Anthropomorphism and Zoömorphism in the ‘Medici’ picture frames

by The Frame Blog

Marilena Mosco discusses the ‘Medici’ frames: Italian frames made in the Auricular style and which are part of the Medici collections, more particularly those of Leopoldo and Giovan Carlo de’ Medici (now divided between the Galleria degli Uffizi and the Palazzo Pitti), possess a special feature – they use decorative motifs which frequently remind us of the ‘grotesque’, and which are typical of Mannerism.


Grotesque faces, 1st century AD, Domus Aurea, Rome

As is well known, the term ‘grotesque’ comes from the discovery of the ancient decorations in the ‘grotto’, as the Domus Aurea was nicknamed. When it was uncovered in 1480 it immediately became very popular.


Michelangelo (1475-1564), anthropomorphic mask (detail on the breastplate of Giuliano de’ Medici), c.1526, Medici Chapels, Florence

In the first decades of the 16th century, Pirro Ligorio[1] had already commented on the ‘strange effigies’ – the grotesque masks – on works by Michelangelo: for example, on his statue of Giuliano de’ Medici in the Medici Chapels.


Marco da Faenza (c.1528-88), grotesques, c. 1566, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Similarly, Giorgio Vasari[2] remarked on the ‘new fantasies in the grotesque style’ of his contemporaries, such as these in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio, above, by Marco da Faenza, a pupil of Vasari.


Perin del Vaga (1487-1564), grotesques with mascaron, drawing, 184 orn., Gabinetto disegni e stampe, Uffizi

There are also remarkable grotesques[3] in the Logge of the Vatican which were painted in about 1518 by Raphael’s pupils, Giovanni da Udine and Perin del Vaga. We can see a similar drawing of grotesques with a mask in the Cabinet of Drawings & Prints in the Uffizi; this was formerly attributed to Giovanni da Udine but has recently been reattributed to Perin del Vaga[4].


Pellegrino Tibaldi (1527-96), study for a coat of arms, c. 1554, drawing, 407 orn., Gabinetto disegni e stampe, Uffizi

A related study for a coat of arms, formerly attributed to Perin del Vaga but now given to Pellegrino Tibaldi[5], confirms the derivation of the Auricular style from the scrolling edges of a shield or cartouche: a source which many scholars will recognize[6]. There are numerous literary references to the grotesque element in art, for instance in the essays of Lomazzo, who justifies this taste as an ancient leitmotif in his Rime (Poems imitating grotesques), or in Cardinal Paleotti’s Discorso intorno alle imagini sacre e profane (Discourse on sacred & profane images), which criticizes the grotesque as a freak of nature made by mediocre painters, who could not therefore be trusted to work in churches. It is very probable that in the stunning and bizarre aesthetic qualities of these masks and monsters, artists saw – or thought they saw – the chance for a two-fold liberation: from a simple imitation of nature, and from the religious subjects imposed by theologians; as well as from the rules of the architectural orders.

Bartolomeo Ammannati (1511-92), brackets in the form of masks, drawing for courtyard in the Palazzo Pitti, vol. E, nn.111,112, Biblioteca Marucelliana, Florence


Bernardo Buontalenti (1523-1608), mascaron on the façade of the Palazzo Nonfinito, 1596, Florence


Giambologna (1529-1608), Il diavolino, 1560, original in Museo Stefano Bardini, Florence (copy installed between Via dei Vecchietti & Via Strozzi). Photo: Matteo Bimonte


Raffaello Corradi, bracket in the form of a harpy, 1637, façade of Palazzo Marucelli, Florence

Ammannati’s brackets in anthropomorphic form, Buontalenti’s bat in the Palazzo Non Finito, the small devil by Giambologna on Palazzo Vecchietti, the harpies by Raffaello Corradi on Palazzo Marucelli – all these are fantastic fauna, which sprawl in the tympani, corbels and windows of Florentine palaces, inciting fear and influencing the collective subconsciousnes of the observers.


Andrea di Michelangelo Ferrucci (1559-1626), Fontana dello Sprone, 1598 (between Via dello Sprone e Borgo San Jacopo), Florence

Fountains too assume some considerable importance, as it is here that sculptors can give free rein to their fantasies. A prototype of these I7th century fountains and of their expression of the Auricular style can be seen in the Fontana dello Sprone, sculpted in 1598 by Andrea di Michelangelo Ferrucci[7]. It has a basin shaped like a shell, fastened at the sides on ear–like brackets, and a grotesque mask with long whiskers, a frequent motif in the Medici frames of the 17th century.


