Information Report for Sotheby's,

 Bond Street, London


Giovanni Battista Maberiani, Rome, 1676

Sotheby’s warehouse, 4 October, 2007


See Sotheby's Press Release


See Lot 60, Sotheby's Sale, Bond Street, London, Dec. 4, 2007 (requires a free but safe registration with Sotheby's)




Short description:  This is a small rectangular Italian virginal kept inside, and part of, a ‘studiolo stupefacente[1], an elaborate and decorative seventeenth-century cabinet (see the separate section about the studiolo on page 8.)  The instrument has a compass of C/E to c3, four octaves with a bass short-octave.  It has a poplar baseboard, a cypress case and a fir soundboard without a soundboard rosette.  It survives with many old and possibly original brass and iron strings, and is clearly designed to sound at a pitch an octave higher than normal.



Signature:  “Io / Gio'[va]nni / Ba[tti]sta / Maber / iani / feci / a / Roma / 1676” written in ink on the top surface of the c3 keylever[2].


Figure 1 - Signature written in ink on the top surface of the c3 keylever.

Rectangular virginal by Giovanni Battista Maberiani, Rome, 1676

Sotheby’s Warehouse, October, 2007


Biographical details of Giovanni Battista Maberiani can be found below.  No other instruments are known by this maker[3], although it is possible that, on stylistic grounds, the ottavino virginals in the studioli by Herman belonging to the Danish Royal Collection in Rosenborg Castle and in Fredensborg Castle are also by the same harpsichord builder.


Rosette:  There is no soundboard rosette.



                                                        Length             Height          Thickness           Wood

                                      Front:           805                   . . .                   3.3               cypress

               Case left of keywell:           106                  130                   2.7               cypress

                                 Left end:           328                  129                     3                cypress

                                       Back:           806                 128.8                  3.1              cypress

                               Right end:           323                  128                   3.2               cypress

             Case right of keywell:          81.5                  128                  2.9               cypress

                              Baseboard:                 Italian style                       6.6           white poplar[4]

Soundboard to the top of the case walls:  40.5.  Soundboard is 2.1 thick, so liner to top of case is 42.6.

*These measurements do not include the thicknesses added by the top or the outer case mouldings.


          The case is of typical Italian construction with the case sides surrounding and overlapping the outside edges of the baseboard[5].  The keyboard is recessed into the front of the case rather than projecting as is more common in Italian virginals[6] (see Figure 2 below).


Figure 2 - Plan view of the instrument

Rectangular virginal by Giovanni Battista Maberiani, Rome, 1676

Sotheby’s Warehouse, October, 2007


          Also unlike most Italian virginals except for some made in Naples, the tuning pins are placed at the rear left of the instrument rather than along the right side.  Also, like some Neapolitan virginals, the nut over which the strings pass at their left-hand end is placed on the wrestplank into which the tuning pins are placed.  This means that the nut has solid wood underneath it and cannot vibrate.  It therefore does not contribute to the sound of the instrument.  The boxslide in which the jacks move is beside and glued to the near side of the wrestplank.  There are two vertically-placed braces glued to the baseboard and to the front and back case walls at either side of the keyboard just behind the inside edges of the keywell sides.  Other than this there is no internal framing.

           The keyframe is nailed to the baseboard so that it is necessary to remove the keys individually in order to gain access to the inside of the instrument.  The beech keys are guided at their tails using a slip of wood embedded in the tail of each keylever which slides vertically in a slot in a rack attached to the rear of the keyframe.  The jacks are guided in the usual boxslide and the jack tongues use white quill springs instead of the usual shim brass.  The soundboard is of fir cut well off the quarter and there are two very light soundbars, also of fir, attached to its lower surface.

           This instrument is very similar to the central instrument on the right of the plate shown in Figure 3 below from Michele Todini’s Galleria armonica[7].  This shows part of an amazing group both of organs and of plucked string keyboard instruments.  All of these instruments can be played simultaneously through hidden mechanical connections between the player at the harpsichord on the left and the other instruments.


