Extending the Longevity of French Renaissance Viols

In his Harmonie universelle, contenant la théorie et la pratique de la musique (Paris, 1636), Marin Mersenne reproduced the woodcut of a five-string viol from Jambe de Fer’s L’Épitome musical des tons, sons et accordz, es voix humaines, fleustes d’Alleman, flesustes à neuf trous, violes, & violons (Lyons, 1556) and noted that this was a kind of viol that was used in the past.

Torn page from the only surviving copy of Jambe de Fer’s L’Épitome musical des tons, sons et accordz, es voix humaines, fleustes d’Alleman, flesustes à neuf trous, violes, & violons (Lyons, 1556).
Reproduction of Jambe de Fer’s viol in Marin Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle, contenant la théorie et la pratique de la musique (Paris, 1636).

Mersenne provides tuning only for the viol designed to play the bas voice. He then presents an image of a six-string viol and explains that this is the viol that can be constructed in a variety of sizes, up to seven or eight feet in length, and is currently used in France.

The six-string viol from Marin Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle, contenant la théorie et la pratique de la musique (Paris, 1636).

Using Mersenne as the authority, scholars have therefore concluded that the five-string fourths-tuned instruments were no longer in use by 1636.

Studies of the history of the viol and surveys of French treatises that mention viols have largely overlooked, however, an important manuscript treatise written by Pierre Trichet in Bordeaux sometime between 1631 and 1638.The manuscript is today in the Bibliothèque Saint Geneviève in Paris (ms. 1070). François Lesure published an edition with an introduction of Trichet’s treatise: Pierre Trichet, Traité des instruments de musique (vers 1640), edited by François Lesure. (Neuilly-sur-Seine: Société de musique d’autrefois, 1957; Reprint Minkoff, 1978). Trichet was a bibliophile who exchanged letters relating to organological issues with Marin Mersenne.1Some of Trichet’s library today resides in the Bibliothèque de Bordeaux. Trichet exchanged two letters with Mersenne in 1631. In the first letter he suggests that he had received a letter from Mersenne dated to 15 October the previous year. See Paul Tannery, Cornelis de Waard, and René Pintard, eds., Correspondance du P. Marin Mersenne, religieux minime, vol. 3 (Paris: G. Beauchesne et ses fils, 1946), 1–9 and 156–159. In the second letter, Trichet discusses the l’ame (soul, i.e. the soundpost) of the viol. He published an inventory of the contents of his cabinet de curiosité (curiosity cabinet) in both Latin and French in 1635.2Pierre Trichet, Synopsis rerum variarum tam naturalium quam artificialium, quae in Musaeo Petri Tricheti Burdigalae reperiuntur. Denombrement de diverses et curieuses choses du Cabinet de Pierre Trichet Bourdelois ([Bordeaux]: n. p., 1635) and Dénombrement de diverses et curieuses choses du cabinet de Pierre Trichet, bourdelois ([Bordeaux]: n. p., 1635). His published inventory claims that Trichet owned a library of some 4000 volumes, 4400 engraved portraits, 400 antique medals, and a collection of musical instruments. At the time Trichet created his inventory, he owned around twenty instruments, including “une basse-contre de viole.”

Pierre Trichet, BnF (c. 1640)

Trichet’s manuscript treatise Le traité des instruments (c. 1640) was never published, likely a result of the appearance of Mersenne’s more comprehensive and scientific publication on music. In his treatise, Trichet explains the etymology of the names of instruments and discusses their description and their use. Although his discussion of the viole spans only four folio pages, the penultimate paragraph contains valuable information suggesting the continued use of French five-string viols tuned in fourths:

Before finishing this chapter it is necessary to explain the tuning of viols, both separated and conjoined to make a consort. It will therefore be noted that the strings of viols having five strings always by fourths. As for those with six strings, ascending their tuning consists of two fourths; afterwards we make a major third, and then two other fourths, which should always be understood as the distance that there is from one string to the other struck open. As for the tuning that the viols must have with each other, we must first assume that the basse-contre agrees according to the precepts that I have just deduced, then we will tune with the chanterelle the second string of the viol [performing the] taille by putting it in unison.3François Lesure, “Le Traité des instruments de musique de Pierre Trichet” Annales musicologues, Moyen-âge et renaissance 4 (1956): 127: “Avant finir ce chapitre il convient expliquer l’accord des violes tant séparées que conjointes pour faire concert. On remarquera donc que les chordes de chasque viole ayant cinq rangs se montent toujours de quatre en quatre ; quant a celles de six rangs se montent leur accord consiste en deux quartes: par après l’on fait faire une tierce majeure, et puis deux autres quartes, ce qui se doit toujours entendre de la distance qu’il y a d’une corde a l’autre frappée a l’ouvert. Quant à l’accord que doivent avoir les violes entre elles, il faut premièrement suppose que la basse-contre soit bien d’accord selon les préceptes que je viens de desduire, puis l’on accordera avec sa chanterelle la seconde chorde de la viole de la taille en la mettant à l’unisson.”

