Lute of the Month


Crispijn de Passe

Crispijn de Passe (1564 - 1637) Student Music
Haags Gemeentemuseum, inv. PM 62zj

This rather riotous assembly is supposedly a view of student life, the text underneath reads:
“Aures demulcet flectit durissima corda,/ Exhilarat tristes, conciliatque sibi/ Et lassus recreat studiorum pondere mentes;/ Quid mirum a Musis, Musica nomen habet.”
[It caresses the ears, bends the hardest heart, cheers the sad, and reconciles them with themselves. It refreshes the tired mind weighed down with studies; what wonder that music takes its name from the Muses?]

The picture is in the long tradition of genre pieces in Flemish art of the 17th century, rather like the “prodigal son in a brothel” pieces, which also often feature musical instruments. It shows a rather raucous looking grouping of three singers accompanied by lute, two violins, cello and harpsichord. One man is drinking while another waves his hat in the air instead of playing his violin. There is also a harp, cittern, oboe and sackbut, as well as a sword and hat, hanging on the wall. The true spirit of the gathering is more accurately given by the prominent jug of wine cooling in a washtub centre-stage foreground with an empty one lying alongside. Not to mention the woman being pulled by her skirt into the room by one of the “students”!

Also prominently in the foreground, one of the players is doing something with a lute string before putting it on his lute, which lies with its pegbox hooked over his left arm. He is clearly stretching the string between his hands at about the string-length of his instrument while “plucking” or twitching it with his little finger.

Crispijn de Passe

Crispijn de Passe (1564 - 1637) Student Music, detail
Haags Gemeentemuseum, inv. PM 62zj

What can he be doing? In these days of rectified nylon, this is not a usual activity before putting on a new string. Players nowadays tend just to take the string out of its packet and put it straight on the lute. But in the days of gut strings, this testing was an absolutely necessary part of the business of stringing your lute. Not every string was absolutely the same thickness throughout its length, in musical parlance it was not true. This meant two things: first, the upper harmonics of any note, the overtones, would not be in tune with the fundamental, and so it would sound oddly un-sweet or un-musical. And second, the string would not rise in exact semitones with each fret, so that some chords including that string would not be in tune. Given the apparent nature of the gathering, this test looks to be rather unnecessary.

For technical reasons in the manufacture, this is a more acute problem for the thinner strings, which are also more likely to break and need replacing. This is one of the reasons why the top course tends to be single strung. However many renaissance Italian lutes did have double strung top courses, which leads us to think that Italian strings may have been better quality at this time.

The lute tutor by Adrian Le Roy explains the test in good detail:

To put the laste hande to this woorke, I will not omitte to give you to understande, how to knowe stringes, whereof the best come to us of Almaigne, on this side the toune of Munic, and from Aquila in Italie: before ye putte them on the Lute, it is nedefull to prove them betwene the handes, in maner as is sette forth in figures hereafter pictured, whiche shewe manifestly on the finger, and to the eye, the difference from the true with the false: that is to wete, the true is knowen by this, that in strickyng hym betwene the fingers, hee muste shewe to divide hymself juste in twoo, and that for so muche as shall reche from the bridge belowe, to the top of the necke: because it maketh no matter for the reste of the strynges, that goes among the pinnes, notwithstandyng ye maie not bee satisfied in assaiyng the strynge, holden oneley at that length, but that you must also prove hym in strikyng hym, beyng holden at shorter lengthes, to bee well assured of his certain goodness and perfection. Also the false stryng is knowen by the shewe of many strynges, whiche it representeth, when it is striken betwene the fingers: so muste you continewe the same triall in strikyng the stryng, till you perceive the token of the good, to separate hym from the badde, accordyng to the figures followyng.

Adrian le Roy

Adrian le Roy
A briefe and plaine Instruction (1574)

It is assumed that Dowland is referring to the same test when he rather cryptically says:

If you desire to choose strings that are not false, that the maker cannot promise you, but there is a rule for the knowledge thereof by sight after the string is drawn out, which being it is so ordinarie and so well knowne, I hould it not fit to trouble you with the relation.

Mersenne uses the same illustration in his massive and authoritative work on all things musical.


