The Frame Blog

Articles, interviews and reviews to do with antique and modern picture frames

National Gallery frame appeal…

Help the National Gallery, London, to buy a superb antique frame for Titian’s Allegory of Prudence: YOU can make a difference to the presentation of the national collection.

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Titian (fl. c.1506-d.1576) & workshop, An allegory of prudence, c.1550-65, o/c, 75.5 x 68.4 cm, in projected new frame. NG 6376

Titian’s Allegory of prudence is a mysterious painting. It might almost be called a problem painting, by analogy with the group of ‘problem plays’ written thirty or forty years later by Shakespeare. Like those, it is ambiguous, complex, neither dark nor light, and it shifts its tone and meaning as different critics reinterpret it. The head of the mature man in the centre, which springs like one flower of three from a single stem, is a mesmeric and powerful study of a man in the prime of life, and is agreed to be from the hand of Titian; the other two heads seem to be by different hands – pupils or workshops assistants – as do the three animals, wolf, lion and dog.

In the most straightforward interpretation, this is an allegory of the ages of man – youth, maturity and old age – echoed by the animals which were supposed to embody the qualities of those ages. They may be purely generic representations, then, taken from anonymous models; however, the head of the elderly man in the red cap has been seen as reflecting the features of Titian himself. This theory is based on comparison with his Self-portrait of c.1562 in the Prado, although if this is so, his face is reflected as if in a distorting glass of pain, rage or malice. The central head under this reading is that of his son, Orazio (although it could also be the middle-aged Titian, from his self-portrait in Berlin). The young man on the right, it has been hazarded, may be Marco Vecellio, a cousin; although Nicholas Penny has pointed out the likeness of this profile to the workshop portraits of the three boys on the left of Titian’s Vendramin family, c.1540-43 to c.1550-60, National Gallery .

The enigma of the painting is magnified by the inscription which curves above the three heads: ‘ex praeterito   praesens prudenter agit   ni futura actione deturpet’ – or, ‘out of [the lessons of] the past /the present acts prudently/lest it spoil the future by [rash] action’. This is a verbal expression of the iconographical figure of Prudence: traditionally a figure with three heads, representing the present drawing upon the experience of the past to guide the deeds of the future. It has been suggested that these triplets might also stand for the aged and remorseful Titian regretting the sensuality of his youth and the pride of his maturity, or that it may depict an artistic dynasty, with each generation learning from the one before [1].

Titian Allegory of prudence current frame sm Titian & workshop, An allegory of prudence, in its present Baroque French frame

The ambiguity of this painting only increases its power and fascination; and the different hands apparent in its creation add further layers of interest. It was acquired by the Gallery in 1966, and is currently set in a 17th century French frame with three orders of ornament, the torus moulding on the frieze being carved with a bound garland of oak leaves and acorns. This setting is overpowering and distracting, closes in the composition, and detracts from the strengths of the painting. It is also of the wrong period and place; it’s a Baroque French frame, rather than Renaissance Italian, and thus unsuitable on every level for such an idiosyncratic and intriguing work.

Venetian frame 1 Titian & workshop, An allegory of prudence. Mock-up in the projected 16th century Venetian cassetta

Peter Schade, Head of Framing at the National Gallery, has recently found an extremely beautiful 16th century Venetian cassetta of almost exactly the right size for the Allegory of Prudence. As you can see, it lifts the painting onto a completely different plane, revealing the sculptural qualities of the composition, opening it out from the claustrophobic darkness of the present setting, and magically illuminating the whole work.

This frame – a cassetta, or ‘little box’ frame, the earliest style of moveable or non-integrated border for a picture – has a flat architrave profile, which acts like the embroidered margin of a tapestry, providing a decorative field of transition between the real world and the mysterious otherworld of the painting. This particular cassetta has a central frieze carved with undulating vines, scrolling acanthus and cosses-de-pois, or pea-pod ornament, amongst which little zoömorphic dragons play.

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This last detail has a fortuitous iconographical connection with the three beasts in the painting. In Renaissance symbology, animals stood for the seven deadly sins; and if the lion means superbia or pride, the wolf, aravitia or avarice, and the dog, luxuria or lust – often found in combination as the three major sins – then the dragon is mors, or the death which will swallow up all such failings [2].

In ornamental terms, however, the dragons which grow from the vines and acanthus leaves are descended from the Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea, or Golden House, which when excavated in 1488 was found to be decorated with fantastical painted arabesques, delicate, playful, and swarming with strange figures and beasts.

Raphael & Giovanni da Udine Grotesques in the Loggia

Studio of Raphael, detail of Pilaster IX, with acanthus foliage populated by animals & flanking half-pilasters, 1516-17, Loggetta Bibbiena, Vatican. With thanks to Alberti’s Window.

These grotesques or grottesche (from the grotto or cave for which the Domus Aurea had been mistaken) were imitated by Raphael and his colleagues for the decoration of the Loggia at the Vatican, and by this means they became extremely influential for all types of applied and decorative arts. They appear on Renaissance frames in moulded or ‘dripped’ gesso forms, painted or sgraffito panels and corner ornaments, and – as here – in carved friezes.

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The quality of the carving is evident from this detail; the fluent swell and curve of the main vine stem; the variegated forms of the leaves; the triumphant swoop into an S-scroll across the corner, and the little dragon, his hindquarters transforming into a honeysuckle and his front legs becoming an acanthus leaf. The gesso ground behind the carving is punched, giving textural relief, and the red bole or gilder’s clay glows through the gold leaf, suffusing the whole frame with a sunset warmth.

This frame would be the perfect complement to a unique and important painting. Sadly, antique frames of this quality are exceedingly rare and correspondingly not exactly cheap. £10,000 has already been raised; you can help the Gallery to find the £17,000 it still needs for the purchase to go ahead. Please help – whatever you can give would be very gratefully received, and you would have a permanent stake in the presentation of an extraordinary work of art.

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Thank you!

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[1] For a helpful essay on the different explanations of Titian’s Allegory…, see Philip McCouat, ‘Titian, Prudence and the three-headed beast’, Journal of Art in Society.

