Adrian's footstool

Lounge chair by Gerald Summers

Does a chair sit or stand?

A body can sit in a chair. Bodies are different, though, and sitting can look like a lot of things: you can sit on the edge of the seat with your back straight, letting the chair support your body in just one place; or, alternately, you can slouch and sink into the chair; you can draw your legs up and let them dangle over the sides, or cross one over the other, or fold them together in a lotus. You can do other things that look sort of like sitting: you can kneel, squat, or curl up in a ball. You can also stand on the chair's seat to reach an item on a high shelf, or climb onto a higher platform.

The chair seems to have fewer options. But what is it doing? Its limbs (not its seat and back) rest on the ground, so it's standing. However, insofar as the posture of the seat and back reflect that of the body it supports, it's sitting. And then, with all of its limbs pressed to the ground, it seems to be doing something else. Maybe its expression is suppliant. Praying, maybe. Or crawling?

Chairs are quasi-human in that human workers make them, and in that they share some features in common with human form: they have legs and a seat, and may also have a back and arms. From this point of view, the number of limbs on a chair seems excessive. Four legs and two arms add up to an insect body; and, as with insects, the chair's skeleton tends to be exposed. If you include a human sitter as part of the package, then you might have additional sets of legs and arms, which, if you imagine the latter as jaws, could make a spider-like body. Three legs might be just enough to make a rooted tree, or a plant that propels itself by its roots, such as a Triffid.

(There are chairs in the world that have only one leg, which is a human possibility. Is there an example of a chair with two legs, standing or walking upright? How many legs do you count on Gerald Summers's lounge chair, made of a single ingeniously molded length of plywood, where the legs, arms, back, and seat are not distinct but a continuous surface? Maybe that's more of an amoeba body.)

I will return to the question of chairs in a later post. Today I want to focus on footstools, which are either a primitive kind of chair, or an adjunct to chairs. In a remarkable motif in Marlowe's verse plays, a footstool has two positions, standing and stooping. The following passage is from Doctor Faustus.

Pope Adrian: Cast down our footstool.

King Raymond: Saxon Bruno, stoop,

Whilst on thy back his holiness ascends

Saint Peter's chair and state pontifical.

Pope Bruno: Proud Lucifer, that state belongs to me!

But thus I fall to Peter, not to thee.

Pope Adrian: To me and Peter shalt thou groveling lie

And crouch before the papal dignity.

Sound trumpets then, for thus Saint Peter's heir

From Bruno's back ascends Saint Peter's chair.

(Doctor Faustus, B-Text, 3.1.88-97, ed. Bevington and Rasmussen [Oxford, 1995])

Pope Bruno, the footstool, has to be "cast down," because he wasn't originally in the down position. He has to "stoop" from an upright position, and -- because, left to his own devices, he wouldn't always be waiting by the throne to be used -- for that to happen, someone has to tell him to stoop. Pope Adrian can't tell him. An elaborate chain of command separates Adrian from direct communication with the furniture. The chain of command links elite political operators: Adrian, a spiritual power, gives the command to Raymond, King of Hungary, a temporal power, who passes it to Bruno, a rival spiritual power. Here the chain breaks down. The footstool resists. He thinks he is the Pope; he says so distinctly and eloquently.

From a design perspective, Bruno's service as footstool is impractical. His use could never be ordinary and is, on the contrary, ritualistic. Surely some clever engineer could imagine a smoother, more comfortable path to the throne. Bruno's ritual function is something more important than comfort, which is the opposite of comfort. Adrian sacrifices his own comfort to enhance Bruno's discomfort.

I deliberately use the word discomfort rather than dehumanization. The footstool in this scene has everything in common with human form, because Bruno's is a human body, living and whole. His other human attributes include a gender (masculine), a name (Bruno), and an ambition (to enjoy the state of the papacy) and its verbal expression ("That state belongs to me!").

(Some scholars think that he might be Giordano Bruno. I would like to think so too, because this identification would give him the additional human attribute of participation in intellectual history. Giordano Bruno, victim of the persecution of Clement VIII, and a sort of animist thinker, might have appreciated the image of a defiant stool talking back to the pope. However, since the character is called Saxon Bruno rather than Nolan Bruno, I doubt it.)

This list of attributes is overspecific if we are merely trying to establish Bruno's humanity, and that is the point: this footstool is overspecific.  When Adrian intones: "Cast down our footstool," he refers to one footstool only. No other article of furniture in the Vatican collection, no matter how practical or costly, will do.

Adrian and Raymond do not conspire to strip Bruno of his individuality or his human attributes. They refer to him as a footstool, but they also address him as Bruno, and allow him some freedom to express his views. They even listen and respond to what he says. (Adrian studiously refuses to give Bruno direct commands, but he does reply to him directly.) They never dispute Bruno's human dignity. They only disagree on the political question of whether he should also enjoy "papal dignity."

Thus the primary audience for their performance is Bruno, whom they treat as a negligible utility but never take for granted. They want to convince him that he is not the Pope. To a lesser degree, Adrian may be his own audience.  He may need to hear himself declare his ascension so that he can remember that he is actually the Pope -- because it's confusing when someone else makes the same claim. Bruno's short speech has the same logic: he wants Adrian to hear that he does not acquiesce, and he wants to hear it too, particularly in circumstances that are destructive to his self-image.

In a later post, I will take up the question of what Marlowe gets from the scene of Adrian's ascension "from Bruno's back," and what his audience may be expected to get from it. I'll conclude this post by noting a tertiary audience within the scene. This audience is an anomalous figure. It has no lines -- an extraordinary omission for a character in a play by Marlowe. Others talk to it and about it, but it does not talk, although it does have a human identity, a gender, and a name. I am referring to St. Peter's chair.

St. Peter's chair

In the setting designed by Bernini in the century following Marlowe's death, the chair has become almost inaccessible. To ascend to its seat, you would need something more than a footstool; you might have to stand on the shoulders of both John Chrysostom and Augustine, the church fathers who stand to the right of the chair, and who are made of the same materials.

Christopher Wood and Alexander Nagel have studied the logic by which St. Peter's basilica retains its identity during a period in which it is being destroyed and rebuilt (Anachronic Renaissance [MIT Press, 2010], 313-319). Their account ends before Bernini intervenes, but the "chain of substitutions" they uncover is useful for understanding the association of the chair with Peter. The gilded bronze chair that Bernini designed encloses a much older chair that Peter may or may not have actually sat in; or the older chair may include wood fragments from a chair that Peter once sat in. However old the older chair may be, it takes its chronology not from the epoch of its manufacture but from the ancient epoch to which it refers.

Further, by synecdoche, the chair refers to its traditional sitter in the ancient epoch, Peter, who is the antitype of the two rival popes. Bruno clarifies that he "falls" only "to Peter," and thus to himself, because Peter is his model; while Adrian further clarifies that Bruno, in falling to Peter, can't help falling "to Peter's heir" (meaning Adrian) as well.  The chair has no lines because it has nothing to add to this exchange. Links on the same chain of substitutions, each of the rival popes refers to the same type as the chair.

There is a fine symmetry in the composition of this scene. A man acting as a footstool declares his submission to a chair acting as a man.

Next: Tamburlaine's footstool.