Chairs. Can you imagine your house without chairs?
A seat, with a back, generally meant for one person. A chair must have been one of the first things our Stone Age ancestors invented. Or let us say found useful. Perhaps just a boulder. Or a tree stump. Just something they could sit on. To begin with, there’s the chair where my mother spent the last months of her life. Where she read and listened to music and wrote to her relatives and of her life as a girl, as a bride, as a newcomer to the New World. It still sits (for even a chair can sit) by the window downstairs. It has memories of its own for at Christmas we moved my mother, who could no longer walk, from her chair down below where she could enjoy the trees and grass, upstairs for the Christmas dinner, where she could see the tree with its lights. The question arose as to how to get her there, for while she was tiny and could have perhaps been carried up, the staircase was too narrow a spiral. The solution came when her grandsons turned a wheelbarrow, properly padded, into a chair and wheeled her up around the house to the upper entrance. Grandma in a wheelbarrow. She was delighted.
Then there are the rustic chairs, Alfonso’s chairs. In beech or ash with plaited straw seats. Alfonso De Gasperin. A name that tells you that he was not from Orvieto but betrays his Friuli origins where he and his fellows wandered through the hills, the tools of their trade on their backs, stopping to make chairs for those who offered them hospitality. A handsome fellow he was, who, aside from making chairs, worked on other woodwork with my father when the villa was being built. The drawers he made for the coat closet at the entrance were as unique as he was. When you removed them to clean, them you had to remember which drawer went where, for each drawer was slightly different from its companions.
The rather elegant Swedish armchair I now have in my Orvieto apartment is perhaps the only piece of furniture I chose by myself, for Mario had the habit of doing things without asking me. Possibly since he had been a bachelor so long. I had had my second child and needed a chair to sit in when nursing. Even now, after over 50 years, the chair is still in good shape, the elastic supports for the seat still holding up. It also contains memories of the time I had a stiff neck, torcicollo in Italian is much more to the point and closer to the English wryneck even though that word also refers to a woodpecker, and slept sitting upright for I could not, for the life of me, move into any other position. That chair now serves as a place to throw one’s coat on. So chairs are not only for sitting on.
The office chair, a black swivel affair from IKEA called Moses (don’t ask me why), is now so worn it should really go the way of all things no longer decorous. My friend Giulio would have frowned at the idea for in his stone cottage in the Chianti he made do with foam rubber padding, no slipcovers, on an old unseemly armchair and felt that it served him quite well. My granddaughter Costanza loved “Moses” and as a child always rolled it over to the dining table for meals.
Other chairs have come and gone. Some not meant last, some too old and too uncomfortable despite their leather covered back and carved stretchers. The leather is in tatters; the worms have had a banquet on the seat and legs. But the stretchers are still whole and I rather think I shall now detach them, demote or promote them to decorative panels on the wall after brushing them with red oil. The chairs, like the large carved chest, had been bought from the Baroness Alda Anrep, Nicky Mariano’s sister. Nicky was Bernard Berenson’s faithful companion/caretaker at I Tatti, for whom I worked for a while. Supposedly, I was to take dictation from Berenson himself, bed ridden most of the time, but he had a habit of mumbling and covering his mouth with his hand when he spoke and I had a hard time understanding him. Essential or elaborate, each chair has a personality of its own, which may or may not reflect that of the sitter. That dark green leather overstuffed armchair, not all that comfortable to tell the truth, is in a sense my father. It sits in the center of the room, surrounded by Alfonso’s chairs, which are in obeisance one might say. Sometimes now, if we are at the villa, it may be used by guests, like my friend Will, who so to say identifies with the chair, as he reads his books and waits for his small glass of grappa. The armchair next to it, too low to comfortably sit in, is fine for my dog Teah who curls up in it if someone is watching television, and expects to be petted. Although she sometimes thinks the green armchair is hers too.
But then a chair can also signify an absence. No, I had said to his sister after my husband died, don’t sit in that chair. That was his and I can’t picture anyone else sitting there. And that solitary chair encountered in my son’s student outing to Tarquinia, silhouetted against a cloudless sky looking out over the ocean, does it suffer from solitude? Does it feel alone? Where are the people? one is tempted to ask. Has it been abandoned?
Most chairs go rather unnoticed. We sit on them to tie our shoes, to tap out messages on our laptops. A few remain with us – in particular if we have taken the time to analyze their characters, like the two of many years ago in a room in Bagnara Calabra. They were (and I’m sure no longer exist) ivory-colored with faded gold brocade seats, hopelessly swaybacked as they leaned against the wall, companions to the woman-breasted griffins supporting a gilt-edged table. Would I remember them if I hadn’t drawn them then?
The chairs in the villa now all sit and wait, grouped rather helter-skelter in the various rooms, for the human inhabitants are often elsewhere. They sit there conversing, gathering dust, gone elsewhere speaking of their past and of their purpose in life, wondering, as is the fate of all chairs, about tomorrow.