Set in stone: monumental altar frames in Renaissance Florence
In 1864 the V&A (then the South Kensington Museum) purchased a large marble altar frame from a dealer in Florence. The quality of the frame identifies it as the product of a leading Florentine sculpture workshop, possibly that of Giuliano da Sangallo at the end of the fifteenth century. Its dimensions indicate that it would have housed a large altarpiece in one of the city's churches. The frame's provenance remains obscure, but this article offers the first critical evaluation of the object based on first-hand examination. Comparisons with similar frames in Florentine churches (surviving and documented) suggest that the V&A frame can be identified as an example of a particular category of monumental altar that was popular in the city in the decades around 1500. This type combined painted panel altarpieces with sculpture, integrating both within impressive architectural superstructures comprising lateral columns, elaborate entablatures, and arched lunettes. Identifiable examples housed altarpieces by Perugino, Lorenzo di Credi, Piero di Cosimo, and Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, each juxtaposed with tin-glazed terracotta reliefs by the Della Robbia shop. The popularity of these arched frames was relatively short-lived, but their brief heyday provides important evidence for the gathering appreciation of aesthetic integration, formal order and spatial symmetry within Italian church interiors in the years around 1500.
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