Sunday, June 21, 2015

To Ornament or not; Part II - The cost of things

From time to time, reading books on furniture, I come across comments such as this one from Percy Macquoid's Age of Oak; "For the purpose of comparison, we give in Fig. 34 a French walnut credence of about the same date;'[1520]'being foreign, and therefore more advanced in style..."

The general idea is usually the same; that this or that craftsman was inferior to some other craftsman, or the collective artisans of another region or country. Though this idea always tries to show one work, or group of works, as superior to another, because of quality of construction, ornament, or both, perhaps we should question the possibility of other factors which might account for the varying degrees of refinement found in furniture? To be sure, there have, and always will be, more and less skilled tradesmen, but that might not be the only factor leading to one historical piece being plain and simply adorned, (or not at all) whilst another piece, from the same time period, might be much more decorative or well constructed. Did anyone consider that perhaps the factor of money might have had just a little bit of something to do with it as well?

In this post, we will examine how economic circumstances might have played a large role in the ornamentation and quality of furniture and furnishing. "Economic circumstances" can be thought of in two different aspects. The first being the economy of the region in which the artist is practicing his trade; the second would be the amount of money which a patron or client might have felt he was willing to spend on the project.



9th or 10th century Cover of a Gospel Book from Mainz
Bayerische Staatsbibliothek clm 4451

Some regions, flush with trade, industry, or natural resources, would naturally have a wealthier economy than other areas which might have primarily relied on an agrarian livelihood. I have recently been reading about the histories of Mainz and Passsau, in Germany, and how their differing circumstances shaped the outcome of those two cities. (Not a single work, and I am the one drawing a comparative connection.) Perhaps the consideration of their developments can give us some anecdotal examples of the difference a region's economy might play on the objects produced in them.


The city of Passau, from an etching ca. 1572
(Wikimedia)


Passau was apparently founded earlier both by the Celtic/Germanic tribes, and re-founded at an earlier date than that of Mainz, by the Romans. Both cities were important outposts in the Roman system of frontier fortifications and both had a strong local economy in the "Migration Period" (Völkerwanderungszeit) following the "collapse" of the Roman Empire. Both cities were governed by local kings in the 6th and 7th centuries and both served as local centres of trade and industry. Though the second never became a great city, nor did the first fade into oblivion, during the first half of the Medieval period, they did have markedly different fates.

Like so many other things these two cities held in common, both of them were invested with a "Bishop's seat" (in other words, a regional centre of ecclesiastical-political power) in the 8th century. The primary distinction which made Mainz one of the most politically powerful cities in the Holy Roman Empire, from the 9th to the 17th centuries was the fact that, unlike Passau, it was granted an archbishopric.



The city of Mainz, from an etching, ca. 1572
Now this was a beautiful city. (Global urbanization and overcrowding; look and weep for what you lost.)
(Wikimedia)

Already in the 9th century, Mainz was an immensely important centre, and in the context of my primary interest of furniture and furnishings, was involved in a highly skilled and sophisticated industry of the production of ivory panels, boxes, and other items made from that material. Because the raw material required for that trade was so dear, it is obvious that a large amount of wealth attended that city. In addition, archbishops were not generally known for their spartan lifestyles. The artisans of Mainz must have enjoyed a pool of well funded, and generous patrons, and the artworks which can be positively identified as originating there, reflect this.

On the other hand, Passau, as a more ordinary city, had a more ordinary set of clients; not much of  any particular renown came from the place before the 13th century, when it began to be known for its superior metal-works. This seems mostly to be a case of "money and power begets more of the same", and thus Mainz was a city which grew in power and prestige. By the 10th century the Archbishop of Mainz had gained the position as the most influential of the 7 Electors of the Holy Roman Emperor. (The guy in charge of the Holy Roman Empire.)

We do not know what great craftsmen of wood and other forms of furnishings might have plied their trades in the city, as their memories have all faded to dust, but it seems to be a safe bet that they would have had a similar level of skill to the book illuminators and ivory artisans, already mentioned, whose works are still known to us. In the circles of art history, you will find reference to "the School of Mainz". I have no idea if there was an actual "art school" as we would think of the term now, this phrase more broadly speaks of the artistic taste, style, and level of skill emanating from the artistic workshops of Mainz and her nearby monasteries etc. This same idea is again repeated in the loosely defined term of "School of Florence" in the context of the birth of the Renaissance art of the 13th and early 14th centuries, under the leadership of such prominent artists as Cimabue and Giotto.

