047, pp. 99-101), Penny discusses the 'timpano', or stretched textile picture cover, a protective device peculiar to Venice and some areas under Venetian influence, which did not become common until after 1530. Although no certain examples survive to this day, the 'timpano' appears to have been a fabric cover stretched tightly on a stretcher and probably fitting into (or over?) the painting's wooden frame. Among the many documents Penny quotes in his rich and fascinating discussion is an extract from Lotto's account book, where the artist refers to supplying 'el coperto suo sul timpano' in 1547 for the Della Volta family group in the National Gallery. Penny also makes passing reference to the use of wooden covers for portraits; this whole subject of the protection of pictures by covers and curtains remains to be explored in detail.

Italian 16th- and 17th-century frames

Most of the paintings in the National Gallery have been reframed at one time or another, sometimes in fine period frames, and several early Italian frames of interest are described in Penny's volume. Two good early cassetta frames can be highlighted here: the partially gilded frame, probably mid-16th century but with later marbling in mottled pale blue and white, found on a work possibly by Bartolomeo Veneto, Portrait of a Young Lady (NG 2507, p. 14), and a frame of about 1600, painted black, partially gilt, with centre and corner ornament scratched through to gilding below, on Lotto's Virgin and Child with Saints (2281, p. 73). Less easy to place is the gilt example with arabesques scratched through the red and blue corner and centre panels to reveal gilding, which is found on Andrea Previtali's Christ Blessing (NG 3087, p. 305). This pattern was used in Venice and the Veneto around 1510, and the frame appears to have been taken to be the original by its owner, Austen Henry Layard; it was however much imitated and this frame, although of some age, was probably not made for the painting. These are the sorts of nice judgements which Penny illuminatingly guides us through.

From the 17th century, the carved-and-gilt Bolognese cassetta frame of about 1620 on Lotto's Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia (NG 4256, p. 87) is a fine example with stylised leaves at the corners and flowers at the centres. Another Italian 17th-century pattern, an ogee reverse moulding with a running low-relief foliage pattern in gesso against a punched ground, can now be found on Giovanni Battista Moroni's Canon Ludovico di Terzi (NG 1024, p. 226). The difficulty in placing frames precisely is shown by Penny's account of the reverse frame with prominent carved laurel wreath running from ribbonned centres to be found Moretto's Portrait of a Man (NG 1025, p. 156); the frame has been said to be 17th-century Italian but is perhaps, he suggests, English 19th-century, or it may have been made in the 17th and then remade and regilded.

Italian 19th-century frames

The 19th century was the great period in the formation of the National Gallery collection. Many of the altarpieces acquired by the Gallery had lost their original frames and on occasion they were reframed for the Gallery in Italy before being imported into England. In November 1855 the Director reported that he had entrusted some pictures purchased in Florence to Ugo Baldi, in one case to have a new frame made, 'the art of frame-carving being practised with great ability in Florence'. (Note 4) The Venetian dealer, Antonio Zen, framed a number of paintings for the Gallery in January 1856 (p. 9), while in 1859 Signor Spelluzzi of Milan supplied a carved-and-gilt architectural frame with simplified Corinthian pilasters and a bold entablature, decorated with Renaissance ornament, for Girolamo Romanino's Nativity with Saints (NG 297, pp. 329-30). Further information on the use of Italian 19th-century frames at the National Gallery can be found in a Burlington Magazine article by Nicholas Penny, where he differentiates between frames made by Tuscan carvers such as Angelo Barbetti (1805-77) and Pietro Giusti (1822-78), Renaissance in style but conspicuously mid-19th century in appearance, and later reproduction frames, which are more difficult to distinguish from their Renaissance originals, including those by the Sienese firm of Giovacchino Corsi, active from the 1870s to the 1920s. (Note 5)

The collector, Robert Benson, a National Gallery trustee, encouraged the Gallery to employ Corsi to produce frames for the collection, but in practice there were difficulties in placing orders with a craftsman working at a distance. The order for a frame for Masaccio's Virgin and Child (NG 3046), placed in 1917, was not able to be completed until March 1919, and in the circumstances the Gallery decided to divert other orders, for example for the Pesellino altarpiece (NG 727 etc), to London framemakers. (Note 6)

