Historical Frames - An Insider's View

C16th Tuscan walnut Cassetta frame, gilt highlighting (traces), multiple rows of carved bead-and-reel motifs, beads and small rosettes within a figure-eight ribbon.

London Art Week participant Enrico Ceci specialises in Italian antique frames from the 15th to 18th centuries. With expertise spanning 35 years, here he shares revealing insights in to the very important business of historic Italian frames - significant works of art in their own right, and integral to the art viewing experience...

The carvers and carpenters who created antique frames in the centuries from around 1200 to 1700 typically followed the prevailing styles of architecture of the time. This was the principal that dictated the styles in early frame-making.

Frames were principally made in wood. They would be prepared for gilding and plasterwork by the application of a preparation of Armenian bole - a special coloured clay whose main hygroscopic property allows for the fixing of gold and silver leaf. Sometimes frames were painted in tempera, mostly in black or more rarely in colours. Other decorative applications could involve materials including marble, semiprecious hardstones, bronze, gilt bronze, silver, tortoiseshell, bone or ivory.

It is important to understand that a frame would have been created in advance of, and specifically for, each painting.The frames were sized and made for the work proposed by the artist to suit their requirements, and would have been in keeping with the current style of the time. Frames were therefore an integral aspect of the finished work at the moment of its creation - not an afterthought.

However, over time the style of frames has changed to reflect not the period of the painting it surrounds but rather the fashion and evolution of architectural styles. For this reason, even today, it is still possible to find important early antique frames on the art market.

Mid-C16th Venetian Sansovino style painted and gilded carved wood frame with scrolls, bows and flowers in relief

By the 18th century the sober and austere frames of the 16th century were no longer in favour as they did not reflect the sumptuous taste of furnishings at the time. For this reason frames contemporary to an earlier work were often removed and substituted with fancier new frames more fitting to the latest interior or architectural style. "My role today," says Enrico "is to therefore try and match antique frames to important paintings that have lost their original frames".

Over the years Enrico has handled some historically significant and rare frames. He tells us that sometimes it can take a long time to find the right frame for a painting. "I have supplied many over the years, sourcing important frames for leading international art dealers as well as major museums. One of my recent discoveries was for Raphael's Saint Sebastian at the Accademia Carrara dei Bergamo. One of the rarest frames that I have found is a recent acquisition, a large Roman baroque frame. Unique of its kind, carved, gilded, chiselled and painted, it recreates - in wood! - a damasked drape of asymmetrical form, tied by twisted ribbons terminating in beautiful cloth, held up by flying cherubs painted in tempera. I detected some carving which would suggest an attribution to Filipp Passarini of Rome (1638-1698)."

Notable makers of antique frames are very few, especially historical ones: more typically frames are defined as "in the manner of". For example, when you describe a frame as Sanoviniana it does not mean that it was made or designed by Sansovino (Jacopo Tatti Florence 1486-Venice 1570) - in fact there is no evidence that he ever made a frame - but he left a large number of stylistic features in the decoration of his palazzi, most importantly the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, which for carvers of the time became manuals of style they could follow.

Early C16th Tuscan Cassetta gilded frame, the plain frieze features pastiglia decoration

The names of frame-makers are not often known, but there is a small number of notable carvers who likely made frames too: the Fantoni family, for example, carvers from Bergamo from 1450-1750; Andrea Brustolon (Belluno 1662-1732), the leading exponent of the Venetian baroque, and in the region of Emilia there was Lorenzo Aili (Reggio Emilia (?) 1657-Parma 1702). All these carvers were artists in wood sculpture but the frames which they certainly made, although never signed, are also attributed to them alone.

You can see an example of early antique frames from Enrico Ceci here.