Creating a six-course lute from iconography

MontagnaPaintings from the early 16th century show lutes with a wide variety of shapes. Proportions also vary considerably in terms of relative size of the rose and the positions of the rose and bridge. I was however impressed by a lute type which occurs in several important paintings which has a rather wide and ‘triangular’ body and a rather large rose. My main source of inspiration was a magnificent painting – Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints by Bartolomeo Montagna, dated 1498 (see left). If we zoom in, the lutes can be seen in excellent detail (below):

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The two lutes seem to be the same size and very much the same shape. The rose designs are different but the one on the right looks like the ‘knot of Leonardo’ design which was used on many surviving lutes, especially those built by the Tieffenbrucker family. I decided to use the version of this rose from the 6-course lute made in about 1550 by Magno Dieffopruchar which is in the Charles Beare collection (see below). The backs of lutes are not usually clearly visible in paintings but 9 and 11-rib backs seem to be common.DSC_0210

I decided to use an almost semicircular section and 11 ribs, following some early lutes by Laux Maler and Laux Bosch. The choice of wood was somewhat arbitrary, but in the end I decided to use figured ash, a wood which was used in some old lutes and works well:DSC_0231-filtered

The other woods I used were also European, boxwood for the bridge and fingerboard, and cherry for the neck and pegbox:

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Most lutes seem to have the rose centre at 3/5 of the body length, and the bridge at 1/6 of the body length (both specified in Arnaut of Zwolle’s treatise of c.1450), but there is considerable variation. It seems that some makers regarded the body length as being the ‘inside’ length from the end to the neck block,whilst others used the ‘outside’ length from the bottom to the neck joint. One common method, which I decided to follow, was to use the ‘inside’ length for the position of the rose and the ‘outside’ length for the position of the bridge. I believe this may correspond to a building sequence (not much used nowadays) in which the bridge is glued on after the body is complete. I was not quite ready to try a bridge position at 1/7 or 1/8 of the body length as seen in some paintings, though I do want to explore this in the future.

Of course nothing can be gleaned from paintings about the number or position of bars, and we can only make guesses based on surviving instruments which are much later in date. I decided to use only five bars, more or less equally spaced – two between the neck block and the rose, one through the rose centre, and two between the rose and the bridge. I made the soundboard thicker than is typical on later lutes, and so used no bars at all behind the bridge – the example shown below is from another of my instruments:shapeimage_4

The customer had asked me for a double top string, so there are 12 pegs. This is a very rare feature in modern lutes but was much more common in the past; though the iconography of 6-course lutes mostly shows 11 pegs, there are some paintings which show a double top string. He also asked to have the possibility of tuning about a semitone higher than modern pitch, so we adopted a string length of 58cm which should allow both pitches to work.