I have mentioned these two cities, not because they were of any particular significance, as compared to other medieval cities of Germany, but simply because I had been reading about them, and their evolution over the course of the Middle Ages. Most histories of places do not include much at all with regard to the craftsmen and trades practiced within a city, unless it was of significant importance, or of far reaching impact. Neither of these towns fit that bill, until the 13th century when Passau began to be renowned for fine blades and weapons. Doubtless, this would have included tools for other trades as well, but since society seems always to have had an insatiable appetite for all things martial, weaponry gets most of the attention, whilst more useful tools are completely ignored. (Though many illuminated manuscripts were produced in Mainz, other cities, such as Hidesheim, Echternach, St. Gallen, and Reichenau, were actually much more renowned for their books.)

Speaking on the topic of what was more finely produced in one place, than in another; at the beginning of this article I mentioned a quotation from Percy Macquoid, an English author and antiques enthusiast. who wrote at the beginning of the 20th century. His primary focus was on English furniture, and he, like so many others of his time, had been steeped in the notion which was prevalent in his day; namely that almost everything produced before the Renaissance was backwards and primitive - especially in England. (Actually this notion persists to this day, bolstered to a large degree by the writings of Mr Macquoid and other of his contemporaries.)

One of those contemporaries was Herbert Cescinsky, who also wrote an History of English Furniture. A quotation from his book will show the prejudiced notions which he held. His treatise on furniture begins with the "middle of the 13th century", and speaking about a chest of questionable date, he states; "This type of chest persisted well beyond the fourteenth, to the early fifteenth century' [there is such a huge difference in time here] '...but here the top and uprights are scratch moulded, a sure indication of the fifteenth century. The wood here is not left rough from the saw, but is dubbed smooth, and with a plane, not the adze."

In this statement, and others in his book as well, Mr Cescinsky is assuming that any sort of moulding or working with planes could not possibly have come from before the end of the 14th century. He is basing his opinion on the general notions of his time, and by the examination of an handful of extant chests from some parish churches around England. Whilst it is true that those other 13th century chests he cites in his book are quite plain, on cannot judge the appearance of all furniture produced in an entire country over the course of 100 years (referring here to the 14th century) by examining six, or even 60 individual pieces.

Something I find quite intriguing in these two men's notions, is the obvious contrast from their prevailing views, with that of the 13th century Coronation Chair of Westminster Abbey. One would think that these two men surely knew of its existence, yet it is quite clear from its decoration, that the level of skill executed in its construction was far superior to their notions of the English cabinetmaker's trade of that time. Furthermore, there are other existing 13th century English creations, such as the choir stalls of Lincoln and Chester cathedrals which bear the same degree of skill in their craftsmanship, and demonstrate the use of planes, both for smoothing and for moulding.


1296 Coronation Chair of King Edward I
Though much damaged by seven hundred years of abuse,
this chair (with a 17th century replacement base, possibly
patterned after the original) still shows a high degree
of skill and craftsmanship. 


In Mr Macquoid's book, which begins with the end of the 15th century, as already quoted, he makes several comparisons of English and French work, with the intent of showing the English craftsmen's work to be of inferior quality to that of their French contemporaries. I would suggest that this chair gives rise to the validity of seriously questioning that notion. It would be a long and complicated undertaking, but I am quite certain that one could make a comparison of the general economy of France and England in the 14th and 15th centuries and find that that of France was in much better condition than England's. Perhaps it would be safe to assume that those persons purchasing furnishings, on average, also had less money to spend on their goods.

Many people seem to have some generally held belief that craftsmen used to work at their trade always according to their ability, making each piece as best they knew how; if a surviving piece of theirs is of poor quality, the commonly held assumption is that the maker did crude or primitive work and was incapable of producing finer quality goods. This is about as accurate, in the context of history, as it would be today. There is a much more powerful medium which, to a great degree, effects the sophistication of objects which an artisan produces; it is called money.