Figure 3 - Plate 33 from Todini’ Galleria armonica


          This engraving is particularly relevant since it was published in 1676, exactly the same year in which the instrument under study here was made.  The central instrument in the group of three on the right bears many resemblances to the Maberiani instrument.  Also the general style of the stands on the instruments pictured here is very similar to the style of the stand on the studiolo pictured in Figure 7 on page 9 and under the two studiolo in Rosenberg and Fredensborg Castles in Denmark, and under the harpsichord by Michele Todini seen in Figure 11 on page 11.

Original dimensions of the baseboard without the case sides:

Length:  799Front/798.5Back along front/back.   Width:  320.   Inside of case left of keywell:  98.   Inside of case right of keywell:  72.5.   Keywell:  627.   Keywell projects/recessed:  80 (left), 78.5 (right).


Determination of the unit of measurement used to design and construct this instrument:

See my article elsewhere on this site about Italian Geometry and the Unit of Measurement

          The city or region of construction of an instrument can be determined by analysing the size of the unit of measurement used in its construction.  Until the time of the Napoleonic invasions of the Italian peninsula each of the major cities in Italy used its own unit of measurement and the size of these units varied from place to place.  The braccio, piede, canna, palmo, etc. and their subdivision into the oncia or pollice were therefore characteristic of each of the centres in which instruments and virtually all other manufactured items were built.  Therefore if the unit of measurement used in the design and construction of an instrument can be determined, this can be used in turn to establish the centre of its origin.  This instrument is signed by Giovanni Battista Maberiani who lived and worked in Rome (see the biography below) and the method can be used in this case to confirm or contradict the use by him of the Roman oncia.

          The procedure of determining the unit of measurement used to construct this virginal begins most easily with an analysis of the ratio of the length to the width of the instrument.  Knowing already that the instrument is by Maberiani, the size of the unit used to design and construct this instrument should be close to 20.75 mm, the size of the unit used by other Roman builders at this time.  If this is used for the length and width then these dimensions become very close to 38½ once and 15½ once respectively.  Using these measurement to give an estimate of the size of the oncia, it can then be applied to the other measurements of the baseboard, keyboard, wrestplank, string scalings, and all of the other parts and design features of the instrument.  A summary of the measurements of the baseboard and case height in once are given in the following table:


                                                                Measurement          Measurement                 Length of

                                                                           in mm          in local unit                   oncia in mm

                                   Length of the spine:             799    =   38½ once          gives         20.753

                                                        Width:             320    =   15½ once          gives         20.645

                        Case at the left of keywell:               98    =   4¾ once            gives         20.63

                      Case at the right of keywell:            72½    =   3½ once            gives         20.714

                                                     Keywell:          628½    =   30¼ once           gives         20.777

                                          Keywell recess:               79    =   3¾ once             gives         21.06

                      Maximum case sides height:             130    =   6¼ once             gives         20.800

                                                            Totals      2127    =   102½ once          Average:  20.75mm ± 0.07mm

Table 1- Baseboard measurements used to calculate Maberiani’s unit of measurement

Rectangular virginal by Giovanni Battista Maberiani, Rome, 1676

Sotheby’s Warehouse, October, 2007


          These measurements are shown in the diagram of Figure 4 on the next page where the actual measurements of the baseboard in millimetres are shown at the top and the measurements in Maberiani’s unit of measurement are shown at the bottom.  A look at a table of the units of measurement used in the various centres in Italy during the historical period shows that in Rome the palmo, divided into 12 once, had a length close to 248.987mm[8].  Hence the oncia had a length of:



 The value of the oncia found above for this instrument has an error calculated to be only 0.3%[9] so that it could be expressed as 20.75mm ±0.3% or 20.75 ±0.07mm.  The difference between the ‘text book’ value given above in Equation 1 and the oncia found here from the baseboard dimensions is of the order of only 0.005% and therefore the two differ by an amount which is much less than the expected calculated experimental error.  Given that the measurements from which the size of the oncia has been derived here are all relatively small, the agreement between the size of the unit calculated here and the 'text book' value is therefore to be considered remarkable.  No other unit used in Rome give such good agreement between the measured values and those converted into the various units used in Rome as does this one.


