V. Borisov, V. Mokeeva

Peter the Great and the turner’s shop of His Majesty


At the end of the 17th century “the turning skill” and manufacture of decorative pieces with the help of lathes evoked a great interest at many European courts. The turner’s work engrossed particularly the active Russian Emperor Peter the Great. One of the contemporaries described Peter’s daily occupation in the following way:

“The sovereign wakes up very early. From three to four o’clock in the morning he attends the secret council. Then he goes to the shipyard and keeps his eye on shipbuilding. He often works himself, as he knows the job in details. At nine or ten o’clock he is busy with the turner’s work in which the Tsar is so skilled that would be in no way inferior to anybody.”

End of the 17th – beginning of the 18th centuries was the period of deep-cutting transformations in Russia initiated by Peter’s the Great reforms. The developing industry and transport needed rapid accumulation of technological knowledge. The Emperor was trying to involve the country into the European scientific, technological and cultural stream.  During his multiple visits abroad Peter 1 acquired various scientific collections, machine tools and instruments. The Tsar instructed also his court experts to select a scientific and craftsmen staff for organization of sciences and technologies “like in Paris, London, Berlin, and other places”.

In 1701 Peter I founded the Mathematical and Navigation school in Moscow which was the first in Russia educational technical establishment. The school included a turner’s shop headed by a Western European expert in Machine tools and decorative turning Johann Bleer. J. Bleer was also employed as the mechanic at the Moscow mint.

Johann Blüher contributed much to the development of the Moscow turner’s shop. He designed and manufactured the first “medallion” duplicating lathes.

Figure 1 shows a duplicating medallion lathe designed by Johann Bleer in 1704. Yet the carriage of the lathe was primitive and controlled by hand.

Since 1705 a young Russian Andrei Nartov became one of Bleer’s pupils. In several years A. Nartov developed significantly the duplicating lathes and invented the mechanical carriage for them. That made it possible to turn relief medallions with high accuracy.

Figure 2 and 3 show examples of the medallions produced in 1710-s with the help of such lathes (Fig.2 – Capture of Mittava; Fig.3 – Capture of Narva).

In 1712 J. Bleer died and the task to care for the turner’s shop was commissioned to a talented Russian craftsman Andrei Nartov. In the same year Andrei Nartov was ordered to transport the machine tools from Moscow to St. Peterburg for Peter’s the Great turner’s shop. A. Nartov carried out the orders and was left to work at the turner’s shop of His Majesty.

At that time a German Franz Singer headed the turner’s shop. He had been considered one of the best in the world experts in ornamental turning. Previously Franz Singer served as a turner at the Duke’s of Toskana Kosimo III Medichi court in Italy. Peter 1 had to make every effort and pay big money to get Singer to his turner’s shop. One more foreign expert George Zahnepens from England (he was named Yuri Kurnosy in Russia) was considered a private turner of His Majesty. Working for several years with Singer and Kurnosy, Andrei Nartov grasped much of their experience and soon succeeded in his own creative work.

In 1714 Nartov designed a unique lathe for production of medallions on face planes. Peter the Great liked to present European rulers with medallions and other fine articles manufactured with the help of this machine. When going on trips to Western Europe the Tsar often took lathes with him for work. Being abroad Peter I used also to see the best turner’s shops and to acquaintance with the most skilled craftsmen. In Paris he visited Pajo d’Ons on Bray, the General manager of French Post and Communications, who collected decorative lathes and other tools.

In 1718 Andrei Nartov went abroad to acquaintance with technologies and machine tools in Prussia and England. King Friedrich-Wilghelm I received the skilled Russian craftsman in his Berlin palace. Nartov handed on to the King the Tsar’s gifts – a goblet with ornaments and a snuff-box which had been turned by Peter I himself. Besides Andrei Nartov presented Friedrich-Wilghelm with an ornamental lathe of his design. The King awarded Peter’s envoy and asked Nartov to stay in Berlin for teaching him to work on the machine tool. So Andrei Nartov spent one and a half a month at the court giving lessons of turning skill to Friedrich-Wilghelm I. Nartov’s ornamental lathe was preserved in the Gogezollern Museum in Germany until 1930. Its location now is unknown.

