Sunday 20 January 2019

A not so foldable chair

This post concerns a medieval chair that is nowadays known under several names, most commonly the 'Glastonbury chair', the 'Petrarca chair' or 'sedia Petrarca', as well as 'sedia pieghevole', the latter meaning nothing more than foldable or collapsible chair. There any many misunderstanding and peculiarities on this chair, which I hope to clarify in this post.

The sedia Petrarca in the Petrarca house in Casa del Petrarca in Arquà Petrarca, Italy. It is one of the two medieval furniture items that were supposedly original from this house. The Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrach) moved in 1369 to this house and lived here until his death in 1374, implying this is a late 14th century chair. The decorative carving style, however, is more like those found on 15th century sedia tenaglia folding chairs. Photos from the local tourism website and LittleWoods blog.

The chair cannot be folded

A Petrarca chair dating from 1590 in its dismantled form (left) and constructed form (mid, right). The chair originates from an Exeter Deanery, that in turn obtained its from a Somerset or Devonshire church. Height: 105 cm, Width: 60.5 cm, Depth: 61 cm, Height: 45.5 cm. Photo copyright Victoria and Albert museum, London, UK.

This is one of the many misunderstandings of this chair: it is not a folding chair. The chair cannot be folded, the rigid seating and the armrest make this impossible. The chair can only be dismantled. You then end up with an IKEA-like parcel with many loose parts that you can take along and (re)construct where-ever you like. This is much more work and complicated than taking a foldable X-chair with you. Probably the X of the legs is what leads people to think it is foldable: all medieval foldable chairs have X legs; however, the other way around is not true. 

The chair originates from northern Italy

In the UK, the Glastonbury chair is dated from 1535; other examples from the UK also date from the 16th century or are of later periods. Somehow this chair remained popular in England and received a revival in the neo-Gothic era, when an article on the Glastonbury chair was published. An excellent article by Gabriel Olive from 1994 traces the descent of this chair type in the UK. No earlier examples than the Glastonbury can be found. However, the much earlier extant examples all originate from northern Italy. 

Left and right: The 15th century Petrarca chair from the Museo Civico in Turin. The left photo shows the backrest with a top plank, but this is actually the bottom plank, as the cut-out parts necessary for the alignment with the seating are clearly visible. The photo on the right shows the correct alignment. The chair originates around Verona, Northern Italy. Made from walnut; armrests have been cut by saw. Ornaments have been punched in the wood. Top ornaments are turned. The bottom plank from the backrest shows a young couple at the fountain of love. Height 107 cm, width 77 cm, depth 57 cm. Now in Museo Civico, Turin, Italy. Image scanned from Windisch-Graetz. Mobel Europas I. Romanik - Gotik.


Chair from northern Italy, 'Etschgebiet', dated from the 15th century. Made from walnut. Arms with sawn profiles decorated with punctured diamonds. Bottom plank of the backrest is missing. Middle plank shows a young couple in 15th century style clothes next to a fountain. Top plank has a coat of arms between two lions  Top pinnacles are turned. Height 108 cm, width 65 cm. Formerly in the Sammlung Albert Figdor. Scanned from the 1930 auction catalogue.

Chair from a cloister in Padua, northern Italy, dated from the 15th century. Made from walnut. Arms with sawn profiles decorated with punctured diamonds. Backrest complete and decorated with carved geometrical forms and punctures. Top pinnacles are turned.  Height 110 cm, width 65 cm. Formerly in the Sammlung Albert Figdor. Scanned from the 1930 auction catalogue.

Right: The petrarca chair in the Green room of Museo Bagatti Valsecchi, Milan, Italy. 

The chair is both medieval and early renaissance

Is the Petrarca chair from the medieval period? This depends on your definition of medieval and the medieval time period. Earliest examples of this chair, as well as depictions in manuscripts and painting all date to the 15th century, not earlier. Petrarca's chair itself is claimed to be late 14th century, but the style of the chair is not. I have heard of an inventory list of his possessions that could mention this/a chair, and a name alone is hardly enough evidence that Petrarca sat in his 'Petrarca chair' in the 14th century. It is likely more a myth, like the Frankish King Dagobert sitting in his 'Dagobert chair'.

The chair type can be found in other sources as well. One image of the chair has been found in an illuminated Italian bible from the mid-fifteenth century.

King Solomon sits on a Petrarca chair. Illuminated bible from 1455-1461, Biblioteca Estense, Modena, Italy. Image from Albion works website, manuscript number unknown.

There are also two known depictions of the chair in 15th century Flemish art. One has been painted by Hans Memling in 1485, on the panel showing Bathsheba taking a bath. The chair is only partly shown but is unmistakably a Petrarca chair. Otto von Falke (1930) mentions another painting (a preaching Apostle) by the Flemish artist Jan van der Meire (died 1471), a pupil of the Van Eyck brothers, showing the chair. This painting used to be in the collection of the painter Franz Reichardt in Munchen. The auction catalogue (1869) of this collection (it can be found online) does not show/mention the painting, so it is unclear what the painting looks like or where it is.

Having Flemish paintings with an Italian chair is not that strange; oil painting from the low countries were very fashionable at that time in Italy and commissioned by rich patrons. There was also a large Italian trading community in cities like Bruges and Ghent, and it is not unlikely that they brought a collapsible chair with them.

