Where did picture frames come from? Most people have never thought about the history of picture frames.

Throughout the Middle Ages, central Italian artists painted on wooden panels, not on canvas. Thirteenth-century documents describe the construction and preparation of these wooden panels with linen and gesso. Many elaborate panel paintings were religious scenes destined for ecclesiastical patrons, but sometimes, individual patrons also commissioned multimedia works for private chapels or domestic spaces.

Italian panel painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Master of the Codex of Saint George: The Crucifixion. 14th-century Italian panel painting. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (61.200.1) .

Complex wooden forms

Carpenters played a key role in preparing the wooden armatures of panel paintings, as the wooden forms were not considered separate like a frame would later be, but rather an integral part of the paintings themselves. Woodworkers of the 1200s and 1300s constructed elaborate architectural shapes for multi-paneled paintings called diptychs, triptychs, and polyptychs, depending on the number of individual panels. These complex wooden forms were often based on Gothic architectural models, sometimes involving ornate forms, and layers of wood glued and nailed together. Larger pieces included battens on the back to prevent them from warping in humid environments, while very large works might be assembled on site. Once the wooden armature was complete, a layer of linen would be pasted down, then covered in gesso to ensure a uniform surface. Painters then painted and gilded these works according to their commission.

Today, you can view works by Tuscan master panel painters like Cimabue and Duccio in the Uffizi Gallery, as well as important works in the churches of Santa Trinita and Santa Maria Novella. While the painters themselves receive credit for their works, most of the carpenters who constructed these elaborate wooden forms usually go unnamed.

Frame from Florence, Italy

Where did picture frames come from?

So how did the frame become a separate entity apart from a painting? The Florentine Renaissance ushered in the idea of a frame as separate from a painted work, and Florence stood at the epicenter of this transition. In 1423, Palla Strozzi, a banker and at one time the richest man in Florence, commissioned Gentile da Fabriano, a painter who had spent most of his career in Venice, to paint a version of the Adoration of the Magi. The gilded panel painting was based on the medieval prototype of an architectural framework, but for the first time, the frame ended up as a separate elaboration from the painting. Over the next decade, other prominent Florentine artists, including Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Michelozzo, contributed to the development of the idea of a frame as a separate work in its own right. As a more classical aesthetic supplanted the Gothic style as the prevailing fashion, frames were a natural outcome.

While painters earned fame and fortune for their works and frame-makers remained largely anonymous, these early frames nonetheless constituted works of extraordinary accomplishment. Frame-makers displayed a remarkable sensitivity to the specific properties of each type of wood. Walnut was prized for its rich color and structural integrity, and was preferred for a frame with fine details, or one that was left to show the wood grain. More inexpensive and softer woods like pine and poplar might be used for less important parts of the frame, less intricate carving, or for areas that would be gilded or painted later in the process.

Florentine fashions

Although Florentines used a cassetta or “box”-style frame that was the same on all four sides, they also made a tabernacle-style frame with an elaborated top and bottom section, as well as the tondo, or round frame, popular throughout Tuscany during the Renaissance. Florentine woodworkers drew from classical architecture, vegetal forms, and the decorative vocabulary they already used in carving panels, chests, and other works for interior design.

Have you ever thought about the history of frames as separate from the history of art? Have you discovered any great frames in your own travels? Drop a comment below. I love to hear your stories!