Figure 4 - The baseboard measurements in millimetres (above) and in units of the Roman oncia = 20.749mm(below).

Rectangular virginal by Giovanni Battista Maberiani, Rome, 1676

Sotheby’s Warehouse, October, 2007


          To summarize, therefore, it is clear that the maker of this instrument used the Roman palmo and oncia to design and build this instrument.  This helps to confirm a) that it was made in Rome, and b) that it was made by Giovanni Battista Maberiani who is known from the archives to have lived and worked in Rome.



          Compass:  C/E to c3, 45 notes.     3-octave span:  473-4

          Total width of keyboard at the natural fronts:  608.5

          Total width of keyplank at the natural fronts:  608.5


          Total width of keywell:  618.

                                    Sharp length:          48

                       Naturals head length:          24

                         Length of keylevers:          Bass:  147.5                   Treble:  303

                         Length of keyplank:          Bass:  145                      Treble:  299

     Balance point to front of natural:          Bass:  62                        Treble:  121

  Balance point to front of keyplank:          Bass:  60                        Treble:  117


Soundboard gauge markings:

There are no string gauge markings.



          The string scalings and plucking points were measured and are given below in Table 2.  It is to be noted that the c strings are long and pluck towards the player, the f strings are short and pluck away from the player.  The strings splay outwards from the right-hand (sounding) bridge to the left-hand bridge (sitting on the wrestplank), so there is no constant lateral string spacing.  There were no bridge-positioning holes visible.


                                                                            String            Plucking

                                                                           Length              point

                                                                 c3           75                    37

                                                                 f 2         122                    26

                                                                 c2          171                   35

                                                                 f 1        265.5                 30.5

                                                                 c1          348                   37.5

                                                                  f          494                    42

                                                                  c          569                   45

                                                              G#/E       636                   47

                                                              F#/D       675                   52

                                                                 F           680.5                46.5

                                                               C/E       713                   58

Table 2 - The string scalings and plucking points

Rectangular virginal by Giovanni Battista Maberiani, Rome, 1676

Sotheby’s Warehouse, October, 2007



          These scalings are plotted below in Figure 5.  These show that the treble scalings from the notes middle c1 to the top c3 are based on c2 = 171.2mm or 8¼ Roman once.  Below c2 the strings start to foreshorten and are no longer Pythagorean.  The strings found on the instrument change from brass stringing to iron stringing between the notes cT and d:  below cT they are of brass and above d they are all of iron.  This transition in the stringing material is marked with two light vertical lines.  This transition has a calculated c2-equivalent scaling of 150.4mm or 7¼ Roman once.  Hence the maximum brass scaling can be said to be 150.4mm or 7¼ Roman once.


Figure 5 - A graph of the string scalings

Rectangular virginal by Giovanni Battista Maberiani, Rome, 1676

Sotheby’s Warehouse, October, 2007


Pin dimensions:

                                                Bridge pins            Hitchpins            Tuning pins         Balance Pins

                            Diameter:            1.1                       1.1                        3.1                         2

                             Material:          brass                     iron                      iron                      iron

Neither bridge is back-pinned.



Left- and right-hand bridge dimensions:


                                                     C/E         c          c1        c2         c3

                                           a         11.0                   8.8                   8.7     = height

           Left-hand bridge:    b          6.0                   5.8                   5.8     = width at base

                                           c          2.7                   2.7                   2.7      = top      

                                           a           9.1                   8.8                   8.8     = height

         Right-hand bridge:    b           5.5                   5.5                   5.5     = width at base

                                            c           2.7                   2.7                   2.7     = top      


Soundboard wood:

          The soundboard is of wide-grained poorly-quartered fir.



