There are a wide range of frame styles in the exhibition Botticelli Reimagined, with many magnificent examples of beautiful carving and gilding displaying high levels of craftsmanship, Zoe Allen, V&A Senior Conservator explores.
Early frames were an integral part of the structure of panel paintings, and the independent frame, as we know it today, first appeared in Italy during the fifteenth century. The original frames on Botticelli’s paintings would have been made by expert craftsmen and some designed by eminent figures such as Giuliano da Sangallo (about 1445–1516) a sculptor, architect and military engineer. As his name is inscribed on the back of the Botticelli panel of The Virgin and Child with St John and an angel, he may have designed its original frame.
Sadly very few original frames remain. Generally, picture frames have led a hazardous existence, as a change of owner or changes in fashion often meant a change of frame. It is interesting to dwell on how their frames effect the way we perceive works by Botticelli and his assistants. Just as Botticelli’s work has been ‘reimagined’ by successive generations, so too has the language of ornament found on the frames of his works.
The nineteenth century saw a great market for all manner of Renaissance artefacts and the level of craftsmanship of frames made then was very high. It can be hard to tell the difference between actual Renaissance frames and nineteenth century imitations in Renaissance style. The latter were typically very faithful to their original models, with carved elements sometimes including symbols related to the subject matter of the paintings.
The frames of several tondi (circular panels usually depicting The Virgin and Child) are richly embellished with carved and gilded flowers, fruit and grain such as grapes and wheat (symbolic of the bread and wine of the Christian Eucharist) and the pomegranate, (for the Resurrection).
The decoration on most nineteenth-century frames is formal, following the then current rules of architecture and design, rather than relating to the picture.
However the use of natural motifs on frames to express symbolic concepts related to the subject matter of paintings returns in some instances. The naturalistic ivy decoration on the frame of Ingres’ La Source may be a symbol of immortality.
The watery theme of Walter Crane’s The Renaissance of Venus is continued by the pattern of shells which decorates its frame.
Close inspection of the frame on Evelyn de Morgan’s Flora shows a great variety of carved and gilded flowers such as marguerites, roses and anemones which relate to the flowers in the painting.
‘Reinvention’ of older frame types can also be seen in nineteenth-century frames which imitate Renaissance altarpieces or employ classical architectural forms.
The original frames on Rossetti’s pictures were designed by the artist. These medallion frames employ simplified geometric forms.
The medallions on the very similar frame of Beata Beatrix, about 1864-70, (Tate Gallery, London) a memorial to Rossetti’s late wife, Elizabeth Siddal, display Neoplatonic symbols which are linked to the image.
Some picture frames show no obvious connection to the paintings they enclose, but instead reflect the whims of owners or fashion. For example, the very decorative pierced frame on the Botticelli Studio Virgin and Child or the version of Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat, which entered the Musée Napoléon at Paris in 1812, has a simple classicising frame in the Empire style which was then the height of fashion in France.
The frames of pictures in Museums are sometimes changed to suit different presentation and display requirements. The V&A’s own Botticelli, The Portrait of a Lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli, is a good example of this.
This picture belonged to Constantine Alexander Ionides, who bequeathed it to the V&A with his collection in 1900. It was formerly displayed in the Ionides Gallery in a frame which he had chosen: an ebonised Victorian frame with a gilded composition ornament sight edge. When the painting was transferred in 2009 to the Medieval and Renaissance galleries a new cassetta frame in fifteenth century style was commissioned. Firstly we tried a frame with punch work decoration before finally deciding on a plainer option.
Paul Mitchell and Lynn Roberts, A History of European Picture Frames, Merrell Publishers Ltd, 1996
Paul Mitchell and Lynn Roberts, Frameworks: Form, Function and Ornament, Merrell Publishers Ltd, 1996