Towards establishing the original state of the three-manual harpsichord by Stefano Bolcioni, Florence, 1627, in the Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments, Edinburgh


an article published in The Galpin Society Journal, 53 (2000) 168-200

by Grant O'Brien



The original baseboard layout of the Edinburgh Bolcioni harpsichord

          The 1627 Bolcioni harpsichord has unusual sloping cheekpieces beside the keyboards instead of the usual keywell scrolls.  Close examination shows that these are not original but have been added on with lap joints to the main spine and the cheek sides.  Because of the existence of the inauthentic three keyboards in the instrument the apparent explanation for these added cheekpieces is that they were added on to the sides of the case to provide the additional length necessary for the additional two keyboards.

          However, a cursory examination shows that this is not at all the true situation!  A number of features indicates that, in fact, the case has been shortened and not lengthened:

1.    The present original baseboard extends beyond the spine and cheekpiece lap joints right up to the present front of the instrument and does not stop short at the point where the cheeks have apparently been extended.

2.    Construction marks on the top surface of the baseboard indicate the original position of the front of the wrestplank, the angled nut, the register gap, and the lower belly rail behind the keyboard.  This makes it clear that the front of the wrestplank has been moved back about 255mm and that the belly rail has been moved back about 99mm.  As a result the present wrestplank is also very slender and probably about 84mm narrower than the original wrestplank at the bass end, and is also not tapered in width as it was originally.  It is clear therefore that the additional space for the three keyboards was gained by narrowing the wrestplank and moving it and the belly rail some distance toward the rear of the instrument.  This involved cutting away some of the original front edge of the soundboard including the part on which the treble end of the original bridge was located.  The scribed line on the baseboard indicating the position of the nut is therefore now left well out in front of the present wrestplank in the new larger keywell space.

3.    The case widths of the University of Yale and of the Edinburgh Bolcioni harpsichords are almost the same.  The original compass of the Yale harpsichord was C/E to f3, and therefore it is possible that the compass of the Edinburgh harpsichord was either the same or that it had the same number of naturals in order to give it the same overall width.  There are 7 staggered and badly-drilled holes in the baseboard, clearly for pedal pull-downs for the 7 notes of a keyboard with a C/E short octave:  C, F, D, G, A, BI and B.  The lowest hole for the C/E pull-down is centred about 50mm from the spine side of the case indicating that there must have been very wide keyblocks beside the keyboard which had these pull-downs.  If this keyboard was placed with the bass short octave keys above the holes and located roughly centrally in the keywell, then the space left for the keyboard would have been about 635mm.  The 27 naturals of a C/E to c3 keyboard placed in this space would have a 3-octave span of about 494mm, a normal value for the keyboard of an Italian instrument.  Any larger compass would have had an unusually small octave span.  A C/E to d3 compass, for example, would have had a 3-octave span of only 476mm.  The keyboard used with the pull-downs could therefore not have reached higher than c3 in the remaining space.  It appears therefore that the keyboard for which the holes for the pedal pull-downs were drilled was not the original keyboard but one from an early alteration to the harpsichord.  Further evidence of this fact is provided from the boxslide registers.  A compass of C/E to c3 has 45 notes (or 47 notes even assuming a C/E to d3 compass), and yet the registers for this instrument have 53 jackslots[1].  The holes for the pull-downs are also placed very far back from the present front of the case, all of which, along with the roughness of the workmanship, suggests non-original work.

4.    Examined from underneath, the present front edge of the baseboard is very coarsely cut in a manner atypical of the careful workmanship of the original parts of the rest of the instrument.  This suggests that it was not sawn by Bolcioni but by the later worker who replaced the original keyboard and installed the keyboard with the pedal pull-downs.  There is also no transverse batten between the front case moulding and the front edge of the baseboard as is normal Italian practice and as is found in the Yale Bolcioni harpsichord[2].  Apparently the replacement keyboard had short keyplates and keylevers so that it was necessary to shorten the case in order to accommodate these short keylevers with short keyplates.  Cutting away the front of the baseboard and removing the batten from behind the front moulding would have spoiled the original keywell scrolls and necessitated their replacement with the present sloping cheek-pieces.  Indeed although the tail, the width of the instrument and the case height were all clearly designed using simple numbers of the Florentine soldo already found for Bolcioni (see the analysis below), neither the present length of the spine nor the length of the cheek corresponds to simple measurements in soldi.  The length of the baseboard has therefore clearly been shortened.

          However, if it is assumed that the keywell scrolls on the Edinburgh Bolcioni where the same length as those on the Yale harpsichord, and that Bolcioni used the same thickness of batten at the front of the keywell behind the front case moulding, then there must now be about 20½mm missing from the front of the baseboard of the Edinburgh harpsichord.  Adding this missing 20½mm results in the measurements given in Table 1.




                                                                        Length*:              1981½

                                                                         Width:               756½

                                                                       Cheek*:               537½

                                                                           Tail:                351

                                                                   Tail angle:               38½º

         Component of tail perpendicular to the spine:                220

                     Component of tail parallel to the spine:               273½

                                                               Case height:                219

*These measurements have been corrected by adding 20½mm to the existing lengths.


Table 1 - Original baseboard dimensions and case height

Three-manual harpsichord by Stefano Bolcioni, Florence, 1627

Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments, Cat. No. HT1-SB1627.4


tan 38½º = 0.795 @ 0.80 =  =

arctan 0.80 = 38.66º

 = 0.804 @ 0.80 =  =


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[1] As will become clear later on in the analysis of this instrument, these registers must have been the originals.

[2] See the diagram in Figure 9 in my article in the previous volume of this Journal.  This batten, drawn to have the same dimensions as those of the Yale Bolcioni, is shown shaded in in the reconstructed keywell section shown below in Figure 2 of this paper.

[3] Denis Diderot and Jean Henri le Rond d’Alembert, ‘Pied’, Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonnée des arts, sciences et métiers (Paris, 1751-65) 562-563 and Johann Georg Krünitz, Öconomische Encyklopädie oder allgemeines System der Staats-, Stadt-, und Landwirtschaft, in alphabetischer Ordnung, 15 (Joseph Georg Traßler, Brünn, 1788) p. 519-22 both give lengths as 1440-th parts of the Paris pouce.  The length of the Florentine braccio and soldo were calculated by me using the value of the length of the French pouce given by Colonel Cotty, Aide-Mémoire (p. 896 - see footnote 5).  My thanks to John Koster for pointing out the Krünitz source to me.  Krünitz clearly bases his values on those given by Diderot.  He uses the same system of 1440-th parts of the French pouce, and gives exactly the same values as Diderot which were published almost 40 years earlier.

[4] See: Pierre Larousse, Grand Dictionnaire, (Paris, 1874) who gives a braccio with 20 soldi of length 548.17mm.

[5] Colonel Cotty, Aide-Mémoire a l’usage des officiers d’artillerie de France, 2 (Paris, 1819) 896-7 gives a length of 550.6371mm for the braccio da terra divided into 20 soldi.

[6] Unpublished work by me on the instruments of the Florentine makers Francesco Poggio and Bartolomeo Cristofori shows, not surprisingly, that the same Florentine soldo was used in the construction of the instruments of these makers as well.

[7] The moulding shown here on the outside of the case just below the top cap moulding is on the inside of the case everywhere else except for the cheek.