[2] See Simona Cohen , Animals as disguised symbols in Renaissance art, 2008, pp.225-27.

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Conserving a Stanford White frame

Tatiana Shannon, a post-graduate student at Smith College, Massachusetts, describes the conservation of a frame designed by the Beaux-Arts architect and designer, Stanford White (1853-1906).

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Stanford White frame before conservation, with Dwight Tryon’s November evening temporarily in place. Smith College Museum of Art

In 2003 William Myers, the frame conservator at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA), formed the Frame Conservation Program; a volunteer training program for selected undergraduates from the University of Massachusetts (Amherst, Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Hampshire College, and Amherst College). The Frame Conservation Program offers an introduction to conservation theory, and the opportunity to acquire hands-on experience in the conservation and reproduction of historic picture frames, from and for the SCMA’s collection. The training provided by the program has afforded current and former students the opportunity to intern and work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the de Young Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and LACMA, among other such institutions. Graduates of the program have gone on to win Guggenheim fellowships, and to earn Masters degrees in art conservation from programs across America and Europe.

Each fall, the students involved in the program select three or four frames on which they will concentrate their efforts that year, culminating in a public exhibition of their work in the SCMA the following spring. Over the past decade, students of the program have either conserved or reproduced approximately 50 European and American frames from the SCMA’s collection. As a member of the Frame Conservation Program for the last two years, I have had the opportunity to participate in the treatment of a number of historically significant and impeccably designed frames, the chief of which was a lovely and long-neglected early Stanford White frame which came to our attention last year.

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Stanford White frame before conservation. Smith College Museum of Art

After consulting with the SCMA’s curatorial department and our American Frame Survey, my fellow students and I decided upon this frame as one of our chief projects for the 2013-2014 school year. One of only four Stanford White frames in the SCMA’s collection, this particular example had high priority for treatment, given the historic and aesthetic value of such a designer’s work. We could see from the museum’s records that it had not been on display in the Smith College Museum of Art for over two decades.

Selecting this frame as one of the chief projects for the 2013-2014 year was only the first step in a complex and cautiously-undertaken process. If the Frame Conservation Program was to stabilize and conserve it, so that it could once again be put on display in the museum, we also needed to find a painting which would suit it: not only in its dimensions, but aesthetically and historically as well.

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Stanford White (1853-1906). Photo: National Park Service

Today Stanford White is primarily known as a Beaux-Arts architect and interior decorator par excellence, responsible through his firm, McKim, Meade & White, for many late 19th and turn of the 20th century public buildings in New York, as well as for privately-commissioned mansions in the city, Long Island and Rhode Island. Yet in his time he was also widely acknowledged as an innovative and talented designer of picture frames. Amongst his closest friends were some of the most talented and popular American painters and sculptors of the day, and it is clear that White was quite happy to bend his considerable talents towards designing or altering picture frames for them. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Abbot Thayer, Dwight Tryon, and George de Forest Brush were some of his close friends, and also patrons of his frame designs [i].  Aline Saarinen – the art critic and wife of the architect Eero Saarinen – would recall this aspect of his work in her unpublished memoirs:

‘His deft hand turned in many directions. For his painter friends he conjured up frames; some of them sparked with subtly raised snake-skin-like relief on flat moulding, others were so intricately lace-like that they must have taxed the ingenuity of the craftsmen who carved them from boxwood.’ [ii]

Whilst White would, as his designs became increasingly popular, authorize the reproduction and sale of certain patterns through the frame manufacturing company Newcomb Macklin, he was never a commercial frame designer. He made relatively little money on his elegant and innovative designs, as the majority of his frames were gifts for, or collaborations with, his artist friends. He made notable efforts to design frames that perfectly complemented the paintings or sculptures they enclosed, as well as the personality and interests of his friends, and as such tended to use and re-use particular profiles and specific types of ornament for the work of specific artists.

When we examined the Stanford White frame we were to conserve, we noted several stylistic and design markers in common with frames for the paintings of the American tonalist painter Dwight Tryon (1849-1925). The reverse ogee profile sloping away from the picture surface, covered overall with an imbricated scale (or feather) pattern, bordered by a bay-leaf torus at the sight and a simple row of beading at the top edge, is consistent with a number of settings White designed for Tryon over the years.[iii] The frame in the SCMA’s collection is a close match to others produced for his numerous tonalist landscapes, and indeed the quiet, formal idiom of such frames is well suited to their peaceful and contemplative moods (for example, Dawn – early spring, 1894, Metropolitan Museum of Art).

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 Stanford White frame before conservation, with November evening by Dwight Tryon. Smith College Museum of Art

Dwight Tryon was professor of art at Smith College from 1886 to 1923, and he left a number of his paintings to the college’s museum. So – with the help of the museum’s registrar, Louise Laplante – it was a relatively simple affair to find one of his paintings in the SCMA’s collection which both fitted our Stanford White frame and harmonized well with the gilded finish. November Evening, one of Tryon’s last paintings before his death in 1925, was the best match, both meeting all criteria and lacking a suitable frame of its own. Having found a suitable painting to complement the frame, the students of the conservation program began their investigation of its manufacture and material history, so as to approach its conservation with an accurate understanding of its construction and current condition.

From existing studies of Stanford White’s career it is clear that he had little or no hands-on experience with the construction of the intricate and innovative frames he designed. Nevertheless, he was particular about their manufacture, cultivating strong working relationships with a handful of talented craftsmen capable of translating his visions into impeccably-constructed reality. We consulted the museums’s American Frame Survey, which helped us to determine that our frame was stylistically compatible with other early examples produced in the workshops of Joseph Cabus. Cabus, a talented cabinetmaker and framemaker, produced the majority of Stanford White’s frames from 1882 to 1894, with the assistance of his son Alexander.[iv]

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Area of original compo ornament, slowing cracks and concavities

A visual examination of the frame revealed several problems which would need to be addressed to restore it fully. Fluctuations in temperature and humidity had, over the course of a century, caused considerable damage to the applied composition ornament (compo), resulting in radiating fissures and shrinkage cracks over the surface of the frame, as well as several significant areas of loss which had destabilized large sections of the cove.  A past attempt to correct this damage had resulted in clumsily-cast fills, coated with a layer of oxidized bronze powder over interference gold which contrasted strongly with the original ornament and gold leaf.  Respect for the history and evidence of past treatments to a piece of art is an important consideration when it undergoes further conservation; but in this case, the fills had been executed so poorly that they represented a significant distraction from the aesthetic impact of the frame. They also posed a major challenge to our aim of stabilizing the original ornament, due to the poor fit of the cellulose-based filler and its lack of malleability.

