Mirror Frame thumbnail 1
Mirror Frame thumbnail 2
Not currently on display at the V&A

Mirror Frame

1490-1520 (made)
Place of origin

This frame has been romantically associated with the notorious Lucrezia Borgia (1480–1519), but it bears a flaming grenade, the personal emblem of her husband, Alfonso d’Este (1486–1534), 3rd Duke of Ferrara. The frame would have housed either a mirror or a devotional image, as suggested by the moralising theme of the carving. The various animals symbolise virtue and vice, and the ‘Y’ at the bottom signifies the choice between good and evil. The maker remains unknown, but the frame could have come from the ducal workshops of Ferrara in the north Italian state of Emilia-Romagna, a city famous for its patronage of artists like Cosmè Turo (1430–1495) and Antonio Pisanello (about 1395–1455).

Object details

Object type
Materials and techniques
Walnut, carved and partly gilt
Brief description
Mirror frame, Italian, Ferrara, c1490-1505
Physical description
Carved walnut and partially water gilded tondo, with the emblem of Alfonso d'Este, 3rd Duke of Ferrara (1486-1534).

Round, gently convex carved walnut mirror frame with gilt egg and dart ovolo sight edge moulding, and gilt leaf and dart ovolo back edge moulding. The frame is carved in an acanthus scroll pattern, interspersed with allegorical figures and animals holding gilt letters that make up the words "bonum" (good) on the left side and 'malum' (evil) on the right side.

At the bottom is a gilt letter 'Y', the Pythagorean symbol for the choice between a life of virtue and vice, in which a naked boy reclines in front of and partly obscuring a shield. To his left, ascending on the side of virtue, is a cornucopia held by a young woman from which spring allegorical figures and animals holding gilt letters that spell the word BONUM (good): dragon for vigilance(?) (B), Eagle with a hare in its talons for power(?) (O), unicorn for chastity (N), lion for fortitude (O), angel for salvation (M). To the right of the Y is a lustful goat with a cornucopia and allegorical animals holding gilded letters that spell the word MALUM (evil): boar for gluttony or lust (M), porcupine for invincibility or ferocity (A), monkey for lust or heresy (L), wolf for fierce, cunning and greedy (V), skeleton for death (M). Between the angel and the skeleton is a gilt flaming grenade, the personal emblem of Alfonso d'Este, 3rd Duke of Ferrara (1486 - 1534).

The mirror is made of one piece of wood. It was apparently face-plate turned: what is now the back of the mirror would have been cut first to its dished form (with turner's marks left visible), then reversed on the lathe to turn the convex profile of the front, including the sight and back edge mouldings. The central aperture would presumably have been drilled and chiselled out before the front carving was carried out with a series of small chisels, gouges and punches, to avoid the risk of undue damage to the carving. The space between both edges has been carved in relief, with some undercutting which occasionally runs right underneath plant stems or the bones of the skeleton for example. The background surface is consistently and closely punched, giving almost a granular effect.

Decorative Finish
The frame is partially gilded. There are two decorative schemes. The most recent gilding is oil gilding on a yellow mordant over a white ground and is found on the egg and dart sight edge, leaf and dart outer edge, lettering and flaming grenade. An earlier water gilded scheme on red bole over a thin, white ground can be seen, visible on the outer leaf moulding below the most recent oil gilded scheme.

Hanging Device
At the top there is pale area in the shape of an inverted V where a hanging device, possibly a wrought metal crossover strap, held with nails with a loop at the top. There are three screw holes, bored isosceles triangle fashion, and two screw holes at the extremities of the imprint of a 'V' shaped bracket at the top of the mirror; two pairs of screw holes at the PL side and one pair at the PR side of the mirror.

The turner's marks can just be seen on the edges of the gilt borders and clearly so on the back of the mirror. The back is dished, with a flat outer rim 4.2. cm wide. There are three main patches of bastard graining (the growth rings orientated between 30 degrees and 60 degrees to the surface) in the dished area, one below and another to the proper right hand side of the inner ring, and one close to the flattened outer rim, on the proper left hand side.

