Chair (Sgabello)

Maker: Attributed to the Workshop of Giuliano da Maiano (1432–1490) and Benedetto da Maiano (1442–1497)

Date: ca. 1489–91

Culture: Italian, Florence

Medium: Walnut, maple, ebony; ebonized wood, and fruitwood; traces of gilding and red paint

Dimensions: H. 58 x W. 16-3/4 x D. 16-1/2 in. (147.3 x 42.5 x 41.9 cm)

Classification: Woodwork-Furniture

Credit Line: Fletcher Fund, 1930

Accession Number: 30.93.2


The Strozzi chair is one of the best-known and most often published pieces of seating furniture in the world.[1] Shortly after 1900, in a period when Italian Renaissance furniture was as highly prized as old-master paintings, Hans Stegmann called it a "unicum known the world over. . . a masterwork of charming beauty, one of the most beautiful Florentine pieces of furniture around."[2] Given its celebrity, it is astonishing that the most recent publications on the chair rely on information in the 1930 catalogue of the collection of the Viennese banker Albert Figdor, who acquired it in the 1870s from Prince Strozzi in Florence, and ignore later investigations.[3]

The form of the sgabello derives from a low stool with three legs (a tre gambe) mounted at an angle, a very simple type of seat that had been popular since ancient times.[4] By adding an elongated backrest, the designer demonstrated unusual sensitivity to shape and ornament and a degree of subtlety that is rarely found in furniture. The decoration on the back, sides of the seat, and feet consists of delicately carved elements and a small line of geometric inlay. The latter is consciously contrasted with the dramatic veining of the walnut wood. The elegant concept and the attention given to minute details indicate that this was a very special commission for all the artisans involved.

The backrest seems comparable in silhouette to a peacock's feather. A plain center panel supports the tondo on top, in the "eye" of which the Strozzi coat of arms with three crescent moons (arme delle tre lune) and lavish acanthus decoration stand out against a punched background. Crowning this is the image of a molting falcon. In the background, feathers cascade down in a circular movement from the spread wings of the bird.

The three crescents within a shield can be seen again on the reverse of the tondo, in front of a fluted sun motif. The encircling band consists of four rosettes at the cardinal points connected by feathered scales arranged in divergent directions. The whole tondo-front and back-is framed by a wreath of crescent moons, another allusion to the house of Strozzi.[5] Following Wilhelm von Bode, Frida Schottmüller remarked that the reverse of a medal made for Filippo di Matteo di Simone Strozzi (1428–1491), in the "manner of Niccolò Fiorentino," was used as the model for the front of the tondo.[6] Other early writers ascribed the medal as well as the design of the sgabello to the workshop of Giuliano and Benedetto da Maiano. Both brothers were regularly employed by Strozzi.[7] Documents show that in 1467 Filippo Strozzi ordered from Giuliano da Maiano a richly inlaid cassone for himself, as well as a lettuccio, or bench.[8] The medal, which has now convincingly been attributed to Niccolò Fiorentino (1430–1514), was probably commissioned for the cornerstone ceremony at the Strozzi Palace, on 6 August 1489.[9] It exists in multiple copies and could easily have been examined by other artisans.[10]

As a conspicuous display object, embellished on all sides and intended to be freestanding, the sgabello should be interpreted in the context of the Strozzi Palace. With the crescent moon as a connecting element, it fits seamlessly into the decoration of the building. The moon motif can be found not only in the biforium windows of the facade and the famous large iron lanterns but also in the interior, in the supporting brackets, fireplace frames, and furniture panels. While it might be too much to say that the presence of such motifs characterizes a "decorative program," the heraldic sickle moons displayed for everyone to see are an inseparable part of a totality, of a propaganda project to enhance the grandeur of the aristocratic owner, Filippo Strozzi (see acc. no. 14.39).[11]

The falcon, Filippo's personal emblem, or impresa, on the tondo also functions as a rebus: the Italian word for falconer is strozziere. A molting falcon has always been a metaphor for renewal. But what is meant here is not that all the feathers will be shed and replaced, as is the case with ducks, for instance, which become incapable of flying for several weeks and fall easy prey to carnivores. The spread, flawless wings of the swift falcon prove that its plumage renews itself only partially and that the bird always remains capable of defending itself and of attacking potential enemies. The falcon of Filippo's impresa thus signifies a prepared readiness in the face of trial, a potential for renewal and for overcoming adversity.