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Corner of frame, showing earlier repairs and oxidized ‘gilding’

Our treatment of the frame was defined by three key concerns. First, we needed to stabilize the original composition ornament without damaging either its integrity, or that of the gold leaf. Secondly, we needed to to excise the previously executed fills without doing further damage to the extremely fragile ornament on the cove. Finally, we needed to find a filler which would allow us to replicate the existing compo ornament with such precision that the existing areas of loss would be indistinguishable to the naked eye from the orginal ornament.

While the reverse ogee profile of the frame was one which White returned to many times in the course of his career, its constructon was still very much in question. During the 2013 fall semester we communicated with frame historians and conservators, read every available article that mentioned Stanford White’s work as a frame designer, and conducted numerous examinations of the frame using a number of different tools. By simply tapping gently on the expanse of scale or feather ornament, we were able to determine that the frame itself was hollow; but we did not know whether the compo was laid over wire mesh, paper backing or a wooden chassis. It was critical that we should determine precisely how the compo shell was supported, so as to draft an effective treatment plan – since unless we knew exactly how it was suspended above the wooden armature of the frame, there was no way of knowing whether or not it was safe to remove the previous fills on the cove.

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Examining the compo through a digital microscope

In our efforts to uncover more information about its construction, we first examined the frame under a USB microscope at 200 X magnification.  The microscope allowed us to capture invaluable high-resolution images instantaneously, and to use minute manual adjustments of the field of view, focus, and resolution to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the surface. During this examination, we discovered a number of randomly-placed nailheads which appeared to have been hammered into the original ornament on the cove. This made it likely that the compo was nailed to a form of wooden chassis extending under either part of the cove or its entirety.

8 Microscopic close up of nail sm

Microscopic close-up of a nail beneath the compo

To determine how far this chassis extended, we needed a non-invasive method of examination which would allow for an unimpeded view. Through the Smith College alumnae network we contacted Dr. Elizabeth Gatti of Valley Veterinary Hospital, Hadley, MA, who offered us the use of the hospital’s X-ray machine. A lateral X-ray of the frame revealed an unidentified continuous mid-gray band of material, probably wood, situated underneath the moulded compo on the cove and the top edge. Now we knew that there was a stable and continuous support to the ornamental shell, the next step was to determine how we could coax the compo to lie flat against the chassis.

9 Lateral X ray of frame showing nails sm

Lateral X-ray of frame, showing substratum of wood to which the compo is pinned

Compo holds several key advantages over plaster and wood as a frame-making material. It is a thermoplastic substance which, when properly cooled, hardens to a stone-like solidity – but which can easily be returned to a pliable state if exposed to heat. When compo is applied to a wooden substrate, this pliability allows framemakers to stretch or compress it to fit a design without fear of damaging the detail. The chief downside of compo, however, is its reaction to repeated fluctuations in humidity and temperature. Due to the moisture-sensitive nature of rabbitskin glue, one of its key ingredients, compo expands and contracts in sympathy with changes in the atmosphere; and over time will often begin to separate from the wooden substrate to which it has been fastened, as the wood expands and contracts at a different rate from the compo [v]. In the case of the Stanford White frame, the problem was compounded by the nails Cabus had used to keep the hardening ornament from shifting after it was set in place. The compo moved, pressing against the nails and adding to the network of fissures.

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X-ray of frame from above, showing the system of cracks in the compo

We first needed to heat the compo gently, allowing it to relax just enough so that we could press the cove back down onto the wooden chassis underneath without damaging either the fine detail of the ornament or the gilding. Several methods were tested on sample sections of the frame – for example, using a hand-held steamer, which proved too uncontrollable, whilst using a heat gun on its own was ineffective. In the end, in order to heat the compo ornament without damaging the original gold leaf, a warm mixture of rabbbitskin glue was wicked behind the areas of loss and blind cleavage on the cove. Then the heat gun was held over an envelope of silicone mylar, which was pressed over small sections of the cove. The warmth of the heat gun reactivated the rabbitskin glue, releasing steam into the silicone mylar envelope and rendering the compo ornament pliable enough to be pressed gently back onto the wooden chassis beneath.

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Examining the frame under ultraviolet light

Having stabilized the original compo ornament, we needed to find a filler which would allow the fine detail of the decoration to be replicated; we also needed to remove the poorly-executed fills on the cove. When the frame was examined under ultraviolet light, we were quickly able to pinpoint these previous attempts at conservation. Through a series of solubility tests we determined that the fills were comprised of a cellulose-based, acrylic-bound filler. We used acetone to soften this mixture, and the remainder of the fills were removed with the careful use of micro-scalpels.

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Student removing previous areas of fills

The wooden chassis underneath was revealed to be in remarkably good condition, with much of the original gesso layer still intact. The only exceptions to the removal of the previous fills were the bands of foliate ornament laid diagonally above the mitres of the frame. As there were no original examples of these left, we stripped the interference gold from the ornament and left the cellulose fills in place, refining the leaves with wood-carving tools.

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Areas of loss, after removing previous repairs

We then created a dam – made of foam core and silicone mylar – around an undamaged section of the cove, poured on a two-part, liquid silicone rubber mould-making material, and let it solidify. The silicone rubber mould was able to catch a finely-detailed impression of the scale ornament, into which we poured a dual-phase thermoplastic urethane component – colloquially known as liquid plastic. Liquid plastic has been used as a filler material in the lab for the past eight years, so there is a considerable amount of information as to its unique properties. It is a stable material, with some degree of malleability when exposed to heat, and it is significantly less brittle than many other filler materials. This last quality meant that we were able to shave the fills quite thin (less than 3 mm thick), so that they would lie flush with the original ornament, and there would be no concern as to their snapping in half.