Later interventions and damage
Despite the appearance of being in good condition, the front has numerous worm holes: the pig's and porcupine's snouts are partly eaten away, and the monkey's cheek and upper lip have been replaced with filler. An old split runs across the dished surface of the back, roughly behind the monkey. The present glass mirror and its wooden support are likely to be Museum additions.
  • Diameter: 49cm
  • Maximum thickness: 6.6cm
LC November 2010. Sight Size: H: 150mm; Rebate: W: 8mm D: 22mm; Object Accommodation Size: 166mm Taken from Powell and Allen (2010)
Production typeUnique
Marks and inscriptions
670 (Inscribed in black ink on a white label pasted on the back of the frame)
Gallery label
  • MIRROR. Walnut, carved with emblems of the good and evil life and the device of Alphonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. The letter Y below is a Pythagorean symbol of life's course and the dividing ways that lead, on one side, to MALUM and, on the other, to BONUM. ITALIAN; early 16th century. 7694-1861(Pre-2006)
  • Frame for a mirror About 1502–19 Italy (Ferrara) Possibly made in the workshops of the Palazzo Ducale Walnut, carved and partially water-gilded With the emblem of Alfonso I d’Este, 3rd Duke of Ferrara Traditionally associated with Lucrezia Borgia (married Alfonso 1502, died 1519) Museum no. 7694-1861 The process of making this exceptional frame began with the drawing of detailed designs. The block was lathe-turned on both sides, creating the basic frame profile, and the centre hole cut. Only then could the surface carving begin. The gilded letters carried by the symbolic animals spell the words BONUM (good) and MALUM (evil).(01/12/2012)
Object history
Bought, with a gilt-bronze relief (V&A 7694: A-1861) from the Managers of the Guarantee Fund for purchasing the Collection of Monsieur Soulages of Toulouse for £150.

Lent to GLORIA DELL’ARTE: a renaissance perspective, an exhibition at Philbrook, Art center, Tulsa, Oklahoma, October 28th, 1979- January 27th, 1980

Although traditionally linked with Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519), this frame is emblazoned with the flaming grenade, the personal emblem of her husband, Alfonso d'Este (1486-1534). It formed part of the collections of Jules Soulages (died ca. 1857), a lawyer from Toulouse, which were bought by subscription and exhibited at the Museum of Ornamental Art, London, between December 1856 and January 1857. It was item 670 in the exhibition catalogue and described as a "circular Metallic Mirror, in carved walnut-wood frame. Italian – date, second half of fifteenth century … The ornamentation forms a continued frieze of the richest and most elaborate carving ...M. Soulages states that this mirror was reputed to have been the property of the celebrated Lucrezia Borgia, and that the flaming grenado … was her device".

Despite initial reluctance, the Government acquired the collection from the subscribers piecemeal, including this item which was purchased for £150 in 1861. At that time, the frame came with a late 15th gilt bronze disk (7964A-1861) of a Madonna with child. This frame probably held a mirror.

Conclusions and Observations (taken from Powell and Allen 2010)
An earlier water gilded scheme has been observed. Had the gilded areas on the frame been originally water gilded they would have appeared much brighter than they do today resulting in a different balance of the ornament. It is further possible that some elements such as the lettering were highlighted through burnishing. It is not possible to fully establish this possibility as the original surface is largely concealed by the present oil gilded scheme.

Historical significance: This item presumably once belonged to Alfonso I d' Este (reigned 1505 - 1534) Duke of Ferrara, who was chiefly remembered for his military prowess. Nevertheless, Alfonso had his own workshop where he practiced turning, then very much regarded as a princely hobby, with the help of two woodworkers, Maestro Marocho and Maestro Zohan da Ricobon. The circular moulding and cutting on the back of the frame indicate the use of the lathe, and Alfonso I may conceivably have had a hand in the turning if not the carving. Although there survive plenty of documents connected with furniture makers based in Ferrara, almost none of the pieces they made have actually survived. The maker of this frame remains unknown, but the personal emblem indicates the owner. If this frame was made in Ferrara - which seems likely enough - then it is an almost unique survival, revealing the most interesting blend between classical moulding and folliate ornament and late gothic model book figures and animals.

