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


          In the article which I wrote in the Galpin Journal[1] and which is also published on this site I attempted to show that a determination of the unit of measurement used in the construction of a stringed keyboard instrument can be used as a powerful tool in the analysis of how the instrument was designed and built.  A determination of the unit of measurement can also be used to aid in the attribution of an instrument of doubtful authorship, and to determine the centre in which an unsigned instrument was made.  Analogously it can also be used to help to establish where known makers lived and worked when there is otherwise no biographical information about them.  All of these methods rely on a reliable and impartial determination of the local unit of measurement used in the design and construction of the instrument concerned.  I was able to show that it is a relatively easy matter to determine this unit of measurement for any given instrument.  From the plethora of measurements which one could take of an instrument, the use of simple geometry and the measurement of the orthogonal components of the tail angle of a harpsichord baseboard or the end corners of a polygonal virginal baseboard can be used to get an initial estimate of the length of the unit of measurement used in its design and construction.  This can then be refined using the other larger dimensions of the baseboard and instrument which were originally measured out by the maker.

          What I would like to show in this paper is that an analysis of the unit of measurement may also be used as a valuable tool in the determination of the original state of a drastically-altered instrument.  A harpsichord in the Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments at the University of Edinburgh signed ‘STEFANVS · BOLCIONIVS · PRATENSIS · F · A·D · M·D·C·XXVII  F’[2] is a good example of an instrument which has had a chequered history and which, in its present state, does not in any way represent its original nor any intermediate historical state. 

          The Bolcioni harpsichord currently has a disposition of 2 x 8', 1 x 4' with three uncoupled keyboards and three registers, one per keyboard.  It has an elaborately-decorated outer case in a kind of Italian vernis-martin mannerist style, and a complex French-style stand in the style of Louis XIV (see Plate 1 below).  A photograph of this instrument appears in the catalogues of Leopoldo Franciolini[3] (Plate 2 below) with three keyboards and the same outer case but with a totally different decoration and stand[4].  It is clear that the present state is totally inauthentic and dates from a ‘re-working’ of the instrument around the time when it was offered for sale by Franciolini at the end of the nineteenth century.  Because of the extent of the drastic alterations to the instrument it has hitherto been very difficult to establish the original compass, disposition, scalings and pitch of this instrument[5].


Plate 1

¾-view photograph showing the present state

Three-manual harpsichord by Stefano Bolcioni, Florence, 1627

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


Plate 2 - Photograph from the Franciolini catalogues showing the state around 1908

Three-manual harpsichord by Stefano Bolcioni, Florence, 1627

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


          As it presently exists the signature is written upside down on the back of the nameboard at a level above the top of the wrestplank so that it is visible and readable when viewed from a standing position at the keyboard end of the instrument.  This unusual arrangement is, however, easily explained.  The nameboard had to be narrowed considerably in order to make room for the height of the three inauthentic keyboards.  If the nameboard had been cut away at its original bottom edge to make way for the extra keyboards, the signature would have been destroyed altogether in the process.  The nameboard was therefore rotated end-for-end turning it upside down, and a new cap moulding was added to the original bottom of the nameboard so that it could serve as a normal nameboard in the usual way.  The replacement nameboard cap moulding clearly comes from a different instrument and matches a non-original moulding on the non-original sloping cheeks, and that of a repair to the tail of the instrument.  This moulding does not correspond to that on any of the other Bolcioni instruments.  However, the moulding on the original lower front part of the nameboard has the same profile as the moulding on the inside of the spine below the cap moulding.  Since the nameboard moulding is cut from the solid wood and not applied, it belongs to the same piece of wood onto which the signature is written.  The fact that this signature is very similar to that found on the only other extant Bolcioni harpsichord[6] and the fact that the moulding on the (original) lower side of the namebatten matches that on the inside of the spine of the case leaves little doubt that the signature is original and that the instrument is indeed by Bolcioni.  This is further confirmed, as will be shown below, by the use in this instrument of the same unit of measurement used in the other instruments made and designed by Bolcioni.