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Student inserting liquid plastic into areas of loss

Once the new fills had been adhered to the wooden chassis underneath, they were were painted with red bole, which was then gently sanded and smoothed out. To match the tone of the original gold leaf on the frame a combination of interference gold, golden acrylics and 23 ¾ carat gold powders were applied to the new fills. With these final steps, the frame was ready for exhibition.

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Student gilding the repaired areas

When the painting, November Evening, had been fixed inside the restored Stanford White frame, the whole work was now ready to hang as part of Framework X: A Decade of Research, Collaboration, and Research, May 9th-25th, 2014. Frameworks X showcased the exacting, professionally-executed work of the students involved in the 10th year of this innovative program, as well as paying homage to the achievements of students in past years. Alongside November Evening, our exhibition highlighted two exciting historical replica frame projects; George W. Bellow’s Pennsylvania Excavation (1907) in an elegant reeded moulding, and a hand-carved frame inspired by Newcomb Macklin designs for William Closson’s Fighting Peacocks (c. 1886–98). Whilst the show itself was a brief one, the efforts of the Frame Conservation Program have ensured that November Evening and its accompanying frame will keep their place in the SCMA’s permanent collection.

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The finished frame on exhibition

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[i] Nina Gray, “Within Gilded Borders: The Frames of Stanford White” in The Gilded Edge: The Art of the Frame, ed. Eli Wilner (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000), 83.

[ii] A. Saarinen, unpublished manuscript on Stanford White, n.d., Archives of American Art; microfilm reel 2073, frame no. 352. Quoted in Tracy Gill, Beaux Arts & Crafts: Masterpieces of American Frame Design 1890-1920 (New York: Gill & Lagodich Fine Period Frames, 2011), 22.

[iii] Ibid., 23 (see Plate 23)

[iv] Nina Gray and Suzanne Smeaton “Within Gilded Borders: The Frames of Stanford White” American Art 7, no. 2 (1993): 34.

[v] Jonathon Thornton and William Adair, “Applied Decoration for Historic Interiors Preserving Composition Ornament,” Preservation Briefs 34, (Washington DC: National Park Services, May 1985) , 7-8,

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With thanks from The Frame Blog to Smith College for the use of their images.

NOTE: The scale or feather pattern used by Stanford White in this frame, together with the foliate motif above the mitres, is very similar indeed to the imbricated feather ornament found in Renaissance pastiglia frames; see National Gallery, London: a Venetian pastiglia frame . White had lived in Europe for 18 months before returning to set up his architectural practice in New York with Charles McKim and William Mead, and he would almost certainly have brought back sketchbooks full of the buildings, architectural details and motifs which fed his subsequent designs.

Conzen 11th Antique Frame Auction 2014

…to be held on the 5th November 2014 in Düsseldorf. Viewing: 20th October – 5th November 2014

National Gallery, London: a Venetian pastiglia frame

Giovanni Bellini’s St Jerome in the National Gallery, London, has recently been reframed in a beautifully-preserved and very appropriate late 15th-early 16th century Venetian pastiglia frame.

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Giovanni Bellini (fl. c. 1459-d.1516), St Jerome reading in a landscape, c.1480-85. National Gallery, NG281

Frames of this type are perhaps the earliest to use pressed and applied decoration, rather than ornament carved in the wood [1]. They take a very simple form – two well-defined shaped mouldings, between which lies a slightly cambered or cushion frieze, covered with a layer of pastiglia, or thick paste, impressed with a running pattern. Pastiglia is the Renaissance equivalent of compo or composition, the moulding material which became popular in late 18th century Britain, or of plaster, its French equivalent. It was made in a similar way to the latter (see below), and mixed to a dough, which would be pressed into oiled moulds whilst warm, allowed to cool, and taken out and left to dry before being applied to the wooden surface. Considering that frames decorated with moulded pastiglia can be 500 or more years old, those which remain to us have lasted extraordinarily well, especially in comparison with compo frames.

V & A Venetian cassetta frame detail

Cassetta frame with pastiglia relief, 1500-50 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Although not exactly common, there are more surviving pastiglia frames than might be imagined; many museums seem to have one or more. Their decoration falls mainly into three types: the double guilloche of the Bellini frame, an all-over pattern of imbricated scales or feathers, and a more varied grotesque ornament, which is different on the vertical and horizontal rails of the frame (above). There may, of course, have been others. Their charm lies partly in the refinement and delicate execution of the ornament, partly in the proportions of the frieze and mouldings, and partly in the relatively small size of these frames.

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Giovanni Bellini, St Jerome reading…, National Gallery, NG281; previous frame

The previous frame for Bellini’s exquisitely luminous St Jerome was a rather unconvincing reproduction cassetta, with an anachronistic canted frieze and the sort of decoration which looks like expensive gift wrap. The new pastiglia frame was acquired in Italy, from a family business in Modena. It was almost exactly the right size for the painting, only having to be reduced slightly in width, and the finish restored to something truer to gilding aged by more than 500 years. Some of these frames (notably two in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and one in the V & A, London) show evidence of paint as well as gilding; this may have been the case generally for the type, so they would originally have presented a much richer and more colourful appearance – rather like silk braid or brocade.

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 Workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94), Portrait of a girl, c. 1490. National Gallery, NG1230

The National Gallery has other Renaissance paintings framed in the same style; one is this portrait from the workshop of Ghirlandaio, acquired in 1887 and framed between 1931 and 1971.

Raphael Madonna of the pinks NG6596 sm Raphael, The Madonna of the pinks (‘La Madonna dei Garofani’), c. 1506-07. National Gallery, NG6596

Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks (for which see ‘National Gallery frames: an interview with Peter Schade’) is another; and the third is a Lamentation by Dosso Dossi.

