The case, stringing and fretting design of the 1543 Venetian clavichord by Dominicus Pisaurensis

an article published in  De Clavicordio, Proceedings of the V International Clavichord Symposium/Atti del V congresso internazionale sul clavicordo.  Magnano, 5-5 September 2001, edited by Bernard Brauchli, Alberto Galazzo and Ivan Moody, (Musica antica a Magnano, Magnano, 2002), 91-107

by Grant O'Brien

 

 

The case design

            The measurements of the case are given in the following table[1]:

                                                                       Length            Height[2]             Wood

                                                 Front:             1227                 144               cypress

                             Case left of keywell:              135                  144               cypress

                                             Left end:              146                  144               cypress

                                  Angled left back:              171                  144               cypress

                                                   Back:              978                  144               cypress

                                 Angled right back:              176                  144               cypress

                                            Right end:              144                  144               cypress

                            Case right of keywell:              426                  144               cypress

                                              Keywell:          Projects:              111                  - - -

                                     Keywell width:                Outside: 665       Inside: 656

                                     Angle of left rear corner:               46.8º

                                   Angle of right rear corner:                 45º

Table 1 – Some case measurements and materials

Dominicus Pisaurensis clavichord, Venice, 1543

Leipzig Musikinstrumentenmuseum der Universität, Clavichorde Cat. No. 1

 

            Although the measurements given in Table 1 do not include the mouldings decorating the outside of the case, the above measurements are not those that Pisaurensis would have used when designing and constructing the instrument.  As I have suggested in a number of articles that I have published recently, the maker began his design by drawing out the baseboard using dimensions which were simple integers or fractions of the local unit of measurement[3].  The case sides that he then applied to the outer edges of the baseboard were cut to a height also equal to a simple number of units (or units plus simple fractions) of the local measurement unit.  The combination of the fact that the case sides were hand thicknessed and therefore not all of exactly the same thickness and the irregular geometry of the sides of these instruments, meant that the final outside dimensions of the instrument were totally unrelated to the local unit of measurement used by the maker.  Similarly it is the height of the case sides without the top cap moulding that the maker would measure in his local unit of measurement[4].  The position and size of the soundboard, the keyboard octave span, the lengths of the sides of the keyplank, and all of the other measurements fundamental to the design of the instrument were chosen using simple numbers and divisions of the local unit of measurement.  Clearly which measurements were chosen by a maker in simple units would depend on his method of working and especially on the order in which the various operations necessary to construct the instrument were carried out.

 

            Hence it is clear that the case measurements given in Table 1 are not those which are fundamental to the design of this instrument.  Rather it is the baseboard dimensions which would have been measured by Pisaurensis and, if the instrument really was made in Venice, then those measurements should correspond to simple numbers and divisions of the Venetian oncia = 28.98mm[5].  To check this the baseboard measurements are given in Table 2 below where they are also compared with the nominal lengths in Venetian once.

  

                                                                         Measured length                      Nominal length

                                                                       in mm        in once                   in mm         in once

                                                Front:               1217           41.99                  1217.2            42

                            Case left of keywell:                135             4.66                    135.2            4

                                            Left end:                137             4.73                    137.7            4¾

               Angled left back ( to spine):                116             4.00                    115.9              4

              Angled left back (║ to spine):                122             4.21                    123.2            4¼

                                                 Back:                979            33.78                   978.1           33¾

             Angled right back (║ to spine):                116             4.00                    115.9              4

             Angled right back ( to spine):                116             4.00                    115.9              4

                                          Right end:                137             4.73                    137.7            4¾

                          Case right of keywell:                426            14.69                   425.0           14

                                   Keywell width:                656            22.64                   656.9           22

                                Keywell projects:                108             3.73                    108.7            3¾

                                        Case height:                144             4.97                    144.9              5

 Table 2 - Measurements of the baseboard and case sides in millimetres

Dominicus Pisaurensis clavichord, Venice, 1543

Leipzig Musikinstrumentenmuseum der Universität, Clavichorde Cat. No. 1

 

Comparison of the measured lengths and the nominal lengths in millimetres in Table 2 shows that there is very good agreement between the two - there is never a difference of more than a millimetre between them and often there is a difference of only a few tenths of a millimetre.  These measurements are shown below in Figure 1 where the top figure gives the measured lengths and angles, and the bottom diagram shows the nominal lengths in Venetian once and the nominal angles at the rear corners suggested by a Venetian oncia = 28.98mm..

  

 

Figure 1 – Measured case side lengths in millimetres and measured angles in degrees (above), and the corresponding nominal lengths in Venetian once = 28.98mm with the nominal angles (below).

Dominicus Pisaurensis clavichord, Venice, 1543

Leipzig Musikinstrumentenmuseum der Universität, Clavichorde Cat. No. 1

 

 

 

            The appearance in these measurements of sub-divisions into thirds of an oncia may seem a bit unusual to an English-speaking reader used to the Imperial division of the inch into sixteenths, thirty-seconds, etc.  However, the Venetian oncia was divided in 12 linee or lines, so that a division into thirds, sixths or twelfths was just as common as the division into halves and quarters.  From this it seems clear that the instrument was indeed designed and laid out using the Venetian oncia, and this is therefore a further indication that Pisaurensis, who is known from archival evidence[6] to have lived and worked in Venice, is the author of this clavichord.

 

Go to the next chapter

 


[1] The measurements given throughout this paper are taken either from the drawing by J Schroevers, Niedorp made for the Nederlands Clavichord Genootschap or from the Museum catalogue (see footnote 1).  The drawing of the instrument is on sale from the Musikinstrumentenmuseum in Leipzig.  I would like to express my grateful thanks to Karen Richter for loaning her copy of the drawing to me.

[2] The case height given here does not include the additional height added by the top cap moulding.

[3] See my papers ‘The use of simple geometry and the local unit of measurement in the design of Italian stringed keyboard instruments:  an aid to attribution and to organological analysis’, The Galpin Society Journal, 52 (1999) 108-171 and ‘Towards establishing the original state of the three-manual harpsichord by Stefano Bolcioni, Florence, 1627, in the Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments, Edinburgh’, The Galpin Society Journal, 53 (2000) 168-200.  Further papers are either in the press or are already planned.

[4] In the North-European tradition where the case sides are much thicker than in Italian practice, the top moulding is often cut into the wood of the case side itself, and the case sides are usually (but not always) applied to the top of the baseboard.  In the North-European tradition it is therefore the case height less the thickness of the baseboard that the maker would measure out using a simple number of local units.

[5]Many different sources give the length of the Venetian piede as 347.76mm with a division into 12 once.  This gives an oncia equal to 28.98mm.  For a full listing of the most common local units of measurement used throughout the Italian peninsula in the pre-Napoleonic period (including the Venetian piede and oncia) see the tables in the first article given in footnote 4:  For those readers with access to the Web, much of this information is published on the Russell Collection Website.  See:  Italian metrology.  The units of length used in Italy during the historical period of harpsichord building, published at:  http://www.music.ed.ac.uk/russell/russell/metrology.html as are the two articles mentioned in footnote 4.

[6] See Oscar Mischiati, ‘Un elenco romano di cembalari redatto nel 1741’, L’Organo, 10 (1972), Gioseffo Zarlino, L’istitutioni harmoniche, (Francesco dei Francheschi, Venice, 1558; facsimile, Gregg Press, Ridgewood, N.J., 1966; 2/New Haven, Conn., 1968) p.140.