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  • Writer's pictureRadomir Kobryn-Coletti

The Cartouche: A History of the Motif from Ancient Times to Now

Cartouche on façade of the Alexis Palace, St. Petersburg.
Cartouche on façade of the Alexis Palace, St. Petersburg.

A cartouche is an architectural and artistic design motif, usually recognized as an enclosed shape with ornamented sides or scrolls. From Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome to the Middle Ages and continuing today, the idea and symbology of the ‘cartouche’, being a decorated border around important text or symbols, have been utilized in various forms through out the history of Architecture, Map-making and Design. The term “cartouche” is derived from the French word for “cartridge,” which refers to the oblong or oval shape of the decorative element. The French word is borrowed from Italian, ‘cartuccia’ and previously from carta, in Latin charta, from Ancient Greek χάρτης (khártēs) which means ‘map’, or ‘paper’. The cartouche has been used in various Classical Architectural styles, including Baroque, Rococo, Beaux-Arts and Neo-Classical. It has often been employed as a decorative frame for inscriptions, coats of arms, maps and on the entrances to buildings.

The Cartouche of Ancient Egypt

The Ancient Egyptian cartouche was a flattened oval shape used to highlight the names of royalty in Hieroglyphs. Cartouches were only used by Pharaohs. The hieroglyphics inside the cartouche would signify the prenomen (Throne name) and nomen (birth name) of a Pharaoh, forming a kind of heraldic motif expressing the ruler’s dual nature as both human and divine. Conversely, the enclosure of a God’s or Goddess’s name in a cartouche served to render the deity more accessible to the human sphere. The cartouche could occur as a simple decorative component. When shown independently, it took on an iconic significance and replaced the king’s, or more rarely, the queen’s, anthropomorphic image, enabling him or her to be venerated as a divine entity. The oval surrounding their name was meant to protect them from evil spirits in life and after death. The Egyptian cartouche was therefore a symbol representing good luck and protection from evil.

Cartouche of Ramses II, wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt (Hedjet)

Cartouches in Ancient Egypt were hieroglyphics with an oval loop of rope with the ends bound together that spell out the name of a king or queen. Above, Ramses II, wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt (Hedjet), with cartouches seen on the left and right.

Below, birth and throne cartouches of Pharaoh Seti I, from KV17 at the Valley of the Kings, Egypt. Neues Museum, Berlin.

birth and throne cartouches of Pharaoh Seti I, from KV17 at the Valley of the Kings, Egypt. Neues Museum, Berlin.

Whilst there is no clear link between the cartouche of the Ancient Egyptians and the cartouche of Classical Architecture that we recognize today, it's important to think about the shared symbolism in the cartouche being an integral symbol and decoration for the demarcation of notable people, families or powerful messages.

Tabula Ansata: The Cartouche of the Ancient Greeks and Romans

The Ancient Greeks and Romans, had a form of their own cartouche as seen below.

ancient roman cartouche tabula ansata at  HORREA EPAGATHIANA ET EPAPHRODITIANA

Above we see a sign above the entranceway of a Roman building. Found at the Ancient site of Ostia Antica, the sign reads “HORREA EPAGATHIANA ET EPAPHRODITIANA”, meaning a “horrea”, which was a type of warehouse store, was owned by two freedmen, whose names were Epagathus and Epaphroditus. In Roman times, this cartouche tablet sign is called a ‘tabula ansata’, meaning a tablet with handles. It shares elements of similarity to the classical cartouche, in that it was a design often placed above the entrances to buildings, monuments and funerary sarcophagi to denote and bring the viewer’s attention to important people or messages.

In Ancient Roman times, the tabula ansata was largely serving as a simple rectangular motif, displaying words in Latin on the frieze, mainly accompanied by basic geometric embellishments on the flanks. Like an Egyptian serekh or cartouche, this type of framework helped to stress the contents of the inscription, as if two big arrows were pointing at it. The wings themselves could be decorated with flowers. Although the wings were usually triangular, they could be semi-circular as well.

Roman tabula ansata cartouche tablets from the sanctuary of Isis and Magna Mater in Mainz.

Roman rectangular cartouche-shaped tablets from the sanctuary of Isis and Magna Mater in Mainz.

The Roman tabula ansata ‘cartouche’ had origins in Ancient Greece around the 7th or 6th century BC, and the design came from wooden tablets (tabula), with the handles (ansata) attached on either end so that when the tablet was being nailed in to a column or temple wall, the rectangular centre wouldn’t be damaged. Whilst it was a Greek invention mainly used for votive (religious) purposes, the Romans truly popularized it to encompass all manner of uses, from shop signs to funerary lids, military parade signs, mosaics and artist signatures.

