by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Tools of their Trades

By Roderick Conway Morris
MILAN 18 March 2000
Luigi Nessi Collection
Italian steelyard, wrought iron with dragons' heads,
early 18th century



Industrialization during the 19th century led to a different kind of interest in handcrafted products, as objects that had once been the familiar furnishings of everyday life became the stuff of the new museums of applied and decorative arts.

A later development has been the systematic collecting and study of the tools employed by artisans and utensils of types no longer in use, or replaced by mass-produced equivalents.

Luigi Nessi, a Swiss architect has, over four decades, brought together 15,000 of these in a private collection that would be the envy of a public museum. For the first time, a selection of about 700 of them is on show in 'Tools as Objets d'Art: From the 16th to the 19th Century' at the Castello Sforzesco. The exhibition continues until April 24, and next year will be displayed at the Museum der Kulturen in Basel.

The show coincides with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Milan Civic Museums' Applied Art Collection, and included in the show is one of its most prized possessions, Galileo's 1606 multipurpose geometrical compass. The scientist had about 60 of them made in brass by a local master craftsman to raise funds to support his ever-expanding circle of students at Padua University. Only one other example survives.

The tools in the Nessi collection cover a vast range of activities from carpentry and cooking to coach building and artillery sighting. Trying to guess, before looking at the labels, what some of these devices are for is a challenge and diversion in itself, and the cumulative effect is to evoke a world now remote from the one we inhabit today.

Intricate manual pursuits gave rise to commensurately finely wrought tools. One of the oldest of such highly decorated implements here is a late 15th-century, richly-inlaid, dual-purpose hammer-cum-pincer, almost certainly made and employed by an armorer.

A stylish but sturdy pair of 18th-century garden shears would serve their purpose as well now as then, but would have been well up to the superior standards of dress and dÉcor to which the gentleman or woman that commissioned them was evidently accustomed.

Similarly, expensive products destined for the kitchen and table gave rise to elaborate and attractive tools to deal with them, from citrus-fruit squeezers to chocolate choppers and pine-nut shredders.

White sugar was a particularly pricey item, but after the laborious refining process was delivered to the lucky few as rock-hard conical loaves that had to be assaulted by kitchen staff with miniature axes, pincers and crushers - all expressly designed for this purpose and often elegantly finished. Examples from the arsenals of these harmlessly intentioned tools now look like nothing so much as the contents of some medieval midget's armory or torture chamber.

The upper echelons of society everywhere tended to define their status by their freedom from the obligation to perform manual labor, but quite a few monarchs and princes - including Louis XV and Louis XVI and Peter the Great - dabbled in artisanal occupations. Needlework was done by women of all social classes, and exquisite sewing sets for the more privileged among them constitute some of the most attractive exhibits in the show.

Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, went to unusual lengths in commissioning extraordinarily ingenious and splendidly embellished tools, though they seem to have been destined more for his cabinet of curiosities than for actual use.

The Ottoman emperors were exceptional in that every sultan learned a trade, so that should he suffer a downturn in his fortunes he would be able to earn a living honorably without being reduced to charity. Sultans were variously arrow, bowstring and spoon makers, metalworkers, goldsmiths and cobblers. Muhammad II, the conqueror of Constantinople, was trained as a gardener (he would surely have appreciated those French shears), and the last effective sultan, Abdul Hamid, was an expert cabinet maker, and examples of his work and his tools can still be seen in Istanbul.

The dawn of mechanical manufacturing in the 18th and 19th century stimulated gentleman hobbyists to set up workshops to produce artisanal 'objets,' notably furniture, at home. The Holtzappfel family, originally from Alsace but who settled in London in 1790, headed the field in providing sophisticated equipment for these well-heeled amateurs.

A complete, perfectly preserved Holtzappfel lathe with gleaming, pedal-driven, mahogany and brass work-bench, and cabinets with dozens of drill bits, chisels and finishing tools, made in London in 1824, make up one of the show's most imposing and telling ensembles.

For this lathe is, of course, a semi-industrial mechanism, whose style is rigorously functional and devoid of decorative elements. And these devices, although destined for the manufacture of 'home-made' pieces, signaled, as much as the first factories and mills with their smoke-belching chimneys, the end of the universal use of those old-fashioned, hand-manipulated tools that could also be beautiful works of craftsmanship in themselves.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023