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Dosso Dossi (fl. 1512- d.1542), Lamentation over the body of Christ c. 1510-20. National Gallery, NG4032

This frame, with its imbricated scale or feather pattern and unusual narrow leaves across the corners, was acquired from the sale in 1995 of the framemaker, Paul Levi . Sadly, it has lost its original sight moulding, as can be seen by comparison with the previous examples, and also much of its gilding. The fine detail of the pastiglia moulding can still be appreciated, however: the minute fan-like veining on each feather – for these must be feathers, each with its central ‘eye’, like a peacock’s tail.

Dosso Dossi Lamenattion NG4032 detail

Dosso Dossi, Lamentation…, detail

The separate strips of pastiglia which make up the running pattern can be seen by the joins, which are revealed by ageing and by the loss of the finish; the V-shaped pieces at the corner, the joint of which is covered by the applied leaf, are also clearly visible.

Italian Renaissance Frames Fig 68 Met Mus NY detail smImbricated feather or scale ornament: early 16th century Venetian frame, Robert Lehman Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In this feather-patterned frame from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, the mould used to produced the separate pieces of pastiglia is estimated to have been about 5 ¾ inches long (or 14.6 cm), the frame itself is 17 7/8 x 16 ¼ outside, and 12 ½ x 10 ¾ inches at the sight (45.4 x 41.3, and 31.8 x 27.3 cm) [2]. The carved wooden mould was thus relatively small, and would have been re-used innumerable times, making the finely-detailed finish worth its labour. The retention of such fine detail in the pastiglia itself is due to the ingredients used in its confection.

British compo, common from the late 18th century onwards, is made of whiting (or powdered chalk), rabbit-skin glue, linseed oil, resin, and Venetian turpentine, which is mixed into a warm, beige-coloured dough and pressed into oiled moulds. When it is taken from the moulds it is dry but still slightly flexible, so that it can be bent around the members of a frame; it dries out completely over a very long period, finally becoming brittle and flaking away from the base, as can be seen in so many Victorian frames. French plaster is much whiter, and is made of gesso grosso mixed with a skin glue high in collagen, which renders it less likely to flake and split. It is very similar in its ingredients to Renaissance pastiglia, and like pastiglia it is capable of retaining very fine detail, as can be seen in 19th century French Salon frames, with their multiple orders of enrichment.

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Giovanni Bellini, St Jerome reading…, detail

There are many other recipes for types of composition which have been used at various periods, but the process used on the frame of Bellini’s St Jerome would, as with the much later French Salon frames, have been similar to what is described in Il libro dell’ arte, the 15th century handbook by the artist Cennino Cennini. This is a fascinating compendium of techniques of all sorts for the Renaissance artist, including drawing, painting, preparing panels, grinding colours, gilding, varnishing, and taking life masks, amongst many other things. (It also includes moral advice, warning the art student against ‘indulging too much in the company of woman’, as this is bound to end in shaky hands). The Libro dell’arte was translated in 1933 by Daniel V. Thompson as The Craftsman’s Handbook, and reissued by Dover Books in 1960; Dover Books have kindly given permission for the relevant passages on making gesso and preparing an ancona with moulded ornament to be published here.

Cennino Cennini cover Cennino Cennini’s The Craftsman’s Handbook, translated by Daniel Thompson, and republished by Dover Books in 1954 & 1960, from the original, published by Yale University Press in 1933. Courtesy of Dover Publications, Inc.

Daniel Thompson translates the Italian tavola as a ‘panel’, but retains ancona to describe a panel with an engaged frame, probably with ornamental mouldings. This is obviously slightly different from the moveable, portable 15th – 16th century pastiglia frame, but the processes involved were similar and would remain so for some time. Many of the pictures set in pastiglia frames were in any case small panel paintings, so that the net product was very like what Cennino describes.

The Craftsman’s Handbook

How you should start to work on panel or anconas: Chapter CXIII

Now we come to the business of working on anconas or on panel. To begin with, the ancona should be made of a wood which is known as whitewood or poplar, of good quality, or of linden or willow. And first take the body of the ancona, that is, the flats, and see whether there are any rotten knots; or, if the board is greasy at all, have the board planed down until the greasiness disappears; for I could never give you any other cure.

See that the wood is thoroughly dry; and if it were wooden figures or leaves, so that you could boil them with clear water in kettles, that wood would never give you any trouble with cracks.

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Let us just go back to the knots or nodes, or other defects which the flat of the panel may display. Take some strong leaf glue; heat up as much as a goblet or glass of water; and boil two leaves of glue in a pipkin free from grease.

Size B 3 sm

Then have some sawdust wetted down with this glue in a porringer. Fill the flaws of the nodes with it, and smooth down with a wooden slice [spatula], and let it stand. Then scrape with a knife point until it is even with the surrounding level. Look it over again; if there is a bud, or nail, or nail end sticking through the surface, beat it well down into the board. Then take small pieces of tin foil like little coins, and some glue, and cover over carefully wherever any iron comes; and this is done so that the rust from the iron may never come to the surface of the gesso. And the flat of the ancona must never be too much smoothed down. First take a size made of clippings of sheep parchment, boiled until one part remains out of three.

Size C 4 sm

Test it with the palms of your hands; and when you find that one palm sticks to the other, it will be right. Strain it two or three times. Then take a casserole half full of this size, and the third part[3] water, and get it boiling hot. Then apply this size to your ancona, over foliage ornaments, canopies, little columns, or any sort of work which you have to gesso, using a large soft bristle brush. Then let it dry.

Next take some of your original strong size, and put two coats over this work with your brush; and always let it dry between one coat and the next and it will come out perfectly sized. And do you know what the first size, with water, accomplishes? Not being so strong, it is just as if you were fasting, and ate a handful of sweetmeats and drank a glass of good wine, which is an inducement for you to eat your dinner. So it is with this size: it is a means of giving the wood a taste for receiving the coats of size and gesso.