Ancient Roman cartouche Tabula Ansatae from the Arch of Titus, Rome.

Tabula Ansatae from the Arch of Titus, Rome.

As the tabula ansata developed away from its original wooden form, where the ‘ansa’ (handles) were of practical use, the stone and metal versions used in later years kept the original handle design and became a popular and recognizable motif through out the Roman world, including in the following example from the Ancient city of Cyrene.

Mythraic funeral cartouche Ancient Roman Libya Cyrene

Located about 1km from the Ancient City of Cyrene, in modern day Libya, this funerary sarcophagus lid (photo above) bears a striking resemblance to the cartouche of the 15th century, but once again as with the Egyptian cartouche, there is no proof of a developmental/historical link between the tabula ansata cartouche of Ancient Hellenistic/Roman Period and the strapwork cartouche of later years. However, whilst there is no proof that inspiration was drawn from Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt for the later 'Classical Cartouche', we can see across history, that the importance of decorating and framing a message or sign was a common idea. As written by Sean V. Leatherbury in his article ‘Framing Late Antique Texts as Monuments: The Tabula Ansata between Sculpture and Mosaic’, it was aptly put:

“Whatever the processes through which the tabula grew in popularity, by the fourth century CE the frame had become strongly associated with monumental display. As imagined by late Roman and Late Antique artists (and presumably, by viewers), the tabula functioned as a monumental architectural element in the visual imagination of the period, even in miniaturized forms, as on fifth- and sixth-century ivory consular diptychs, where tabulae displaying dedicatory inscriptions are placed atop columns above portraits of enthroned consuls, creating a kind of imagined triumphal arch.”

The tabula ansata design was so monumental that it was chosen for one of the largest and most iconic statues of today’s world, the Statue of Liberty.

Tabula Ansata of the Statue of Liberty
Tabula Ansata of the Statue of Liberty

Although the tabula ansata design is rare to see today as a version of the cartouche, it can never the less be used as a useful form for street signs, shop fronts or public monuments.

19th century Roman Revival cartouche under a pediment at Hala Traian (train station), Bucharest, Romania.

The Strapwork Cartouche: Beginnings of Classical architecture's famous decoration

In a research paper from Professor Ethan Matt Kavaler, the origins of the cartouche recognized today (as the strapwork cartouche) in classically designed buildings through out the world, are recognized as having their beginnings in the Netherlands and France. This cartouche is more specifically referred to as the 'strapwork cartouche', because the word 'cartouche' has come to encompass all the cartouches of history including those of Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, and therefore can be confusing as they are separate motifs created in time across different cultures. In a paper titled 'Ornament and Systems of Ordering in the Sixteenth-Century Netherlands', Professor Kavaler said:

"The strapwork cartouche, had neither an ancient precedent nor an Italian provenance, but was rather developed by artists in the Netherlands and France in the early modern era. It consisted of interlaced bands that originally resembled the curling edges of leather straps but soon simulated a great variety of materials. As a device, it bestowed weight and power to the text or image it framed and might paradoxically be termed a kind of vernacular classicism."

Further, he went to explain that there were several versions of the cartouche frames from the 15th century. The most significant of those originates in France, at the famous Château de Fontainebleau, in the plaster cartouches of the Galarie Francois I, designs directed by Fiorentino Rosso.

The Cartouches of Fontainebleau

In 1528 Francis I, King of France, decided to replace the Gothic hunting lodge at Fontainebleau, southeast of Paris, with a fitting palace. The heart of the new palace is the Gallery of Francis I, a grand ceremonial space with elegant decoration designed by Rosso Fiorentino. Between 1534 and 1539, Fiorentino Rosso, Francesco Primaticcio, and a team of artists created a programme that was visually and iconographically unprecedented in northern Europe. Rosso was in charge of the paintings, Primaticcio and his assistants executed the stucco caryatids, putti, garlands and other framing motifs. Francesco Sibeco da Carpi, a carpenter, prepared the intricate inlaid, wooden wainscoting in 1539. The entire room in Fontainebleau was completed when Charles V visited in December 1539.

In the following two photos we see incredible work directed by Italian artist Fiorentino Rosso and his strapwork cartouche designs inside the Gallery of Francis I at Fontainebleau. The designs here became so influential that later on, the term 'School of Fontainebleau' or 'Fontainebleau Style' came to denote the rich system of aesthetic design, with the strapwork cartouche being an important part, which soon became copied and inspired all manner of designs from furniture, illustrations, books, tapestry, paintings, enamelled dishes and of course architecture and interior design through out the 16th century and centuries onwards.