In 1719 the Russian craftsmen visited also London where he studied some ship-building technologies by orders of Peter I. Besides he bought special instruments for manufacturing fashionable at that time snuff-boxes of turtle test. Nartov saw many turner’s shops in England and yet he came to such a conclusion in his report to Peter:

“I did not find masters here who would surpass Russian masters in turning skill.”

In the same year Nartov visited France where he spent about a year. Abbey Jean Paul Binjon, President of the French Academy, assisted the Russian expert at the request of Peter I. During the visit Nartov demonstrated a new lathe especially manufactured for infant Ludovic XV. With the help of this lathe he turned three “medals” with portraits of Ludovic XIV, Ludovic XV and Duke de Orlean, Regent of France. Turning of the medals was carried out in the presence of Jean Paul Binjon and other French scientists. Nartov’s machine tool and his skill impressed Binjon. The Head of the French Academy wrote then to Peter I that he had never seen before such marvelous turning work. The lathe became Peter’s gift to France since 1720. The machine tool is now in the National Museum of Arts and Crafts in Paris.

On Andrei Nartov’s return from abroad Peter I officially appointed him for the post of his private turner. In 1720 Jeorge Zanepence died, three years later Franz Singer was no more. Nartov became the head of the turner’s shop. In the following years Andrei Nartov confirmed himself as the prominent machine tools designer. He went on with the development of duplicating lathes for manufacturing decorative articles. Six duplicating lathes designed by Andrei Nartov (two of them together with Franz Singer and Yuri Kurnosy) are preserved now in “The State Hermitage” Museum in St. Petersburg.

Figure 4 shows a gyloshire (lateral) duplicating lathe manufactured in 1722 by Yuri Kurnosy and Andrei Nartov’ design.

Apart from duplicating lathes and turning decorative articles on them Andrei Nartov dealt with other machine tools, and also with various devices and instruments.

Figure 5 shows a gear-hobbing machine manufactured by Andrei Nartov in 1721. The machine made completely of metal was an advanced development for the machine building of that time.

“The State Hermitage” Museum has got many pieces of art and other articles connected with the activity of Andrei Nartov’s workshop.

Figure 6 shows a bronze cylindrical former used for work in duplicating lathes.

Figure 7 shows a medallion with Peter’s I portrait turned at a duplicating lathe.

Figure 8 shows a cylindrical box for a compass with a screwing cover of bone.

The box was turned on a duplicating lateral lathe. The cover was turned on a duplicating medallion lathe.

Figure 9 shows a vase with oval bowl and spiral stem of bone. The bowl and the stem are turned on a duplicating lateral lathe. The leg socle is turned on a duplicating medallion lathe.

Peter the Great died in1725. His turner’s shop went on the work but the best years of designing duplicating lathes for manufacturing pieces of art were belonged to Tsar Peter’s times. The industrial revolution put forward new problems. Head of the workshop Andrei Nartov sets about studying and designing machine tools for manufacturing screws, gear wheels, and for technological processes of turning, planing, drilling, and milling.

In 1738 Nartov developed a project of the screw-cutting machine with a mechanized carriage using the pair “screw – nut”. The machine was described in Nartov’s main work “Teatrum Machinarum or a clear vision of machines”. This project as well as other records by Nartov suggests that the Russian machine builder had formulated the main principles of the mechanized lathe carriage, invented many years later.

Nartov wrote the “Teatrum Machinarum” for twenty years. The manuscript was completed in 1755 a year before the author’s death. Andrei Nartov tried to sum up his knowledge about various machine tools including the lathes in his work. Most of its pages represent drawings of machine tools. The drawings were fulfilled as by Nartov so by his pupils Ermolayev and Semenov.

Figure 10 taken from the manuscript shows Nartov’s “personal machine of the second kind” or the duplicating lathe.

At the beginning of 1990-s a group of St. Petersburg enthusiasts decided to re-create the most interesting machine tools and restore the lost technology of the “turning art”. The group supported with the “Petropol” Gallery, the State Hermitage Museum and the Russian Academy of Sciences, included researchers, architects–restorers, designers, mechanics, carpenters, sculptors-artists, and turners. The group worked out a program; its final aim was not only to reconstruct the machines but also to reproduce the whole technological process of manufacturing articles of bone.

