When we look at paintings of lutes from the 16th to 18th century we see quite a variety of coloured strings. Natural gut colour is common, but some strings, particularly basses, are a dark reddish-brown colour. Others are bright red, or blue, or black. It is possible that there is no particular significance to these different colours (other than string identification, perhaps), but it is also possible that they have more interesting implications, such as the addition of other substances to the gut to make it more dense.
The only written sources I know of which mention the colour of strings are Dowland (1610) and Mace (1676). Dowland says treble strings should be “of a faire and cleere whitish gray or ash colour”, this presumably being the natural colour of a well-made gut string. Of coloured strings he says: “Some strings there are which are coloured, out of which choose the lightest colours, viz. among Greene choose the Sea-water, of Red the Carnation, and of Blew the Watchet.”
Why choose the lightest colours? Could it be that the process used to colour the strings is deleterious in some way? Perhaps it weakened the string or made it less true. Perhaps dark colours make it more difficult to assess the clearness of the string which he stresses is such an important indicator of quality. He also describes basses (from the fourth course) as “cleere against the light, though their colour be blackish”.
Mace describes the same string types as Dowland : “minikins” for the trebles and “Venice catlins” for the mid-range strings and the basses. “Lyons” are also used for basses but are not always as good. He also mentions “Pistoys” used for the basses, but describes them as “none other than thick Venice catlins, which are commonly dyed, with a deep dark red colour”. He seems to mean that Pistoys differed from Venice Catlins only in being dark red. He also comments on coloured strings generally:
“I have sometimes seen strings of a yellowish colour, very good; yet, but seldom; for that colour is a general sign of rottenness, of the decay of the string.
There are several sorts of coloured strings, very good; but the best (to my observation) was always the clear Blue; the Red, commonly rotten; sometimes Green, very good.”
If these written sources are not very revealing, there are nevertheless some very interesting details in paintings. If coloured strings were due to loading (adding heavier materials to increase their density) we would expect to see coloured strings in the bass rather than the treble, but many coloured strings are treble strings, and many bass strings are the same colour as the thinner strings on the same lute – so I think we have to accept that some strings were simply coloured for aesthetic reasons or for ease of identification. In the examples below I have shown details rather than complete paintings in an attempt to show the strings more clearly.
We start with an anonymous French painting from about 1600 of a lady (possibly Antouainette [sic] le Bourgeoys) playing a nine-course lute, with octaves on courses 6 to 9:
The first course is blue, the second and third red, and the rest gut-coloured. The low octaves of the basses are perhaps slightly darker.
A painting of Geronimo Valeriani (lutenist to the Duke of Modena c.1630) by Lodovico Lana (1597-1646) shows a theorbo (possibly an archlute, as it seems to have a single first course) with a mixture of red and whitish coloured strings:
Whichever way we interpret the string layout the string colours do not seem to correspond systematically to string function and this suggests the colour is not related to loading.
From the middle of the 17th century we have an anonymous painting of an 11-course lute, which as we would expect has octaves on courses 6 to 11:
All the low octaves in the bass are red. Perhaps they are loaded?
Next a rather unusual specimen from the late 17th century: at first glance it looks like a 12-course lute but it has only three extended basses rather than the usual four, though there is room at the bridge for a fourth diapason. The 11th course appears to be a single string, though there are six pegs in the upper pegbox. All these unusual features call into question the authenticity of this painting. The first two courses (single strings) are bluish, as are the upper octaves of courses 7, 9 and 10 . The strings of the 3rd and 4th courses, the low octave of the 6th and the upper octave of the 8th are dark grey or black. The remaining strings, the 5th course, the upper octave of the 6th and the low octaves of the 7th to 11th , are rather orange:
As with the Lana painting above, there is no consistent association between the colour of a string and its function. For example if the orange strings were loaded, one would expect the low octave of the 6th course to be orange as well, because it is probably tuned a fourth below the 5th course, which is orange. Instead it is black, the same colour as the 3rd course, which (in the usual tuning) is tuned an octave higher.
Moving to late 18th-century Germany, a painting by Anna Rosina de Gasc (1713–1783). A typical “swan-neck” 13-course lute with eight courses on the lower nut and five on the pegbox extension, with single first and second courses and octaves on (probably) courses 6 to 13:
The top two courses (single strings) are bluish. The 3rd to 8th courses are natural gut colour (whitish), except the upper octave of the 8th which is reddish. The 9th and 10th courses have a reddish low octave and grey upper octave. The 11th to 13th courses have a reddish upper octave and black lower octave. The strings get progressively thicker in the bass and there is no sign of wound strings. The distribution of different-coloured strings makes no sense in terms of loading, because the low octaves of courses 6 to 8 are the same whitish colour as courses 3 to 5.
Finally a very late example by Nicolas Henri Jeaurat de Bertry (1728–after 1796) showing a 12-course lute with the usual disposition of eight courses on the fingerboard and four bass courses on stepped nuts. It appears to have octaves on courses 6 to 12:
There are red strings on the 4th course (bass side only), 9th course (upper octave only) and 12th course (low octave only). Again despite the very late date there is no sign of wound strings – the free ends of the strings all have the same wavy appearance.
From the above examples it seems clear that lute strings were often coloured, but with some exceptions where bass strings might be loaded, the colours were not related to the function of the string.
Acknowledgement: I would like to record my thanks to Mimmo Peruffo and David Van Edwards for copies of some of the paintings and discussions of this issue.