The precise dating of the frame is uncertain. A dating 1502-19 was followed in 1996 by the author of the entry in Western Furniture 1350 to the Present Day (see references), these being the dates of Alfonso's marriage to Lucrezia Borgia, with whom the frame had traditionally been associated. Shepherd (see references) argues that the mirror was a gift from Ercole d'Este (1431-1505) to his son Alfonso, most likely in the mid-1490s, but sometime between the late 1480s and the late 1490s or possibly to mark the latter's marriage in 1502. On that basis, a range c1490-1505 (the date of Ercole's death) is suggested here.
Historical context
This item could have been used as a mirror or a frame for a small religious painting or ancona, most likely of a Madonna and child or crucifix. Such items were frequently found in inventories, usually placed in more intimate rooms such as the bedchamber. The glass for mirrors was often imported from Venice, although the ducal workshops of Ferrara employed a mirror-glass maker by the name of Lazarus. They would have been regarded as an expensive luxury, more often used by the lady of the house than her husband. Given the somewhat moralizing theme of the decoration, the choice between good (bonum) over evil (malum) and the allegorical beasts that go with it, this frame may well have originally gone with a small religious painting.

Comparable frames:
Carved mirror frame, Tuscan early 16th century; H:79cm W:67cm
Michel Angelo Guggenheim, Le cornici italiane dalle metà del secolo XVo allo scorcio del XVIo., Milan: U. Hoepli, 1897, plate 60, recorded as Prince of Liechtenstein collection
Subjects depicted
This frame has been romantically associated with the notorious Lucrezia Borgia (1480–1519), but it bears a flaming grenade, the personal emblem of her husband, Alfonso d’Este (1486–1534), 3rd Duke of Ferrara. The frame would have housed either a mirror or a devotional image, as suggested by the moralising theme of the carving. The various animals symbolise virtue and vice, and the ‘Y’ at the bottom signifies the choice between good and evil. The maker remains unknown, but the frame could have come from the ducal workshops of Ferrara in the north Italian state of Emilia-Romagna, a city famous for its patronage of artists like Cosmè Turo (1430–1495) and Antonio Pisanello (about 1395–1455).
Associated object
7694A-1861 (Object)
Bibliographic references
  • Wilk, Christopher, ed. . Western Furniture 1350 to the Present Day. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1996. 230p., ill. ISBN 085667463X.
  • Manni, Graziano: Mobili in Emilia (Modena, Artioli Editore, 1986), pp. 95 - 120.
  • J.Hungerford Pollen, Ancient and Modern Furniture (London, HMSO, 1874), pp. 185 - 187.
  • P.K.Thornton, The Italian Renaissance Interior, 1400 - 1600 (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1991), pp. 261 - 268.
  • ROWE, Eleanor (ed.), Wood carvings from the South Kensington Museum. Folio IV. Domestic Furniture (London 1889), pl. LXXXV
  • Christine Powell and Zoë Allen, Italian Renaissance Frames at the V & A - A Technical Study. (Elsevier Ltd. in association with the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2010), no. 20
  • Guggenheim, M. Le cornici Italiane dalla metà del secolo XV allo scorcio del XVI.; con breve testo riassuntivo intorno alla storia ed all'importanza delle cornice. Milano: U.Hoepli, 1897. plate, 65.
  • Tim Shephard Archives, Collections and Curatorship A Mirror for Princes: The Ferrarese Mirror Frame in the V&A and the Instruction of Heirs Journal of Design History Vol. 26 No. 1, pp.104-114 http://web.archive.org/web/20221208150628/https://academic.oup.com/jdh/article-abstract/26/1/104/345175?redirectedFrom=PDF&login=false
  • GLORIA DELL’ARTE: a renaissance perspective, an exhibition at Philbrook, Art center, Tulsa, Oklahoma, October 28th, 1979- January 27th, 1980 (Oklahoma, 1979), cat. No. 80
