Sunday, 20 January 2019

A not so foldable chair

This post concerns a medieval chair that is nowadays known under several names, most commonly the 'Glastonbury chair', the 'Petrarca chair' or 'sedia Petrarca', as well as 'sedia pieghevole', the latter meaning nothing more than foldable or collapsible chair. There any many misunderstanding and peculiarities on this chair, which I hope to clarify in this post.

The sedia Petrarca in the Petrarca house in Casa del Petrarca in Arquà Petrarca, Italy. It is one of the two medieval furniture items that were supposedly original from this house. The Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrach) moved in 1369 to this house and lived here until his death in 1374, implying this is a late 14th century chair. The decorative carving style, however, is more like those found on 15th century sedia tenaglia folding chairs. Photos from the local tourism website and LittleWoods blog.

The chair cannot be folded

A Petrarca chair dating from 1590 in its dismantled form (left) and constructed form (mid, right). The chair originates from an Exeter Deanery, that in turn obtained its from a Somerset or Devonshire church. Height: 105 cm, Width: 60.5 cm, Depth: 61 cm, Height: 45.5 cm. Photo copyright Victoria and Albert museum, London, UK.

This is one of the many misunderstandings of this chair: it is not a folding chair. The chair cannot be folded, the rigid seating and the armrest make this impossible. The chair can only be dismantled. You then end up with an IKEA-like parcel with many loose parts that you can take along and (re)construct where-ever you like. This is much more work and complicated than taking a foldable X-chair with you. Probably the X of the legs is what leads people to think it is foldable: all medieval foldable chairs have X legs; however, the other way around is not true. 

The chair originates from northern Italy

In the UK, the Glastonbury chair is dated from 1535; other examples from the UK also date from the 16th century or are of later periods. Somehow this chair remained popular in England and received a revival in the neo-Gothic era, when an article on the Glastonbury chair was published. An excellent article by Gabriel Olive from 1994 traces the descent of this chair type in the UK. No earlier examples than the Glastonbury can be found. However, the much earlier extant examples all originate from northern Italy. 

Left and right: The 15th century Petrarca chair from the Museo Civico in Turin. The left photo shows the backrest with a top plank, but this is actually the bottom plank, as the cut-out parts necessary for the alignment with the seating are clearly visible. The photo on the right shows the correct alignment. The chair originates around Verona, Northern Italy. Made from walnut; armrests have been cut by saw. Ornaments have been punched in the wood. Top ornaments are turned. The bottom plank from the backrest shows a young couple at the fountain of love. Height 107 cm, width 77 cm, depth 57 cm. Now in Museo Civico, Turin, Italy. Image scanned from Windisch-Graetz. Mobel Europas I. Romanik - Gotik.


Chair from northern Italy, 'Etschgebiet', dated from the 15th century. Made from walnut. Arms with sawn profiles decorated with punctured diamonds. Bottom plank of the backrest is missing. Middle plank shows a young couple in 15th century style clothes next to a fountain. Top plank has a coat of arms between two lions  Top pinnacles are turned. Height 108 cm, width 65 cm. Formerly in the Sammlung Albert Figdor. Scanned from the 1930 auction catalogue.

Chair from a cloister in Padua, northern Italy, dated from the 15th century. Made from walnut. Arms with sawn profiles decorated with punctured diamonds. Backrest complete and decorated with carved geometrical forms and punctures. Top pinnacles are turned.  Height 110 cm, width 65 cm. Formerly in the Sammlung Albert Figdor. Scanned from the 1930 auction catalogue.

Right: The petrarca chair in the Green room of Museo Bagatti Valsecchi, Milan, Italy. 

The chair is both medieval and early renaissance

Is the Petrarca chair from the medieval period? This depends on your definition of medieval and the medieval time period. Earliest examples of this chair, as well as depictions in manuscripts and painting all date to the 15th century, not earlier. Petrarca's chair itself is claimed to be late 14th century, but the style of the chair is not. I have heard of an inventory list of his possessions that could mention this/a chair, and a name alone is hardly enough evidence that Petrarca sat in his 'Petrarca chair' in the 14th century. It is likely more a myth, like the Frankish King Dagobert sitting in his 'Dagobert chair'.

