Bottega d’arte Maselli

the house of gilded frames

We moved to San Lorenzo neighbourhood eight years ago. In this corner of Florence we found a very vibrant community centred around the market and the Basilica. In all these years we became friends with our baker, with the pharmacist, with the music store Dischi Fenice, with the sellers from the San Lorenzo Market and, obviously, with Bruno, the sweet dog that belongs to the owners of the “Civaiolo” store in Via Taddea. In the neighbourhood we also met numerous artisans who run their workshops here. One of them is the Bottega d’arte Maselli, opened in 1955, and specialized today in the artisan production of gilded frames and in art restoration.

Bottega d'arte Maselli
Bottega d’arte Maselli in via de’ Ginori in Florence.

The activity of Maselli’s workshop is deeply rooted in the artisan tradition of Florence. The artisan production of wooden gilded frames developed here already during the Middle Ages, together with the other artistic activities, as these of painters and sculptors. In the past, hundreds of artisan workshops were active in the city guaranteeing Florence richness and prestige.

The Bottega d’arte Maselli was established by Paolo Maselli as a shop with prints and frames. Paolo’s son, Gabriele, started to work at the workshop at the age of 14 and he immediately got captivated by the art of frame decoration. Thus, his father gave him a possibility to extend the activity of the workshop and to focus on what would become Maselli’s profession – the frame making. Gabriele Maselli became a maestro of artisan production of gilded frames. Nowadays the workshop is run by Gabriele and by his son Tommaso, so in this family the passion for carved frames is handed down for three generations

Gabriele e Tommaso Maselli
Gabriele and Tommaso Maselli in their workshop.

Few days ago I visited Maselli’s worshop and I had a chat with Tommaso. I wanted to discover all the secrets of their craft. Before we meet the protagonists of this story, let us discover how a manually carved frame is made. This is how Tommaso described the making of these masterpieces:

Tommaso Maselli: Here in the workshop each of us has a different task. My father is responsible for the decoration of the frames. You can see here all the pigments and the glazes. We also have a little carpentry in the corner.

I am the one who carves the frames. When you start to work on a carved frame, you begin with a model, carved on a smaller piece of the wood. Only when you’re happy with your project, you pass on a proper wooden profile prepared for the frame. First, you draw the pattern you want to carve on the wood and you start the first, rough carving. Then, finally, you can focus on the finishing touches. Who wants to learn this craft, starts with soft wood, like geloton. It’s the best type of wood for the beginners. When you acquire more experience, you can pass on harder woods, like limewood. An experienced carver can work in all types of wood, even the hardest ones, like walnut.

Tommaso Maselli carving a frame.

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Once you’re done with the carving, you cover the frame with a layer of rabbit glue. The glue gives consistency to the wood and prepares it for the next stop, which is the application of the gesso coat. Today we apply two or three layers of gesso on each frame. In the past the artisans could apply up to eight layers of gesso, because the gesso was ground manually, directly at the workshop. Therefore, these masters could play with the thickness of their gesso. First thicker layers of gesso were applied, and then they were covered with the thinner ones. Today we buy our gesso already ground and, as it is ground mechanically, we cannot differentiate the layers. This is why we apply two or three of them.

When the gesso is dry, we apply the clay bole. The bole is a mineral, a natural compound of halloysite and iron oxide, reddish in colour and greasy to the touch. The clay bole is used as adhesive layer before the gilding of non-metallic objects. The bole used before the gilding is the red one or the orange one, as it confers warmth and brightness to the gold.

When you work on a frame you have to have a clear vision of the result you want to obtain from the very beginning. During every step you have to already think about the next ones. For example, your carving cannot be too flat, because when you then cover it with the gesso, you risk to flatten it all together. Every decision you take during every single step, has an impact on the final result. You have to be extremely careful and pay great attention to every movement of your hand.

Once you covered the frame with the clay bole, you can  start the gilding. In our workshop we use the 24-carat gold leaf. After the gilding, the gold can be burnished with the agate stone.

The burnishing of the frame.

The techniques we use in our workshop are very similar to the technologies of the past. However, our work today is strongly influenced by the materials we use, which, obviously, changed since the Renaissance. For example, as I explained before, today we buy our gesso already ground, which does not allow us to play with the thickness of the various layers of the gesso coat. The same happens with the gold we use. In the past the gold leaf was prepared by an artisan, called the goldbeater. As it was made manually, it was possible to work with thinner or thicker gold leaves. In Florence they used to make the gold leaves out of the local coin, the florin. The goldbeaters used to make up to 130-140 gold leaves out of a single coin. Today the gold leaves we use are very thin, because they are made mechanically.  When the gold is thicker, it is brighter and shinier. The final effect is slightly different.