  • Victoria & Albert Museum: Fifty Masterpieces of Woodwork (London, 1955), no. 14. A Walnut Mirror Frame. This Italian mirror frame, made to hold one of the small plates of burnished metal used at the Renaissance for this purpose and dating from about 1500, is of walnut wood, exquisitely carved, and displays an elaborate symbolism. From the so-called Pythagorean letter, the Y, Upsilon in Greek, which branches out like the course of life in two ways or roads, springs a garland of leaves and flowers. On its right-hand side, amid the foliage, are the gilded letters B.O.N.U.M. (Good), with various animals, including a unicorn and a lion, representing virtues, and an angel above. On its left-hand side are the letters M.A.L.U.M. (Evil), and birds and animals emblamatic of the vices (A hog, a porcupine, a monkey and a wolf) with Death, the Wages of Sin, as a skeleton on the top. Between the angel and the figure of Death is carved a flaming grenade, a badge of the house of Este; and it has been supposed that the mirror may have been made for Lucrezia Borgia, wife of Alfonzo d’Este I, 3rd Duke of Ferrara, whom she married in 1501. The Palace workshops in ‘the little rooms over the piazza’ (stanzette piccolo sopra la piazza) Were used also by the Duke and his craftsmen (uomini virtuosi) for making cabinets (scrigni), musical instruments (strumenti di musica), intarsia (opera tassallate) as well as work in wood and marble, sometimes with his own hands (delle sue mani e dei suoi allievi). These circumstances suggest that this frame was made in the Duke’s workshop. It was purchased in 1861 with the Soulages Collection. Italian; early sixteenth century. Diam. 19 in., D. 3 in.
  • Vincenzo Farinella, Alfonso I D'Este: Le immagini e il potere (Milan, 2014), p.69, figs. 16-17 Suggests that the frame is likely to have been beyond the carving abilities of Alonso himself, and might have been carved by Bernardino da Venezia "intagliadore" or Stefano di Donna Bona (d.1504-06). Bernardino worked for and received payments from Alfonso from 31 July 1494; supplied an altar retable to Ercole I in 1494, and another to Alfonso in 1496; in 1502 he supplied an ornate crib to Lucrezia Borgia and worked on the Duchess' new apartment 1505-06; in 1508 he supplied another monumental crib for the expected male heir; in 1519 he was still active in supplying boiseries for the room of Lucrezia in Palazzo Ducale. In 1494 Stefano di Donna Bona carved 'istorie cum animali', painted by Mantegna, the central column of a field tent given by Ercole I to Francois I; in January 1502 he was paid for unspecified work, probably wedding gifts, associated with the wedding of Alfonso and Lucrezia. However, Farinella inclines to a dating 1510-20 on the basis of the apparent influence of reliefs by Antonio Lombardo.
  • Exhibition catalogue entry by Paolo Parmiggiani: Orlando Furioso 500 anni: cosa vedeva Ariosto quando chiundeva gli occhi - Ferrara, Palazzo dei Diamanti 24/9/16 - 8/1/2017 (Ferrara, 2016), pp. 36-7 Relates mirror design and the theme of a reflective surface revealing truth to the observer, to the lines from Orlando Furioso(X.58-59), where Ruggiero sees the jewelled walls of the castle of Logistilla (a clear allusion to the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara): "Never before or since has mortal eye beheld a mightier nor a more beautiful castle. Its walls could not have been more precious had they been made of diamond or garnet. Jewels such as those to be found in it are never spoken of here below: whoever would hear tell of them needs must make the journey there himself—I don't believe that he would come across them anywhere else, except perhaps in Paradise. What in particular gives these jewels their supremacy over every other is this: on looking at them, a man sees right into his own soul; he sees there reflected his vices and virtues, so that he no longer believes in the compliments he is paid, nor does he heed blame when he is charged unfairly. Looking into these bright mirrors, he discovers himself, and learns wisdom."
  • Baker, Malcolm, and Brenda Richardson (eds.), A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London: V&A Publications, 1999.
Accession number

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Record createdJanuary 31, 2000
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