Tuesday 12 July 2016

The Backside of an Angel

Greetings! I was recently in Cleveland for the Lute Society of America Lute Fest, our biennial celebration of all things lute.  You may have seen photo and video highlights posted to the LSA Facebook group, or the LSA website. As always, a fantastic time was had by all--classes, concerts, lessons, lectures, much fellowship and affection all helped to create a beautiful world for a week on the Case Western Reserve University campus. If you haven't attended the LSA Fest, you should make plans to be there in 2018!

One thing that I've always loved about attending the LSA Festival at Case is the proximity to the Cleveland Museum of Art--it's literally a ten-minute walk from the dorm where the Lute people live. The last couple of times I've attended the Fest, I've elected to arrive a day early, just so I can go check out what's happening at the Museum.  In 2014, there was an amazing exhibition of prints by Albrecht Dürer, an artist who's dear to the heart of lute makers everywhere.  This time, there was something (dare I say) even better for a complete lute-nerd like me: a selection of single, large, illuminated vellum pages from Italian choir books of the 14th and 15th centuries.

Of course, when I learned about this exhibit, I headed straight there, looking for images of lutes (and other musical instruments)--and I found them.  I'm not sure how many individual pages were on display in the small gallery--maybe twenty at most--and probably a third of them had initial or marginal illuminations that included angel musicians.  Among those, there were at least three pictures of lutes, all very good, and one which I consider to be a iconographical discovery of some consequence--to me at least.  Let's have a  look!

First up: one that I think I've seen before, probably in Howard Mayer Brown's "Catalogus: A Corpus of Trecento Pictures with Musical Subject Matter," a series of articles published in the journal Imago Musicae in the mid-1980s.  (I discussed this article in a previous blog post, Designing a Medieval Lute.)  Here's a pic of the entire choir book page, whose origin is Bologna and which dates to 1408:

And here's a close-up of the illuminated initial E, showing King David playing a long necked lute.  There are a few things to note about the lute, even though not much detail can be seen in the photo: it probably has four courses; the neck is probably fretless; the bridge and rose are positioned low on the belly. The two main points of interest for me are the length of the neck in relation to the body, and the curved joint between the neck and the body. Of the latter point, I would also note that there appears to be a body-neck joint clearly marked on the lute, suggesting at least a separate fingerboard, if not an actual separate neck (which is joined to the body, rather than the body and neck being carved from a single piece of wood).

Moving on: a marginal illustration from a Mass of the Dead, from 1480s Ferrara, by Jacopo Filippo Argenta.  The entire page is magnificent, dominated by the large historiated R with a realistic scene of a priest and acolytes in a chapel, standing over the body of the deceased, reading the Office of the Dead.

One could get lost in the extraordinary detail of the entire work, but my eye moves almost automatically to the bottom margin, where we find two angel musicians, one with a lute.

What kind of lute is it? Hard to tell, but I would say it has four, perhaps five courses; the body-neck joint is blunt, suggesting that the neck is a separate piece joined onto the body; and the right hand position, while not exactly clear from my photograph, suggests the possibility that the angel might be playing with his fingertips, rather than with a plectrum. All of these features are what one might expect to find in a picture from the 1480s, a time of transition for the lute, when playing technique was evolving from single lines played with a plectrum to polyphonic music played with the fingertips.

And now to the third lute picture, my favourite, and to me the most exciting of the bunch.  It dates from the 1370s, and is the masterpiece of Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci, a Camaldolese monk who produced this illumination for a multivolume set of choral books for his monastery of Santa Maria delgli Angeli in Florence.  Here it is, in all its splendour, a magnificent illuminated G (which would have introduced the text Gaudeamus omnes in Domino, "Let us rejoice in the Lord"):

Indeed, let us rejoice--and let us focus on the extraordinary depiction of the angel musicians at the bottom of the page.

What have we here? Five kneeling angels, with their backs turned to us, the two farthest away apparently without instruments (perhaps they are singers), the three nearest to us playing fiddle, portative organ, and lute.

It's a pretty common combination of instruments in pictures from this period, but what makes it extraordinary to me is the fact that the musicians are shown from the back side. Frontal depictions of such musical groups are (to put it crudely) a dime a dozen; this is the first one I've seen that shows the rear view of these instruments.  And to me, the depiction is (sorry!) highly illuminating.

I'm not sure what modern makers of medieval fiddles might have to say about this picture, but from what I've seen of modern recreations of this instrument, the depiction looks pretty accurate. The head stock appears quite clearly to be hollowed out from the back, which I think is the way most modern versions of this instrument are built. Why are they built this way? I don't know--maybe there is other iconographical evidence somewhere, or surviving historical instruments, that show this feature. (If there are any medieval fiddle makers reading this post who can comment, please do so at the bottom of the page. I'd appreciate it.) At the very least, I think the reasonable accuracy of the fiddle in this picture lends credence to the rest, including the lute, which is what I'm most interested in.

So let's have a look:

To me, this picture is a treasure trove of information.  The positions of both arms and hands suggest much about the playing technique being used: the left thumb wraps around the back of the neck, which I take as indicative of single line playing, 'ud-style, on an unfretted neck, while the right arm wraps around the very bottom end of the lute, bringing the right hand and forearm parallel to the strings, in perfect position for playing with a plectrum. In fact, to me this picture suggests a playing position very much like the one shown in another picture from roughly the same time period, the Coronation of the Virgin by Andrea Di Bartolo, from the Ca d'Oro in Venice.

Here's the big picture:

And here's the detail of the angel with the lute:

They could be the same angels--they could be the same lutes!

As some of you may know, I made a five course unfretted medieval lute based on this painting a couple of years ago--and I wrote about the process of designing and building it on this blog (as I mentioned above, the post is called "Designing a Medieval Lute"). To refresh your memory, here's what it looked like--from the front:

In my description of my process, I lamented the fact that when designing a three dimensional object using a two dimensional model like this painting, all you get is a plan view, without any information on things like the depth of the body, the materials used, how many ribs it has (if indeed it is built of ribs, and not carved out of a single block of wood). For my model, I chose to build lightly and simply, using nine ribs (the least number that's practical) and a semicircular cross section.  Here's what I got:

I thought this lute turned out really well as a musical instrument, and I've always felt that it was very plausible from a design point of view, but I've never had support for this opinion until now. I think the rear-view illumination that I found in the Cleveland Museum of Art confirms much of what I decided to do with this instrument. A direct comparison:

The bowls look very similar. You can't quite count the ribs on the lute in the painting--the angel's arm is in the way--but nine seems right. And even the shortened capping strip at the bottom of my lute seems to correspond to the painting.  As well, the overall rounded shape of the body seems very similar to me--I think they're near-twins.

The only real difference between them seems to be the peg box--mine is tapered and the back is closed (that is, it's covered with a plate), while the one in the painting is more square, and the back is open. It also appears to have 7 or possibly 8 pegs, which would make it a four course instrument. But I think the peg box in this painting matches very closely the one in the Di Bartolo painting, in the square-ish look, the number of pegs, and the style of the peg head (which to me looks sort of heart-shaped.)

So that's my story.  I realize that as a lute maker I get excited about things that probably don't matter much to the vast majority of humanity, but I guess that's one of the reasons why I make lutes! A little discovery like this pleases me much, and it's like a little miracle, one that's made possible by the fact that the Lute Society of America has its Lute Fest in Cleveland every two years.  Really, next time around you should come and join us. It will blow your mind!