Seven course lute after Venere – a case study

Background

One problem lutemakers have is that although there is an expectation that they will make “copies” of original instruments, those original instruments have survived in a state which is very far from their original conception.  So when there are some instruments which seem to have survived in close to their original layout (number of courses, string length, and so on) we pay them special attention and tend to regard these few specimens as representative of their type and worthy of copying.

One such instrument is the lute by Wendelio Venere, dated 1592, made in Padua, and now in the museum of the Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna. It has 25 yew ribs and a string length of 58.5cm.  The bridge appears to be original, though the alignment of the strings with the neck is not very convincing. The neck is also very narrow, roughly seven courses in the space of six (in terms of other contemporary instruments and modern preference). The top course is a double string, so there are 14 strings in all.

Another lute from the same workshop, dated 1582, is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (catalogue number Sam32, formerly C36).  It has 13 shaded yew ribs. It also has its original bridge, for seven courses (again 14 strings), and possibly its original pegbox, though this has been shortened (and the neck narrowed a little) because it was restrung as a five-course guitar. The string length is 66.8cm, so it was clearly intended to be tuned a tone lower than the 1592 instrument. In terms of modern pitches, we might think of the 1592 instrument as being in G and the 1582 one in F.

Modern lutenists looking for a lute which can be tuned in G at modern pitch find the 1592 instrument attractive, but the narrowness of the neck means that the whole instrument has to be scaled up slightly in order to accommodate a wider neck.  The 1582 instrument is simply far too long to be tuned in G so it has to be scaled down in order to achieve a string length of about 60cm.

Looking at these two fine instruments, I noticed other differences apart from size.  In particular, the ratio of body width to body length is different, with the smaller instrument being slightly wider in proportion to its length.  In 1991 I therefore decided to create a hybrid design, borrowing features from both instruments, in order to arrive at a 60cm lute to be tuned in G.  I used 13 ribs, because having 25 or more ribs increases the cost considerably. I have made many lutes on this mould and it makes a fine alternative to the other obvious model, the lute made in Venice (date unknown but probably in the last decade of the 16th century) by Giovanni Hieber, which has problems of interpretation of its own.

In 1996 I received some orders for a multi-rib version of this model, and created a new mould based on the body outline of my original design but with a slightly more flattened section, as seems to have been common with lutes of this period.  I used 31 ribs, but of course it would be possible to make the same model with anything from about 25 to 35 ribs.

The instrument

The instrument shown in the photos below is the most recent lute made to this design (2017), using yew heartwood for the ribs, with holly spacers.  The rose design is from the 1592 Venere.  Though still young, it already has a great sound with lots of scope for expressive playing.

Photos and sound file

‘Poore Tom’, a masque tune arrangement from the Margaret Board lute book. Played by Martin Shepherd.
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