Marin Mersenne l'Harmonie Universelle (1636)

Picture after picture show this same test:

Here again the lute is hooked comfortably over the player's arm. Interestingly, the other arm, which makes one wonder if the Crispijn de Passe picture has been reversed by the engraver, as so often happened.

le Nain

Le Nain (c.1588 - 1648) or (c.1593 - 1648) or (c.1607 - 1677) !! L'académie
Louvre, Paris

There were three Le Nain brothers, Antoine, Louis and Mathieu who were all elected members of the Academie on its foundation in 1648 but they didn't sign their works with an initial and didn't date their works so it's almost impossible to know who did what! but they were certainly 17th century, not the 16th century dates I had up earlier!

Lazzaro Bastiani

Lazzaro Bastiani (b. 1449, Venice, d. 1512, Venice)
The Relic of the Holy Cross is offered to the Scuola di S. Giovanni Evangelista c. 1494
Tempera on canvas, 319 x 438 cm
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

The Confraternity of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista in Venice commissioned the most respected Venetian painters of the period, including Pietro Perugino, Vittore Carpaccio, Gentile Bellini, Giovanni Mansueti, Lazzaro Bastiani and Benedetto Diana to paint nine canvases for the Great Hall of their headquarters showing the Miracles of the Holy Cross, the story of the miracles performed by the fragment of wood from the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. This fragment had been donated to the brotherhood in 1369 by Philip de Méziéres, Chancellor of the Kingdom of Cyprus and Jerusalem, and had soon become an object of great veneration and the symbol of the Scuola, one of the most important and wealthy Venetian confraternities.

This canvas shows the ceremony at which it was offered to the Scuola di S. Giovanni Evangelista by Philippe de Méziéres in 1369.

The canvas painted by Perugino has been lost, but the eight surviving paintings executed between 1496 and 1501, (known as 'teleri') are all in the Accademia now so it is easy to compare them.

I went there recently to look at this painting, hoping to see more detail of the lute than was evident from reproductions. However the Accademia has a rather aggressive “restoration” policy and most of the detail is now down the drains and into the canals. From close examination, I can now say with confidence that this lute's soundboard was made from “maple-effect plastic laminate”. The stretched string has vanished entirely!

Lazzaro Bastiani

Lazzaro Bastiani (b. 1449, Venice, d. 1512, Venice)
Detail kindly supplied by the composer Brian Wright. Notice the little red box for spare strings on the balustrade beside the lute.
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

G G Savoldo

Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo (c.1480 - later than1548)
Old Man stringing a Lute
Universität Leipzig, [Dauerleihgabe des Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museums, Duisberg.]

Savoldo was a Brescian who worked mainly in Venice even though he is first recorded in the Guild in Florence in 1508.

This wonderfully Titian-like painting shows an academic-looking man examining a string carefully through his pince-nez spectacles, on the stone plinth beside him is an ebony renaissance guitar while his lute is on the table in front of him. The spirit of this painting is as far removed from the first as it's possible to be. In fact the very act of examining the string in this way suggests knowledge and fastidious care, and seems to function as an iconographic symbol for this outlook in the last three pictures. Perhaps therefore the pairing of the wine jugs and lute-player in the first picture has an ironic force to echo the evident irony of the Latin text.

I am very grateful to Peter Forrester for telling me about the Louvre and Leipzig pictures and for lending me his copies of them.

Caroline Usher has alerted me to a typo in the dates of a couple of the illustrations:

“Very interesting set of pictures. You have the same dates for Le Nain as for Mersenne--is that a typographical error? The clothing in the Le Nain picture looks remarkably like the costumes in Richard Lester's film "The Three Musketeers" (1968--wonderful romp with script by George Macdonald Fraser), so I would guess it to be 17th rather than 16th century!

I especially like the studious gentleman in the Leipzig picture. Stringed polyphonic instruments like the lute and harp appear in emblem books as representatives of philosophical and cosmic harmony. Perhaps the subtext of this picture is the thoughtful, meditative and solitary quest for harmony.”

If anyone has any comments about these pictures which differ from or expand on mine, please do either email me direct or submit them to the lutenet at
and I will add them to this page.
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Copyright 2001 by David Van Edwards