How you should put a cloth on a panel: Chapter CXIV

When you have done the sizing, take some canvas – that is, some old thin linen cloth, white threaded, without a spot of any grease. Take your best size; cut or tear large or small strips of this canvas, sop them in this size, spread them out over the flats of these anconas with your hands; and first remove the seams; and flatten them out well with the palms of your hands, and let them dry for two days. And know that this sizing and gessoing call for dry and windy weather. Size wants to be stronger in summer than in winter. Gilding calls for damp and rainy weather.

How the flat of a panel should be gessoed with the slice, with gesso grosso: Chapter CXV

When the ancona is quite dry, take the tip of a knife shaped like a spatula, so that it will scrape well, and go over the flat. If you find any little lump or seam of any sort, remove it.

SI Gesso 1 sm

Then take some gesso grosso – that is, plaster of Paris[4], which has been purified[5] and sifted like flour. Put a little porringerful on the porphyry slab, and grind it with this size very vigorously, as if it were a colour. Then scrape it up with a slice; put it on the flat of the ancona, and proceed to cover all the flats with it, with a very even and rather broad slice; and wherever you can lay it with this slice you do so. Then take some of this same ground-up gesso; warm it, and take a small soft bristle brush and lay some of this gesso over the mouldings and over the leaves, and likewise over the flats gessoed with the slice. You lay three or four coats of it on the other parts and mouldings, but you cannot lay too much on the flats. Let it dry for two or three days. Then take an iron spatula and scrape over the flat. Have some little tools made which are called ‘little hooks’[6], such as you will see at the painters’, made up in various styles. Shape up the mouldings and foliage ornaments nicely, so that they do not stay choked up; get them even; and contrive to get every flaw in the flats and gap in the mouldings repaired by this gessoing.

How to make the gesso sottile for gessoing panels: Chapter CXVI

Now you have to have a gesso which is called gesso sottile; and it is some of this same gesso, but it is purified for a whole month by being soaked in a bucket. Stir up the water every day, so that it practically rots away and every ray of heat goes out of it, and it will come out as soft as silk. Then the water is poured off, and it is made up into loaves and allowed to dry; and then this gesso is sold to us painters by the apothecaries. And this gesso is used for gessoing, for gilding, for doing reliefs, and making handsome things.

How to gesso an ancona with gesso sottile, and how to temper it: Chapter CXVII

When you have done the gessoing with gesso grosso, and scraped it nice and smooth and evened it up well and carefully, take some of this gesso sottile. Put it, loaf by loaf, into a washbasin of clear water; let it soak up as much water as it will. Then put it on the porphyry slab, a little at a time, and without putting any more water in with it, grind it very thoroughly. Then place it neatly on a piece of strong white linen cloth; and keep on doing this until you have taken out one loaf of it. Then fold it up in this cloth, and squeeze it out thoroughly, so as to get as much water out of it as possible. When you have ground as much of it as you are going to need, which you must consider carefully, so as not to have to make gesso tempered in two ways, which would not be a good system, take some of that same size with which you tempered the gesso grosso. Enough of it wants to be made at one time for you to temper the gesso sottile and the gesso grosso. And the gesso sottile wants to be tempered less than the gesso grosso. The reason? – because the gesso grosso is your foundation for everything. Nevertheless, you will naturally realize that you cannot squeeze the gesso out so much that there will not still be some little water left in it. And for this reason make the same size, confidently.

SI Adding gesso 2 sm

Take a new casserole, which is not greasy; and if it is glazed, so much the better. Take the loaf of this gesso, and with a penknife cut it thin, as if you were cutting cheese; and put it into the casserole. Then pour some of the size over it; and proceed to break up the gesso with your hand, as if you were making a batter for pancakes, smoothly and deftly, so that you do not get it frothy. Then have a kettle of water, and get it quite hot, and place the casserole of tempered gesso over it. And this keeps the gesso warm for you; and do not let it boil, for if it boiled it would be ruined. When it is warm, take your ancona; and dip into this pipkin with a good-sized and quite soft bristle brush, and pick up a reasonable amount of it, neither lavish nor skimpy; and lay a coat of it all over the flats and mouldings and foliage ornaments. It is true that for this first coat, as you are applying it, you smooth out and rub over the gesso, wherever you lay it, using your fingers and the palm of your hand, with a rotary motion; and this makes the gesso sottile unite well with the gesso grosso. When you have got this done, begin all over again, and apply a brush coat of it all over, without rubbing it with your hand any more. Then let it stand a while, not long enough for it to dry out altogether; and put on another coat, in the other direction, still with the brush; and let it stand as usual. Then give it another coat in the other direction. And in this way, always keeping your gesso warm, you lay at least eight coats of it on the flats. You may do with less on the foliage ornaments and other reliefs; but you cannot put too much of it on the flats. This is because of the scraping which comes next.

How you may gesso with gesso sottile without having gessoed with gesso grosso first: Chapter CXVIII

Furthermore, it is all right to give any small-sized and choice bits of work two or three coats of size, as I told you before; and simply put on as many coats of gesso sottile as you find by experience are needed.

How you should temper and grind gesso sottile for modelling: Chapter CXVIV

SI Gesso 2 sm

There are many, too, who just grind the gesso sottile with size, and not with water. This is all right for gessoing anything which has not been gessoed with gesso grosso, for it ought to be more strongly tempered.

This same gesso is very good for modelling up leaves and other productions, as you often need to do. But when you make this gesso for modelling, put in a little Armenian bole, just enough to give it a little colour[7]….