The similarity between the tondo and the medal not only proves that both must be directly linked to Filippo Strozzi as patron but also gives a clue to the date of the chair: the execution of the commission must have taken place between 1489, when the medal was struck and work on the palace begun, and 15 May 1491, the day of Strozzi's death. Any time after that is highly unlikely, since Strozzi's successor would almost certainly have chosen a different decoration, fashioned to represent himself.

A calculated choice, probably, and if so a stroke of genius, are the three legs, which will correct the chair's position on uneven ground; they form a firm base for the tondo, underlining the strength, sturdiness, and discipline of the owner, who never gives up hope and steadfastly supports his family and friends. These virtues had characterized Filippo during his exile from Florence between 1458 and 1466.[12]

The intellectual ferment in fifteenth-century Florence undoubtedly played a role in the chair's conception. In his treatise De Re Aedificatoria (On the Art of Building) Leonbattista Alberti (1404–1472) put forward the revolutionary idea that different types of buildings should be designed to reflect the requirements of those who live and work in them. As Martin Kemp has pointed out, some of Alberti's immediate successors went still further, maintaining that every aspect of architecture, "from the design of a capital at the top of a column to the overall plan of a city was to be governed by a rigorously proportional geometry."[13] These ideas could easily be extended to apply to a palace and its furnishings. Another intriguing reflection in the Strozzi chair of the passionate interest among the Florentine intellectuals in the ordering of space is the fact that the octagonal seat reflects the floor plan of the Florentine Baptistery, even to the high altar's niche. That protruding space is filled in the chair by the elongated back, which supports Filippo Strozzi's impresa.[14] The Baptistery was the building that Filippo Brunelleschi (1377?–1446), who had revolutionized painting by working out a method for accurately reproducing the third dimension on a flat surface, used as the subject of his famous perspectival projections.[15] The ideas of Alberti and Brunelleschi flowed through the Florentine artistic community as the money of the Medici bank flowed through politics. No innovative artist could help but respond to this creative climate.

The sgabello is not a marvel of comfort, but it was not intended to be. A display piece, it represents a rare combination of a practical medieval form and a humanistic Renaissance design. Certainly it is one of the most unusual pieces of furniture ever made, one in which meaning and beauty mingle in unrivaled harmony.[16]

[Wolfram Koeppe 2006]

[1] This entry is based on Wolfram Koeppe. "French and Italian Renaissance Furniture at The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notes on a Survey." Apollo 138 (June 1994), pp. 24–32.

[2] Hans Stegmann. Die Holzmöbel der Sammlung Figdor. 2nd ed. Vienna, 1909.

[3] Die Sammlung Dr. Albert Figdor 1930, pt. 1, vol. 2, no. 657. The latest publication is Claudio Paolini. Il mobile del Rinascimento: La collezione Herbert Percy Horne. Florence, 2002, pp. 68-70, no. 9. The author of that work mentions several times in error that two chairs of this design are in the Metropolitan Museum's collection.

[4] Ancient tripod tables that have survived suggest that there may have been matching chairs, like the "folding" silver tripod from the Hildesheim Treasure; see Joan Liversidge. "Greece, Rome." In World Furniture: A Illustrated History, ed. Helena Hayward, pp. 14–18. New York, 1965, p. 17, fig. 32. Many tripod chairs appear in medieval illustrations; see Douglas Ash. "Gothic." In World Furniture: An Illustrated History, ed. Helena Hayward, pp. 26–24. New York, 1965, p. 26, fig. 55, and John Morley. The History of Furniture: Twenty-five Centuries of Style and Design in the Western Tradition. Boston, 1999, p. 90, fig. 158.