Una cornice d'orata
The burnishing renders the gold bright and shiny.

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Gabriele and Tommaso Maselli

It is time to get to know Tommaso better. This young man started his work at the workshop at a very young age. While I am walking through the rooms of their laboratory, on the walls I see the pictures of Tommaso with his grandfather and his father, taken in the workshop when the boy was just three years old. With the passing of time, the boy was always more deeply engaged with the workshop. Just like during the Renaissance, Tommaso started his work at the bottega from the simple tasks and gradually he engaged in always more complex activities. His very first work was to burnish the head of a gilded angel.

As Tommaso was getting more directly engaged in the activities of the workshop, with time he became particularly fascinated by the art of carving. Therefore, he started to study carving with the master collaborating with his father Gabriele and with time he specialized in this particular craft. Tommaso had the precious opportunity to turn his passion into a profession. Today, besides his work at the workshop, Tommaso studies painting and wood restoration at the prestigious Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, the most important restoration institute, that forms young restorers and specialists in art conservation. My meeting with Tommaso was truly inspiring. It does not happen often to meet young men full of passion and determination.

Tommaso grew up under the guidance of his father, maestro Gabriele Maselli. Gabriele Maselli is president of the Association of Historical Enterprises in Florence (Esercizi Storici Fiorentini) and founder of the Sacred Art School.

Una piccola cornice intagliata.
A small carved frame.

Bottega d’arte Maselli

Maselli’s workshop preserves and hands down a tradition deeply rooted in the history and culture of Florence. Here already during the 13th century carpenters and frame carvers worked together with painters at the decoration of magnificent frames for the polyptychs painted by Bernardo Daddi, Giotto, Agnolo Gaddi and the other Florentine masters. In the following centuries, when the wealthy Florentine families started to create their art collections, the frame market flourished. Every collector used to decorated the paintings from his collection with a particular, personalized type of frame. When a painting reached a collection, the first thing to be done was to take away its frame and to make a new one according to the style of the owner. Each family used a different type of carved gilded frames.

Today everything is different. Not everybody see and appreciated the difference between a handmade frame and a mechanically-made one. The artisan products are rare, but fortunately the profession of an artisan frame maker did not disappear. Nowadays their products are bought by a different type of clients. Since a few years these objects are sought after by interior designers, who use these richly decorated frames in Baroque and Renaissance style inside extremely modern interiors.

I pigmenti nella bottega d'Arte Maselli
The pigments used for the preparation of colours.

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Today this unique profession is threated not that much by the evolution of our market as by the lack of generational change. Unfortunately, the young generations,the children who grew up in the artisan families, rarely follow the footsteps of their parents. The Italian State and the City of Florence do not have any strategic plan of relaunch of these local historical artisan traditions. It happens in a city with an economy based on artisan production since 1200…

The excellence of Maselli’s frames is also recognized by the most important museums of Florence. One of their creations decorates Rubens’ painting in the Niobe’s room at the Uffizi Gallery. The museum had to order the new frame for this masterpiece, because both the frame and the work of art were damaged in the via dei Georgofili bombing, a terrorist attack carried out by the Sicilian mafia Cosa nostra in 1993. Maselli reproduced the frame and with their art they helped to heal one of the deepest wounds in the recent history of Florence.  

Una cornice antica decorata a sgrafitto
An antique frame waiting in the workshop for the restoration.

The Florentine craftsmanship constitutes one of the most important aspects of the sociocultural fabric of the city. If you want to understand the history and the art of Florence, it is not enough to visit the museums. You have to visit as well the workshops of the Florentine artisans and breathe their atmosphere, observe the manual crafts, handed down with passion for centuries.

If you visit San Lorenzo neighbourhood in Florence, pay a visit to the Bottega d’arte Maselli, explore Viviani’s leather shop and spend some time at the Mercato Centrale. This is where you can understand the true spirit of this unique area!

Bottega d’Arte Maselli
via de’ Ginori, 51r
039 055 282 142
Mondays 3:30 pm – 8:00 pm
From Tuesdays until Saturdays 9:00 am – 1:00 pm and 3:30 pm – 8:00 pm