The chair type can be found in other sources as well. One image of the chair has been found in an illuminated Italian bible from the mid-fifteenth century.

King Solomon sits on a Petrarca chair. Illuminated bible from 1455-1461, Biblioteca Estense, Modena, Italy. Image from Albion works website, manuscript number unknown.

There are also two known depictions of the chair in 15th century Flemish art. One has been painted by Hans Memling in 1485, on the panel showing Bathsheba taking a bath. The chair is only partly shown but is unmistakably a Petrarca chair. Otto von Falke (1930) mentions another painting (a preaching Apostle) by the Flemish artist Jan van der Meire (died 1471), a pupil of the Van Eyck brothers, showing the chair. This painting used to be in the collection of the painter Franz Reichardt in Munchen. The auction catalogue (1869) of this collection (it can be found online) does not show/mention the painting, so it is unclear what the painting looks like or where it is.

Having Flemish paintings with an Italian chair is not that strange; oil painting from the low countries were very fashionable at that time in Italy and commissioned by rich patrons. There was also a large Italian trading community in cities like Bruges and Ghent, and it is not unlikely that they brought a collapsible chair with them.

The surviving 15th century samples all trace back to Northern Italy; renaissance already had started in Italy in this time period, while northern Europe art still retained its Gothic style. So you could call this chair 'Early Renaissance'  as well as 'Medieval'.

Bathsheba at the Bath, oil on oak panel, painted by Hans Memling in 1485. On the left side a Petrarca chair can be seen. Memling had many commissions from Italian patrons and thus be familiar with this chair type. Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany.

The Glastonbury chair is constructed wrong

The original English Glastonbury chair (see the Greydragon website for excellent photos) and its later copies all have a flaw in their construction plan. Apparently, the person who made the chair did not understand the complexity of its construction, or something went wrong during restoration of the chair. There is a very specific order in which the parts of these chairs are assembled: you must start with the seating, and then proceed with the backrest, not the other way around. In other words, the backrest must be wider than the seating. This is the case for the Italian chairs, but not for the Glastonbury chair. (Another reason why it is more logical that the origin of these chairs is in Italy).

The original Glastonbury chair with its angled armrests. The chair originated from the Glastonbury abbey, dissolved in 1539 and now resides in the Bishops Palace, Wells, UK. There is some unclarity, as there is mention of more of these chairs from this abbey. It could be that they are actually a set of chairs.

With the Glastonbury chair problems arise when the armrest  must be added. There is no way that the armrest can be added in parallel alignment: the sides of the seating are in its way, blocking the construction. Adding the armrest will result in an imperfect angled fit, also making it necessary to drill the holes at an angle for the armrest. The Italian chairs all have a  perfect vertical alignment of their parts.

It is quite remarkable that a mistake made in the early 16th century by a carpenter was thoughtlessly copied again and again in later ages, including today. The book by Daniel Diehl on making medieval furniture contains measurements and drawings of a copy of the Glastonbury chair, yet he did not question this flaw. Master Greydragon (from the Society of Creative Anachronism) measured the original chair, provided many detailed photos of it and provided a construction plan (  Apparently he noticed the flaw and adjusted his own replica chair (he shows a photo of it - with small seating), but he did not update his construction plan. More of these flawed plans circulate on internet. Thus, if you want to make this chair yourself, you need to adjust the existing plans or make your own.

The pre-1539 parts of the Glastonbury chair according to Victor Chinnery and Gabriel Olive. These are made of elm. The remainder is of oak construction. It is quite possible that the restoration process caused the wrong construction. In principle, there is room for the seating rails to be inside, instead of outside the backrest. Scanned from V. Chinnery, Oak furniture. The British Tradition.

The chair is impractical in its use 

Ivory plaque made in Alexandria or Constantinople, around 630-640, representing St Peter dictating the Gospel to St Mark. He sits in an X-type of chair, but with a different form of armrest that does not restrict the movement of your arm. Though imagine how it looks like if the armrest is turned upside down. Image copyright Victoria and Albert museum, London, UK, item 270:1-1867.

