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.