Giusto Sustermans (1597-1681), Portrait of Pandolfo Ricasoli, 1630/41, canvas 116 x 86 cm, frame 136 x 106 cm, 2nd half 17th century, Galleria Palatina, Florence

The taste for anthropomorphic motifs inspired the frame of Sustermans’s portrait of Pandolfo Ricasoli. Ricasoli was a theologian condemned by the Inquisition for his ideas, as set out on the document pinned up in the background, which was added by the painter in 1641. According to three 17th century archival sources, the painting belonged to Ferdinand II and later to his son Cosimo III, and it is described in all these inventories, etc., as being without frame. The frame which now holds it is a typical exemplar of the Auricular style, with a series of gigantic volutes in the form of ears, and large masks with spread wings at the corners; it was probably made in about 1660 and put on the painting later.


Raphael (1483-1520), Portrait of Tommaso Inghirami, 1509, panel 89.5 x 62.8 cm., frame 138 x 110 cm., Galleria Palatina, Florence

The frame for Raphael’s portrait of Tommaso Inghirami – which was bought by Leopoldo de’Medici about 1640 from the Inghirami family and registered in his patrimonial inventory in 1663 – was probably made in 1660.


Raphael, Portrait of Tommaso Inghirami, detail of frame

Around the entire frame runs a series of repeated Auricular volutes which start in the centres of the sides and wind outwards to mingle with other foliate volutes; there are grotesque masks in the corners, with sweeping whiskers, hooked noses with large nostrils, and protruding tongues.


Stefano della Bella (1610-64), drawing of a mascaron, Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica, Rome

These masks recall a drawing by Stefano della Bella, which may well have been seen by the carver when the frame was commissioned by Leopoldo.


Caravaggio (1571-1610), Sleeping Cupid,1608, canvas 72 x 105 cm., frame 119 x 147 cm., Galleria Palatina, Florence

Caravaggio’s Sleeping Cupid was bought by Leopoldo in 1667, when the latter probably also commissioned the frame which is so closely connected to the subject of the picture by its carved trophies.


Caravaggio, Sleeping Cupid, detail of mask at corner of frame


Caravaggio, Sleeping Cupid, detail of frame with Cupid’s trophy

Here too the corners are ornamented with masks, similar to that designed by Stefano della Bella, whilst the crest is surmounted by a bow and arrows set inside cartouches supported by flying eagles.


Stefano della Bella (1610-64), Two different halves of cartouches each showing an eagle fighting a serpent, 1646, etching, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Despite much research it has been impossible to identify the designer of this frame, who may have been inspired to produce the motif of the two eagles by an etching by Stefano della Bella which shows a pair of eagles attacking serpents.


Baciccio (Giovanni Battista Gaulli; 1639-1709), Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici, 1670, 72.2 x 59.6 cm., frame 93 x 83 cm., Galleria degli Uffizi

As regards zoömorphism and the link between picture and frame, the setting of Baciccio’s portrait of Leopoldo de’ Medici is contemporary with the picture, dating from 1670 when Leopoldo went to Rome for the election of the Pope Clement X and met the artist. The broad frame, carved with double-edged scrolls at the top and bottom, is centred with paired serpents’ heads, their tails transforming into volutes which spread wider towards the outer contour of the frame. The serpents refer covertly to Leopoldo’s enemies, who were envious of his appointment as a cardinal.


Dosso Dossi (c.1490-1542), Allegory of Hercules, 1535, canvas 143 x 144 cm., frame 208 x 204 cm., Galleria degli Uffizi

The frame of the Allegory of Hercules by Dosso Dossi, which was commissioned in 1535 by Ercole Ii d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, and bought by Leopoldo in 1665 (above), is carved with even more prominent serpents. Their heads curve upwards on either side of the large pierced central scrolls, and their long tails wind around the entire profile, entwined with the volutes. In yet another frame, on Guido Reni’s Hercules at rest in the Palatine Gallery[8], probably made by Carlo Galestruzzi for Giovan Carlo de’ Medici in 1660, we can see coils of serpents emerging from the heads of lions, The myth of the infant Hercules strangling serpents in his cradle, an allegory of his power even as a child, was very popular with the Este and Medici dynasties.


Stefano della Bella (1610-64), Two lizards, drawing, Gabinetto disegni e stampe, Uffizi

Regarding the design of the various serpents, the carver may have been aware of the drawing (above) by Stefano della Bella which shows lizards entwined by their tails.


