What is a sgabello? Its name sounds like a disease, but it is actually an Italian name for a stool. A sgabello was a common piece of furniture during the Renaissance (1400-1600) in cities in Italy, France, and the Netherlands. Typically, the stools had small seats and three legs. They were uncomfortable, and used for short periods of sitting. Discomfort did not make them unimportant. Because they were easy to move, they were often the most common type of chair in a home. And since they were the most common, they ended up being some of the most ornamented pieces of furniture from the period.
Contrary to what we might think, even the most architecturally impressive Renaissance palaces were sparsely furnished. Wood was expensive, and so was furniture. Fine furniture was therefore always crafted for beauty as much as utility. It was a way to show off your means with a quality investment.
One of the wealthiest families of the Italian city of Florence was the Strozzi. They built a huge palace in the city that is still visible today. Built in elegant rows of pillow-like stone, the building towers over its neighbors, and leaves a lasting impression on tourists that pass by it. Filippo Strozzi (1428-1491) built the palace, and hosted a lavish ceremony when he laid the first stone. At the ceremony he provided stools for guests, and one of these sgabellos survives.
Now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Strozzi’s sgabello gives us a snapshot of fine furniture and design five hundred years ago. The sgabello rests of three legs, has an octagonal seat like a stop sign, and a high, narrow, back. On top of the back is a round carved medallion that bears the Strozzi’s coat of arms. It is made of walnut and maple, and inlaid with ebony and fruitwood. Parts of the chair bore gold leaf and red paint. This unique piece was the sort of furnishing that made the palaces of Renaissance Italy such marvels.
The next time you pull up a barstool, know that what you are sitting in has a long and illustrious history.