Anthropomorphism and zoomorphism in the Medici picture frames: an abstract by Dr Marilena Mosco

by The Frame Blog

Marilena Mosco 12_Cornici_Medicee_Intero sm

Carlo Dolci (1616-86), St. John on Patmos, 1656, Palatine Gallery, Florence

In my paper I intend to illustrate the finest and most fanciful motifs in the frames belonging to the Medici’s collections (now divided between the Uffizi and the Pitti museums), which recall the taste for the grotesque and for zoomorphism. A series of slides will be projected, starting with two prints by Giovanni da Udine and Perin del Vaga, which will be followed by two drawings by Ammannati, all of them featuring grotesque human faces; and two photos of masks by Buontalenti and Andrea di Michelangelo Ferrucci.

As regards zoomorphism, the frame of Leopoldo’s portrait represents an interesting example of the genre, with two serpents’ heads, the tails of which become spirals spinning outwards to the edge. Even in the frame of Dosso Dossi’s Allegory, commissioned by Ercole d’Este and bought by Leopoldo, we can find heads of serpents with long tails winding around the entire profile. The same subject is found in the frame of Hercules at rest by Reni, where the manes of the lions’ heads are intertwined with the coils of two serpents. The source of inspiration can be found in a drawing representing serpents by Stefano della Bella, and in a small bronze of serpents by Pietro Tacca. The hydras by Tacca were also a source of inspiration for those at the corners of a frame containing a painting with St. John on Patmos by Dolci, which was carved by Cosimo Fanciullacci, a Florentine carver who worked for Giovan Carlo de’Medici.

The fountains by Pietro Tacca, illustrated in two drawings by Giambologna, also inspired a series of frames decorated with motifs that evoked the aquatic world, such as dolphins, dilated gills and scales, pointed fins and the spiky modules on the dorsal fin similar to those in Tacca’s fountains. The dolphin, a leitmotif like the serpent in the Medici’s iconographia, appears in two frames commissioned by Leopoldo for a couple of paintings, the Rest in Egypt by Dosso Dossi, probably made by the carver Giovanni Magni, and The Calumny of Apelles by Franciabigio, where an owl’s head is featured in the middle (reminding us of an owl sculpted by Giambologna).

Finally, in another frame made for the painting Adam and Eve by Bassano, the monster’s heads carved at the corners recall a winged monster sculpted by Tacca, whereas four heads – or bucrania – emerge at the centre of two sides, the base and the top of the frame; the bucrania, loved even by Michelangelo, confirm a strong connection with Renaissance sculpture and that fascination for the classical world which will last for many centuries.


An art historian specializing in the Baroque period (author of Itinerario di Firenze barocca, 1974), Marilena Mosco was previously director of the Museo degli Argenti at the Pitti Palace. She has produced many works on the collections of the Pitti, and curated numerous exhibitions there.

Since 1982 she has researched the relatively unexplored area of picture frames, curating exhibitions which include Antiche cornice italiane dal Cinquecento al Settecento, Tokyo, 1991; A Tuscan Renaissance frame from Palazzo Davanzati i in Florence, Accademia Italiana delle Arti e Arti Applicate, London, 1993-94; and Cornici barocche restaurate dai depositi di Palazzo Pitti, Palazzo Pitti, 1998. The latter was followed by the creation of a special room devoted to frames in the Museo degli Argenti.

She participated in the 2002 frame conference Global embrace: celebrating 300 years of European frames, and in the 2004 conference From classicism to expressionism: a synthetic approach to the frame, both at New York University; and her publications include ‘La Galleria Palatina: il quadro e la cornice’, La città degli Uffizi, Firenze, 1982-83; ‘Cornici artistiche negli Appartamenti reali’ Appartamenti reali di Palazzo Pitti, 1993; ‘Cornici naturalistiche nelle collezioni medicee’, Il Giardino del Granduca, 1997; ‘Una cornice intagliata di Vittorio Crosten’, Opere in luce al Museo degli Argenti, 2002; ‘Due cornici a soggetto e una a piacere del Gran Principe Ferdinando’, Arte, collezionismo e conservazione: scritti in onore di Marco Chiarini, 2004; ‘Un disegno di Baldessare Volterrano per la cornice del Battesimo di Cristo di Paolo Veronese nella Galleria Palatina’, Disegno, Gudizio e Bella Maniera. Studi sul disegni italiano in onore di Catherine Monbeig Goguel, Milan, 2005. Her most recent publication is Cornici dei Medici, la fantasia barocca al servizio del potere: Medici frames/ Baroque caprice for the Medici Princes, Florence, 2007. See more, and here.

She lives and works in Florence.