I am very surprised that no-one has ever commented on the impracticability of the 'Glastonbury chair' and despite this the chair was profusely copied in the neo-Gothic era. Yes, you can sit in this chair ... and do nothing. You cannot use this chair to write letters and poems, like the great Petrach. You cannot use the chair at a table when you want to eat. You cannot use the chair if you are embroidering. You cannot do anything useful sitting in this chair. Why not? The high knob of the armrest is blocking the free movement of your arm. Writing becomes painful if you try. You can of course make it 'horizontal', but none of the historical examples have horizontal armrests.
The form of the armrest only allows your arms to rest folded over your belly. So you can only use the chair ... to doze.

One of the rare examples of a Petrarca chair with an almost horizontal armrest. Note that this British example is constructed correctly. Early 17th century . Image scanned from Oak furniture. The British Tradition.

Construction constraints

The seating height of the Glastonbury chair is 43 cm, and so do the plans for construction. If you are longer than average, height adjustments to the chair pose a challenge for the woodworker. Just making the lower part of the X-legs (below the connecting rail) longer would make an odd chair, where the legs protrude the seating and rest of the chair. Making both the upper and lower part of the legs longer, would lead to a deeper seat. However, the this would also mean that the armrest must be elongated as well. The third option would be to make both sides of the legs longer without changing the seating. The result will be that the 45 degrees angle of the X will change, as well as the angle at which the legs rest on the floor.

An advertisement of 1909 from a commercial Glastonbury chair maker.


  • Greydragon website: 'Glastonbury chair'. Detailed photos of the original chair.
  • Otto von Falke, 1930. Samlung Dr. Albert Figdor Wien, zweiter band, Möbel. Auction catalogue. Artaria & Co., Gluckselig Gmbh, Wien, Austria.
  • Franz Windisch Graetz. Mobel Europas - Romanik - Gotik. Klinkhardt & Biermann, München, Germany. ISBN 3-7814-0212-6.
  • Daniel Diehl. 1997. Constructing medieval furniture – plans and instructions with historical notes. Stackpole Books. ISBN 978-0811727952. or in: Sacred Spaces issue 8 (1994)
  • Victor Chinnery. 1979. Oak furniture, the British Tradition. Antique Collector's Club. ISBN 1-85149-013-2
  • Gabriel Olive 1994. The Glastonbury chair. Regional Furniture VIII, page 24-41.
  • G. Chiesa. 1971. L'arredamento in Italia. Il Quattrocento. Mobili - Arti decorative - Costume. Görlich edditore SpA, Milan, Italy.
  • Albion Works. website now disfunct.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Woodworking tools in medieval Italy, part 2

A lucky coincidence for medieval woodworkers is that that the bible contains some stories on building, e.g. Noah's ark and the tower of Babel, or the construction of the cross. Furthermore there are several Saints that met a gruesome death with a woodworking tool (Simon with a saw, Matthew with a axe). It is no surprise that some of these scenes were popular as well in fresco cycles in Italy. Previous post showed the building of Noah's ark in the Camposanto in Pisa. Noah's ark was also painted on walls of some other Italian churches.

Florence (Firenze), Santa Maria Novella

The front of the Basilica Santa Maria Novella in Firenze.

The Santa Maria Novella is a church of the Dominican order connected to a large cloister complex, some parts with very lovely medieval frescoes. Church building began in the 13th century and was consecrated in 1420. In the 16th century and later in the 19th century the church was remodelled. The medieval fresco showing the building of Noah's ark, however, is detached from its original wall in the green cloister and now hanging in the museum inside the complex. The damaged fresco was painted by someone in the circle of Paolo Uccello, a Florentine painter and mathematician, around 1430.

Inside the museum, the fresco containing the building of Noah's ark from around 1430.

 A two-handed large plane, with the typical Italian open handles.

 A detail from the fresco: an auger being used.

San Gimignano, Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assuntais

Many frescoes and even more tourists in the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assuntais in San Gimignano.
San Gimignano, the medieval city with its many towers; a lovely place, but swarming with too many tourists - one was me. The Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assuntais located in the main square of the town and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Romanesque style church dates largely from the 12th and 13th century, but with parts added in the next centuries. The church is most famous for its largely intact scheme of fresco decoration, the greater part of which dates from the 14th century. The wall of the left aisle had six decorated bays with frescoes containing stories from the old testament that are the work of Bartolo di Fredi, and were completed around 1356. One of these is that of Noah and his family building the ark.
Noah building the ark by Bartolo di Fredi around 1356.

