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.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

The choirstalls of the basilica San Petronio in Bologna

The front of the basilica San Petronio in Bologna, Italy.

The Basilica of San Petronio is a large Gothic brick-built church dating from 1390. It is dedicated to Saint Petronius, who was bishop of Bologna in the fifth century and responsible for erecting the walls protecting the city. The construction of the church was a communal project of Bologna, not of the bishops. The church was planned to be larger than the Saint Peter's Basilica of Rome. These two things were likely the cause of the intervention by Pope Pius IV, and the plan was left unfinished. What makes the church interesting for medieval woodworkers are the choir stalls, created in the 15th century by Agostino de' Marchi, a woodworker from Siena. Agostino, famous for his intarsia work, had made a positive impression with his work for a private chapel in the Basilica, and was also commissioned for the choir.

The choir stalls of the San Petronio with a large lectern seen from the organ gallery.

The subjects of the intarsia for the choir are different than those found in other churches and chapels (e.g. the Chapel di Signori (1415) in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena): there are no religious subjects depicted - except for one panel with San Petronio on it. Reason for this was that the basilica was a communal project, and not one of the diocese. In a previous post on medieval planes I mentioned that two of these panels showed woodworking tools, including several planes. I then only had  grainy black-and-white photos of these panels, where details were hard to discern. Reason to make a special appointment to visit the choir.

 The three panel with woodworking tools; the left and right panel have the same design.

Then there was a surprise: instead of two panels with woodworking tools, there were three, though one was a copy of the other. Also other panel images appeared more often, apparently the number of designs was limited. But there was another surprise as well. I thought that the workbench contained a holdfast, but this appeared to be not true. The place of my imaginary holdfast was a missing splinter of wood in the panel giving a false impression of something that is not there in the grainy black-and-white photo...

 No holdfast on this workbench; the panel has been popular with woodworms as well. 

Zooming in on the specific tools that are depicted: the double panel shows a chisel, a caliper and two planes. The plane on the left seems to have a double wedge, similar to the plane shown at a fresco 'the allegory of good government'  in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. The other panel shows a framesaw, six planes of different types, a toolchest and a workbench. Almost all planes have open handles at the front or back hand or at the sides, a common feature of Roman planes.

Left: the caliper next to the plane with the double wedge. Both the pin holding the wedge and the plane blade are clearly visible.  Right: the chisel and the top parts of the planes.

The framesaw hanging between two planes. The middle support is fixed with a pin, however the configuration shown here is not stable as the pin can slide of the frame. The saw blade is held by two wooden rivets, without handles to turn the saw blade.

The plane with two crossbars (left) and the rabbet plane on both sides of the crossbars.

The plane with side handles (left) and a round moulding plane (right) - the sole of this plane is rounded.

The other panels show different subjects: musical instruments, chairs, chests, books, lantern, vases, a chess game and another game board. Each image of the panel is surrounded by a plain 'mat' or 'passe-partout', and in turn by a frame with an intarsia pattern. There is even a 'secret' intarsia panel in the choir, masking a door behind. A selection of these panels is shown below.

Boxes and a vase with fruit.

Three legged chairs and a candle holder.

Two benches from different perspective.

Two 8 by 8 chess boards with a botch that supposedly holds the game pieces. Three of the chess pieces are shown on the right photo.

Other furniture

There is more medieval church furniture in the San Petronio. In the middle of the choir is a very large lectern for the music books showing the lines that had to be sung by the choir. As the choir members had to see the lines from a distance, the books and consequently the lectern had to be large. Some of these large musical books are kept in in the Museo Civico Medievale in Bologna. The lectern is also able to swivel, so both sides of the choir could see the content of the displayed book. The lectern can be opened to reveal a small cupboard.

The swivelling lectern (left) and a detail of the lectern showing a hinge of the cupboard (right).

To get an impression of the sheer size of the music books in the Museo Civico Medievale, curator Massimo Medica poses next to the book display. Photo left by Sunil Deepak;  right copyright Getty Images.

On the gallery above the choir are two organs, one of them from the 15th century (1476 by Lorenzo da Prato). The medieval organ originally used to stand at a different place in the church, where it would be visible from all sides. Not only the frontal woodwork of the organ is painted and gilded, also the backside is fully decorated and carved! Nowadays the organ has an encasing dating from later centuries. The organ still functions well, as can be heard here on YouTube.

(left) The organ pipes are decorated as well; around the pipes is a gilded gothic framework. Right: behind the organ, now invisible form the outside, the same gothic gilded openwork tracery and painted woodwork is found.

Our guides, when hearing I made medieval furniture, proudly showed the medieval chair for the cardinal (normally covered/protected by a piece of cloth). This was a highly carved Savoranola type folding chair, but more likely 16th century in nature than medieval.

The savoranola chair for the cardinal.

In the main area of the church, an unusual wooden pulpit can be found. It is not fixed to a pillar, which is commonly the case, but stands on its own legs. Though it is large object, it can be moved  to a different spot. Entrance to the pulpit is on the back side, where there is a door. (The stair has been removed for security reasons).

The wooden pulpit has a cloth baldachin.