Cartouches seen not only in the central oval frame, but also enclosing the letter "F" through out the wall panelling and surrounding the oval frame.

Two enormous cartouche designs on both sides of the door, plus cartouches in the wood panelling and one over the guilt frame at the door entrance.

Origins of the Strapwork Cartouche: Books, Leather Straps or Metals?

Rebacca Zorach in her book Blood, Milk, Ink, Gold: Abundance and Excess in the French Renaissance has suggested the following about the artistic origins of the strapwork cartouche in the Gallery of Francis I at Fontainebleau:

"As I have argued, the leather-like curls of strapwork, one of the hallmarks of the gallery's aesthetic vocabulary, alluded to the edges of the vellum of manuscript texts, which reinforces the analogy with the book."

It could be that the strapwork cartouche derived from the ends of folded pages of books, or because they resemble leather straps, or as it was seen in the Netherlands, they could have resembled cut metal. From Professor Kavaler's paper on Ornament in the Netherlands he suggests the following:

"Deriving to a considerable extent from Rosso’s stucco frames at Fontainebleau (1535–37), strapwork was developed in imaginative new directions by Netherlandish artists in all media. Less suggestive of the curling edges of leather ribbons, leaves, or manuscript pages that mark French production (Rollwerk), the Low Countries variants exploit references to cut metal shapes of the goldsmith (Beschlagwerk)."

The Cartouche as a Frame of Authority

The strapwork cartouche was employed at the highest levels of society, and became a powerful symbol of authority and often used by Royalty, just as the cartouche was used in Ancient Egyptian times.

This ornamental strapwork cartouche frame above, lies on the Tomb of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy in Bruges c. 1558-63. It shows that the cartouche was becoming the de facto ornament 'fit for Kings' and used to bestow significance.

(Photo credits above and below to Ethan Matt Kavaler).

In another example we can see the strapwork cartouche being principally used to highlight the achievements and accolades of powerful rulers, here at The Doberan Minster, the main Lutheran Church of the town Bad Doberan in Mecklenburg, Germany. The stone is named Fürstenepitaph from German meaning 'Prince's epitah', and was carved in 1583 by Netherlandish artists attributed to the shop of Philipp Brandin. The inscription is made on expensive black marble panel and has no religious analogies, but simply records the great achievements of Mecklenburg rulers of the past.

As argued by Kavaler and others, we start to see the strapwork cartouche becoming an end in itself, as a way of giving legitimacy, dignity and authority to anyone or anything enclosed within the frame.

In the French Livre D'Heures de Henri II (Book of Hours of Henry II) dated between 1547 and 1559 we see differing forms of the strapwork cartouche on nearly every illustration contained within the 124 pages. The cartouches ensure no doubt to the viewer that this prayer book is dedicated to none other than a King. In the first illustration fo the book (top left) we see the inscription "To Henry II, most Christian king of the French, most happily.” In the illustration bottom left we see the Royal Coat of Arms, within the embellished cartouche frame.

Finally, concerning the origins of the classical cartouche, it is important to remember that the motifs of heraldry, coats of arms, escutcheons, and the designs of shields going back as far as the 12th century, where the first coat of arms and shields with coat of arms is recorded. It could be suggested that early Medieval/Renaissance cartouche designs were inspired by the imagery of heraldry, although this link is not definitively proven.

Here at the Brzeg Castle in Silesia, Poland we see a great example of a coat of arms within a cartouche with scrollwork from circa 1552-53, in it's restored coloured glory (as it would have originally been).

In a more modern context, at the ‘Tudor City’ apartment building in Manhattan we see a large coat of arms cartouche atop. Built between 1927–30, the architects employed the use of a coat of arms in a cartouche as a design element to harken back to the Tudor period.

Closer view of the cartouche/coat of arms.

The Cartouche in Classical Architecture

It was thus in the Renaissance period that a resurgence in the use of cartouches began in architectural design, prominently in 16th century Italy as well, where it was then referred to as a “cartuccia.” The artist and author Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 book of biographies entitled Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori (The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects) features a richly illustrated cartouche on its cover. Unlike the strapwork cartouche of France and the Netherlands, this cartouche goes to the softer, curved and more asymmetrical style which we see later on as the cartouche design evolves.

Le Vite was a majorly influential text regarding art history and mastery, which may have contributed to the popularity the cartouche among Baroque architects and artists. These designers would later have access to published treatises and guidebooks that featured discussions on cartouche decoration, as well as various designs complete except for an empty space in the oval center, so that the architect/artist could customize it themselves.