On the roof are three people busy with clawhammers and an auger.

 Below several axes and adzes are being used.

A man using the plane is offered a drink.

From the wall on the other side of the church, Christ bearing the cross, 
and another one bearing a clawhammer and nails.

Siena, Palazzo Pubblico

The Palazzo Pubblico in Sienna with preparations for the palio race.

The Palazzo Pubblico is Siena's  medieval administrative building on the main square of  the city where also the horse races take place. It was built in the 13th and 14th century, and the large bell tower contains a 14th century mechanical clock. Nearly every major room in the palace contains frescoes. The medieval frescoes on the walls inside the building were meant to impress the visitor of the power and goodness of the city. Two frescoes containing woodworking tools - the allegories of good and bad government - by Ambrogio Lorenzetti can be found in the Sala della Pace.

Part of the allegory of good government fresco in the Palazzo Pubblico.

The Allegory of Good Government contains a large plane with the name 'Concordia' on it.  The plane is a typical example of the Italian medieval planes, but also unusual as the wedge holding the iron seems to consist of two separate wedges. Could it be that one wedge serves as a chip-breaker? In the allegory of Bad Government a large frame saw can be seen.

The concordia plane contains a typical double wedge.

Part of the allegory of bad government frescoin the Palazzo Pubblico.

A large frame saw being used on something unknown.

Some more frescoes

Below are two more frescoes containing scenes from building Noah's Ark from elsewhere in Italy (and not visited by me). It is likely that many more of these frescoes with woodworking tools are hidden in other not so famous medieval churches in Italy.

Basilica of San Francesco, Assisi, Italy, upper vault, 
painted between 1288-1300, likely by Giotto. Image from internet.

 Fresco from the vault of stairs of the Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Palatio, Rome, Italy  
by Baldassare Croce (1558 - 1628). Image from internet.

Monday, 19 November 2018

The annual meeting of the Dutch crafts and tools association

A different kind of setting than we are used to at the yearly meeting of the Dutch crafts and tools association

Last Saturday the  Saint Thomasguild showed their medieval replica woodworking tools at the annual meeting of the Dutch crafts and tools association (de Vereniging Ambacht en Gereedschap). The club consists of people who are interested in the history and tools of diverse (old) crafts and trades - from woodworkers to dentists. We are also a member of this association. Many members are tool collectors and some have made it their profession as antique tool traders. Many associates are interested in the woodworking trade, and the medieval history of woodworking tools on display attracted much attention. We had interesting discussions and learned new things as well. For instance, the long two-handed saw is called 'opschieter' in Dutch, meaning 'quickie' - a saw that does its job fast (and rough). (when using this 2-handed saw I did not find it quick at all!).

The workbench and the toolchest with the braces mounted on the lid.

We mainly showed them four types of tools - medieval planes, medieval saws, medieval axes and medieval braces & augers - but also brought our workbench with a double screw vise. Of every tool we could show the source (archaeological find or image of the tool in a medieval book, on a painting or as intarsia) and explain the choices that had to be made to fill the 'gaps'. 

Our collection of medieval planes under the watchful eye of saint Thomas.

 Some medieval axes and an adze.


Some photos made during the less crowded time. Most of the time, the room was completely packed with people.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Thongs and Letters

Castle Wijchen in grey and wet autumn weather last sunday.

Last Sunday an exhibition opened in castle Wijchen (the Netherlands) on 'Strengels en Letters' - I am not sure how this would correctly translate, but I suppose 'Thongs and letters' will do. The exhibition is on books in the medieval Duchy of Gelre, and how they were made. The 'thongs' or strengels are pieces of parchment that were used in bookbinding for reinforcement of the spine of the book. The exhibition shows that the cliché of that medieval books were written by monks and owned by the wealthy few that could read was wrong. Examples of very cheaply bound (note)books, ledgers, etc. make clear that far more people could read and write than generally assumed.
The exhibition will be on display from 11 November 2018 to 10 March 2019.

