It really was called an X-chair. It was also called the Dante or Dantesca chair, the Luther chair, and the Savonarola chair. The last name is the craziest; there really was a Savonarola, who played a pivotal part in the history of one city. But he had nothing to do with the chair. Imagine, if you will, the Rasputin spatula!
We’re nearing the end of the alphabet. Dots will be connected.
Simple, But Unbending Design
The simple design of the folding camp chair had been discovered early on in civilization terms. The Egyptians had them, and the Romans used them extensively, especially in military campaigns. A simple-X design that folded in the middle, sometimes also called faldstools. Perfect for those Charlemagne-era banquets, where you have to feed all the thanes and earls after they pledge fealty and argue about how to fend off the thanes and earls of the ruler across the border. Also handy at Red Weddings.
The Renaissance twist was to build the chairs from sturdier pieces of wood. However, these did not bend and instead sported elaborate carvings on the back, arms, and legs. The seat would be a sturdy piece of leather covered by a cushion. The place where the legs intersect was called a “boss.”
If you search for information about Dantesca or Savonarola chairs, you can see antiques for sale from the latter centuries, which still have the look and feel of their medieval counterparts. The reference to something called “Dante” is explainable, and “Dantesca” is simply a fancier-sounding version of the name of the poet.
But who was Savonarola, and what did he have to do with the chair? The chair-answer can be revealed up front–no reason to tease here–someone in the 18th or 19th centuries simply thought the Italian Renaissance name sounded good. It was simply a name chosen, like calling it a Medici chair, only there might have been concerns that people would erroneously think the chair actually belonged to the Medicis, and antique dealers didn’t want people crying fraud. So they picked a different Renaissance name.
And what a one to pick!
Bat Shit Crazy? Preach, Run the City, Get Burned
Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican priest in Florence in the 1490s. (Everything I write about seems to happen near 1494.) As a youth, he had been spurned in romance by a neighbor, so decided to forego any pleasure in life and join the church. After receive an advanced degree, he started getting into disputes with superiors about their lack of adherence to church rules. Thus began his 20-year journey of increasingly extreme views, preaching on the street to anyone who would listen.
The Catholic church mostly ignored the wandering preacher until a priest in San Marco heard him and was impressed by his piety and ideas. This guy (Giovanna della Mirandola) persuaded Lorenzo di Medici to bring him to San Marco, near Florence, to be a kind of spiritual guide. While he was in San Marco, he probably sat in a chair that fit the style of the times. But so did everybody else.
In Florence, Savonarola drew such huge crowds with his fire and brimstone stuff that he took over a nearby cathedral. He started prophesying, things like a “New Cyrus” coming and “tyrants being overturned,” which Medici probably didn’t like, but he had bigger problems. Namely, Charles VIII of France, who marched an army over the Alps and took Florence away from Medici rule. Savonarola supposedly went out to “parley” with France and plead on behalf of the people of Florence. He claimed a role in saving the city, though Charles took as much loot as he could before moving on–he was looking for plunder and wasn’t really trying to take more territory. Plus the Alps were between him and home, so it wasn’t feasible to leave his army in Florence.
Meanwhile, for some strange reason, the Florentines and the French decided to put the crazy monk in charge of the city. He created his own political party, which voted in several draconian religious measures. That didn’t bother Pope Alexander VI as much as that Florence stayed allied with the French as they wandered around, sacking other churches. Plus, Savonarola kept predicting the end of Catholic vices–a harbinger of the Reformation right around the corner–but the pope in 1498 was having none of it.
So Savonarola was excommunicated and then burned at the stake.
Do you think if the 19th-century antique dealers had read a little more history that they’d really want to name a chair after the guy? Where was their google when they needed it?