Just like today, people who made things in the Middle Ages, usually did not do it for altruistic purposes. In fact, today we have the concept of an hobby, in which people spend long hours making things which they never could possibly sell for anything close to the value of the time spent on them, but this idea was largely unknown in medieval times. If an artist was involved in the production of something, it was his means of earning a livelihood. Though artists were admonished to do the work to the best of their ability, as God would be the ultimate judge of their efforts, (see the introduction to Il Libro dell' Arte for an example of this) this was in the context of what they were being paid to produce. A simple box made of six pieces of timber can be well made if the pieces are properly cut to length and planed to a uniform thickness; likewise, an elaborately carved one whose work is done carelessly and with many mistakes, would be poorly executed and an example of bad craftsmanship.

I just mentioned Il Libro dell' Arte, this is a work by Cennino Cennini, and regardless of what year it was actually published, reflects the methods and materials of the time of Giotto, the master whom Cennini admired, and traced his education back to. From one of his "chapters" (usually one to five short paragraphs) on ornamenting chests, come the following entries; "In executing caskets or chests, if you want to do them royally, gesso them, and follow all the methods which you follow in working on panel, for gilding and for painting and for stamping, embellishing and for varnishing,"

"If you want to execute other caskets of less worth, size them first, and lay cloth over the cracks, and you do that with the previous ones as well. But you may just gesso these at first with the slice and brush with well-sifted ashes and the usual size. When they are gessoed and dry, smooth them down; and, if you care to, gesso them afterward with gesso sottile, if you wish. If you want to embellish them with any figures or other devices made of tin, follow this method..." Chapter CLXX

From reading his instructions on doing panels, we realise from this statement, that he is saying, for chests "of less worth" spend about half as much time with the gesso, and do not worry too much if it is not quite as smooth or finished. Then, spend less time and money on whatever decoration you decide to use on it. In other words, 'produce what you are being paid for'.


A small (413mm long) 14th century casket from the Cleveland Museum of Art.
This casket portrays exactly the techniques explained by Cennini for
the finer quality work of his time period; larger chests would have panels
painted with scenes, or figures, or both.


Consider these two 14th century Italian objects, both of them exhibit the sort of work described by Cennini in his explanation of ornamenting chests and panels. In his book, he explains two methods of making three dimensional ornaments to apply to surfaces. The first method is to make a mould and fill it with a very stiff gesso, then carefully remove it and once it is dry, using a little more gesso, adhere it to the surface. This would be the method used on the little casket pictured above. A second method was to have a mould in which one pressed or hammered tin foil into, and then attached it to the work, also with gesso. The detail below shows a tin lock plate with some ornament pressed in from the back side. Though this was probably done with a punch on a wax and brick dust cake, in a technique already in use in the 12th century, as described by Eligius, (You may read an excellent essay on working with this material here.) the end result is very similar to the method described by Cennini. The difference in the two methods is that in the second, the metal is much thinner. In the case of the pressed metal decorations, the metal would have been left exposed, or painted with a transparent colour, whereas the gesso ornaments needed additional coats of gesso and scraping followed by gilding. This would obviously require more time, and cost, and thus the object would be more expensive. Notice that Cennini is assuming that the same craftsman would be doing both sorts of work.


Detail of a chest in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This close up shows the reverse punched design to the lock-plate.
Additionally the metal strapping has a series of circular ornamental punch marks on
the face. When this chest was new, the metal would have been bright tin, and
the chest a brilliant blue with white and orange decorations.


It may come as a surprise to some, but even the "great masters" of art worked on things such as chests, crucifixes, and portable altars. In Il Libro dell' Arte, Cennini is giving instructions for would be artists. His primary focus is on panel painting and frescoes, but he also talks about painting banners, and painting on stone, glass, and leather. In other words, a craftsman makes his living where and how he is able. If a patron is willing to spend the money, he will produce a masterpiece, if the client has less money to spend, he will produce something more ordinary or plain. Can one not assume, then, that the same would be true for wood carvers. Just because a craftsman may have had the ability to produce an exquisitely detailed carved buffet, he may not always have been able to find someone willing to pay for one. Quite possibly, he may have spent most of his time creating pieces which some modern inconsiderate historian casually dubbed, "crude" or "inferior".



Bartolo di Fredi, scene of St Paul the Hermit
On display in the Berlin Gemäldegalerie as a "painted panel" this was once
a front panel of a chest.
There are many of these sort of panels scattered throughout the world's
museums, many of them produced by great masters, and all once belonging
to chests, cabinets, and altar pieces.





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