The exhibition was co-organised by guest-curator Astrid of the medieval craft group the 'Papieren Eenhoorn' (Paper Unicorn). They are often at castle Hernen at the same time our re-enactment group is. Therefore they asked if they could borrow some of our furniture for the display of the diverse medieval book-producing crafts. So we will be 'missing' some of our seats for some months ... One of the other book-production crafts on display is an early book printing press - the Minion press - made by the Dutch Luthier, who is also a frequent visitor at castle Hernen. 

Astrid of the 'Papieren eenhoorn' (Paper Unicorn) gives the opening lecture.

 Bookbinding and writing with two of our chairs. During opening of the exhibition some re-enactors showed their craft.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Woodworking tools in medieval Italy, part 1

Information on medieval woodworking tools usually comes from four sources: archaeological finds, mention of it in written sources (like wills, payments for work, or guild regulations), tool marks left on surviving pieces of wood or furniture, and art (manuscript illuminations, paintings, sculpture) showing the woodworking trade. While I do not know of archaeological finds of medieval tools in Italy, and am unable to read - for example - the 13th century woodworkers guild regulations of Bologna, something on medieval woodworking toolmarks on Italian altar pieces has been written by N.E. Muller in 'The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association'. There they also discuss a specific fresco in the Camposanto in Pisa, depicting the construction of Noah's ark. In this fresco many scenes of woodworking are depicted and it has something that makes it especially interesting.

Guild regulations of the carpenters of Bologna, 1270. Archivio di Stato di Bologna. Image scanned from an  art encyclopedia on the 14th century by Sandra Baragli.

Fresco painting

In short, a fresco is a wall painting. This type of wall decoration was used in churches, castles and other buildings throughout Europe and through different time periods. It is thought that the shortage of available mosaic artists has led to the creation of this alternative, the fresco. The fresco had the additional advantage that it was relatively cheap to make, and that it lasted longer. In northern Europe, church reformation has whitewashed and eradicated almost all frescos; though some are now uncovered during restoration work. Italy remained catholic, and as such, frescos can be found everywhere. 

How a medieval fresco was made is clearly described in section III of 'Il Libro dell'Arte', a 15th century treatise on the art of painting by Cennino Cennini, a painter from Firenze (Florence).
'In the name of the Most Holy Trinity I wish to start you on painting. begin, in the first place, with working on a wall; and for that I will teach you, step by step, the method which you should follow.
When you want to work on a wall, which is the most agreeable and impressive kind of work, first of all get some lime and some sand, each of them well sifted....'

The lime and sand were mixed with water to make a plaster, which was left to cool down for some days. Then the wall was wetted thoroughly, after which the first plaster layer (the arriccio) was put on, creating a rough and uneven surface. When this layer was dry, a raster of charcoal lines was made by snapping lines (similar as was done on wood to create lines for sawing planks) against the wall. Then, the scene and figures were sketched onto the wall with either charcoal or very thin red ochre (the sinopia). After that, the painter had to know how much he could work in a day, plastering only that much of the wall with a second layer of mortar (the intonaco). This layer had to be very smooth. The painting was then made on the wet plaster with pigments dissolved in water ('in fresco') which absorbed/adhered to the plaster. Each day a new part (a giornate) was plastered and painted until the complete wall was covered. The artist started at the top of the fresco and worked over the days to finish at the bottom. The different working days still can be recognised (see Figure).

The number show the order of the giornata on consecutive days, starting at the top right.
 Image scanned from the book 'Art in renaissance Italy' by Evelyn Welch.

Then, the details were added on the dry painting ('in secco') using pigments in tempera (egg yellow) or oil. Also colours from pigments that did not dissolve in water were used in secco. After this the fresco was finished and could last for many centuries.

These sinopia in red ochre from the Camposanto frescoes already show very much detail on the rough plaster.

The Camposanto in Pisa

The inner court of the camposanto in Pisa with the galleries containing the frescoes.

The Camposanto in Pisa is a large, oblong Gothic cloister which functioned as a cemetery. Building began in 1278, however in 1464 the complex was finally completed. It is situated in the Piazza dei Miracoli, where also the duomo and the famous leaning tower are found. The outside wall is composed of blind arches with two doorways allowing the entrance to the inner court with its galleries containing the fresco cycles and most of the tombs. The cemetery has three chapels, one of which is chapel Dal Pozzo, named after the archbishop who commissioned it. In this chapel the relics of the Cathedral are found, among them relics of eleven of the twelve Apostles. Guess which Apostle is missing ... (you can find the answer at the bottom of this post)

A detail of the sinopia of a Camposanto fresco in the Museum of the Sinopie, Pisa.

