Design Glossary: Savonarola and Dante Chairs

Design Glossary: Savonarola and Dante Chairs

Anna Hoffman
Jun 9, 2011

After last week's Retrospect post on curule stools, I kept seeing X-form chairs wherever I went (I think there's an official diagnosis that goes along with this condition). But what was with all the nomenclature? Sometimes called Savonarola chairs, sometimes Dantesca chairs, Dante chairs, scissor chairs, etc. And then there are sedie a tenaglia, which look a lot like mid-century side chairs by the designer Harvey Probber. So here's a brief glossary of all these overlapping terms.

First, a quick review of curule chairs. These were originally X-framed folding chairs that dated back to ancient times. Originally a symbol of magisterial power, during the Renaissance they morphed into just another chair type.

Second, a quick disclaimer, which is that these names were mostly given during the 19th-century Renaissance Revival, so they are not always used in a consistent manner. So my classifications are based on sources that I trust, but they may not match other sources.

Dante or Dantesca Chair (above): This is the name given during the 19th century to curule chairs with four legs that extended to support arm and back rests. Many were folding, many were not. Unlike ancient curule chairs, these tend to have legs that form wavy S-curves instead of klismos-like swooshes. It's evidently named after Dante Aligheri, though it's unclear why.

Savonarola Chair: This is another type of X-frame folding chair with arm rests and a back rest, but instead of having four legs, it has several narrow wooden slats, also typically wavy like Dante chairs. It was also named in the 19th century for a famous Renaissance figure, in this case the moralistic Dominican friar who led Florence during the 1490s and is famous for his Bonfire of the Vanities. It is possible that Savonarola did in fact have a chair like this, since monks often used folding chairs in their small cells (below).

At any rate, this type of folding chair, with multiple slats for legs, didn't originate in the Renaissance, and there is an image of a curule stool of this type on the grave stele of C. Otacilius Oppianus during the 1st century (right).


Pincer Chairs, Scissor Chairs, or Sedie a tenaglia (above):These are folding X-form side chairs that have several narrow wooden slats like Savonarola chairs.

Probber Chairs (above): Harvey Probber was a furniture designer during the mid-20th century. Best known for developing sectional sofas, he also designed this gorgeous update of the sedia a tenaglia that evokes the Renaissance without feeling a bit monkish.


As always, let me know if there are any other furniture types that need defining or differentiating!


Images:
1 A "Savonarola" Chair from Lombard, Italy, c. 1500 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
2 Italian "Dantesca" Chairs, c. 16th-17th century, via Christie's
3 Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus (1601) shows a Savonarola chair in the left foreground. In the National Gallery, London, via the Web Gallery of Art
4 A monk copying a manuscript at a monastery library, via studenthandouts.com
5 A 1st-century grave stele via University of Minnesota
6 Sedie a tenaglia (1530) at the Palazzo Davanzati, Florence, via designboom
7 A set of dining chairs by Harvey Probber via Treadway Gallery

Related Apartment Therapy Links:

Quick History: The Curule Stool
Design Glossary: Chairs

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