Wrestplank:  walnut

Internal framing:  poplar                                               Liners:  fir but liners beside the boxslide are cypress

Soundboard moulding:  cypress                                   Hitchpin rail:  walnut

Namebatten:  cypress                                                   Soundboard:  fir

Soundbars:  fir                                                             

Left-hand bridge:  walnut                                             Right-hand bridge:  walnut

Boxslides:  cypress                                                       

Jacks:  pear                                                                   Tongues:  beech

Naturals:  ivory                                                             Sharps:  ebonised pear

Key arcades:  ivory                                                       Keylevers:  beech

Balance rail:  cypress                                                    Rack:  cypress

Keyframe:  fir                                                               Key guide system:  Italian

Jackrail:  cypress                                                           Jackrail supports:  cypress

Outer case:  none                                                        



          The instrument is very plainly decorated and is even devoid of a soundboard rosette.  The top and bottom edges of the case have the usual delicate cypress mouldings as does the jackrail.  The only other decoration is provided by the ivory arcades on the fronts of the keylevers.


Biography of Giovanni Battista Maberiani:

          Giovanni Battista Maberiani was born about 1640-42[10].  He appears in the Roman archives as a harpsichord builder in his own right as early as 1663 to 1666 when he would only have been in his early twenties.  His wife’s name was Maria Felice.  He worked as a harpsichord builder for the House of Pamphili, one of the most influential and powerful families in Rome, during the years 1683 to 1686.

          The form of the name Maberiani is no longer used in modern Italy.  The modern form of the name is Mombriani or, more usually, Mambriani.  The name is relatively rare in Italy[11], and is now most frequent in the Province of Emilia-Romagna[12] indicating that this is perhaps where Maberiani originated.



Notes on the studiolo:


Figure 7 - Studiolo by Giacomo Herman, Rome, 1676

Sotheby’s Warehouse, October, 2007


          The studiolo is a superb confection composed of a gilt stand and marbleised table, a cabinet of drawers, and a clock all surmounted by a splendid gilt equestrian statue.   The central section and the top clock section both have a series of glass panels with familiar Roman scenes painted on their rear surfaces[13].  Two of these are shown in Figure 8 below.




Figure 8 - Two of the painted glass panels on the studiolo showing San Giovanni in Laterano (left) and the Piazza San Pietro (right).


          The interest of the studiolo here is that it hides an octave virginal in the central lower drawer. Figure 9 below shows the middle section of the studiolo with the drawer behind which the virginal is normally kept outlined in red.



Figure 9 - The middle section of the studiolo showing the drawer for the virginal outlined in red near the bottom.

Sotheby’s Warehouse, October, 2007


Figure 10 - The central section of the studiolo with the lower drawer partly removed showing the octave virginal hidden behind it.



          The stand below the studiolo bears many similarities to the stand under the instruments depicted in Figure 3 from Michele Todini’s Galleria armonica [14] and under the harpsichord by Todini himself shown in Figure 11 below.  These 3 are all particularly relevant since they were all made in Rome in the period 1675 to 1676, they are all figures supporting an object, the are all gilt, and are all in similar styles.



Figure 11 - Single-manual harpsichord made by Michele Todini, Rome, c.1675 showing Polyphemus and Galatea and supported by tritons with nymphs and dolphins.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York


           The studiolo is signed:  “den studiol hatt der / Johnannes Meißer gemacht / von Freiburg von ihm selbstgemacht” (see Figure 12 below). 


Figure 12 - Signature of Johannes Meißer on the studiolo (contrast increased artificially).

Sotheby’s Warehouse, October, 2007


           The signature makes it clear that Johannes Meißer, although he was clearly working in Rome, was originally from Freiburg in the Schwarzwald in South-western Germany.  Johannes Meißer must have been the craftsman who was the principal in Giacomo Herman's workshop in the district of Sant'Ignazio.  An attempt was made to determine the unit of measurement used in the construction of the studiolo to find out whether it was made using the Roman palmo and oncia or whether it was made using the Freiburger Zoll.  Normally the maker of any object would begin building it from its base and would design this using simple units of the local unit of measurement.  In this case no attempt was made to turn the studiolo over to measure the size of the baseboard because of the risk of damage.  However, the top of the cabinet chest of drawers was measured instead.


