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.