The shown at the illustration duplicating machine for manufacture of portraits and pieces of art had been chosen as the first object. The machine tool has a rich decor. Such decor was characteristic of many machines in Peter’s turner’s shop as the Tsar liked to demonstrate his Laboratory to privileged guests. The machine was intended for production of relief portraits and drawings on historical topics made of ivory and wood.

Recreation of a lost relic is a complicated process. The researchers came across with unexplored regions in the object’s history, such as secrets of the lost technologies, some contradictions in the used iconography, etc.

Reconstruction of the machine’s pedestal or workbench needed a special investigation. St. Petersburg restorers had to recreate not only the mechanical equipment but as well a splendid decor of the “personal machine”. It was known that Andrei Nartov collaborated with the skilled French decorator Nicola Pinot in the process of his machine tools designing. This expert in decorative and applied art had found himself in Russia thanks to invitation of the prominent French architect Jean-Bom. Lebloun who retired from the post of the court architect after Ludovic’s XIV death.

The restoring work began with a detailed analysis of the iconographic representation. The only source of knowledge about the machine was at first a perspective drawing from Nartov’s manuscript “Teatrum Machinarum” (Fig.10). The drawing gives image of the frontal facade and a look of one side facade. The analysis put the following questions:

1.   What were the machine’s sizes?

2.  How do the two more facades look?

3.  Character, the decorative style and details of the mechanical part and the pedestal of the machine.

A scale (foot) rule on the drawing gave the opportunity to calculate width of the machine – 1m 45 cm and height of the pedestal – 1m 5 cm. At the same time the perspective distortion of the drawing prevented for some time from correct estimation of the machine’s length. At last the secret of the perspective correlation was opened by the architect-restorer Grigory Mikhailov, and length of the machine – 1m 27 cm was found.

Stylistics of the machine’s decor demanded for a special investigation. Art critic Ninel Kaliazina found out that the drawing in the manuscript is evidently a copy made from the author’s original. Some important details of the decor were lost in the process of copying. Those details were reconstructed by way of multiple comparison with analogous constructions. It helped to define complex reliefs of the varied wood-carving.

Recreation of the technological part of Nartov’s machine demanded for an extensive engineering work. The mechanical diagram of the machine includes two duplicating systems (see Figure 11). The first one (red lines in the Figure 11) is intended for processing of face planes with the use of gyloshire formers. The second system (black lines in the Figure 11) is for processing of medallion face planes with a scale reduction towards the former’s size. The scale reduction was 1/4 to 1/3 as the main processed material had been ivory and the bone’s diameter could be 90 to 120 mm. The former’s diameter was 360 mm.

An important item was the use of materials for construction. Chemical analysis of details used at the first quarter of 18th century showed that the per cent ratio of elements in such materials as iron, copper, brass, and bronze was not stable. The designers decided to work with two materials: structural steel 45 (in Russian standards) and brass LS 59.

We have to mention some specific characteristics of the duplicating lathes of the 18th century. The formers for processing of face surfaces were mirror reflections of the manufactured articles: a projection on the former produced a cavity on the article and vice versa.

The work, we speak about, made it possible to revive a machine of the past in 270 years.

Figure 12 shows this recreated machine manufactured in 1990-1993.

Valeria Mokeeva, an artist and the Head of the Reconstruction works Group made a great contribution to the success of the reported work. Some other prominent experts participated the work. Vladimir Matveev, Vice-Director of The State Hermitage Museum was an inspirer and the main expert on relics of the Peter’s I age. Dr. I. Druzhinsky made the important engineering calculations for reconstruction of the technological part of the machine. The restorers under the leadership of an architect G. Mikhailov and a cabinet-maker V. Kashcheev manufactured the oak workbench for the machine. The Sestroretsk instrumental plant founded at Peter’s age carried out the acting mechanical part of the machine. R. Brinster, Head of the experimental laboratory, contributed much to this unique work. Turner A. Martirosov together with V. Mokeeva gave a workout to the technology of bone processing.