[Chapters CXX-CXXIII deal with scraping down the dry gesso and preliminary drawing on the panel surface, so are omitted here]

How to model on a panel with gesso sottile, and how to mount precious stones: Chapter CXXIV

After this, take some of that gesso for modelling[8], if you want to model any ornament or foliage ornament, or to mount any precious stones in any special ornaments in front of God the Father or Our Lady, or any other special embellishments, for they add greatly to the beauty of your work. And there are glass gems of various colours. Arrange them systematically, and have your gesso in a little dish over a pot of hot ashes, and a little dish of hot clear water, for you have to wash the brush out often; and this brush is to be of minever, quite fine and rather long; taking up some of the warm gesso neatly on the tip of this brush, briskly set to modelling whatever you please. And if you are modelling any little leaves, draw them in first, as you do the figure. And do not try to model many of them, or too many complicated objects; for the clearer you make your foliage ornaments, the better they respond to stamping with the rosette, and they can be burnished better with the stone. There are some masters who, after they have modelled what they want, apply one or two coats of the gesso with which they gessoed the ancona, just the gesso sottile, with a soft bristle brush. But if you model lightly, in my opinion you get a finer, stronger, surer result by not putting any on, by the system which I stated earlier – of not putting on several types of gesso tempera.

How you should cast a relief for embellishing areas of anconas: Chapter CXXV

SI Gesso 5 sm

Since we are on the subject of modelling, I will tell you something about it. With this same gesso, or some stronger of size, you may cast a lion’s head, or any other impression taken in earth or in clay [9]. Oil this impression with lamp oil [10]; put in some of this gesso, well tempered, and let it get quite cold; and then lift up the gesso at the side of the impression, with the point of a penknife, and blow hard. It will come out clean. Let it dry. Then apply some in embellishments in this way. With a brush, smear some of the same gesso with which you do the gessoing, or some of that with which you model, wherever you want to put this head; press it down with your finger, and it will stay in place neatly. Then take some of the gesso and lay a coat or two of it, with the minever brush, over the part which you are modelling, and rub over this casting with your finger; and let it stand. Then feel over it with a knife point, to see whether there are any little lumps on it, and remove them.

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This last chapter of Cennini’s handbook is obviously the most relevant for pastiglia frames and their moulded ornament. It is interesting that Cennino’s moulds are made of clay; if lions’ heads are being cast, it would of course be much the easiest course to model one and cast it in clay (or wax, which Thompson specifically rejects as a possible translation). However, with a length of very fine and regular ornament like guilloche, carving a reverse mould from a hard wood does seem to be the method most likely to give a detailed result and a tool capable of being used many times.

V & A Venetian cassetta frame detail

Cassetta frame with pastiglia relief, 1500-50 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

As we have seen, the strips of pastiglia on the feather-patterned frame in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum were approximately 5 ¾ inches long (or 14.6 cm). In the case of the frame in the collection of the V & A, which is decorated with grotesques, the description of the applied ornament notes that:

‘…on the left and right, the lengths of relief decoration are cast from the same mould. Each length runs from the top to the bottom edge of the frieze and covers the mitres. The diagonal cracks through the cast work at the corners have appeared as a result of movement in mitre joints in the wood below. The top and bottom lengths are placed between the side lengths and are cast from a different mould. At the top and bottom of the frieze, the vertical joins in the cast work can be seen near the corners. At the top corners, a rectangular piece of relief decoration with masks and drapery has been set into the cast work’ [11]

Technical analysis of the pastiglia found that it was made of gypsum (plaster of Paris, or Cennino’s ‘plaster of Volterra’), and that ‘the presence of animal glue’ was also indicated. In other words, it is made from precisely the mixture of gesso and size that Cennino describes. When the National Gallery acquired the frame used for Rapahel’s Madonna of the pinks, the composition of the pastiglia ornament was similarly analyzed, and also found to contain ‘animal glue, chalk and traces of linseed oil’ (information from Peter Schade).

CIS:11-1890

Cassetta frame with pastiglia relief, reverse. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This is the reverse of the same pastiglia frame in the V & A; it is described thus:

‘The frame is made up of a back frame and a front frame made of softwood. The back frame is roughly finished with lost knots and is half lap jointed. At the back, the vertical members are lapped over the horizontal members. The front frame includes the sight edge moulding and is mitred. The outer moulding is mitred and applied’[12].

The Louvre possesses an example of a pastiglia frame with grotesque ornament similar to that in the V & A (Giovanni Bellini, Christ Blessing, c.1465-70); one motif – the double spray of leaves and an upturned bellflower supported on a band with Greek fret – is identical, but the figures and animals are not. The structure of the Louvre frame is not a simple cassetta but an aedicule, created by the attachment of a base moulding and an entablature at the top.

There are three examples of pastiglia cassetta frames in the National Gallery, Washington, on which Steve Wilcox, the Senior Conservator of Frames has kindly commented.

Antonello da Messina attrib Portrait of a young man c1475to80 NG of Art Washington sm

Attributed to Antonello da Messina, Portrait of a young man, c.1475-80, Andrew W Mellon Collection 1937.1.31. National Gallery of Art, Washington

Steve Wilcox: The frame on the Antonello da Messina has a new back moulding, and the whole thing appears to have been cut down. It also seems to have been regilded. There is no record of when the frame was put on this painting.

Alvise Vivarini Portrait of a man c1495 NG of Art Washington sm

Alvise Vivarini (1442/1453-1503/05), Portrait of a man, c.1495, Samuel H. Kress Collection 
1939.1.355. National Gallery of Art, Washington

Steve Wilcox: The back frame retains sliding dovetail joints on all four corners, and the face mouldings are mitred. The gilding is old, and possibly original. There is no record of when this frame was put on the painting.

Giovanni Bellini Portrait of a young man in red c1480 NG of Art Washington sm Giovanni Bellini (c.1430/1435-1516), Portrait of a young man in red, c.1480, Andrew W. Mellon Collection 
1937.1.29. National Gallery of Art, Washington

Steve Wilcox: The back frame retains sliding dovetail joints at all four corners; the face mouldings are mitred. The pastiglia is butt-jointed; there is some regilding at the corners. A small slip was added to accommodate the present painting; the frame was put onto it in 1975. It is is part of a collection of frames owned by the Samuel H Kress Foundation, and sent to the National Gallery of Art in 1961.

