Friday, 19 April 2013

An Italian sgabello

'The so-called Strozzi-chair, above all, a pearl of the collection, a world-renowned uniqueness, a truly enchanting masterpiece, one of the most beautiful Florentine pieces of furniture. Under the hand of an artist - who could not think of Benedetto da Majano? -  the profiling, tasteful intarsia, the magnificent 'schiacciato' carving of the medallions that crown the backrest, which are yet lifted by delicate gilding -  a real work of art has been created. Even in the princely Palazzo Strozzi this chair has been regarded and guarded through centuries as a family treasure.'

This (translated) praise of a three-legged chair from around 1489, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (gallery 500), comes from F. Schottmuller in his book 'Wohnungskultur und Mobel der Italienischer Renaissance' from 1921. At that time the chair belonged to the collection of Dr. Albert Figdor. He acquired the chair from the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. When the Figdor collection was auctioned in 1930 the chair - along with some other furniture - was bought by the New York museum.

This beautiful 15th century chair is made of walnut, with maple, ebony, ebonised wood, fruit-wood and gilded details. The octagonal seat plate rests on three oblique, upwardly rejuvenating triangular edged legs. The also oblique backrest is small and high, and spreads upward. All parts are decorated with geometric intarsia strips. The backrest is crowned by a circular medallion, surrounded by a row of  pierced carved rising moons of the Strozzi crest. Both sides of the medallion bear the crest of Strozzi in low relief (so-called schiaciatto) carving: the front with a buckler occupied by three half moons on a cross bar, covered by a helmet crowned with an eagle with raised wings; the back side has the buckler alone with the Strozzi family coat of arms of the three half moons on a cross bar.

The chair was made by the workshop of Giuliano and Benedetto da Maiano, who were also responsible for the portrait bust of Filippo Strozzi, as well as the sculpture of his funerary chapel, and the designs of the Strozzi palace and its furnishings. The chair is 147.3 cm high, 42.5 cm deep and 41.9 cm wide.

The front (left) and the backside (right) of the medallions of the Strozzi chair. The rising half moons are omni-present in the 'schiaciatto' carving. Images by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

The side of the Strozzi chair. You can see that the octagonal seat is enlarged at the back to accommodate the backrest. Also can be clearly seen that the backrest is angled backwards. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This photo shows the intarsia strips that decorate the backrest, seating edges and legs.The dark lines are ebonized (painted like ebony) wood. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

A detail from the intarsia of the photo above.

A modern version of the Strozzi sgabello

In 2006, I did not have these detailed colour images, or had any background information of this famous chair from the Dr. Figdor auction catologue. I only had  one black-and-white photo from the book 'Oude meubels' (old furniture) by Sigrid Muller Christensen, with no more information than that it dated around 1490, that it once belonged to the Strozzi family and that it resided in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. No dimensions were given, nor anything else. But I liked the appearance of the chair, and decided to make two modern versions of this chair, using modern wood glue and finish. For the rest, the construction could be like the Strozzi sgabello, but as said before, the only piece of information was the photo in the book.

The photo on page 55 of the book 'Oude Meubels' by Sigrid Muller-Christensen.

Using this photo I tried to reconstruct the dimensions. I used a standard seating height of 42 cm and based the rest of the dimensions on that. I also guessed the angles (10 degrees) using a protractor. The total height of the photo chair was 109 cm, 36 cm short compared to the real Strozzi chair.

Measurements of the chair based on the black-and-white photo and a 42 cm seating height.

I had some leftover wood from a (non-medieval) rocking dragon I made, which I wanted to use for the two chairs: European maple for the chair itself, and walnut for the intarsia - the opposite of the Strozzi chair. The same leftover wood has been used for the playing board of the 'game of the Four Seasons called the World' described in an earlier blogpost. Instead of a round medallion at the top of the Strozzi backrest I used an octagonal one, also the intarsia decoration used on the chairs was designed by myself.

I made only rough sketches of the furniture I made at that time. I have put the dimensions on a photo of one of the two chairs. The legs of the chair are triangular. The backrest also has an angle of 10 degrees, like the three legs.

The plan for the walnut intarsia at the top of the backrest. The decorative plan for the octagonal medaillon and the seating was drawn more precise in 2006. The dimensions were added in 2012. The two diamond intarsia on the backrest were skipped in the final plan.

The intarsia plan for the seating. You can see that the octagonal seating is elongated at the back to accommodate for the backrest.The walnut triangles at the bottom and the two left and right at the top are the places where the legs of chair connect to the seating.

The two modern Strozzi chairs without final their coating. The chairs were finished with an oil-wax mixture (Osmo Hardwax oil - satin finish).

Two details of the construction. Left: The backrest of the chair is connected to the seating with dovetails, which in turn are fixed by the walnut intarsia strip. Because of the angled backrest, the  dovetails are also set at an 10 degrees angle. Right: The walnut intarsia strip at the seating. The strip is around 3 mm thick. The groove for the strip was made with a router.

The legs stand at an angle of 10 degrees on the seating, which means that the mortise has to be set at the same degree. I used a block of wood set at the same degree to guide the chisel when cutting the mortise. I started the mortise at the top of the seat at the place of a walnut traingle. I then calculated where the mortise would appear at the bottom. After the mortises were made, the legs were glued in and the mortises wedged. At the top of the seating the mortise was covered with the walnut traingle.

Some more views of the chair and the intarsia. The grooves for long walnut strips on the backrest were made with a router, the grooves for the short strips were made by hand.

The intarsia of the octagonal medallion were made by hand. The walnut diamonds were made slightly tapered to fit exactly in the corresponding hole. After glueing, the medallion was planed flat.

Both my modern Strozzi chairs at Castle Loevestein in 2012..

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