Trichet therefore confirms the continued use of five-string viols tuned in fourths in France as late as 1640. He suggests that they coexisted alongside six-string viols tuned like a lute. While, in the eyes of modern scholarship at least, Mersenne effectively killed off these instruments by referring to them as something “used in the past,” Trichet offers important evidence for their continued use. Perhaps in fashionable Paris, where Mersenne resided, the five-string French viols had become passé. In Bordeaux and likely other provincial urban centers, however, amateur musicians, like Trichet, assuredly would not have discarded of their instruments, especially expensive sets of viols meant for performing as consorts, once the Italian/English six-string viols began to replace them. If these five-string viols continued to be played well into the seventeenth century, then we must reassess our historiography and begin to rethink what repertory they might have performed during the first half of the seventeenth century.


Our Second Prototype Viol and a Prototype Bow

Second Prototype by John Pringle

John Pringle has been hard at work making a second prototype based on our new research. He is using this prototype—a treble—to experiment with body design and table construction. Since we are not using a soundpost-bassbar system, John Pringle has decided on a central spine on the table, a solution found in a wide variety of Renaissance viols. Our goal was to use what we learned by studying the Brescian Micheli viols and to combine this knowledge with French iconographical evidence. After extensive discussion, we decided the most realistic representation of viols in French iconography was made by Jacques Cellier (c. 1585):

Detail of a cherub playing a five-string French viol from a series of drawings of musical instruments made by Jacques Cellier (c. 1585) in BnF, ms. fr. 9152, fol. 163, “Recherches de plusieurs singularités, par Françoys MERLIN, controlleur général de la maison de feu madame Marie-Élizabeth, fille unique de feu roy Charles dernier,… portraictes et escrites par Jacques Cellier, demourant à Reims.”

John Pringle first made a drawing of this instrument:

He next used the drawing to build the prototype. The body of this prototype is now finished and awaiting setup:

We are excited to hear how it sounds and begin conducting experiments with the instrument soon! For comparison, here are some of the Micheli viols from Brescia, which were discussed in a previous blog post:

The Micheli instruments have more “violinsitic” features, which is logical because both father and son, like most Brescian luthiers at the time, made both viol– and violin–family instruments. We are still learning and experimenting with this prototype and no decisions have been made definitively at this time.

Prototype Bow by Coen Engelhard

We are working with Coen Engelhard to develop a set of consort bows for the French Consort Project. He has sent us a sample, which so far has worked wonderfully with our first prototype instrument. This size bow is appropriate for the middle voices (dessus and haute contre) of our consort. We will be commissioning a complete set of four bows from him for our finished consort.

26 June 2020 Addendum:

John Pringle finished varnishing and setting up our second prototype:

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

Conference Paper on Early French Viols Published

Dr. Romey presented a paper entitled “The French Renaissance Viol Consort: Reevaluating the Sources and Reclaiming the Music” at the International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Thought at Sam Houston State University from 4–6 April 2013. During the paper he displayed the first prototype made by John Pringle. His spoken paper has been published as part of the conference proceedings, which are now available:


John Romey, “The French Renaissance Viol Consort: Reevaluating the Sources and Reclaiming the Music,” in News from the Raven: Essays from Sam Houston State University on Medieval and Renaissance Thought, ed. Darci N. Hill (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), 317–38.


Prototype is a Reality

I am happy to announce that our first prototype has been built! I will be taking the prototype of the first bass to accompany my talk on the project at the Sam Houston State International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Thought from 3–4 April 2013. Many thanks to John Pringle for all of his hard work and dedication in getting this first instrument completed! First photos of the bass below.


December Happenings

The project has been silent for a while but that has not been for lack of progress behind the scenes. I am happy to report that John Pringle has begun reconstructing the first viol for the consort. I will present my first paper on this project at the International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Thought at Sam Houston State University between 4–6 April 2013. There is a possibility that the first viol will be on display to accompany the paper. I also will be working to update the Iconography section of this site in the coming weeks with newly discovered images.


Website Launched

Our website has launched! Check back for news regarding the reconstruction of the consort, upcoming lectures and events, and more! We are very excited to have some excellent musicians on board with the project! We are in the process of applying for grants to reconstruct four viols with luthier John Pringle. We will begin development of our first viol later this summer. We have also launched our official Facebook and Twitter pages. Click on the links at the top of any page to like or follow us and stay informed about developments in our project.