The Overdoor Cartouche

The cartouche in the Baroque period can also appear over doors, known in French as the ‘Dessus-de-porte’, in Italian as ‘sopraporte’ and in German ‘supraporte’. In English, it is simply the ‘overdoor’, and in this exquisite example below in marquetry at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Torun, Poland completed around 1756, we see a superb decoration using the cartouche motif.

Another overdoor example below, this time on the entrance to a building at 17 Konnogvardeysky Boulevard, in Moscow, Russia. The overdoor is translated as ‘Десюдепорт’ in Russian, borrowed directly from the French Dessus-de-porte.

One more overdoor cartouche, this time inside a Moscow apartment at Tverskaya-Yamskaya Street. The building was built in 1901 by architect S. M. Goncharov and continued in 1912 by the E.R. Nirnsee. The apartment previously belonged to the merchant N. F. Kapyrina.

The Rocaille and Rococo Cartouche

The use of the cartouche continued into the Baroque and Rococo periods, where it often featured more elaborate and intricate designs. From the 16th to the 18th century, the cartouche evolves into a more asymmetrical motif, employing more curves, counter curves and drawing inspiration from sea-shells, leaves and other natural elements.

A Renaissance cartouche by Jean Goujon completed between 1549–55 shows the ‘Allegory of War’, with two angels bearing the monogram of Henry II of France as the letter “H” at the left part of the west façade of the Cour Carrée in the Louvre Palace, Paris.

Fast forward from the 1500s to the 1700s and we can see the cartouche is more elaborate and uses more curves, following the style of the Rococo and Rocaille movements.

Above we see a gilded and painted cartouche by François Boucher in the Queen’s bedroom at the Château de Versailles in France made from 1735.

By 1738–40 a book called Livre de Cartouches Irréguliers (Book of Irregular Cartouches) appears by François de Cuvilliés the Elder. We can see that the cartouche designs are now becoming asymmetrical and clearly viewed as a motif into itself.

Another ‘irregular’ cartouche in the asymmetrical style, this time by Dionisio Valesi after Gaetano Ottani, published in the book Libro primo di Cartelle in 1766.

The theme of asymmetry is all the rage in the 1700s, especially in France where the movement of Rococo and Rocaille begin.

The Rocaille movement took its name from the mixture of rock, seashell and plaster that was used to create a picturesque effect in grottos during the Renaissance, and from the name of a seashell-shaped ornament which was frequent feature of Rocaille decoration.

In 1736 the designer and jeweler Jean Mondon published the Premier Livre de forme rocquaille et cartel, a collection of designs for ornaments of furniture and interior decoration. It was the first appearance in print of the term rocaille to designate the style.

In contrast, the word rococo was first used as a humorous variation of the word rocaille, first seen in print in 1825 to describe decoration which was “out of style and old-fashioned” written in the French Journal Feuilleton des Débats. Later the word rococo was seen as “the rocaille style of the 18th century”, and by the 19th century, the term was simply used to describe architecture or music which was excessively ornamental. In any case, we can clearly see the cartouche develop in architecture, furniture and illustration along with the changing times.

Two more examples in architecture of the rococo or rocaille cartouche. At Helbling House of 1732 (German: Helblinghaus) in the Old Town of Innsbruck, Austria we see a full deployment of decorative elements on the building façade including the cartouche in many instances.

In the Catherine Palace in Russia, one of the world’s most foremost examples of Rococo Architecture we see the cartouche used throughout the exterior and interior of the Palace.

Above every single window lies a cartouche as well as above each of the three pediments.

The cartouche motif is used so frequently, including being a form for mirrors and furniture, as seen in interior photos of the Catherine the Great Palace.

Cartouches as mirror and painting frames.

Cartouche overdoor, and cartouche frames for mirrors.

The Cartouche in Later Periods, 19th to the 21st Century

As time went on, the approach of the Rococo and Rocaille began to fall out of popularity, with the Neo-Classical period emerging as a reaction to former, proposing a less decorative and ‘frilly’ approach to art and architecture. Along with the decline of the Rococo/Rocaille style, came the decline of the highly ornamental cartouche. In the more formal approach to Classical architecture, otherwise known as “Academic Classical” (a style often associated with important government buildings like courthouses such as the Supreme Court of the United States, or Museums for eg. the British Museum which tried to strictly copy the temple designs of Ancient Greece and Rome, following strict rules on proportions and building principles), it is rarer to see the cartouche. An exception is below with Sir Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral (completed 1711). Seen above the pediment to a window is a very small cartouche on the frieze.

Neo-classical architecture for grand public buildings seldom features the cartouche. It is also the associations of the highly ornamental Cartouche with the Rococo and Rocaille and the idea of Royalty that begins to fall out favour in the 18th and 19th century with the advent of the Enlightenment and the French revolution which began in 1789. Tired of excess and aristocratic indulgences, the architects and designers of the day, often strip back building ornamentation from the heights of the late Baroque and Rococo in the periods following (1800s-1900s).