As well as this small group of pastiglia frames with guilloche ornament, and the even rarer examples with feather patterns or grotesques, there is another clutch of frames, related not by their method of production but by their decoration. These are the frames which have the same structure and guilloche on the frieze, but which are made of carved wood.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Antonello da Messina, Portrait of a man, c.1475-76. National Gallery NG1141

One of these is in the collection of the National Gallery, London. This was acquired in Basel, and consisted of four lengths of carving which had been assembled as a frame without possessing an original back frame; it might therefore originally have been part of a spalliera (the framed painting or decorative panel on top of a cassone), or of a cassapanca (a Renaissance carved bench with back and arms).

Tuscan carved walnut cassapanca 2nd half C16 Christies 5Nov2009 Lot238Tuscan carved walnut cassapanca, detail, 2nd half 16th century. Christie’s, King Street, 5 November 2009, Lot 238

Antonis Mor Portrait of two canons 1544 Gemaldegalerie Berlin sm

Antonis Mor, Portrait of two canons, 1544. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Other examples include the Antonis Mor, above, in the Gemäldegalerie; this appears to have much more the authentic structure of a frame, and the frieze is finished at the corners with carved acanthus leaves.

Titian Ecce Homo Renaissance parcel gilt walnut St Louis

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), Italian, c.1485-90–1576; Christ Shown to the People (Ecce Homo), c.1570–76; oil on canvas; 43 x 37 5/16 in. (109.2 x 94.8 cm); Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase 10:1936

There is also this superb, rather later example on a Titian in Saint Louis: a parcel-gilt walnut frame with supporting leaf moulding at the back edge, fluting at the sight edge, and small runs of beading and enriched astragal mouldings. The frame has been altered to fit this painting: the astragal moulding does not meet perfectly at the bottom corners, particularly at the lower right. Similarly, the wooden guilloche frame on Signorelli’s Martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria, 1498, in the Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, has been altered to fit the painting. The existence of these carved wood analogues of the pastiglia frames, and the possible connection of both with carved borders on pieces of Renaissance furniture (the spalliera and casspanca), indicates that there was a relationship between the elements of an interior even at this early period, and that frames may have been designed or chosen to fit with the furniture in a particular room.

There may be many more of these charming frames, both the pastiglia and carved wood versions, lurking in private collections or hanging in other museums and palazzi (see also the Städel, Frankfurt, and San Diego Museum of Art; there is another in the Museo Horne, on a School of the Marches portrait of Federigo II, Duke of Urbino; information courtesy of Paul Mitchell). However, their comparative rarity as against other cassetta patterns enhances both their charm and their desirability for – especially – the small Renaissance portrait or sacred scene. The National Gallery’s reframed Bellini is an instance of the expert eye alighting on the perfect solution, and recreating the painting like a jewel in its new setting.

Bellini St Jerome NG detail top rail

With many thanks to Peter Schade of the National Gallery for providing the images and information used in this article; thanks also to Steve Wilcox of the National Gallery of Art, Washington; to Dover Books for permission to quote large passages from Cennini’s Il Libro dell’Arte; and to Michael Hilliard of Perceval Designs for the series of photos on preparing size and gesso.

National Gallery frames: an interview with Peter Schade > here

National Gallery reframings: Mannerist frames > here

On Tuesday, 4th November 2014 (1.00-1.45 pm), Peter Schade is giving a talk with Caroline Campbell on the reframing of Giovanni Bellini’s St Jerome Reading in a Landscape.

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[1] Of course, there are other forms of non-flat decoration, such as punchwork, and ornament built up freehand from liquid gesso applied by brush.

[2] Timothy Newbery, George Bisacca, Laurence Kanter, Italian Renaissance frames, 1990, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; no.68.

[3] Thompson’s footnote to Cennini: ‘The original is ambiguous here. I understand it to mean: “Add half as much water as you have size,” as Cennino’s rules usually call for a total of three “parts”. The point has little practical significance in this case.”

[4] Thompson’s footnote: ‘Giesso grosso cioe Volteriano: That is, “coarse plaster, of Volterra”. Perhaps Cennino’s plaster was no more Volteriano than ours is Parisian!’

[5] Thompson’s footnote: ‘The phrase che e purghato may be introduced in L. [the 18th century MS which is one of the sources of this translation] through error, or through confusion by the scribe of gesso grosso with gesso sottile, anticipating the directions of Chapter CXVI. R [another source MS] gives quite a different reading: “ … gesso grosso… which is purified like flour; and, when sifted, put a little porringerful…”.’

[6] Thompson’s footnote: ‘Raffietti: These are made nowadays in Italy under the name of raschiaii. The so-called “plaster tools” of the sculptors, made of bronze or steel, may be pressed into service, but a set of raschiaii, with blades shaped to meet the requirements of mouldings, carvings, pastiglia, etc., mounted at right angles to shafts and handles of convenient shape, will lighten and expedite the work enormously. The modern practice of “drawing up” the gesso as it is applied, with cut pumice templets, and smoothing off after the gesso is dry with the same templets and water, produces a rather mechanical perfection, and is not applicable to carved ornaments.’

[7] Thompson’s footnote: ‘Modelling executed on the gesso surface with gesso applied with a brush is now generally called pastiglia ( See Chapter CXXIV, …, below). The addition of a little colouriong matter makes it easier to see the beffect of the work as it progresses. The modern trade equivalent for “Armenian bole” is “Gilders’ Red Clay”, or “Red Burnish Gold Size”.’ The Frame Blog comment: Thompson’s use of pastiglia here is nothing to do with the pressed or moulded and applied strips of dough-like material which are the subject of this article. It is much more like a wet slip (as in clay modeling), which is painted on to the surface and built up progressively in layers. Its effect is very soft and in shallow relief: see Chapter CXXIV, below.

[8] Thompson’s footnote: ‘See Chapter CXVIV. …, above.’

[9] Thompson’s footnote: ‘R [one of the source MSS] has cera, “wax”…

[10] Thompson’s footnote: ‘Olio da bruciare: a vegetable oil, probably olive oil, of inferior quality.

[11] Christine Powell and Zoë Allen, Italian Renaissance Frames at the V & A – A Technical Study. Elsevier Ltd. in association with the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2010, no. 16.

[12] Ibid.

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