A bundle, a knot, and a bout of strings

While strolling through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this September and idly taking in the marvellous Italian intarsia at the Gubbio Studiolo, in an adjacent room I came across this beautiful depiction of a lute. It is part of the interior of the chapel from “Le Château de la Bastie d’Urfé” by Fra Damiano da Bergamo (Damiano di Antoniolo de Zambelli, ca. 1480–1549), which has been reconstructed inside the art gallery.

Lute intarsia from the Chapel of “Le Château de la Bastie d’Urfé” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) – photo by Marc Lewon

In the picture, dated ca. 1547/48, I thought I could identify one of those curious and oft-described tight bundles of lute strings. I am not sure if this has so far come to the attention of those who are researching historical strings, but in any case I found it interesting enough to take a good photo and publish it here:

A collection of lute string bundles. –  photo by Marc lewon

Compare this with the depiction of a bundle or a knot in Gerle’s publication from 1546,

Gerle – testing a string, pulled out of a knot or bundle.

or in Adrian Le Roy’s depiction from 1574,

Le Roy – testing a string pulled out of a knot or a bundle.

or described by Dowland in 1610:

“Also open the bouts of one of the ends of the Knot, and then hold it up against the light, and looke that it be round and smooth: […] Now these strings as they are of two sorts, viz. Great and Small: so either sort is pact up in sundry kindes, to wit, the one sort of smaller strings (which come from Rome and other parts of Italy) are bound up by certaine Dozens in bundels; these are very good if they be new, if not, their strength doth soone decay: the other sort are pact up in Boxes, and come out of Germany: […] Yet also there is another sort of the smaller strings, which are made at Livornio in Tuscanio: these strings are rolled up round together, as if they were a companie of horse hayres. These are good if they be new, but they are but halfe Knots. Note there is some store of these come hither lately, and are here made up, and passe for whole Knots. For the greater sorts or Base strings, some are made at Nurenburge, and also at Straesburge, and bound up onely in knots like other strings. These strings are excellent, if they be new, if not, they fall out starke false. The best strings of this kinde are double knots joyned together, and are made at Bologna in Lumbardie, and from thence are sent to Venice:”

(For more interesting information concerning lute strings, see: Nolde, Richard James: English Renaissance lute practice as reflected in Robert Dowland’s Varietie of Lute-Lessons, Houston 1984, there especially p. 205ff.)

The two compositions found in the open book depicted in the intarsia are also quite fun. I’m sure someone else has done this before, but I’ll give the two canons in transcription anyway. There is a third composition, only just visible under the bundle of strings, but it is too incomplete here to provide a proper musical text. The canon for four voices is a cute little piece. The one for seven voices is fun for about 10 seconds, after which one basically feels lost in a one-bar repeating pattern, which reminds me somewhat of the film “Groundhog Day”:

Canon cum Quatuor vocibus

Canon cum Septem vocibus

Marc Lewon

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6 thoughts on “A bundle, a knot, and a bout of strings

  1. I visited a restorer and he showed me a string box for a harp from the 19th century and the strings from the time in it. Thinner strings had smaller spools and thicker strings had larger spools (so the string envelopes went bigger in sizes, and so are the slots for the strings, making it look like organ pipes) difficult to say by words.. i made the photo. The string box had slots for a neat little scissors and tuning pin and gauge-scale, too.

  2. Great article Marc. The instrument depicted is also one of the very few lutes
    in the complete iconography which has the octave stringing set up differently than
    we are used to.

    • Great observation, Magnus! Thanks for this. My friend and former teacher, Crawford Young set his octave strings in this way. Now we have historic proof of that! 🙂

  3. Pingback: Un intarsio e le corde | Appassionata relazione di viaggio di un liutista per diletto

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