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Curule chair

Curule chair

According to Livy the curule chair originated in Etruria, and it has been used on surviving Etruscan monuments to identify magistrates, but stools supported on a cross-frame are known from the New Kingdom of Egypt.

In the Roman Republic, and later the Empire, the curule chair (Latin, sella curulis, supposedly from currus, "chariot") was the chair upon which senior magistrates or promagistrates owning imperium were entitled to sit, including dictators, masters of the horse, consuls, praetors, censors, and the curule aediles. Additionally, the Flamen of Iuppiter (Flamen Dialis) was also allowed to sit on a sella curulis, though this position lacked imperium. In the later Republic, Caesar the Dictator was entitled to sit upon a curule chair made of gold.

The curule chair is used on Roman medals as well as funerary monuments to express a curule magistracy; when traversed by a hasta (spear), it is the symbol of Juno, and serves to express the conservation of princesses.

The curule chair was traditionally made of or veneered with ivory, with curved legs forming a wide X; it had no back, and low arms. The chair could be folded, and thus an easily transportable seat, originally for magisterial and promagisterial commanders in the field, developed a hieratic significance, expressed in fictive curule seats on funerary monuments, a symbol of power which was never extirely lost in post-Roman European tradition. Sixth-century consular ivory diptychs of Orestes and of Constantinus each depict the consul seated on an elaborate curule seat with crossed animal legs.

In Gaul the Merovingian successors to Roman power employed the curule seat as an emblem of their right to dispense justice, and their Capetian successors retained the iconic seat: the "Throne of Dagobert", of cast bronze retaining traces of its former gilding, is conserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The "throne of Dagobert" is first mentioned in the twelfth century, already as a treasured relic, by Abbot Suger, who claims in his Administratione, "We also restored the noble throne of the glorious King Dagobert, on which, as tradition relates, the Frankish kings sat to receive the homage of their nobles after they had assumed power. We did so in recognition of its exalted function and because of the value of the work itself." Abbot Suger added bronze upper members with foliated scrolls and a back-piece. The "Throne of Dagobert" was coarsely repaired and used for the coronation of Napoleon.

In the fifteenth century, a characteristic folding-chair of both Italy and Spain was made of numerous shaped cross-framed elements, joined to wooden members that rested on the floor and further made rigid with a wooden back. Nineteenth-century dealers and collectors termed these "Dante Chairs" or "Savonarola Chairs", with disregard to intervening centuries between the teo figures. Examples of curule seats were redrawn from a fifteenth-century manuscript of the Roman de Renaude de Montauban and published in Henry Shaw's Specimens of Ancient Furniture (1836).

The fifteenth or early sixteenth-century curule seat at York Minster, originally entirely covered with textiles, has rear members extended upwards to form a back, between which a rich textile was stretched. Similar early seventeenth-century cross-framed seats survive at Knole, perquisites from a royal event.

The photo of actor Edwin Booth as Hamlet (illustration) poses him in a regal cross-framed chair, considered suitably medieval in 1870.

The form found its way into stylish but non-royal decoration in the archaeological second phase of neoclassicism in the early 19th century. An unusually early example of this revived form is provided by the example of large sets of richly carved and gilded pliants (folding stools) forming part of long sets with matching tabourets delivered in 1786 to the royal châteaux of Compiègne and Fontainebleau. With their Imperial Roman connotations, the backless curule seats found their way into furnishings for Napoleon, who moved some of the former royal pliants into his state bedchamber at Fontainebleau. Further examples were ordered, in the newest Empire taste: Jacob-Desmalter's seats with members in the form of carved and gilded sheathed sabres were delivered to Saint-Cloud about 1805. Cross-framed drawing-room chairs are illustrated in Thomas Sheraton's last production, The Cabinet-Maker, Upholsterer and General Artist's Encyclopaedia (1806), and in Thomas Hope's Household Furniture (1807).

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