Workbenches: 1st-15th Centuries

Figure 4.1. Local color. Keep your eyes open when in museums. Thanks to Suzanne Ellison’s sharp eye, this painting provided an important clue about the use of notches in workbenches. And the painting happened to be right up the road from me in Indianapolis.

The following is from “Ingenious Mechanicks,” by Christopher Schwarz – this excerpt from Chapter IV, by Suzanne Ellison.

Tracing the history of workbenches takes one into the realm of Greek myth, along ancient trade routes, through the harshness of secular and religious empire-building and the glories of golden ages in arts, science and literature. There are many frustrations in the great gaps in the records, and regret over the loss of civilizations, languages and traditions. But the one thing that never disappoints, and alleviates the frustration and regret, is the wonder of human ingenuity.

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The research for this topic began in 2014 when Christopher Schwarz asked me to translate an 18th-century description of the fresco from Herculaneum. I picked up the Herculaneum trail again in 2016 to search for contemporary accounts of the excavations and also 19th-century accounts of the condition of the fresco. Here and there, in other research, a low Roman workbench would turn up, but the majority of the images Chris uses in this book, and the workbenches discussed in this chapter, were found in June through September of 2017.

I primarily used publicly available image and text databases maintained by museums, universities, photographic archives, auction houses, academic journals and papers, and used search terms in seven languages. Occasionally, I contacted an archivist or academic researcher, and (with few exceptions) they were more than willing to offer assistance. A conservative estimate of the number of images viewed last summer is 8,000 to 10,000, with images from the Spanish Colonial era contributing about a third of the total.

Verifying the geographic origins of the artwork was the starting point to connecting commonalities in history and development of workbenches with distinctive features.

In the last couple years more public and private museums and universities have collaborated to put collections and other resources online. As we get more access there will be many more discoveries to be made, and I expect the gaps in our timeline will be filled. You may find, as Chris did, a missing piece in the puzzle is in a museum near you.

The Earliest Discoveries: 1st-15th Centuries
As Chris and I unearthed examples of the low Roman-style workbenches, there was an emphasis on dating the benches and thinking in terms of a timeline, especially a timeline of innovations. Thanks to my father’s brilliant idea of handing me a map to track our family trips, and to keep me quiet on those trips, I started thinking in terms of maps. I had a workbench-discovery map developing in my head. Date, and place, would become important in solving some of the questions about the technology and the quirky features we found.

Low and higher workbenches and shaving horses are seen in flat outline in Roman funerary iconography, but for our purposes we start with four benches depicted in more dimension and detail. The first four low benches date up to the Roman Empire in the second century. Three are from the heart of the Empire: an engraving of a fresco from Herculaneum; a fresco depicting the myth of Daedalus and Queen Pasiphae from Pompeii; and a piece of decorated Roman glass found in catacombs. The fourth find, and the only extant benches, are the two from Saalburg, the frontier fort on the Limes Germanicus in the Roman province of Raetia. The Saalburg benches had the added interest of puzzling notches, a mystery that was solved, we think, by a Spanish painting executed more than 1,500 years later.

After a gap of six centuries in our record I found an 8th-century fresco of a carpenter working while sitting astride a low bench. The fresco was in an Umayyad bath house in the desert at Qusayr Amra (present-day Jordan), in a region once part of the Roman Empire. The bath house follows a Roman plan and the fresco is one of several “portraits” of the craftsmen who built the structure.
After another six-century gap, five benches show up in 14th-century Spain and Italy. The Spanish bench is from Teruel Cathedral in the Aragon province of Zaragoza. Two decades before Qusayr Amra was built, the Umayyad led the Muslim invasion of Spain. In Teruel, Mudejar craftsmen (Muslims who remained in Spain after the Reconquista) built the cathedral and are depicted in portraits similar to those in Qusayr Amra. The Mudejar woodworkers were using low Roman workbenches. Of the Italian benches, one is from a Sephardic manuscript and three are scenes from the construction of Noah’s ark.

Clever Nürnbergers. The city of Nürnberg proved to be a rich source of early woodworking imagry, including this 15th-century portrait of Karl Schreyner and his ingenious pegs. Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg, Amb.317.2°, f.21r.

In the 15th century, low benches are depicted in Flemish and French paintings of the Holy Family, and in two books from southwest Germany and central Italy. Karl Schreyner, a woodworker in Nürnberg from about 1425, is one of the woodworkers in “The Mendel and Landauer Hausbücher.” In 1485, a woodworker and his bench are on the cover of a novella published in Florence. Both are notable because they are not religious images.

Each time there is a large gap in the image record, huge societal shifts were at work. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Roman Empire was weakened by plague outbreaks that caused troop shortages and disrupted food production. During the 3rd century, there was a 50-year-long crisis that saw the Empire split into three warring parts. The devastation of wars and plague led to population shifts and, despite a reunification late in the century, there were cities in the western part of Europe that never recovered. In the 3rd and 4th centuries, the Empire struggled to keep control over its vast territories. And by the conclusion of the 5th century, the Roman Empire in Western Europe and the age of Classical Antiquity was at an end.

With the advent of the Early Middle Ages, Western Europe splintered into small kingdoms and city states. In the East, the surviving portion of the Roman Empire attempted to retake Italy and other areas lost to invading tribes. It was, to say the least, a time of great social and economic upheaval, and not every invading or land-grabbing group put record-keeping at the forefront.
Artwork from the time does include scenes of woodworking, usually of a Biblical theme, rendered in manuscripts, frescoes, tapestries and mosaics. Representations of the construction of Noah’s ark have yielded a few low workbenches. To Chris’s delight, a series of benches in an early 14th-century Northern Italian manuscript have full face vises.

Two things to consider concerning the lack of image records from the last centuries of the Roman Empire and through the Middle Ages are: Who commissioned the art and who controlled what could be made? In other words: Who had the money and who had the power? The answer: wealthy landowners and the Catholic Church. For the wealthy, a nice selection of art might include portraits to exhibit the richness of your garments and jewels, illuminations for your Book of Hours and tapestries illustrating scenes from the Bible (and to keep out the cold). The Church commissioned frescoes to teach illiterate parishioners lessons from the Bible and the life of Christ. The civic authorities of a city state might commission artwork illustrating themes of good government and portraits of city luminaries. Artwork featuring woodworkers and other craftsmen, all of the low end of the social and economic scales, was not desirable.

How the artwork was made also figures into what survived. Manuscripts and paintings were easy to move to safety, or be looted then saved. Frescoes can be incredibly durable, but given the great age of any work created in this time period they are, nevertheless, fragile. Add in questionable conservation methods and the countless wars and conflicts extending well into the 20th century, and it is remarkable we have anything left to ponder and appreciate.


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