But it wasn’t for long, because soon the cartouche makes its way back into the limelight in all manner of the new schools of art, architecture and design, especially as detail and maximalism came to become fashionable again in various new movements from the Victorian, to Second Empire, Beaux-Arts, Art-Nouveaux and Art Deco.

Beaux-Arts cartouche of the Pont Alexandre III, Paris
Beaux-Arts cartouche of the Pont Alexandre III, Paris

19th century cartouche of the Department Store Printemps Haussmann, Paris. Also from the Beaux-Arts tradition, as the original building was designed by Paul Sédille who studied at the École des Beaux-Arts school of architecture

Complex Art Deco cartouche in the New York State Museum, Albany, New York.
Complex Art Deco cartouche in the New York State Museum, Albany, New York.

Cartouche from Woolwich Town Hall, London (Photo: Fin Fahey). Built 1906 in the Edwardian Baroque style.

Stalinist cartouche of the Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw, Poland
Stalinist cartouche of the Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw, Poland

The cartouche motif also features heavily in 16th early 20th century furniture, seen in this 1920s Colonial Revival/Jacobean Revival style armchair. Cartouche in center of wooden splat.

The Cartouche in Maps

During the early years of Geography and Cartography, the Italians, Flemish and the Dutch during the ‘Dutch Golden Age’ took to great enthusiasm the lavish and decorative use of the cartouche in map making. According to map historian Edward Lynam, cartouches that frame titles first appear on Italian maps in the 16th century. The first ever line-engraved map of the British Isles to have a cartouche was in 1546, made by George Lily.

Cartouches on early Dutch Map of the Roman Empire, from the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum map collection (Theater of the world) published in 1570.

Cartouches designed by ornamentalist Vredeman de Vries. Abraham Ortelius, the cartographer and map-maker in this Theatrum Orbis Terrarum series, were so valued these complex grotesque devices for his album that he commissioned an additional thirty designs from Vredeman de Vries.

For a map, the cartouche may be considered equivalent to the pointer (admoniteur) in a painting by drawing attention to the subject of the map and orienting its reading. As a noncartographic element in mapmaking, the cartouche developed as an imagistic ensemble of narrative, description, and symbols appropriate to the territory represented by the map.

The diverse definitions of “cartouche” found in the dictionaries and manuals of this period correspond to that given in the Dictionaire universel (Furetière 1690, vol. 1, n.p.):

“It is a card in the shape of a cylinder or scroll or its representation, for which the sculpture and the engraving make diverse ornaments, in the middle of which is placed some inscription or device. The titles of geographical maps are written in the cartouches, very much historiated.”

The cartouche is therefore an entirely decorative element, an ornament that belongs to the domain of architecture, sculpture, and engraving.

A total of three cartouches can be seen in this early map of Brazil by Andrea Antonio Orazi in 1698.

Conclusion: Cartouches as an everlasting symbol of significance

Cartouches continue to be used in contemporary architecture as a decorative element, often as a nod to the Ancient or Classical past. They can also be found in various other forms, such as on maps, furniture, and in interior design. In summary, the cartouche motif has evolved over time and has become an enduring symbol to denote important people and messages, give a sense of authority and catch the attention of the viewer.

The cartouche has always reflected changing fashions and tastes through out history, and can continue to plan an important role in the modern world, whether it be for street signs, shop signs, the entrances to public buildings, on monuments, or added to the interiors of houses using motifs such as the overdoor or Dessus-de-porte to add beauty.

More on Cartouches:

Recueil de douze cartouches (Twelve Cartouches) by François Collignon, 1640.

Targhe ed altri ornate d varie e cappriciose invenzione, by Carlo Losi. (Cartouches and other ornaments of various and capricious invention) from 1773.

Ornament and Systems of Ordering in the Sixteenth-Century Netherlands ETHAN MATT KAVALER Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 72, №4 (WINTER 2019), pp. 1269–1325 (57 pages)

Framing Late Antique Texts as Monuments: The Tabula Ansata between Sculpture and Mosaic

Sean Leatherbury

The Materiality of Text: Placement, Perception, and Presence of Inscribed Texts in Classical Antiquity, ed. Andrej Petrovic, Ivana Petrovic, and Edmund Thomas (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 380–404

Blood, Milk, Ink, Gold Abundance and Excess in the French Renaissance By Rebecca Zorach, Assistant Professor of Art History· 2005 ISBN:9780226989372, 0226989372

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