          None of the measurements of the top of the cabinet gives an integral or half-integral number of Roman oncia using the value of 20.75mm found for the virginal by Maberiani.  However, in Freiburg, the Fuß had a length of 293.26mm[15].  The Fuß had 12 Zoll so that each Zoll  had a length of 24.438mm.  Applying this length to the measurements of the top surface of the cabinet of drawers gives measurements in Zoll which are almost exact integral or half-integral numbers (see Figure 13 below).


Figure 13 - Measurements of the top of the cabinet chest of drawers of the studiolo measured in millimetres (top) and in units of the Freiburger Zoll (below).



          The good agreement for the measurements shown in Figure 13 seem to indicate that Johannes Meisser was using the Freiburger Zoll to design and build the studiolo.  Normally it was forbidden for a craftsman to use any other unit than the local unit of measurement - for example the Guild regulations in both Venice and Florence required the local craftsmen and artisans to use their local unit of measurement.  I have never had access to a copy of the Guild regulations in Rome, but I expect that this was also a requirement there as well.  Nonetheless it is clear that, in this case, Meisser was not using the Roman oncia but the Freiburger Zoll[16].


          There is nothing in the construction or style of construction to indicate that the studiolo and the virginal were made by the same person.  The materials (except for the use of white poplar [gattice] for framing) and the mouldings on the studiolo and the virginal are totally different.  It is therefore clear that the studiolo and the virginal are made by two totally independent and separate craftsmen.


          There is an inscription along the top edge of the drawer that closes the space behind which the virginal is stored.  This inscription can be seen in Figure 14 below (here the contrast has been increased artificially using Adobe Photoshop in order to try to make it more legible).  It is clearly difficult to read this inscription in order to interpret what it means.



Figure 14 - Inscription on the top edge of the drawer in front of the virginal (contrast increased artificially).

Sotheby’s warehouse, October, 2007


However, a similar inscription on the studiolo in the Palazzo Braschi on the Piazza Navona in Rome is very easy to read, and this can be seen in Figure 15 below:


Figure 15 - Inscription on the studiolo in the Palazzo Braschi studiolo

Palazzo Braschi, via di San Pantaleo, Piazza Navona, Rome


 This reads:  “numo 10. longo p[almi]. 5 once 3 - 80.” or “Number 10.  Length - 5 feet 3 inches.  Serial 80”.  Hence this instrument must have been 5 feet 3 inches in the Roman unit of measurement which as seen above was 1 oncia = 20.75mm.  5 feet 3 inches is 63 Roman inches and this would have a length of 1307.25mm or 1m 307.25mm.  This must related to the total width of the studiolo.


            This then makes it clear that the inscription in Figure 14 above must read:  “[num] 3.  longo p[almi]. 6 once 1(?0?) - 850” or “Number 3.  Length - 6 feet 1(?0?) inches.  Serial 850”.  If the inch part of the measurement is correct then this should give the Sotheby’s studiolo a length of 6 Roman feet 10 Roman inches or 82 Roman inches.  This would have a length of 82 Roman inches or 1701.5mm or 1 metre 701.5mm.  This is, indeed, very close to the total width of this studiolo.


          This interpretation has a number of interesting consequences:

  1. The difference in the lengths given for these two studiolos indicates that they were made in slightly different sizes.  Although they are all part of the same series, this does not mean that they were all made the same size.
  2. As shown above in the diagram of Figure 13 above, the studiolo was designed and built using the Freiburger Zoll.  Although not proven here, this was almost certainly in contravention of the local Roman guild regulations for cabinet makers working in the city.  Johannes Meisser seems to have disguised this fact by giving the principal dimension of the studiolo in units of the Roman oncia so that it appeared as if he were working using the Roman unit of measurement.  



                                                                            - Dr Grant O’Brien

                                                                            - 19 October, 2007

[1] The word studiolo, although used today mainly to mean a private room for study, was widely used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to mean a writing desk or cabinet.  Indeed the maker himself calls it, in a kind of Italian-German, ‘Den studiol’ (see  Figure 12).

[2] I am indebted to Patrizio Barbieri, Rome and Francesco Nocerino, Naples for their assistance in transcribing this signature.

[3] See Donald H. Boalch, Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord, 1440-1840, (George Ronald, London, 1956; 2/Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1974; 3/edited by Charles Mould, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995) p. 133.

