Problems of identification and their actual existence


Problems of identification and their actual existence
It has happened to all of us during a visit to a church, a museum or an ancient noble
palace, to glimpse whole or fragmentary frescoes on the walls depicting angels playing
music. In the same way, similar discoveries are made on the bas-reliefs of baptistery or
cathedral portals and even on the miniatures of ancient incunabula, to the attentive eye of
a luthier specialising in the reconstruction of musical instruments, such identification can
trigger a research process that could end with the creation of a copy or interpretation of the
instrument and bring it back to play the music it once played in front of an attentive and
knowledgeable public.
The first problem facing the violin maker may seem easy to solve at first glance, but in fact
it is not at all, and I will explain why.
Often the artist who paints or sculpts a musician angel playing an instrument, whatever it
may be, has an eye on the same instrument in the hands of the model and usually tends to
reproduce it as closely as possible to what he sees. A fairly important example of this
behaviour is very clear in Caravaggio, in many of his paintings a violin and a lute are
reproduced and if you look carefully you can see that they are the same instruments every
time, which not only means that they were Merisi’s property but that he reproduced them
precisely whenever he needed to.
However, Caravaggio’s behaviour was not followed by everyone, in many cases artists
reproduced the instruments from memory but also in an approximate manner since in most
cases the focus and importance of the work was on the main figures, madonnas,
crucifixions, famous episodes from the bible or the gospel.
This has meant that we are often faced with an instrument that is difficult to classify, is it a
viella or a lyre? Is it a lute or a citola?
The trick of counting the number of strings stretched out on the table or the number of
pegs on the anklet is not always conclusive, since very often the strings are not there or
there are an impossible number, and the pegs are added at random by an inattentive pupil
(cases of a different number of strings and pegs on the same instrument are not rare).
There are also artists who have reproduced the instrument from life but have embellished
it with gold leaf decorations or even small paintings that did not exist in the original.
For the moment, I will only say that it seems that there are also particularly imaginative
artists who have reproduced instruments of pure fantasy that do not exist in the general
historiography of music, but this is a separate chapter that must be tackled calmly, since it
is not certain that an instrument that today seems impossible was not one of the many
experiments that luthiers, stimulated by increasingly demanding musicians, created over
the centuries.
Another problem that has to be faced every time is that of measurements and ratios. Let
me explain in greater detail: once it has been established that a certain angel musician
plays a vielle, if we want to reconstruct it, it is necessary that the length of the neck and of
the vibrating string are at least compatible with the requirements of modern string-makers;
otherwise, even if the instrument represented is a vielle that really existed, it would be
impossible for a modern musician to play it, and it is often very difficult, if not impossible, to
find strings that do not break during the tuning phase; Moreover, most of the time the
instrument is represented from a perspective that makes it particularly difficult to recreate a
usable form, and in other cases a part, very often the anklet, remains behind the heads of
other characters in the work of art, entrusting any reconstruction exclusively to the luthier’s
Let’s say that up to this point the problems are fairly easy to solve, since we are faced with
treatises and historical musical writings in which the instruments are described quite
precisely, and if this is not the case, we are faced with poems and motets that speak of the
instruments in a fairly precise manner. In short, by studying and reading, the careful violin
maker has the weapons at his disposal to deal with all the little problems that come his
way. Often, in the face of a very precise representation of the instrument, there is the
strange absence of some fundamental part, usually the bridge or the nut; at other times, in
the face of a very shoddy work, or perhaps one that has been underpaid by the requesting
party, one can admire instruments that are represented in a precise and accurate manner,
with all the parts in their place and with a practically perfect neck-case and vibrating string
ratio worthy of a modern instrument.
This is how luthiers have always worked, succeeding in reconstructing, to a greater or
lesser extent, almost all the instruments that appear on works of art in general, and to a
certain extent the fact remains that they have also succeeded in standardising many of
them, among them certainly the ribeca, the vielle and the lute.
One aspect that is quite interesting and not to be overlooked is the fact that we have often
lost sight of how rich and varied the musical world was in the past. It would be enough to
go and read – and I love to do this – the inventories of the instruments owned by sixteenthcentury
orchestras, usually in the papers of the various music conservatories into which
the collections that had previously been at the disposal of the families that decided the
history of Renaissance cities have converged; There is one from a 17th-century Venetian
orchestra where the names of instruments appearing in the same list create great
confusion. Here are a few examples: alongside six violins and four violas, and so far so
good, there are two large violins, a violetta, two small violins, a violina and a small viola, “a
small cello stile instrument”. Well, in the absence of any other description, what was the
difference between a small viola and a large violin? And between a violin and a small
violin? In short, it is clear that perhaps we have not yet discovered everything about the
history of musical instruments.
In the light of the above, are we really sure when certain instruments are classified as
fantasy reconstructions linked to the creativity of the artists and the choreographic
requirements of the work in which they appear? The instruments in Della Robbia’s
Cantoria at the Museo dell’Opera in Florence have been classified as “fantasy”, as have
some of the instruments depicted by Gaudenzio Ferrari at the Sanctuary of Saronno. Well,
in my opinion, all the instruments depicted in these works are real instruments, there is
nothing to say the contrary, and I intend to prove it by reconstructing them myself.
Fabio Chiari

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