chair is remarkable not only for the quality of its 19th century craftsmanship
but also for the symbols incorporated in its design -- giving rise to two 21st
called an "X" chair because of its curving frame, crossing at the
central joint, this design is the original "folding chair." In the style's earliest incarnation, it was
treasured by the military commanders of ancient Rome for being practical,
comfortable and portable, since it could be strapped to the side of a horse or
pack animal on long campaigns to the far-flung edges of the empire. In Medieval and Renaissance times,
particularly in Italy and southern France, it was made of walnut and updated
for use in homes by adding a crest rail or back, for extra comfort, that could
be removed when the chair was folded.
Fabric could be draped over the chair and anchored using the rings on
the world of French antiques, this design is commonly known as a
"Savonarola chair," after the Dominican cleric, Girolamo Savonarola,
the éminence grise of the Florentine Republic until his execution in 1498. Although we cannot confirm it, we speculate
that the association between Savonarola and French antique furniture stems from
the occupation of Florence by the French army under King Charles VIII (known as
"the Affable"), with whom Savonarola became allied in opposition to
the Medici Family. Perhaps the French
troops became so enamored of the "X" chairs they found in Florence,
that they took some back to France and named them for their local hero. The Savonarola chair became a popular design
in mid-sixteenth century France. This
style of chair enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in France and Italy as part
of the 19th century revival of Medieval and Renaissance styles. They remain in use today, including
throughout the Monastery of San Marco where Savonarola was Prior, and one is
included in the display of the cell where he lived.
particular example was most likely crafted in Italy in the third quarter of the
19th century, or perhaps earlier. The
chair does not fold, even though it is designed in the manner of the classic,
folding "X" chair. It is made
of a rich, dark walnut susceptible of the intricate carving found on the crest
rail and the seat. Overall, the chair
is wider than most Savonarola chairs, bestowing upon it a magisterial presence.
The removable crest rail is wider,
vertically, and more intricately carved than the backs of other Savonarola
chairs we have encountered. In keeping
with tradition, the reverse side of the crest rail is blank since the chair is
designed to be set against a wall and to be admired from the front when not in
central part of the crest rail is comprised of the coat-of-arms of the Medici
Family. In its simplest form, the
family crest consists of six balls on an escutcheon with a tapered border. As the family's power grew, the coat-of-arms
became more elaborate, including the additions of fleur-de-lys symbolizing the
royal family of France (Catherine and later Marie de' Medici were Queens of
France), and of the Papal crown and keys (Pope Leo X). The oldest and most lasting element of the
coat-of-arms is the arrangement of six balls of equal size (originally red on a
gold field) in varying patterns. It is
not clear what the balls are supposed to represent but speculation has included
everything from pills (since "medici" comes from the Italian word for
physician) to bisanti or small spheres used by merchants and bankers in
confirming the value of coins based on their weight. Here the crest is in its simplest form of equally spaced balls in
an oval pattern mirroring that of the escutcheon. Familiar with the crest from seeing it on buildings all over
Florence and Rome, we purchased this chair with a burning desire to preserve it
for future generations and to learn more about all the symbols carved into it.
the coat-of-arms are various decorative shapes based on vegetation, but the
crest is bordered on each side by a dolphin.
Here is the first enigma associated with this chair. The dolphin was the symbol of the Pazzi
family and incorporated into its coat of arms.
There, two dolphins hauriant (swimming upwards) face outward, as opposed
to inward in this instance. The family
is best known for the Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478 involving a plot to murder
members of the Medici Family. We prefer
to remember them for the Pazzi Chapel, that embodiment of Renaissance
perfection designed and built by Filippo Brunelleschi at the Church of Santa
Croce. Why would the chair's designer
incorporate elements of both families' crests in one piece of furniture -
perhaps it symbolized a marriage or other alliance? Or the Pazzi's subsequent rehabilitation in Florence and
importance in Tuscany as the Medicis declined?
this chair is firmly entrenched in Florentine history is indisputable when the
seat is considered. It is highly
unusual for the seat of a Savonarola chair to be ornamented, but this one bears
the symbol of the city of Florence - a fleur-de-lys. Unlike the fleur-de-lys used in French heraldry, the Florentine
version contains a characteristic sprig on either side of the central
foil. One might speculate that the
chair was designed to cast a historic light on the Medicis and to use their
coat-of-arms on the crest rail. To
bring attention to Florence, the only other place on the chair susceptible of
such a large carving would be the seat.
That the bas relief carving is still so distinct, after more than a
hundred years, is surprising and leads us to think that the chair has not been
sat in much.
second enigma goes to the heart of the chair itself. Why would a Medici coat-of-arms be displayed on a chair named
after their sworn enemy, Savonarola, whom the Medicis succeeded in having
burned at the stake? Or is the chair a
symbolic triumph of the Medicis, who eventually returned to power in Florence
and could turn to their own uses the chair named for their deceased
adversary? In the extreme, is one
sitting on or crushing the symbol of the Florentine Republic under Savonarola,
while leaning on the Medicis, who returned the city to regional power under the
oppressive rule of Grand Duke Cosimo?
We speculate that the chair was designed more for symbolism than
seating, as otherwise the Medici crest and the Florentine fleur-de-lys would be
entirely obscured whenever someone sat in the chair.
armrests of the chair are carved on three sides with a pattern that resembles
leaves or perhaps palm fronds and was used commonly on the border of tables
dating from the 16th century. Over
time, the armrests have become less than completely parallel, but this does not
affect their utility. The front of each
armrest is a round ball rather than the lion's head seen commonly in French
chairs in the Savonarola style.
However, the traditional lions' feet are in evidence in the front part
of the base of each side of the chair.
chair is not only sturdy but comfortable owing to its proven design and
its construction from solid
walnut. Unlike some later, flimsier
examples we have seen, this chair has eight ribs making up its "X"
framework rather than six, and may help explain how it remains in such good
condition after all these years.
et Objets D'Art 10, Le Mobilier Italien (Editions Fabri, Paris, 1990);
Costantino Fioratti, Helen, Il Mobile Italiano (Giunti Editore, Firenze-Milano,
2004); Rousseau, Francis, Le Grand Livre des Meubles (Copyright Studio, Paris,