Carlo Dolci (1616-88), St John on Patmos, oil on copper, 38 x 49 cm., frame 73 x 87 cm., Galleria Palatina, Florence

The frame on Carlo Dolci’s St John on Patmos is another fine example of a zoömorphic frame: pairs of hydras with their wings spread and with long tails punctuated by nodules emerge from all four corners, out of the mouths of monstrous masks with eyes made of glass paste. All along the profile there are foliate and Auricular volutes flanking grotesque heads with caudal fins in the centres; these create a fascinating and intense rhythm of solid and empty spaces, composed of the pierced shapes and their metamorphosing forms which sweep out from the corners.


Carlo Dolci, St John on Patmos, detail of hydras at corner of frame

The carved hydras echo the hydra with seven heads painted in the background of the painting, which follows the description in the Book of Revelation by John the Evangelist; this confirms the close connection between picture and frame. The date 1656 is inscribed on the reverse, and the signature can be seen at the top left of the copper plate. The carver may very well be the same craftsman who produced the frame for the missing replica on canvas, recorded in the inventory of Giovan Carlo’s account book, as ‘a large painting with St. John Evangelist by Carlo Dolci with frame by Cosimo Fanciullacci’[9].


Pietro Tacca (attrib.; 1577-1640), a pair of dragons, bronze, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence

Whoever he was, the carver might have seen the bronze dragons attributed to Pietro Tacca, now in storage in the Bargello.


Pietro Tacca (1577-1640) & assistants, fountain, 1629, in Piazza della SS Annunziata, Florence

Tacca’s fame rests principally on the pair of fountains in Piazza della SS. Annunziata: each one is crested by two monstrous tritons with serrated crests on their heads, coiled shells for ears and fan-shaped whiskers, and entwined serpents’ tails which link the monsters together. The basins are also made of strange fish with sharp pointed fins, whilst slimy living creatures arise from the seabed and gaze at the tritons above, as water flows from their mouths into the basins. Jessica Mack Andrik, in her book on Pietro Tacca[10], reveals the importance of these two fountains as a source of inspiration for the Auricular style, and stresses the sculptural quality of the soft and malleable bodies – not unlike shellless molluscs – from which figurative, constantly-changing motifs emerge. In an essay on the Auricular style, Johan ter Molen[11] describes it as a zoömorphic mass in ferment, containing limbs which are like animated beings of indefinite form. The bones, nerves and muscles of dolphins, marine creatures, and molluscs are reassembled into fantastic compositions, and the various figurative elements merge into each other seamlessly, in a continual process of regeneration and growth.


Titian (fl. c.1506-d.1576), Portrait of Bishop Ludovico Beccadelli, 1552, canvas 117 x 97 cm., frame 135 x 156 cm., Galleria degli Uffizi


Titian, Ludovico Beccadelli, detail of side of frame

Titian’s portrait of Beccadelli has a frame which was probably made for it after its acquisition by Leopoldo in 1653. It is decorated with large, elaborate fish: the heads have bulging eyes, dilated gills, a fine web of scales, and the dorsal fins lined with nodules curving along the sides of the frame.


Dosso Dossi (c.1490-1542), Rest on the flight into Egypt, 1520, panel 52 x 43 cm., frame 72 x 63 cm., Galleria degli Uffizi

Another leitmotif of the Medici frames is the dolphin, symbol of protection, wisdom and caution in the iconography of the Medici family; it appears, notably, on the frame of Dosso Dossi’s Rest on the flight into Egypt, where paired fish-like forms curl along the profile, along with other marine elements. This frame was probably made by the carver Giovanni Magni, whose name is also connected with the craft of furniture carving[12].


Franciabigio (Francesco dio Cristofano; c.1484-1520) The calumny of Apelles, 1513-14, panel 37 x 48 cm.; frame 73 x 82 cm, Palazzo Pitti

The calumny of Apelles by Franciabigio has a broad frame similarly carved with dolphin tails, with gilded scaley bodies curving around the sides and flanking paired volutes in the centres, which are surmounted by heads with deep eye sockets. This painting formerly belonged to Don Antonio de’ Medici, but was moved from the Casino di San Marco to Ferdinand II’s collection in 1666, at which point this frame was most probably put on the painting.