          This paper is an attempt to show how the original dimensions of the baseboard used by Bolcioni to design and construct this instrument can be determined using the Florentine soldo[7] and comparison with the only other surviving Bolcioni harpsichord in the University of Yale (see my paper published on this site).  This is a procedure not previously applied to this radically-altered instrument (see footnote 5).  Fortunately Bolcioni left a number of construction marks in various places and on various parts of the instrument which can be used in conjunction with the use of the unit of measurement analysis.  Comparison with the only extant Bolcioni harpsichord, an understanding of these construction marks, and an understanding of the use of the soldo in its design and construction then enables the original case dimensions, the original compass, keyboard layout, string scalings and plucking points to be re-constructed.


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[1] 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.  ISSN 0072.0127

[2] See Sidney Newman and Peter Williams, The Russell Collection and other Early Keyboard Instruments in Saint Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh, (Edinburgh, 1968) Catalogue Number 4, frontispiece, viii, 8-9.  The new Russell Collection inventory number of this harpsichord is HT1-SB1627.4.  A data sheet on this harpsichord, published for the University of Edinburgh by the Friends of St Cecilia’s Hall and the Russell Collection, is available from the Russell Collection.

[3] Edwin M. Ripin, ‘The instrument catalogues of Leopoldo Franciolini’, Music Indexes and Bibliographies, Vol. 9 (New Jersey, 1974) Number 32, Catalog 6, Series A, page 70, and Photograph 29, page 127.

[4] There can be no doubt that it is the same instrument which is depicted in this photograph.  Besides the evidence provided by the identical cutting-down of the cheekpieces, the three keyboards, and the folds in the lid flap, there are now filled holes in the top of the case and nameboard of the Russell Collection harpsichord for the ivory studs in each of the positions clearly visible in the Franciolini photograph.

[5] Reports in the Russell Collection archives by both John Barnes and Denzil Wraight attempting to use conventional analysis on this harpsichord failed to establish its original compass, string scalings and case measurements.

[6] This is the single-manual harpsichord by Stefano Bolcioni in the Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments in New Haven, Connecticut, catalogue number 4889.72.  This instrument bears two signatures one of which is very similar to that of the Russell Collection harpsichord.  See footnotes 29 and 30 of my paper ‘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’, in the previous volume of this Journal.  I would like to express my gratitude to Richard Rephann, director of the Yale University Collection, for his generosity and assistance with the examination of this instrument.

[7] As shown in my paper in the previous volume of this Journal, the unit of measurement used in Florence was the braccio equal to about 548 to 551mm, giving a soldo of length about 27.4 to 27.55mm.  The sub-division of the braccio was rather complicated.  In Florence and in much of Tuscany 1 braccio = 2 palmi = 20 soldi = 12 crazie = 60 quattrini = 240 denari, so 1 palmo = 6 crazie = 10 soldi = 30 quattrini = 120 denari, and 1 soldo = 3 quattrini = 12 denari and 1 crazia = 1 soldi = 5 quattrini = 20 denari and 1 quattrino = 4 denari.  The plural form of braccio is irregular in Italian and changes gender so that il braccio in the singular becomes le braccia in the plural.

             The reader is warned that most sources give a value for the length of the braccio in Florence of around 583mm so that the soldo calculated from this value would have a length of about 29.18mm.  Angelo Martini, Manuale di metrologia, (E. Loescher, Turin, 1883; reprint Editrice Edizioni Romane d’Arte, Rome, 1976) p.206 is one of the few nineteenth- or twentieth-century authors to give the length of the braccio and soldo before the standard of length in Florence was re-defined by legislation passed on 2 July, 1782.  This legislation increased the length of the Florentine soldo, palmo, braccio, passetto, canna, etc. by a factor of exactly  (6.25%).  The length of the braccio equal to 583mm (so that the soldo = 29.18mm) is the post-1782 value and does not apply to the majority of the instruments built in Florence and much of Tuscany during the historical period.