Like billboards for the Fiji mermaid or the world’s smallest horse, the Yale University Art Gallery has been perplexing the masses with the mysterious promise of “Curule” on the third floor. But since it opened in August, willing explorers have climbed the stairs to discover just what is meant by “Curule: Ancient Design in American Federal Furniture.” And they have not been disappointed. A modest but thorough collection of early-19th-century American furniture mimicking the “sella curulis” of antiquity, “Curule” introduces its audience to what it may never have known it was missing.
As it turns out, the “sella curulis” is a folding stool reserved for use by the Roman republic’s magistrates. It served as an “emblem of political authority,” and that connotation accounts for its persistent appearance in many images from antiquity, particularly coins like the suite of three displayed next to the doorway. Under the magnifying glass, YUAG has provided for closer inspection the visitor to “Curule” can make out groupings of empty stools, including the center coin, a silver denarius of P. Cornelius P.f.L.n. Lentulus from c.74 B.C. that shows an empty sella curulis next to a standing Roman figure. Not only were these curious furnishings symbolic, but they were more so when empty, when they became, as the accompanying caption declares, “an assertion of power.”
The stools enjoyed a brief but significant comeback during the Italian Renaissance, making frequent appearances in art with classical themes. To represent this part of their history, YUAG includes a brilliant ink sketch from 1530-34 of “Gaius Marcius Coriolanus Discovered Among the Volscians” by Giulio Pippi (Giulio Romano). Visitors should not miss this expressive view of Coriolanus whirling around in the seat of his sella curulis to show his surprise over his discovery — because of its fragility it is hidden behind a small curtain.
But it is the second comeback of the sella curulis with which this exhibit is primarily concerned. As part of the 18th century flowering of interest in the ancient world, the French and the English were the leaders in bringing back the sella curulis. Their books on antiquity and furniture design transported the idea across the Atlantic, where, as the exhibit contends, newly-independent American consumers “were able to separate their political ideas from their material tastes” and follow the British fashion. It seems mildly anachronistic, however, to assume that American tastes had developed along a radically different trajectory only a few years after they had washed their hands of their mother country. Americans were probably not compromising their independence in sharing the tastes of Britain. But whether the taste was learned or shared, it does not seem unreasonable to guess that a fledgling republic would engage in earnest mimicry of Rome, the mother of them all, if only in furniture design.
Seemingly ready to leap through the doorway is the debatable star of the show, a chair that sits front and center and is a veritable grab bag of classical motifs, “curule base, lyre splat, and cornicopaie and rosette carvings.” Rather pompous in appearance, its front-facing curule base is unusual compared to the usual side positioning of curule bases. A true beauty in the show, another 1810-20 side chair that sits along the left wall, beautifully embodies this more typical positioning. The front two legs of the chair are tipped by golden paws, almost like that of the most Roman of symbols, the Capitoline wolf. The ferocity of design and the grace of the curule shape give the impression of elasticity and bounce.
A beautiful pair of settees toward the back have been joyously reunited for the first time in years, and a stunning 1826 furniture design book by Charles Heathcote Tatham is displayed, opened to a page showing a bronze curule base made of sharp-beaked bird heads resembling Venetian Carnevale masks. There are many beautiful things in this small exhibit, but it is small, and it is sparse. The heavy concentration of small materials on the right wall and the open furniture displays sitting on platforms in the rest of the small room give the visitor the feeling that it is still a work in progress, that new materials will soon be arriving to fix the uneven distribution. The bright yellow paint complements the wood stain on the pieces, but it somehow seems like a jolt, put there to help fill the void. The specificity of the subject could not possibly fill room upon room, but the spatial difficulties could have very easily been remedied by counterpoint pieces, perhaps contemporary designs that employed other elements from antiquity. It is very possible that the emptiness was only so noticeable because of the usual format of YUAG’s permanent collection, in which pieces are hung so achingly close together that rooms full of silver teapots or wooden chairs begin to resemble 19th-century cabinets of curiosity.
Whether you like this exhibit on the curule base or not, it is very possible that this is the only exhibit covering it that you will ever see. Perhaps the humble efforts of the YUAG will spark a third comeback for the sella curulis.