It is well known that one of the most amazing parts of the Detroit Institute of Arts is its European painting collection. What’s less well known is that the frames of those paintings are extraordinary in themselves; handcrafted objects, sometimes hundreds of years old, and the DIA has one of the finest frame collections in the world.
Why is that important? I must admit, when I started to work in the museum 15 years ago, I did not pay much attention to frames. I sort of thought that frames are just frames, there to enclose the artwork. I was wrong, and a personal experience here at the DIA changed my mind.
The DIA is fortunate to have a masterpiece by Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini in our collection; a Madonna and Child, painted in 1509. This particular Bellini is important for several reasons. It was commissioned by the Mocenigo—a powerful Venetian family who were passionate supporters of the arts and artists, and who amassed one of the most refined art collections of that time. Bellini, then at the height of his career, took a familiar subject and created a very innovative composition, with the drapery across the middle ground in a landscape setting, putting emphasis on the figures in the foreground. The serenity of the figures and the subtle light and warm colors make this work a mesmerizing achievement in Bellini’s career.
In 2008, we loaned this masterpiece to the Italian government for a monumental exhibition dedicated to Bellini in the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome. As is typical in preparing an artwork for travel, we took the painting out of its frame for inspection. The painting was in good shape; the frame was another story. There was extensive insect damage from long before the work arrived at the DIA and the interior looked like Swiss cheese; full of holes and on the verge of collapse. Our excellent conservation team made a short-term and a long-term decision: first, fabricate a simple, stable wooden frame so the painting could be shipped, and second, develop a restoration plan to save the magnificent original.
While the Bellini travelled to Rome, I sat in the conservation department looking at the damaged frame, probably made in the 16th century, admiring the ornate carving and overall beauty. When we realized the cost of restoration though, I was overwhelmed. We just could not afford it. Those were difficult times for the DIA, and the museum had other priorities. After our Bellini came back, we re-installed it using the new travel frame. In the years since, as I walked through the galleries, I would silently ask our Bellini for forgiveness that we could not restore its magnificent frame. But this experience had an unexpected and welcome outcome; it encouraged me to pay attention to many other frames in the DIA’s collection and understand the unique quality, depth, and breadth of our European frame collection.
Recently and with the support of generous donors John Peters and Christine Consales, the museum was able to review, then act on, the Bellini frame restoration plan! Over the past nine months, our conservators have worked diligently to stabilize the interior and clean, retouch, and regild its surface. James Storm, the DIA’s Mount Designer/ Fabricator and Frame Specialist, with the help of the DIA’s former frame conservator Tom Dickinson, and Ellen Hanspach-Bernal, DIA’s Paintings Conservator, dedicated many hours of expert and thoughtful work to bring the frame back to life. What a phenomenal effort! I am very grateful to all of them, as well as the many other individuals in the conservation department who helped make this project a success.
It is impressive to see our Bellini Madonna and Child back in the galleries, glowing in its original frame. When I stood in front of the artwork in early June, the last 15 years of DIA history went through my mind. It has been a time like no other for the museum. Whatever the vicissitudes of life are, our amazing teams continue to create experiences that help each visitor find personal meaning in art and with each other. Next time you are at the DIA, please take a look at the Bellini frame. It is simply an uplifting experience. A profound thank you to the DIA team for loving the collection, and serving our visitors at the highest level.
GIF courtesy of Aaron Steele, Imaging Specialist, DIA Conservation Dept.