The walls of the galleries are covered in frescoes; the first was painted in 1360, the last about three centuries later. During the following centuries the frescoes began to degrade to the particular climatic conditions of the building (exposed to open air). In 1806, Carlo Lasinio, master engraver at the Accedemia di Belle Arti di Firenze, visited the Camposanto. Impressed by the frescos, he decided to portray each scene and also to record their state of conservation; at this time the degradation of the frescoes was already very advanced. Lasinio made 40 etchings, collected in a volume entitled Pitture a fresco del Campo Santo di Pisa, of which the first edition was published in 1812.

 A restorator at work in the Camposanto, August 2018.

During the second world war, another misfortune befell the Camposanto. On 27 July 1944, a bomb fragment from an Allied raid started a fire, which could not be put out in time. The roof was destroyed, severely damaging everything inside the cemetery, including the frescoes. After World War II, restoration work started. The frescoes were separated from the walls to be restored and displayed elsewhere. With the frescoes removed, the underlying preliminary drawings, the sinopia, became visible. These, in turn, were also removed. Today, most frescoes have been restored and transferred back to their original locations in the Camposanto.

Building Noah's Ark 

The restored fresco of Noah's ark in the Camposanto, Pisa, Italy.

The fresco of building of Noah's ark in the north gallery was painted by Piero di Puccio at the end of the 14th century. Of this fresco we now have three versions: the original fresco, the preliminary sketches (the sinopia), and the 19th century coloured engraving by Carlo Lasinio. The first has been restored to its original place in the Camposanto, while the last two can be seen in the Museo delle Sinopie on the other side of the Piazza dei Miracoli.

The sinopia do not give a clear overall view of the Building of Noah's ark, some parts are very shady, where others show more detail. I only took photos of parts that showed most details. The sinopia of the sawyers is interesting: here the artist was not satisfied by the placement of the top sawyer and sketched a second one at a higher position.

The top sawyer appears twice in the sinopia.

Noah's ark as depicted in the engraving by Carlo Lasinio, 1806.

Also the coloured engravings by Carlo Lasinio are a bit different: while the drawings are quite accurate, the colours are sometimes curious. This is especially evident by the toolbasket: Lasinio shows many tools in metallic blue (for instance the mallet), while the fresco shows them in brownish colours. Brown is certainly more logical for a (wooden) mallet. I think that Lasinio was not familiar with woodworking tools and that he coloured them as he thought they were.  But also the colours of some of the clothes differ.

The basket with with the woodworking tools. The mallet and the two-handed plane have brownish - wooden - colours.

Two men are busy snapping straight chalk lines on a wooden beam.

The sawyers are not using a pit or a scaffold, but a trestle, which was still used in the early 20th century in China.

The large plane is used on a low working bench, consisting of a felled tree that is split in half with four legs added. One end of the workbench shows a gap in the middle; it is possible that this is used to hold pieces of wood (wedged) upright. A second workbench is used as seat by a workman busy with a collared adze. This type of adze was/is common in southern Europe.

Beside Noah stands a man drilling a hole in the wooden frame with an auger. Directly next to him another man drives an iron nail into the wood with a hammer, probably a clawhammer as seen in the tool basket.

Of course, Noah's ark is a popular theme that appears on frescoes in other places as well. The next post will show some more medieval frescoes containing woodworking tools.


  • Muller, N.E.,  1993. Some medieval Italian tools and techniques. The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, volume 46, issue 4, page 99-108.
  • S. Roettgen, 1996. Italian Frescos. The early renaissance 1400-1470. Abbeville Press, NY, USA.
  • Cennino Cennini, 15th century [1933/1960]. The craftsman's Handbook - Il Libro dell'Arte. Translation by D.V. Thompson. Dover Publications, New York, USA.
  • E. Welch, 1997. Art in renaissance Italy 1350-1500. Oxford University Press. 

The missing Apostle is Saint Thomas, the patron saint of our re-enactment group.