Giambologna (1529-1608), owl, bronze, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence

The heads, which look rather like those of owls, may have been inspired by Giambologna’s sculpture in the Bargello: evidence of his continuing influence on the decorative arts of the 17th century[13].


Jacopo Bassano (1515-92), Adam & Eve, 1562, canvas 45.2 x 76.3 cm., frame 112 x 90 cm., Galleria Palatina, Florence

The frame of Jacopo Bassano’s Adam & Eve was probably made when the painting was bought by Leopoldo in 1654; the centres feature bucrania – a motif loved even by Michelangelo.


Cesare Gennari (1637-88), Holy Family, 1674, canvas 57 x 71 cm., frame 100 x 120 cm., Galleria Palatina, Florence

The frame of The Holy Family by Cesare Gennari has volutes formed by projecting cornucopia (symbols of generosity and charity) intertwined with acanthus leaves; the frieze is grasped in the corners by leafyl volutes like crabs’ claws, and in the centres by horned masks. It is contemporary to the painting, which was given as a present to Leopoldo by the artist in 1674. The framemaker could have been Carlo Galestruzzi, who was cited in Leopoldo’s patrimonial inventory as a maker of cornucopiae[14].


Jacopo Vignali (1592-1664), St Francis in ectsasy, c.1620, oil on copper, 29 x 28 cm.; frame 48 x 38 cm.,Galleria Palatina, Florence

The development and evolution of the Auricular style is emphasized by the frame of St Francis by Jacopo Vignali. The smooth oval sight with broad ogee profile is clasped by four volutes engraved with trefoils at the centres of the sides : these engage with zoömorphic heads from which pairs of stylized acanthus leaves extend, culminating in fans of palmettes sloping towards the wall. The frame (c.1675) may be one of the finest works of the Sienese carver, Antonio Montini, who is mentioned in Cardinal Leopoldo’s patrimonial inventory[15]; his use of pierced work throughout the surface of the frame anticipates by half a century the lightness of the Rococo style. Leopoldo died in 1675 and his collection was joined to that of his successors, so that we can still appreciate today both paintings and frames, which testify to his sophisticated choices and to the greatness of his legacy. His predilection for animal and vegetal decoration would last for many centuries, as can be seen in 19th century furniture; it would also diffuse throughout Europe.


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 her publications here.

She lives and works in Florence.


[1] Pirro Ligorio in Scritti d’arte del Cinquecento a cura di P.Barocchi.II, Milano–Napoli 197, p.1435

[2] Giorgio Vasari, Le Vite…. , Milanesi ed.1878-85, VII, p.193

[3] N. Dacos, La decouverte de la Domus Aurea et la formation des grotesques à la Renaissance, London, 1969

[4] Drawing (pen-&-ink), 200 x140 mm., Orn.184 GDSU, see Master Drawings, 1966, p.172

[5] Drawing (pen, watercolour & pencil), named ‘Perin del Vaga’. Orn. 407 GDSU; reattributed to Pellegrino Tibaldi by F. Davidson, in ‘Mostra dei disegni di Perin del Vaga e la sua cerchia’, Florence, GDSU, 1966

[6] See M. Mosco, Medici Frames, Firenze, 2007, p. 44

[7] Andrea di Michelangelo Ferrucci, born in Florence in 1559, pupil of the sculptor Valerio Cioli, with whom he worked on the façade of the Palazzo dei Visacci; and in 1612 produced the small fountain known as the Fonticina, in a room of the Palazzo Pitti (Museo degli Argenti); he also sculpted two angels for the church of Ognissanti, and a small Eros with a swan for the Artichoke Fountain in the Boboli Gardens. See S. Bellesi, Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani

[8] See M. Mosco, Medici Frames, nr.25, p.154

[9] Ibid.,, p.114. See also Carlo Dolci by S. Bellesi & A.Bisceglia, Florence, 2015, catalogue of the exhibition, p.244

[10] J. Mack Andrik, Pietro Tacca, Hofbildahauer der Medici (1577-1640), Bamberg, 2005

[11] J. Ter Molen, ‘The Auricular style’ in The history of decorative arts, vol. 2, NewYork, London, Paris, 1996, pp.26-91

[12] See the base for sculpture with dolphin tails sculpted by Giovanni Magni, now in the Galleria Palatina: published by E. Colle, I mobili di Palazzo Pitti: il periodo dei Medici, 1537-1737, Firenze, 1997, pp.244-45

[13] See M. Mosco, pp.110-12

[14] Ibid., p.168

[15] Ibid., p.176