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Armchair

  • Place of origin:

    Italy (made)

  • Date:

    16th century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved walnut

  • Museum number:

    7196-1860

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 62, The Foyle Foundation Gallery, case WN, shelf FS

'X-frame' chairs were originally folding campaign stools, used by Roman Generals. They were adopted by emperors and potentates, although, by 1550, they had become less symbolic of power and authority than they had been in earlier centuries. This example dates from about 1550, and would probably have been placed in a hall or chamber of a grand house. It formerly belonged to Jules Soulages of Toulouse (1812-1856), very much a pioneer in collecting decorative arts of the Renaissance. This type of chair was much copied from about 1880, when such tastes had become more fashionable, and most surviving examples date from about then.

Physical description

'X' frame chair with unidentified coat of arms on the back rest, resting on blocks terminating in lions' feet, emerging from lion masks. The chair is made up of eleven ribs on each side making up the 'X' frame of the chair and twenty-one smaller ribs making up the seat of the chair. The faces of the front ribs of the 'X' frame are decorated with masks and a vine scroll on a punched background. The arm rests terminate in pommels, decorated with carved rosettes and fitted with rings carved from the same block of wood. The front seat rail is decorated with birds, somewhat primatively executed, and the back rest has a scrolled crest decorated with dolphins and a gadrooned base, partly replaced. The 'S' shape frame ribs, running from top right to bottom left could mostly be old, but those running from the top left to the bottom right seem mostly to be 19th century replacements. Some of the S-shaped ribs appear to have been replaced.

The timber identified, by eye, as walnut.

Place of Origin

Italy (made)

Date

16th century (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Carved walnut

Dimensions

Height: 79.5 cm, Width: 207.5 cm, Depth: 62 cm

Object history note

This object was formerly part of the collections of Jules Soulages (1812 - 1856), and after being exhibited at Marlborough House between December 1856 and January 1857 was acquired by the South Kensington Museum for £15 in 1861.

Paired with 7184-1860

Historical significance: The 'X' frame chair is very much associated, in the eyes of posterity, with the Middle Ages and Italian Renaissance. Dealers of the 19th and 20th centuries referred to them as "Savonarola" chairs, named after Fra Girolamo Savonarola (1452 - 1498), who is unlikely to have ever sat on such a seat! Large numbers of these chairs were made from about 1880 and found their way into middle-class households in Italy and throughout Europe, in keeping with the Renaissance Revival fashions, almost to the point where they became something of a cliché. Unfortunately many 'x' frame chairs were acquired by museums at this time under the illusion that they were authentic. The importance of this item is that a large proportion of it actually is authentic, particularly the highly decorative backrest, and it seems to have been restored rather than made up of old fragments of wood collared from a number of different chairs.

Historical context note

By the 16th century, chairs were more widespread than in previous centuries and they had lost much of the hierarchichal connotations that they had in the Middle Ages. It is noteworthy that as late as 1418 even the Medici had only six chairs in their residence in Florence. Although this example follows the 'x' frame pattern, long associated with Roman Emperors and Medieval princes, by about 1550 chairs were no longer entirely the preserve of the master of the house, and larger numbers were appearing in inventories. By 1609, even the hall porter in the household of Amerigo di Luca Pitti had two large cane-seated chairs (seggiolaccie alla pistolese) at his disposal.

Descriptive line

X-framed armchair, Italy, 16th century, with parts replaced during the 19th century.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Peter Thornton:The Italian Renaissance Interior, 1400 - 1600 (London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1991) PP. 168 - 191.
John Kent Lydecker: The Domestic Setting of the Arts in Renaissance Florence, (Ann Arbor, UMI Dissertation Services, 1993), pp. 45 - 48
J.Hungerford Pollen: Ancient and Modern Furniture & Woodwork (London, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1908), p. 102.
Chair. Carved oak. A folding arm-chair; the top bar at the back carved with figures of dolphins supporting a shield of arms. Italian. About 1550.
H. 2 ft. 8 in., W. 2ft. Bought (Soulages Coll.), 15l.
Naomi Yin Yin Szeto, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary. Chairs for Viewing the World Through Time. Hong Kong, 2014, p. 43. Catalogue of the exhibition held at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, 2014, to which it was lent.
Ajmar-Wollheim, Marta and Flora Dennis, At Home in Renaissance Italy, London: V&A Publishing, 2006.

Labels and date

Label text c.1930 while displayed in Tapestry Court: North-West Block. East Side. [gallery 44 ‘East Central Court’ c.1909-1952]

FOLDING-CHAIR.
Carved walnut.
An achievement of the Arms of Maffei di Roma.
ROMAN; early 16th century.
Formerly in the Soulages Collection.
7196-1860.

[1930]
X-frame Armchair
16th century

Inspired by thrones and other seats of power, X-frame chairs were a symbol of status. As such, they were often depicted in portraits of both women and men, such as that of Agostino della Torre nearby. This carved chair with an unidentified coat of arms folds with a scissor motion.

Northern Italy
Walnut

V&A: 7196-1860
At Home in Renaissance Italy, eds.Marta Ajmar-Wollheim and Flora Dennis (London, 2006), cat.234, pl.15.2 [5 Oct 2006 - 7 Jan 2007]

Production Note

Parts of this chair date back to about 1550 but a number of parts were probably replaced not long before (or after) this chair was acquired by Jules Soulages.
Restored in the 19th century

Materials

Walnut

Techniques

Carving; Joining

Subjects depicted

Dolphin (animal); Birds; Vine scrolls; Rosettes; Lion masks

Categories

Furniture

Collection

Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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