Lute of the Month


Portrait of Francois de le Boë Sylvius and his Wife. 1672

Frans van Mieris the Elder ( Leiden 1635 - Leiden 1681)
Portrait of Francois de le Boë Sylvius and his Wife. 1672
Oil on oak 41.1 x 31.2 cm
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie No. 1743

This is currently on display in Leiden, Holland, as part of a marvellous exhibition of Dutch paintings from the Dresden Gallery's collection. “De Leidse Fijnschilders uit Dresden” in the Stedelijk museum, De Lakenhal, Leiden, from 19 01 01 to 22 04 01. The well researched and informative catalogue to the exhibition has lots of interesting, and to me, new information about the sitters and their clothing but is completely in the dark about the nature of the lute, calling it a “bass lute or theorbo” (!) Perhaps therefore it would form an interesting case for cross-fertilisation of the disciplines of organology and art history.

The picture is one of a number of Dutch paintings featuring the lute as a kind of moral symbol. Though moral symbol of WHAT sometimes needs further decoding, since many of them seem to be set in brothels where the lute appears to stand for sensuality and specifically female sensuality.

However, equally often, the lute represents domestic harmony or, more prosaically, well-ordered scenes of domestic music making. This beautiful painting by Sorgh is one of the best examples of a double-headed lute used in this context

Hendrik Martensz Sorgh

Hendrik Martensz Sorgh(1611 -1670)
The lute player
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

In other cases, what appear at first glance to be pictures of this second sort turn out on closer analysis to have an implied narrative of seduction or temptation.

Jan Steen, 1659

Jan Steen (1626 - 1679)
Young Woman playing a harpsichord to a Young Man. 1659
Oil on oak 42.3 x 33 cm
National Gallery NG 856

In this painting the young man's intentions are perhaps not so honourable and the two-headed lute being brought in by the servant boy may be an invitation to take part in a different kind of duet. The moral is pointed by the inscription on the harpsichord lid “ACTA VIRUM PROBANT” Actions prove the man!

When I first saw the van Mieris painting we are considering in reproduction many years ago I thought it fell into this last category and I read the disparity of the sitters' ages and the rather curious gesture of the man's hand as implying an immodest suggestion, in spite of the veil and the rather vapid Victorian quality of the woman's gaze. (I wonder if the restoration in 1867 has had any influence here?)

However from the catalogue I now learn that they were in fact man and wife! To be fair the catalogue is reticent, in an impeccably scholarly fashion, but it is so convincing that I propose to consider the sitters' identity a proven fact. The catalogue reproduces an engraving by Cornelis van Dalen of Franciscus Deleboe Sylvius on his appointment as professor of medicine at Leiden University 13 years earlier, which shows a striking resemblence to the man in the painting.

Franciscus Deleboe Sylvius 1659

Franciscus Deleboe Sylvius, Medicinae, practicae in academia Lugdano-Batavia professor
Corelis van Dalen,1659

Note the latin form of his name in this scholarly context. Names were regarded as much more mutable at that time than now and frequently crop up in different forms according to how the person wished to be seen. Thus even the French form of his name may also be what nowadays would be regarded as an affectation. Francois de le Boë Sylvius was one of the most important collectors of van Mieris' work, one who even had the right of first refusal on his paintings for a while. Finally, to clinch it, the inventory of his belongings drawn up after his death in 1672 lists a picture of “the deceased with his last wife by Mieris

He was an important figure in his day and was one of the first scientists to seek the causes of illness in chemical processes rather than speculation about humours. With his introduction to clinical instruction in 1658 he made a vital contribution to medical progress.

The catalogue describes the man's sober black costume as typical of a man of his age and social standing and notes that such wealthy middle-class citizens resisted following the latest French fashions. In contrast, his much younger second wife is richly dressed in the very latest French fashion of an expensive fur-trimmed satin gown and a gauze veil over head and shoulders. His hand gesture thus becomes clear as one of those typical Guidonian hand motifs which recur in these types of paintings, either beating time or in some way controlling events, maybe gesturing toward a higher or lower tuning for the string she is adjusting. He has thus commissioned a painting of himself as tutor or teacher to his young wife who looks up submissively as a pupil. This may count as a view of domestic harmony.

In view of her costume it is therefore particularly appropriate that she should be playing a specifically French type of lute. This 12 course double-headed form is characterised by arranging the unfingered bass strings in a graded sequence of increasing lengths. It was invented by a Frenchman, Jaques Gaultier, sometime before about 1630 when his picture holding one was engraved by Jan Lievens.

Jacques Gaultier

Jacques Gaultier
Jan Lievens, c.1630

Jaques Gaultier was also known as “English Gaultier” because he fled to England in 1617 after he was accused of a murder in France; he rose to prominence and was attached to the English court by 1625. However he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1627 and tortured after making scandalous remarks about his patron the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Henrietta Maria and King Charles I. He was restored to favour by about 1630, the time of this picture, but that year he went to live in the Netherlands and subsequently Madrid.

