To Herculaneum

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Narayan shoots photos of a set of frescoes in Herculaneum.

No matter how much you read about a person, a piece of furniture or a place, the real thing is always different. Today, Narayan Nayar and I visited Herculaneum, the doomed coastal city in Italy that has changed the way I look at woodworking workbenches.

There are no workbenches at Herculaneum. But there was an image of one. Once. But it was cut from the walls of the House of the Deer, shipped to Naples where it deteriorated to the point where almost nothing of the bench is now visible. Still, the image (actually an image of the image) is incredibly important to me. It’s the first drawing of a holdfast that I know of. And it shows a low workbench being used for sawing – another critical clue.

So I had to visit Herculaneum and other sites involving the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius. Not that I expected to discover “new” information about woodworking, workbenches or tools. But to give me some context for everything I’ve read for the last 20 years.

What was shocking? For me, it was the paint and the painting. I now need to do more reasearch on the surviving frescoes at Herculaneum, but I was struck dumb by the detail, clarity and color of what I saw today. Was it restored by modern hands?

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Carbonized wood that was destroyed and yet preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius.

As Narayan and I walked around the ruined city it became clear that that modern people are both the saviors and sackers of the now-exposed stonework, plaster and frescoes. Narayan and I saw a little girl rummaging inside an ancient clay vase. Other frescoes were covered by Perspex and clouded by the sun and humidity.

I tried to tread lightly all day because Herculaneum is a non-renewable resource. But my tiptoeing is a drop in the bucket against modern air pollution, adventurous little girls and 2 million other visitors. Ultimately, everything turns to dust.

So the best I can do is to provide an account of what I saw that is unprejudiced by cultural or temporal bias so that future woodworkers will know why Herculaneum is a pile of rubble to be remembered.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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10 Responses to To Herculaneum

  1. Chris, I too was stunned that some of the paint looked only years old instead of centuries old. How is that possible? Even if it was more stain than paint how does it not fade? Great pigments I guess.

    The other shock was the change in depth of the city over the centuries from the ash – stunning.

    If people wanted to see more of Herculaneum, they just have to dig! The modern neighborhood sits on top of much more of the old city – it just costs billions to find it!

  2. Mark Baker says:

    Aloha Chris , as a child , through the pages of my parents and grandparents librarys’ ,I could almost see the scene of that Eruption . As you touched on the woodworker’s bench being ‘carbonize’ , this was from the pyroclastic flows that that side was buried from . The heat from such , to anyone who made it in doors , didn’t spare them or give them much time even to panic but such a flash of heat that they were vaporized . Unlike the ‘cases’ the victims at Pampa ,who were choked to death in the downpour of dusts of glass like particles . Among my first woodworking wow’s was finding out that our common ‘spade bit’ we owe to those roman craftsmen .

  3. Thank you. You are doing something regarding tool history that I have always wanted to do.

  4. siavoshb2015 says:

    As your research keeps taking you down the minimalistic path, I can’t help but wonder your thoughts on Japanese woodworking, and their idea of a “workbench”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJ4VoqRda2M

  5. Another great post Chris…thanks!

    I love to watch people’s faces when they see acient paints looking so vibrant…Tempras are still (at 7000 plus years) the oldest surviving paint that isn’t hidden in a cave…

    Modern finishes are modern…they are far from being better by a long shot!

  6. studioffm says:

    The keys to the vibrancy of the frescos are the method and the pigments. They used literally earth pigments . Ground up coloured earth for most colours. They stay clear and bright . The fresco method is to paint into wet plaster this dries and seals the colour in the wall .

    hope this helps

    david savage

    • Hi David,
      Thanks David…Some of these are frescos, but not all done in the same fashion. I do (did) frescos and learned from my mother many of these techniques, along with many of the other traditional finishing techniques. We would gather all manner of pigments, both earth, plant and animal based, just as they did then. Part of the reasons I still won’t use modern finishes is they just don’t compare with traditional methods for vibrance, durability, and most importantly in many ways…aging gracefully…The patina we find on vintage work is only achieve with traditional methods. Thanks again for the reply

  7. Chris, I bet you ate some good pizza too !!!

  8. Jeremy says:

    In general, Italians (and historically Egyptians) do not fully appreciate the splendors of history they have surrounding them, no doubt in part to their relative ubiquity. On the one hand, it’s so nice to see things not encased in glass, but on the other hand, it is painful when you see those little girls (or “adults” with selfie sticks) doing irresponsible things.

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