The two associated chairs differ in small details. Each has S-curved arm supports and legs with a turned disk at the intersection; No. 161 has incised band edging at the front. The arms are shaped and decorated on the top with acanthus leaves, and end in volute hand pieces with carved rosettes at the side. The base rails are shaped on the underside and end in stylized claw feet (No. 161) or a gadroon and pearl pattern (No. 162). The embroidered blue silk velvet cushioned seat has green fringing; each back has an applied, embroidered cartouche. These two “folding armchairs” are among the best preserved pieces of furniture in the Robert Lehman Collection and reflect the appreciation of the Italian Renaissance among American’s wealthy elite during the last century and a half. The deliberate application of similar upholstery and embroidered parts helped unify the appearance of both chairs, and mask the differences in the woodwork, which can be detected only through close examination. On each, the disk that joins the two supports at the front and two more at the back suggests the possibility of folding up the seat, but this “mechanism” is deceptive, as any attempt to engage it would result in the supports colliding above the turning point. The X-shape, or sella curulis, or curule, derives from the ancient Roman seat primarily used by high officials.(1) The form continued as the faldistorium through the Middle Ages, and then experienced enormous popularity among the affluent during the Renaissance in nearly all of Europe, which led to numerous imitations in the nineteenth century. Thornton illustrates a sechia of the Dantesca type, a term that was romantically applied to this specific form, as the name “Savonarola” was given to a second fashionable seat design.(2) Covered with precious marquetry (see Nos. 159, 160) or elaborate upholstery with gilded decoration, the “fossilized” form, as Thornton called it, remained a symbol of power and riches well into the seventeenth century.(3) Its importance is attested by its presence in portraits from this period and also by its inclusion in high feastday processions. The Opera by Bartolomeo Scappi of 1570 illustrates the rarely documented ceremony in which cardinals gathered in the conclave to select a new pope (see Fig. 161.1). Four “princes of the church,” who preside at a table to control the access, are seated in similar “folding chairs” as signs of their elevated status.(4) It is nearly exclusively in noble palaces that such chairs are available not only to a royal host or guest but also to aristocratic visitors in recognition of their ranks.(5) Various similar works have survived.(6)
Catalogue entry from: Wolfram Koeppe. The Robert Lehman Collection. Decorative Arts, Vol. XV. Wolfram Koeppe, et al. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Princeton University Press, 2012, pp. 232-33.
1. Wanscher, Ole. Sella Curulis, the Folding Stool: An Ancient Symbol of Dignity. Copenhagen, Wanscher 1980.
2. Thornton, Peter. The Italian Renaissance Interior, 1400 – 1600. New York, 1991, pl. 279, illustrates a sechia of the “Dante type” that is no longer foldable; see also 1975.1.1980 a,b in the present volume.
3. Ibid., pl. 198.
4. Metropolitan Museum, 52.595.2(20); P. Thornton 1991, pl. 372.
5. P. Thornton 1991, pl. 313 (ca. 1520 fresco by Marcello Fogolino [1483/88 – after 1548] showing a row of such chairs during a banquet in Malpaga Castle near Bergamo in honor of King Christian I of Denmark in 1474).
6. Flint Institute of Arts, Michigan (DeWaters Art Center 1963, n.p.); see also 1975.1.1973 in the present volume. In addition, the celebrated furniture designs of Duncan Phyfe (1770 – 1854) include a derivation of this model.