It was not only the National Gallery which looked to Italy for picture framing but also private collectors. Several pictures in Austen Henry Layard's bequest have Italian 19th-century frames. Examples include the reverse profile carved frame with pierced flutes, probably made in Florence in imitation of a frame of about 1700, found on Moroni's Portrait of Leonardo Salvagno? (NG 3124, p. 248), and the cassetta frame with corner paterae and low relief frieze of honeysuckle and floral ornament in compo, apparently made in Milan in about 1865, on the North Italian Virgin and Child with two Saints (NG 3094, p. 254). (Note 7)

The frames in the bequest of George Salting are mainly antique or good imitations, notably the elaborate altarpiece frame of about 1903 which was made for the North Italian painting, La Vierge aux Lauriers (NG 2495, p. 259); this was almost certainly made by Giovacchino Corsi, based on a larger frame which had recently featured in an anthology of historic frames published in 1897. (Note 8)

In his Appendix of Collectors' Biographies, Penny discusses the taste in picture frames of the wealthy collector, Robert Holford (1808-92), builder of Dorchester House, many of whose pictures, still with their Holford frames, adorn the Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida. He also makes mention of the framing taste of the merchant and banker, John Samuel (1812-87), reproducing the attractive 19th-century scrolled and pierced frame on Sebastiano Ricci's Esther before Ahasuerus (NG 2101, p. 392).

English 19th-century frames

Although some National Gallery paintings were framed in Italy in the 19th century, many were dealt with on their arrival in London, usually by the Gallery framemaker (for further details of these framemakers, see Frame makers at the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery). From 1854 until his dismissal in 1880, Henry Critchfield of 35 Clipstone St, now Great Portland St, provided extensive services to the Gallery, including the provision of numerous frames in compo. The pattern he supplied in 1865 for Moroni's Portrait of a Man holding a Letter ('L'Avvocato') (NG 742, p. 245) appears to be a standard design found on several other paintings in the National Gallery. The tabernacle frame on Marco Marziale's Virgin and Child enthroned with Saints (NG 804, p. 127) is attributed to him, about 1869.

Critchfield's reverse profile reel-and-rod moulding of 1870 on Boccaccio Boccaccino's Christ carrying the Cross and the Virgin Mary Swooning (NG 806, p. 25) has a frieze of vases and grotesque masks in the renaissance style, similar to that on Andrea Previtali's The Virgin and Child with a Tonsured Supplicant and St Catherine (NG 695, p. 288). Penny identifies this as being of a type found on several pictures acquired between 1858 and 1863. It is worth noting that this was at a period when the South Kensington Museum was collecting casts of renaissance ornament from Italian monuments. For example the Museum had acquired casts from the Church of Santa Maria de' Miracoli in Venice in 1851, some of which were illustrated in Ralph Wornum's Catalogue of Ornamental Casts in 1854, which Wornum published in the year he became Keeper at the National Gallery. (Note 9) The ornament on several National Gallery altarpieces may have been inspired by the South Kensington casts as an examination of the frames on works such as Filippino Lippi's Virgin and Child with two Saints (NG 293), acquired in 1857, or Piero della Francesca's The Baptism of Christ (NG 665), acquired in 1861, would suggest.

A later National Gallery framemaker, R. Dolman & Son, can be identified from his label as the supplier of the gilt compo cassetta frame with raised inner edge and frieze of Renaissance-style ornament found on Previtali's Virgin and Child with St Catherine of Alexandria and St John the Baptist (NG 1409, p. 280), but otherwise does not feature in the current catalogue. (Note 10)

Some paintings are likely to have been framed by other London makers working for private collectors. An example is the compo frame with water leaves at the sight edge, plain hollow, enclosed by a flat frieze of stopped flutes and an ogee outer moulding of broad leaves on Moretto's Virgin and Child with Saints (NG 625, p. 188) from the Northwick collection which is likely to have been made for Lord Northwick by Henry Haynes of 16 Great Windmill Street before the arrival of the painting at the Gallery in 1859. (Note 11)

The 20th century

There was a renewed interest in picture framing at the National Gallery in the years around the First World War. One of the Trustees, Robert Benson, son-in-law of Robert Holford, produced a report in 1914 on picture framing at the National Gallery, bemoaning the regilding of frames and the use of standard patterns ('a byegone fashion') and encouraging the Gallery to acquire antique frames and to try ordering reproduction frames from Giovacchino Corsi at Siena. (Note 12) The quality of Dolman's gilding was called into question and it was suggested that the Gallery should try Emile Remy, a French craftsman who had set up in business in London in 1904, later advertising himself as a 'Specialist in Restoration and Reproduction of Antique Gilding'. (Note 13)

