Reconstruction, Research

Insights from Brescian Renaissance Viols

One of the most daunting challenges in reconstructing a consort of Renaissance French viols is the lack of extant instruments that can be analyzed. While iconography and treatises are both crucial sources for understanding these instruments, taken together they still leave many questions unresolved. Besides questions surrounding the internal construction of the viols, one pertinent issue is the body shape. For example, the images of viols produced in Philibert Jambe de Fer’s treatise in 1556, on Robert Ballard’s frontispieces beginning in 1565 (and continuing into the first decades of the seventeenth century), in the livret for the Ballet comique de la Reine in 1582, and in drawings by Jacques Cellier for Françoys Merlin’s Recherches de plusieurs singularités (c. 1585), and in other sources all consistently depict viols with turned out corners typical of violin-family instruments. In his retrospective musings on the history of the viol, Jean Rousseau similarly claimed of French viols from this period: “The shape of this viol strongly resembles that of the basse de violon.” This evidence suggests that turned out corners were a distinctive feature on many French Renaissance viols.

Although no such viol with outwardly turned corners survives from France, surviving sixteenth-century instruments from Italy can offer organological insights. Sixteenth-century Venetian viols with forward sloping upper bouts, such as those made by Antonio Ciciliano and Francesco Linarol, and Brescian hourglass- or guitar-shaped viols, such as those by Gasparo da Salo and Zanetto de Michaeli, have been copied by luthiers and performed on by professional consorts. Fretwork, for example, has recorded an album on copies of the Francesco Linarol housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Luthier Henner Harders reconstructed their consort by enlarging and reducing the size of the original to create a string length of about 50 cm for two tenor instruments tuned in A, about 73 cm for a bass tuned in D, and about 92 cm for a bass tuned in A.

Henner Harders has also made consorts of these Venetian viols for the Music Academies in Bremen and Leipzig. Luthier Ray Nurse had previously made an extensive study of Renaissance instruments in European museums and copied a consort of the hourglass- or guitar-shaped Brescian viols. The Nota Bene viol consort, comprised of Joanna Blendulf, Wendy Gillespie, Sarah Mead, and Emily Walhout, recently raised money to purchase the scattered copies made by Ray Nurse and is now actively performing on these instruments.

Before he stopped producing new instruments Ray Nurse was generous enough to share his drawings and notes on these viols with me. Because of the variability of bridge placement possible on viols without soundposts, string length can never determined with certainty. Ray believed, however, that body length probably corresponded closely to the original string length. For the hourglass-shaped viols, he recorded body lengths of 53cm, 63 cm, 76 cm, and 90 cm, body lengths that corresponds remarkably close to the string lengths that Henner Harders chose to use in his reconstructed Venetian viol consort.

Another shape of Brescian viol, one with fluting on the edges of the tops and turned out violinistic corners, has only recently received close attention by luthiers and musicians. Surviving viols produced by Zanetto Micheli (c. 1489–1560) and his son Pellegrino Micheli (ca. 1520–ca. 1606) reflect some of the same characteristic body shapes as those instruments that appear in French Renaissance iconography. They therefore might offer some clues to internal and external construction of French viols. Federico Löwenberger and after his passing his son Alessandro Löwenberg have recently copied a consort of Micheli viols for Randall Cook and the Schola Cantorum in Basel. They copied a “bass” viol by Pellegrino De Micheli that they claim is “an original instrument owned by a noble Italian family since it was bought by their ancestors directly from the craftsman.” Strung in all gut and without a soundpost/bassbar system, their copy of this instrument has a 74.5 cm string length. They have shrunk the proportions of this instrument to what they are calling a “tenor” with a string length of 62 cm and enlarged the proportions to what they are calling a “G-violone” with a string length of 93 cm. These string lengths are again close in range to those consorts of Brescian viols made by Ray Nurse and of Venetian viols made Henner Harders. All of these experiments with reconstructing Italian Renaissance viols are “low” consorts (using modern terminology, with instruments corresponding in size to a violone (in G or A) for the bass voice, two “bass viols” for the middle voices, and a “tenor viol” performing the highest voice) of large instruments played at the high pitch (circa 466 Hz) common in the northern parts of Italy that were under the influence of Venice.

Several other instruments by the two Micheli luthiers survive and, due to their close visual similarities to French iconographical sources, they warrant closer inspection. The Cité de la musique in Paris has two instruments labeled as products of Micheli craftsmanship. The first, according to the museum made by Zanetto de Micheli di Montichiaro in 1547, is probably a misidentified instrument from a later craftsmen. The second, attributed to Pellegrino di Zanetto and dated to around 1550, is currently setup as a four-string “contrabasse de viole.” With a table of 160 cm, this instrument was probably a large violone originally made with 5 or 6 strings.

The second extant specimen is a bass viola da gamba made by “Zanetto de’ Micheli da Montichiaro” housed in the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota. This instrument was converted to a four-string violoncello in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Ray Nurse made a technical drawing of this instrument, which has a body length is 63.5 cm.

A third surviving viol made by Pellegrino Micheli survives in the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation in Riga, Latvia. The most ornate of the surviving instruments, it includes florid ornaments on the back and ribs and is topped with an elaborate carved scroll featuring Orpheus playing his lyre while seated in a leafy grove. Unfortunately drawings and measurements are not available for this instrument at this time, so photos will have to suffice.

All surviving specimens of viols built by the Micheli family of luthiers are large instruments reflecting body/string lengths of a “low” Renaissance consort.

At a minimum the viols built by the Micheli family are consistent with the shape of the French viols as depicted in iconography. Studying the Micheli viols has been a revelation for both John Pringle and myself as we believe that they provide a key to unlocking many of the unresolved mysteries of the French viols we plan to reconstruct. For example, we tuned our prototype, with a string 70 cm, as a “bas” instrument in “E” (c’ g d A E), but, in light of the measurements from Venetian and Brescian viols, it now seems that this instrument should serve as a middle voice (haute-contre or taille) in our consort and should be tuned in “B” (g’ d’ a e B). In general, studying reconstructions of Italian Renaissance viol consorts suggests that our viols too should be larger than we had planned with the prototype. I have long sought clarity about the size of the French instruments, particularly because French iconography consistently portrays large instruments relative to the body size of the musicians:

Iconography, though, can be deceiving: artists could choose to prioritize aesthetics over physics, cherubs (and other heavenly or angelic beings) and mythological creatures are not always rendered as accurate representations of historical fleshly bodies, and adult Europeans were smaller in stature in the sixteenth century. When combining the iconographical evidence with organlogical, however, we can feel confident that we are approaching a reconstruction of instruments like those that were used in sixteenth-century France. Additionally, these Micheli viols, without a soundpost/bassbar system, have deeper ribs than our prototype and all have a back that is bent (canted) like the “classical” viol shape. After researching and discussing these instruments, we have agreed that we should use their size, shape, and construction as models for our French consort.

The fact that the French instruments visually resemble these Brescian viols is likely not coincidental. My research has suggested that at least some of the viols and viol players at the French court were imported from Italy in the sixteenth century. This migration was in part due to the 1533 marriage of Catherine de’ Medici to Henri II. I will explore this migration in detail in a future article, but for now I have been piecing together a timeline of the appearance of viols in sixteenth-century France. To whet your appetite as I prepare further research on this topic, the following Valois tapestry depicts three large viols performing at a ball held by Catherine de’ Medici in 1573 at the Tuileries. 

Fête aux Tuileries en l’honneur des ambassadeurs polonais

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