[4]  The botanical name of the tree from which the wood derives is populus alba.  This wood is commonly known in Italy as legnaccio or gattice.

[5] Harpsichords, virginals and spinets made North of the Alps are normally made with the case sides sitting on top of the baseboard.

[6] A fairly extensive search on the web and through the available museum and private collection catalogues of early keyboard instruments did not result in finding any other Roman instruments with this shape and design.

[7] Michele Todini, Dichiaratione della galleria armonica eretta in Roma, (Tizzoni, Rome, 1676; facsimile edited by Patrizio Barbieri, (Libreria Musicale Italiana Editrice, Lucca, 1988).  See one of the harpsichords constructed by Todini in Figure 11 on page 11.

[8] Angelo Martini, Manuale di metrologia, (E. Loescher, Turin (also Rome and Florence), 1883; reprint Editrice E.R.A., Rome, 1976), Hercule Cavalli, Tableaux comparatifs des mesures, poids et monnaies modernes et anciens…, (Paul Dupont, Paris, 2/1874), Horace Doursther, Dictionnaire universel des poids et mesures anciens et modernes, (M Hayer, Brussels, 1840),  L. Malvasi, La metrologia italiana ne' suoi cambievoli rapporti desunti dal confronto col sistema metrico-decimale, (Fratelli Malvasi, Modena, 1842-44) and Luigi Pancaldi, Raccolta  ridotta a dizionario di varie misure antiche e moderne coi loro rapporti alle misure metriche…, (Sassi, Bologna, 1847) all give a value either of 248.987mm for the palmo or of 1991.896mm for the canna of 8 palmi.  This gives an oncia of 20.7489mm.  For a complete listing of the values of the units of measurement used in the Italian peninsula during the historical period see the listing on my website:

[9] The error calculations were carried out using the usual rules of the differential calculus.  The baseboard dimension are quoted to the nearest half-millimetre but were measured with an accuracy of about one millimetre.  The error in the total sum of the first column of figures of Table 1 is therefore about 8mm.  This was converted to a percentage and then divided by the square root of the number of measurements (in this case 8) to get the final percentage error.  The error in the calculated value of the oncia is the same as this and the number of once in the second column of figures has no error.

[10] See Patrizio Barbieri, ‘Cembalaro, organaro, chitarraro e fabbricatore di corde armoniche nella “Polyanthea technica” di Pinaroli (1718-32).  Con notizie sui luitai e cembalari operanti a Roma’, Recercare, 1 (Libreria Musicale Italiana Editrice, Lucca, 1989), 152.

[11] There is now only one person listed in the telephone directory for the Province of Lazio with the surname Mambriani.  This person, in fact, lives in Rome.

[12] There are 99 persons in the telephone directory of Emilia-Romagna with the surname Mambriani.  There are 9 persons in Liguria, 9 in Lombardia, and one or two in other provinces scattered throughout Northern Italy.

[13] The painting of glass panels on their reverse side was almost an industry in Rome and Naples.  This requires a special technique since the order of applying the paint on the back of the glass is the reverse of that normally used.

[14] See footnote 7on page 13.

[15] Pierre Larousse, Grand Dictionnaire (Paris, 1874) and Angelo Martini, Manuale di metrologia, (E. Loescher, Turin, 1883; reprint Editrice E.R.A., Rome, 1976) p. 217.

[16] I have also personally found another situation in which a craftsman did not use the local unit of measurement.  The harpsichord maker Giovanni Natale Boccalari working in Naples in the second half of the seventeenth century did not use the Neapolitan unit of measurement in the design and construction of his instruments.  Boccalari’s signature on several of his instruments indicates that he originally came from Ufida (Offida in modern Italian) in the Marche and, indeed, his instruments use the oncia used in the Marche and not that used in Naples.  Therefore this maker must have brought his tools and measuring stick with him from Offida to Naples where he continued to make instruments in the style and unit of measurement current in the Marche.  Indeed Boccalari’s instruments have none of the usual characteristics of Neapolitan harpsichords.


Home page