Following the First World War various pictures were reframed with the active encouragement of Trustees. This epoch in the Gallery's approach to picture framing remains to be explored in detail. In 1929 the Chairman of Trustees expressed the hope 'that in any scheme of reframing care should be taken to avoid the conscious, "Period" style of framing', with the suggestion that an appeal should be made to the public for the gift of frames. (Note 14) In 1935 fifteen antique Italian frames were purchased for £500 from the German art historian, Dr Kurt Cassirer, one of which can be found on Gian Girolamo Savoldo's Mary Magdalene (NG 1031, p. 352); this is probably a 19th-century carved-and-gilt imitation of a Tuscan 17th-century frame. In recent years, the reframing of Italian pictures has continued.

Jacob Simon
November 2004
[email protected]


1. I am grateful to Timothy Plaut for his encouragement. The descriptions and other details in this review rely heavily on Penny's catalogue. Many of the catalogued pictures can be seen on regular display on the main floor of the National Gallery. Some can be seen in the Lower Floor Collection, which is open on Wednesdays. Some are not on display, either on the main or on the lower floor.

2. Penny 1998, p. 379, fig. 31 (the painting is not housed in this frame as at November 2004). The practice of using antique frames was also adopted by some late 19th-century portrait painters, such as John Singer Sargent; see Simon 1996, p. 23.

3. This discussion could be extended to the revival of such frames elsewhere, as for instance by two English collectors, George Cavendish Bentinck and Frederick Leyland, who both used Sansovino frames. Cavendish Bentinck, a passionate admirer of Italian art, and particularly of Venetian painting, used such frames to house the portraits he commissioned from George Frederic Watts around 1860 (see G.F. Watts and picture framing by Lynn Roberts at Leyland's London house at 49 Princes Gate is best-known for Whistler's Peacock Room but it was also notable for its Italian Room, the focus of which was Jacopo Palma il vecchio's Mars, Venus and Cupid (now National Museum of Wales, Cardiff), conspicuously housed in an overscale Sansovino frame; see Linda Merrill, The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography, 1998, p. 150, fig. 4.7. The taste can be seen in even more fanciful form on a portrait from Warwick Castle, depicting Queen Elizabeth I, probably reframed in the 1870s (now National Portrait Gallery); see Simon 1996, pp. 16, 150-1, fig. 5. In Germany, Franz von Lenbach made extensive use of Sansovino frames for his portraits painted in Munich in the 1890s; see Eva Mendgen, 'Patinated or Burnished: Picture and Frame in the Work of Lenbach and Böcklin', in Eva Mendgen (ed), In Perfect Harmony: Picture and Frame 1850-1920, exhibition catalogue, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 1995, pp. 32-42.

4. National Gallery, Trustees Minutes, vol. 4, p. 5.

5. Penny 1998, pp. 375-82.

6. Ibid., p. 377, note 12, and National Gallery, Trustees Minutes, vol. 9, p. 21.

7. The same frieze can be found on another Layard Bequest picture, the Luini studio Madonna and Child (NG 3090).

8. Penny 1998, fig. 27.

9. Some of these casts are reproduced in Malcolm Baker and Brenda Richardson (editors), A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1997, p. 128.

10. Like other frames made by Dolman at this period, it is labelled with a number for reordering: 'This frame can be repeated at any time by quitting the number 27.005'. Further information can be found about the use of such five figure numbers in Lynn Roberts, G.F. Watts and picture framing, op. cit. in note 3.

11. See Oliver Bradbury and Nicholas Penny, 'The picture collecting of Lord Northwick: Part II', Burlington Magazine, vol. 144, 2002, pp. 606-17.

12. Simon 1996, pp. 118-19, 202 notes 19 and 27. Additional quotes are taken from Benson's report, 'Note on Frames', appendix IV, National Gallery Committee: Report of the Committee of Trustees of the National Gallery, appointed by the Trustees to enquire into the Retention of Important Pictures in this Country..., 1914, pp. 48-50, reprinted in The Architect and Contract Reporter, vol. 92, 7 May 1915, pp. 409-11.

13. National Gallery, Trustees Minutes 1910-18, p. 331, 14 November 1916. For Remy, see Simon 1996, p. 119.

14. National Gallery, Trustees Minutes, 11 June 1929. Sir Joseph Duveen, as he then was, expressed reservations about such an appeal.