This form of the lute was taken up enthusiastically and became widely used for a long time throughout England and the Netherlands but was quickly dropped by the French who reverted to their single-headed 11 course lutes. As the Mary Burwell Lute Tutor remarks “English Gaultier... hath caused twoe heads to be made to the Lute. All England hath accepted that Augmentation, and Fraunce at first; but soon after that alteracon hath beene condemned by all the french Masters who are returned to theire own fashion.

There is an important tutor written specifically for this type of lute by Thomas Mace, Musick's Monument (1676) in which he also calls it a “French lute”, however James Talbot, writing at about 1700 in his manuscript of measurements, calls it an “English Two Headed Lute” So it had clearly become naturalised by then.

Considering the ambitious nature revealed by the van Mieris double portrait it might be thought surprising that the lute has such a old dirty-looking soundboard, when so many earlier paintings show clean new-looking instruments. But even here a French aesthetic is probably in action, since, as Mike Lowe has pointed out in his article in 1976, the French had started to value instruments specifically for their age. They had started to buy up all the old Italian renaissance lutes that they could lay their hands on in order to convert them to baroque lutes, either 11 course baroque, or these 12 course double-headed forms. And this too set a fashion for other countries as the Constantijn Huyghens correspondence makes clear. These old lutes, such as those by Laux Maler and Hans Frei, have just such small roses as shown in the lute here and these became the fashion for most subsequent baroque lutes in both the French and German tradition. The age of the soundboards and their fragility required some way of concealing the damage caused to the edges by repeated removal, rebarring and repair as well as protection against further damage. This was provided by the “lace”, a strip of cloth, parchment or metallised fabric glued over the joint between soundboard and body. It is prominent in many paintings of lutes from this period, including the Sorgh picture I show above; and Mace even has a detailed description of how to remove and replace the lace in the course of taking the front off to repair it. Some original lutes in museums have this lace present but in some cases it has succumbed to dubious “restoration” practices.

The rather wide bridge, which reaches almost across the soundboard, is another consequence of a conversion job and the ends are remarkably similar to the ends of the replacement bridge on the little Matteo Sellas luito attiorbato in Paris [E1028]

The fingerboard is nicely curved across its width, a feature which came to be more and more useful as necks got wider.

Typically for this type of lute, there is a treble rider to take the chanterelle and the main pegbox is curved in its length, in a manner that suggests a throwback to the 'Ud but is, I'm sure, just an elegant piece of contemporary design. It is almost a sine qua non for this type of lute and appears nowhere else in the history of the lute. This pegbox takes the eight fingered courses, while the four bass diapasons are taken over separate nuts ranged along the extension of the fingerboard to their pegs, which are housed in the delicate curved upper pegbox. The space in this pegbox is cramped and it is very difficult to change these strings, especially as they tend to wind on towards the tail end of the peg and thus try to force the peg out of its tapered hole. It is one of the most elegant forms the lute ever took, but it is a swine both to make, and to keep in good order. The French may have had good reason to drop it.

Previously I had only seen a B&W photograph of this painting but now, having seen the real thing, I can highlight one of its most interesting features: Each of the bass strings in the paired octave courses is bright red while its octave twin is normal whitish gut colour. Except for the very lowest course which has both strings red. Also the unison third course has a pair of red strings. However, inexplicably, the unison fourth course has a pair of white strings.

Portrait of Francois de le Boë Sylvius and his Wife. 1672

Frans van Mieris the Elder ( Leiden 1635 - Leiden 1681)
Portrait of Francois de le Boë Sylvius and his Wife. 1672

This is a very interesting confirmation of at least part of the theories of Mimmo Peruffo that these coloured strings were treated in some way which made them heavier and thus more suitable for basses which could thus be thinner and more in keeping with the sizes of the holes in the bridges of surviving lutes. He has written this up in a recent article in FoMRHI
Mimmo Peruffo: ‘New hypothesis on the construction of bass strings for lutes and other gut-strung instruments’ FoMRHI Bull. 62 (1991), 22

A summary of his talk on these matters is also printed in the Lute Society Newsletter No. 50, December 2000, pp.6-8.

It does cause problems that the third course is red while the the fourth is white, and I can offer no real solution except the manifestly lame excuse that maybe she had needed new strings for the fourth course and couldn't find the proper heavy ones in stock!

There are some problems with Mimmo's theories, such as the implication from Dowland's remarks about choice of strings, that these red strings should be translucent while none of the attempts so far have produced anything like a translucent string. Mimmo's being a rather noticeably opaque brownish colour. My own personal theory is that the colouring agent was likely to have been vermilion [sulphide of mercury] since it is so very heavy and red and was in common use at the time for all sorts of processes. Nowadays it would be completely illegal to sell such strings, since mercury compounds are so very poisonous and capable of being readily absorbed through the skin, not to mention those players like Nigel North and Chris Wilson who frequently lick their fingers between movements!

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