A Pair of
Petrarca Chairs

Adaptations of an Italian panel-back arm chair which has been on display in the same room for 400 years.

These are not Glastonbury chairs.
Glastonbury chairs are just like these,
except totally different.
The Petrarca chair is what that English monk was trying to make, when he instead made the Glastonbury chair.
Silly monk.



Italian Petrarca Chairs

Adaptation of the 15c Petrarca Chair
by Maxton Gunn   April 29, 2020


My Lady’s garden needed chairs, and there could be no better excuse to research and adapt a medieval design!  I chose to recreate a recognizable back-paneled arm chair of Italian origin, typified by a specific example called the Petrarca Chair.  This style is notable for the ease in which it can be disassembled for transport.


Aren’t these Glastonbury chairs? 

The German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer created his famous woodcut of a rhinoceros without ever having seen one, and it really shows.[i]  In much the same way, John Arthur Thorne, an English monk of the Glastonbury Abbey, had in 1504 built a chair guided only by a description brought from Rome by his Abbot[ii].  And although Thorne’s chair did resemble the Italian chairs which his Abbot had admired, its unnecessary complexity may well have disqualified it from further interest.  But it was the first chair of its kind known in England, and so became famous.  It has been widely copied, faithful plans continue to be published, and even the Italian examples which preceded it and inspired it are often mistakenly called “Glastonbury chairs”.


The English Glastonbury chair is a degenerate design in that it entirely lacks the elegant functional simplicity of its forebears.  It must be pointed out therefore that these present chairs were adapted directly from the Italian precedents, and not from the English Glastonbury chairs.


Unlike the Glastonbury Chair in which the seat and back panels are held along all four edges by joined rails and trunnioned crosspieces, the Petrarca Chair features simple seat and back panels set into slots cut only into the rails.  Dowels which span the full width of the chair are used in the place of the Glastonbury’s complex and fitted crosspieces.  And unlike the Glastonbury, the order of assembly of the Petrarca chair’s legs, rails, and arms allows an alignment of these components in which all surfaces and holes may be made perpendicular and normal.  



The present chairs are faithful to the illustrative Petrarca Chair in construction and proportion.  The Petrarca Chair is so called because it has remained in the former residence of the poet Francesco Petrarca, in the Italian province of Padua, for hundreds of years.  “Le Morte del Patrarca,” a 1929 painting by Pietro Gualtiero De Bacci Venuti, reflects a commonly held belief that the poet was seated in that chair at his death in 1374.  The chair is unlikely to be that old however, bearing as it does the carved embellishments typical of 15c chairs.  It was depicted in a woodcut (Figure 1) featured in a locally published book on Petrarca in 1635[iii]. 


I chose the specific example of the Petrarca Chair as the inspiration for my chairs because of the elegant simplicity of its design, the completeness of its current condition, the availability of documentation on its past conditions, and the surety that it is an authentic example of a pre-17c chair and not just another well-disguised Victorian-era reproduction.  I developed plans for my chairs by making measurements from many available photographs of the Petrarca chair.


The arms of Petrarca-type chairs exhibit both a range of form and a characteristic similarity.  The arms are what make the Petrarca chairs, together with the Glastonbury chairs, immediately recognizable.  For reasons of personal taste, I chose to copy the arms of a similar 15c example of the Petrarca style, also found in Padua. 


I have yet to locate sufficiently detailed photos or sketches of the Petrarca Chair’s carved embellishments to support an attempt to recreate them.  The present chairs will likely either receive original carvings inspired by Renaissance Italian motifs, or remain uncarved. 


The original form of the Petrarca Chair:
The specific Petrarca Chair is currently secured in assembly by caps, apparently pinned to each end of its dowels and leg stretcher.  A fairly detailed sketch of this chair by Miner Kilbourne Kellogg in 1863 (Figure 2) shows the dowel ends without caps, and with wedges as are typical to chairs of this type.  The caps then are modern additions, perhaps suitable for a portable chair which hasn’t gone anywhere in four hundred years.



A walk through most any museum display of medieval furniture might give the impression that oak was esteemed above all other types of wood for the making of prestigious furniture.  However, the passing of centuries is a filter by which mundane and unimpressive items are destroyed by neglect, the weak are worn down and broken, and most anything which can, rots.  Oak is famously strong, tannins make it resistant to rot, and if an item of furniture wasn’t particularly impressive in the first place then it was never likely to be maintained to end up in a museum.  Hence, museum displays of fancy medieval furniture made of oak.  


Every pre-17c English Glastonbury chair which I reviewed was made of oak.  Yet despite that, and the strong survival bias for oak furniture, nearly every example of pre-17c Italian Petrarca chairs which I encountered was made of walnut.  One was cypress, a soft but highly rot-resistant wood.  Remarkably, the one example of oak was the Petrarca Chair itself.  Matteo Boschini, an accomplished amateur wood carver living in Northern Italy, examined the chair in 2015 and reported that it was of oak[iv].  Although this narrow study is far from conclusive, it suggests a strong cultural preference, and is perhaps a statement on the relative availability of oak and walnut in Renaissance Italy versus England.  Clearly, whereas the Petrarca and Glastonbury chairs were both popular styles, the apparent dichotomy was not due to issues of suitability. 


Oak was selected for the new chairs, given that the Petrarca Chair was made of oak, and that the new chairs are intended for use in a garden and will be left outdoors from Spring to Autumn. 



I make no attempt here to push the boundaries of knowledge regarding period furniture finishes.  After 500 years, a chair’s original finish is generally long gone, and any paint or varnish seen on it now is likely to be a recent addition, and any present oils may have merely accumulated through use and handling.  The many images of furniture found in medieval paintings suggest that chairs were used both painted and natural.  Such images which I have reviewed of Savonarola chairs, a similarly complex style of portable chair which was also popular in 15c Italy, show the chair unpainted, but of course could have been oiled or varnished.  The one pre-17c painting which I encountered of a Petrarca chair gave the uncertain impression that the chair was unpainted. 


I chose to seal the chairs against weathering with a mixture of linseed oil and varnish, while using asphaltum to darken the wood to imitate the effect of aging.  




[i] Giulia Bartrum, "Albrecht Dürer and his Legacy", British Museum Press, 2002, ISBN 0-7141-2633-0

[ii] Chinnery, Victor (1979). Oak Furniture: The British Tradition. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collector's Club. p. 220. ISBN 0-902028-61-8

[iii] Giacomo Filippo Tomasini, Petrarcha Redivivus (Padua 1635)

[iv] https://littlewoodsworks.wordpress.com/chi-sono/

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