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Bassano violin

Ben Hebbert

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I was a little bit thrilled to discover that the Edinburgh University Collection of Historic Musical Instruments have put this lovely little fiddle into playing order... 




Nearly fifteen years ago, I was asked to have a look at an eighteenth-century practice violin on the hopes that it may have been a hundred years older than that. My considered view that the reappraisal was about 100 years out was not intended to boot it back to the nineteenth-century, but to cast it even further into the sixteenth-century. The shape, and the lack of ribs is more common in early iconography than one would first imagine, and the complex shape finds a number of concordances in a surprisingly widespread iconography across northern Italy, and as far as Poland and England, where a significant concentration of iconography seems to exist. 


A very exciting element of the violin however, was in the decoration, which includes silk-moths (quite anatomically specific) painted into each of the corners. This is the Armorial device of the Bassano family who came from Venice to London in 1538 as instrument makers, musicians, and masters of the science of musick on the invitation of Henry VIII. Another violin which I subsequently discovered (in the corner of a dusty attic of a castle - really!) that is the twin of it has tudor emblemata on the front and back, also providing sixteenth-century dating. A silk-moth stamp is very common in woodwind instruments made by the family in London. 


In a short time, my study of this will be in print in the British Museum Research Publication 196: The British Museum Citole: New Perspectives. The later front of this 14th century instrument shows the same hand, and is dated to London in 1578.


In the meantime, it's fun to listen to an instrument as old as Andrea Amati, and probably one of the only primitive competitors of the modern violin to survive from the sixteenth-century.



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It may have been a typo, but no the type you expect. The museum has accepted a date-range of 1280-1330 for when the citole was made. We had a major international symposium about the instrument about five years ago, with various people sent away to scrutinise the various elements of it. My work was solely on the modern bits - the tailpiece, fingerboard, metalwork and violin belly - all part of a conversion to a violin in 1578. That kind of date was touched upon in 1981 when the first major study was done on the instrument, but this time, they got medievalists of every kind to look at the iconography on the citole, the historic context, and virtually every possible aspect of the instrument. That's a part that I'm only a bystander in, but the force of evidence was very very strong!


The citole is not the instrument being played - that is very definitely a violin. The citole in the British Museum is this: 




However, it is very clear that whoever turned it into a violin was also the person who made the Bassano violins... 

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Thank you, Ben, I love this!


I would also love to hear it being played by someone like Maxim Vengerov. I imagine that he would get a different sound out of it.


I would like to read the upcoming publication about the citole. I love these instruments from that era, predating the violin. It's such a fascinating time for instrument construction.

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