[5] In 1995 the Strozzi chair was superbly restored by Marijn Manuels, Associate Conservator, Department of Objects Conservation, Metropolitan Museum. He replaced missing pieces, including several crescents, around the tondo. See the conservation report in the archives of the Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation, Metropolitan Museum.

[6] Frida Schottmüller. Wohnungskultur und Möbel der italienischen Renaissance. Stuttgart, 1921, p. XXVII; see also Lorenzo Strozzi. Vita di Filippo Strozzi: Il Vecchio. Florence, 1851; and John Russell Sale. Filippo Lippi's Strozzi Chapel in Santa Maria Novella. Outstanding Dissertations in the Fine Arts. New York and London 1979, pp. 7-99.

[7] Augusto Pedrini. Il mobilio: Gli ambienti e le decorazioni del Rinascimento in Italia, secoli XV e XVI. New ed. Florence, 1948, p. 55.

[8] John Russell Sale. Filippo Lippi's Strozzi Chapel in Santa Maria Novella. Outstanding Dissertations in the Fine Arts. New York and London 1979, p. 12

[9] Stephen K. Scher, ed. The Currency of Fame: Portrait Medals of the Renaissance. Exh. cat., Frick Collection. New York, 1994, p. 135, no. 44.

[10] George Francis Hill. A Corpus of Italian Medals of the Renaissance before Cellini. 2 vols. London, 1930, no. 1018.

[11] On the Strozzi arms, see Helmut Nickel. "Two Falcon Devices of the Strozzi: An Attempt at Interpretation." Metropolitan Museum Journal 9 (1974), pp. 229–32; and Lorenz Seelig. "'Ein Willkomme in der Form eines Mohrenkopfs von Silber getreibener Arbeit': Der wiederentdeckte Mohrenkopfpokal Christoph Jamnitzers aus dem späten 16. Jahrhundert." In Eikelmann 2002, pp. 59-65.

[12] John Russell Sale. Filippo Lippi's Strozzi Chapel in Santa Maria Novella. Outstanding Dissertations in the Fine Arts. New York and London 1979, pp. 9-14.

[13] Martin Kemp. "The Mean and Measure of All Things." In Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration, ed. Jay A. Levenson, pp. 95–111. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Washington D.C., New Haven, and London, 1992, p. 99.

[14] Antonio Paolucci, ed. Il Battistero di San Giovanni a Firenze/The Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence. 2 vols. Mirabilia italiae 2. Modena, 1994, vol. 2, pp. 29, 205.

[15] Martin Kemp. "The Mean and Measure of All Things." In Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration, ed. Jay A. Levenson, pp. 95–111. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Washington D.C., New Haven, and London, 1992, p. 98, fig. 4.

[16] The chair is unique; several existing interpretations of the form are of a much later date. Two similar examples formerly in the Mannheimer collection and now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, are simplified nineteenth-century versions. I am most grateful to Reinier Baarsen for examining them with me in 1998 and for giving me the opportunity to study related material in the Rijksmuseum files. Two other examples, in the Lemmers-Danforth Sammlung, Wetzlar, must also be dated to the nineteenth century, although I described them in 1992 as "Florence, circa 1490"; see Wolfram Koeppe. Die Lemmers-Danforth-Sammlung Wetzlar: Europäische Wohnkultur aus Renaissance und Barock. Heidelberg, 1992, pp. 74-75, no. M7a, b, color ill. p. 169, where some further examples are also mentioned. Two chairs in the Museo della Fondazione Horne, Florence, are closely related to the Lemmers-Danforth pieces, but I have not yet been able to examine them personally there; see Claudio Paolini. Il mobile del Rinascimento: La collezione Herbert Percy Horne. Florence, 2002, pp. 68-70, no. 9.