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?
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