The surviving 15th century samples all trace back to Northern Italy; renaissance already had started in Italy in this time period, while northern Europe art still retained its Gothic style. So you could call this chair 'Early Renaissance'  as well as 'Medieval'.

Bathsheba at the Bath, oil on oak panel, painted by Hans Memling in 1485. On the left side a Petrarca chair can be seen. Memling had many commissions from Italian patrons and thus be familiar with this chair type. Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany.

The Glastonbury chair is constructed wrong

The original English Glastonbury chair (see the Greydragon website for excellent photos) and its later copies all have a flaw in their construction plan. Apparently, the person who made the chair did not understand the complexity of its construction, or something went wrong during restoration of the chair. There is a very specific order in which the parts of these chairs are assembled: you must start with the seating, and then proceed with the backrest, not the other way around. In other words, the backrest must be wider than the seating. This is the case for the Italian chairs, but not for the Glastonbury chair. (Another reason why it is more logical that the origin of these chairs is in Italy).

The original Glastonbury chair with its angled armrests. The chair originated from the Glastonbury abbey, dissolved in 1539 and now resides in the Bishops Palace, Wells, UK. There is some unclarity, as there is mention of more of these chairs from this abbey. It could be that they are actually a set of chairs.

With the Glastonbury chair problems arise when the armrest  must be added. There is no way that the armrest can be added in parallel alignment: the sides of the seating are in its way, blocking the construction. Adding the armrest will result in an imperfect angled fit, also making it necessary to drill the holes at an angle for the armrest. The Italian chairs all have a  perfect vertical alignment of their parts.

It is quite remarkable that a mistake made in the early 16th century by a carpenter was thoughtlessly copied again and again in later ages, including today. The book by Daniel Diehl on making medieval furniture contains measurements and drawings of a copy of the Glastonbury chair, yet he did not question this flaw. Master Greydragon (from the Society of Creative Anachronism) measured the original chair, provided many detailed photos of it and provided a construction plan (  Apparently he noticed the flaw and adjusted his own replica chair (he shows a photo of it - with small seating), but he did not update his construction plan. More of these flawed plans circulate on internet. Thus, if you want to make this chair yourself, you need to adjust the existing plans or make your own.

The pre-1539 parts of the Glastonbury chair according to Victor Chinnery and Gabriel Olive. These are made of elm. The remainder is of oak construction. It is quite possible that the restoration process caused the wrong construction. In principle, there is room for the seating rails to be inside, instead of outside the backrest. Scanned from V. Chinnery, Oak furniture. The British Tradition.

The chair is impractical in its use 

Ivory plaque made in Alexandria or Constantinople, around 630-640, representing St Peter dictating the Gospel to St Mark. He sits in an X-type of chair, but with a different form of armrest that does not restrict the movement of your arm. Though imagine how it looks like if the armrest is turned upside down. Image copyright Victoria and Albert museum, London, UK, item 270:1-1867.

I am very surprised that no-one has ever commented on the impracticability of the 'Glastonbury chair' and despite this the chair was profusely copied in the neo-Gothic era. Yes, you can sit in this chair ... and do nothing. You cannot use this chair to write letters and poems, like the great Petrach. You cannot use the chair at a table when you want to eat. You cannot use the chair if you are embroidering. You cannot do anything useful sitting in this chair. Why not? The high knob of the armrest is blocking the free movement of your arm. Writing becomes painful if you try. You can of course make it 'horizontal', but none of the historical examples have horizontal armrests.
The form of the armrest only allows your arms to rest folded over your belly. So you can only use the chair ... to doze.

One of the rare examples of a Petrarca chair with an almost horizontal armrest. Note that this British example is constructed correctly. Early 17th century . Image scanned from Oak furniture. The British Tradition.

Construction constraints

The seating height of the Glastonbury chair is 43 cm, and so do the plans for construction. If you are longer than average, height adjustments to the chair pose a challenge for the woodworker. Just making the lower part of the X-legs (below the connecting rail) longer would make an odd chair, where the legs protrude the seating and rest of the chair. Making both the upper and lower part of the legs longer, would lead to a deeper seat. However, the this would also mean that the armrest must be elongated as well. The third option would be to make both sides of the legs longer without changing the seating. The result will be that the 45 degrees angle of the X will change, as well as the angle at which the legs rest on the floor.

An advertisement of 1909 from a commercial Glastonbury chair maker.


  • Greydragon website: 'Glastonbury chair'. Detailed photos of the original chair.
  • Otto von Falke, 1930. Samlung Dr. Albert Figdor Wien, zweiter band, Möbel. Auction catalogue. Artaria & Co., Gluckselig Gmbh, Wien, Austria.
  • Franz Windisch Graetz. Mobel Europas - Romanik - Gotik. Klinkhardt & Biermann, München, Germany. ISBN 3-7814-0212-6.
  • Daniel Diehl. 1997. Constructing medieval furniture – plans and instructions with historical notes. Stackpole Books. ISBN 978-0811727952. or in: Sacred Spaces issue 8 (1994)
  • Victor Chinnery. 1979. Oak furniture, the British Tradition. Antique Collector's Club. ISBN 1-85149-013-2
  • Gabriel Olive 1994. The Glastonbury chair. Regional Furniture VIII, page 24-41.
  • G. Chiesa. 1971. L'arredamento in Italia. Il Quattrocento. Mobili - Arti decorative - Costume. Görlich edditore SpA, Milan, Italy.
  • Albion Works. website now disfunct.