Work In Progress: Banc à tournis: A Curious Mobilier of the 15th Century

Some furniture forms are so practical that they exist from antiquity through to today. Set a three-legged stool before an Egyptian of the third millenia BCE, a citizen of the first century Han Dynasty, and any person of today and they will immediately recognize the form and function. But other mobilier fit niches in time and place outside of which they have largely been forgotten. One of these forms is a 15th century pivot-backed settee known regionally as a Banc à tournis (French), Strycsitten (Flemish), and Vändbänken (German). A settee (also called a settle, from the Old English setl) is a long bench with a high back and arms. I will be using “strycsitten” in this write-up as a general term for pivot-backed settees, reserving Banc à tournis, Strycsitten (capitalized), and Vändbänken for specific regional forms.

The defining feature of strycsittens is a backrest affixed in such a manner as to flip from back to front, making what had been the front now the back and vice versa. The practicality of such a feature enables the user to enjoy changing the direction in which they are seated without the inconvenience of having to lift and reposition the entire strycsitten.

Two ladies seated on a strycsitten. Note the visible pivot point connecting the lever of the backrest to the side of the settee. Should the ladies no longer wish to be seated at the table, but rather face the fireplace behind them, the strycsitten’s backrest could be flipped from back to front. Décaméron de Boccace, MS 5070 réserve fol 314r, 15th c. Bibliothèque de Arsenal, Gallica BnF.

Conjectural Evolution and Distribution

The earliest documented strycsittens are already a mature form, suggesting that the true origin is of an earlier time. Jaques Daret (c. 1404-1468), a student or apprentice or employee in the workshop of Robert Campin (c. 1375-1444), included a Banc à tournis in his painting The Annunciation, circa 1425. Within a few years, Daret’s master completed the central panel of his own Annunciation (circa 1427) which eventually became the central panel of what is now known as the “Mérode Altarpiece”. Campin’s Annunciation appears to contain the very same Banc à tournis as well as the unusual table.

The Annunciation, c. 1425, by Jacques Daret. Note the extraordinary similarities with Robert Campin’s later Annunciation.
The Annunciation, c. 1427, by Robert Campin. Note the placement of the Banc à tournis next to the fireplace.

But is this the same Banc à tournis? The striking similarities suggest so. But one important detail is different in the two images: placement of the pivots. Campin’s later painting shows the pivot in the center of the middle stile (the upright post supporting the armrest). One can easily imagine the backrest being flipped from back to front, so as to make what is currently shown to be the top of the backrest becoming the bottom of the backrest, and resting on what had been the front of the seat.

Detail of Campin’s Annunciation. Note the pivot in the exact center of the stile, and the flat face of the lever joining the pivot to the backrest.
Although hidden behind the middle and right-most stiles, the lever of the near end of Campin’s Banc à tournis is visible.

Daret’s earlier Annunciation, however, shows a different arrangement for the pivot. Instead of being placed at the center of the middle stile, the pivot is shown above the stile and set into the armrest. Additionally, the lever shows sweeping curves in the visible face.

Detail of Daret’s Annunciation, showing the pivot set into the far armrest, and the lever with noteworthy curves carved into the face.
Although difficult to make out, the sweeping curves of a lever can be seen behind the near armrest.

It should also be noted that the entire backrest is shown in Campin’s later painting, whereas Daret’s image has a cloth covering nearly all of the back. This is an important detail, because if Daret’s Banc à tournis has the same backrest as Campin’s does, then either it has a complicated hidden hinge or would not work in any position other than the one shown. My conjecture, then, is that under the cloth is a simple bar, similar to those seen in later examples such as the Playfair Hours MS (below).

The Playfair Hours, MSL/1918/475 fol 1r, French, c. 1480. Note the simple bar as a backrest.

My conjecture is further supported by an investigation of another later painting by a second pupil of Robert Campin. Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1400-1464) painted his [insert text here regarding his St. Barbara and Annunication]

Which brings us back to the question: is the Banc à tournis as painted by Daret modeled on the same piece of furniture as his master, Campin, used a few years later? If so, did Daret or Campin take liberties with this one detail in the construction as shown in their painting? Considering the extraordinary attention to detail exhibited by both painters, plus the remarkable similarity of every other aspect of the Bancs à tournis, as well as the other aspects of the two paintings which are identical (the table; the window; the fireplace; etc.) I believe that the same Banc à tournis was used in both paintings, and that it underwent a replacement of the backrest in the interim.

Thus in our earliest two examples of strycsittens we see two styles of backrest (one pivoted midway up a stile; another pivoted in the armrest) in the very same Banc à tournis, separated by perhaps as few as two years.

[To Be Continued]

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