chairs are old (possibly dating as far back as late 18th century) and are
French through-and-through, but boasting a number of intriguing design elements
from Italy. In overall structure, the
chairs can be classified as Fauteuils Dagobert after the style of throne used
by King Dagobert, the first of the Frankish Kings buried in the Basilica of
Saint-Dénis outside Paris. A replica of
his throne is still on display in the Basilica.
makes a chair in the Dagobert style is the distinctive curule design of the
base, where intersecting curves or an "X" define the legs and the
seat. Such chairs, typically without
backs but with separate seat cushions, were used in ancient Rome by political
leaders of a certain rank. Images of
the curule chair were included on coins depicting an emperor, seated, and
receiving tributes from citizens. A variation on this design of X chair with its origins in Renaissance Italy is the "Savonarola Chair."
bronze in ancient times, it was not until a rediscovery of the style in the
Renaissance that versions in wood began to appear. For that, we have the unearthing of Emperor Nero's Domus Aurea to
thank. Nero's grand palace was supposed
to take up a huge swathe of Rome after the fire of 64 A.D. but was only
partially completed. It was later
abandoned and eventually covered by other buildings. As the story goes, a young Roman fell into an underground chamber
in the late 15th century and found some of the elaborately decorated rooms that
had comprised Nero's Domus Aurea.
Thought to be underground caves or
"grottos" the identity of the long-buried palace was not
immediately evident. Word spread about
the magnificent frescoed decoration and so the leading artists of the day,
including Pinturicchio and Raphael, had themselves lowered into the site on
ropes while bearing torches to illuminate the subterranean masterpieces. Sadly, water and earthquake damage to the
Domus Aurea make it off limits to today's artists, even without rope and torch,
but the decorative bounty remains pervasive.
decorative style became known as "grotesque," from its source in the
mis-identified "grotto," and is characterized by long narrow panels
filled with intricately entwined vegetation, animals, vases, garlands, and
mythological beings, including bearded ones with very scary visages. These last figures also took on the term
"grotesque" and gave rise to the widely used term for something
distorted, extravagant, and bizarre.
The designs from Nero's palace became favorites of Renaissance painters
when artists such as Carlo Crivelli, Perugino, and Pintoricchio incorporated
them in biblical scenes, reflecting the heights of imagination and creativity
to which a basic stylistic element can rise.
pair of chairs takes its decorative language directly from the grotesques of
Renaissance design. Grotesque figures
frame the central portion of the back of these chairs. Heads resembling dogs, wings instead of
arms, elements of human anatomy, all combine to striking effect both in the
intricacy of the carving and the overall structure. Even the teeth are realistically carved and menacing.
grotesques incorporated in these chairs include long, narrow faces at the tops
of the arms. More frightening is the
magnificent central medallion at the intersection of the "X." It is a fearsome, frowning creature meant to
command the viewer's attention. Its
ears morph into wings. The beard
transforms into arcs of acanthus leaves, that other staple of ancient Roman
design re-imagined in the Renaissance and still growing in abundance just a
hundred yards from Nero's palace (see photos, below, from our recent trip to
the Roman Forum).
figures contribute to the richness of these chairs. Each arm ends with stylized faces of dogs, mouths open with teeth
bared. The central, oval panel of the
top of the chairs is comprised of a lion's head, the face seeming to float out
at the viewer yet embodied within an intricately carved mane. In its right paw, the lion supports a
shield, although no inscription is visible.
"X" members themselves are beautifully articulated by an interlocking
circular design, typical of Renaissance furniture in France, and ending with
the flourish of a scroll. The front and
back "X" shapes are connected at the base by turnings.
seat platforms of the chairs have been covered in green velvet to match the
plush, removable cushions designed for seating. This upholstery does not appear to be original, but it is in very
good shape and would not need to be replaced.
We find that the rich, green hue reminds of acanthus leaves in
the chairs has had a very old repair to the back (shown below), presumably to
deal with a split. The wood itself is a
dark, rich walnut whose grain is almost invisible. This is further evidence that the chairs could be as old as late
we might be tempted to call these chairs "baroque" for the exuberance
and elaborate nature of design and carving, they nevertheless fall squarely
within the Renaissance style due to the incorporation of grotesques and the
overall "X" design. These
chairs are also a reminder that the Renaissance in France involved a heavy
influence from Italy, whether the furniture craftsmen brought by Catherine de'
Medici from Florence when she married the future King Henri II, or artists such
as Rosso Fiorentino who spent years at Fontainbleau Palace overseeing
decorative workshops and inspiring innovations in design that radiated out
across the country.
Becherer, Joseph, Pietro Perugino (Grand Rapids Art Museum, 1997); Boccador,
Jacqueline, Le Mobilier Français du Moyen Age à la Renaissance, Editions d'Art
Monelle Hayot (Saint-Just-en-Chaussée, 1988); Carroll, Eugene A., Rosso
Fiorentino, Drawings, Prints, and Decorative Arts, (National Gallery of Art,
Washington, D.C., 1987); Costantino Fioratti, Helen, Il Mobile Italiano (Giunti
Editore, Firenze-Milano, 2004); Scarpellini, Pietro and Silvestrelli, Maria
Rita, Pintoricchio (Mederico Motta Editore, Milan, 2003).