The Forensic Challenges of a Renaissance Cittern

One of the highlights of British instrument making of the Renaissance is a small “Shakespearean-period” cittern that turned up unexpectedly on my desk in 2007. At the time, despite an enviable repertoire and historical record, no English examples were known. As a result, the business of authenticating what turned out to be the only known English example involved producing comparisons from an enormous field of different instruments made around the same time. By using a forensic nexus of comparable instruments it was possible to provide a compelling identification of the cittern within a demonstrably English context. 

My story with this instrument begins one morning in 2007 at Christie’s Rockefeller Centre with a phone-call from reception that a lady had dropped off two violins wrapped in a blanket. None, it transpired were violins. The familiar of the two was a mute viola d’amore  last seen in 1999 at the sale of the Barons Albert and Nathaniel Rothschild. A wonderful piece that ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That would have been prize enough, but the next instrument to reveal itself took my breath away.

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The cittern whose label reads “Petrus Raitta … [illegible]” Now in the National Music Museum, South Dakota
The cittern was one of the most important instruments of the Renaissance and survives more in paintings than surviving instruments.  Somewhat less than fifteen examples are known in museums across Europe and North America. Most of them are Italian, made in Urbino or Brescia, whilst there is a strong history of them in Dutch golden-age paintings. However, whilst the cittern was much in use in Italy and beyond, it is specifically it’s English repertoire from the mid-sixteenth century onwards that is particularly rich – arguably the most virtuosic of all music ever written for the instrument. Years ago musicologists realised that the music was probably only possible if the English played on a smaller cittern than surviving Italian examples. Michael Praetorius the seventeenth-century composer and music theorist described such an instrument, a kleine Englische zitterlein in his ‘De Organographia’ of Syntagma Musicum (1619). He wrote of how:

About three years ago an Englishman came to Germany with a very small citterlein, the back of which was left half open and not glued. On it, he could bring about a strange but very lovely and beautiful harmony with fine, pure diminutions and trembling hand, so that it is heard with curious pleasure. [This sound/technique] might now be practiced in the same manner by some distinguished lutenists.

Michael Praetorius’s Klein Englisch Zitterlein is number 7 on the engraving from De Organographia (1619)

Sometimes expertise of instruments is the result of careful study slowly getting towards a conclusion of what something might be without any real guarantee in the end of a result  (It my take months with a particularly difficult violin). Other times a conclusion can be instantaneous and firm – the type that Malcolm Gladwell describes in Blink. This type of decision can be no slower in reality, because then the process begins of questioning it and looking further to the reasons why it was wrong. To me the instrument was had an immediate certainty to it, but that confidence could be as destructive to a correct attribution as not. The problem was that if I were right, it would be a stellar discovery and completely unique. It had to take its time.

As an auctioneer for Christie’s, we had further problems. It had historically been described as a mid-17th century Italian cittern prior to the Rothschild sale in 1998 – one of the most significant auctions of recent years, with a low estimate of just a few thousand pounds before being withdrawn from the sale because of its perceived low value and because a serious crack in the ribs diminished its quality against the other treasures in the sale. Although many objects had done better than their estimate in the sale, we were obliged to stick to an estimate that reflected the original judgement back in 1998. It made for a rather silly looking sales catalogue with an estimate of just $4000-6000 (it sold for a deserved $180,000). It was political enough to change the nationality of the instrument from Italian to English, which most people would have assumed would damage it’s sale prospects. At the same time, auction being what it is, you can’t hold an instrument back for six months whilst writing an academic paper on it. It had to go out as best it could by the catalogue deadline, because that was the job in hand. Meanwhile behind the scenes I was having sensible conversations with serious buyers – “ignore the estimate, you know what it’s worth to you”. There are many serious musical instrument collections that don’t have a cittern from any country, and an instrument with a demonstrable connection to Shakespeare’s culture or to Praetorius’s Syntagma Muscium had a significant cachet.

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A Brescian cittern by Girolamo Virchi made in 1574. The design of the little cittern was obviously derived from a similar Brescian work.

When we try to describe the process of identifying something it ends up as a kind of systematic list, however the actual process is instantaneous with ideas coming from all directions. I already knew that the size of Praetorius’s klein Englische zitterlein was about the same as a violin from head to toe thanks to the scaled drawings in De Organographia, but what seriously interested me was the materials and techniques that the instrument was made from. The English style of around 1600 is familiar from various viola da gamba and other instruments including the cittern-like bandora and various surviving instruments exist. Some years before I had begun examining those that existed in order to get an idea of an early English school. Nothing was so directly connected to it as to identify a particular maker, but it was well within an overall style and similarities could be seen across a relatively wide range of surviving instruments (relatively wide, in so far as these were relatively rare to begin with). At the same time, it was important to compare the instrument more broadly to make sure comparisons weren’t inadvertently being made to wider European traits. Despite everything that appeared English, the design itself was fundamentally a reduced version of a Brescian model exemplified through Girolamo Virchi’s work of the 1560-70s.

One of the significant departures from Italian work comes in the form of the gothic tracery rosette. Tracery of this general sort does appear throughout Europe on harpsichord rosettes, and is relatively rare on stringed instruments. However, there is a stylistic resemblance between this and the rosette of an orpharion – a uniquely English instrument – made by Francis Palmer in  London in 1619 (who, to judge by the head must have been closely associated with Henry Jaye’s whose heads are in a very similar style).

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The general gothic scheme of the rosette as compared to an orpharion by Francis Palmer, London, 1619.

Against a variety of other English sources the styling of the fruitwood tracery and infil of the rosette made much better sense, with examples by Henry Jaye, Henry Smith and William Turner into the middle of the seventeenth century showing consistent use of both the trefoil infil and also the decoration around the edges of vacant spandrels. Note particularly the way that each arm of the tracery is parted and how it is cut at an angle.

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The cittern’s sound hole as compared to a 1624 tenor viol by Henry Jaye (Musee de la Musique, Paris).

The pegbox has a rather pleasing dog’s head doesn’t have any particular concordance with other carved heads of the period, in part because they are so few, but the detail of the decoration is indicative of English work from the decades either side of 1600. I am nervous to compare it too readily to Jaye’s style of carving (which reflects wider English styles of the time) but the general concept for the eyebrows has a degree of commonality  with the way he constructs a human face.

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Henry Jaye’s “Marsyas” head of 1619, note the exaggerated eyebrows.

The use of a circular punch embellishment for the pegbox walls is effectively identical to the technique applied by John Rose in 1580 for his Cymbalom Decachordon a kind of early guitar with ten wire strings (five courses).

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Detail of circular punch marks on the cittern against the John Rose Cymbalom Decachordon made in 1580. Comparison to the tailpiece and fingerboard of the British Museum citole, with the associated date 1578 (below) is also compelling.


Another compelling comparison for the cittern comes from the matching tailpiece and fingerboard of the British Museum citole, a fourteenth century musical instrument that was converted by the Bassano family in London to become a violin, using ready-made violin fittings from their own, or another London workshop. In general terms this kind of decoration seems to fade out by about 1605 and is last found on the Ashmolean’s viol by Richard Blunt. Henry Jaye adopted a much smaller punch and it carries on throughout the early seventeenth century. Although other makers from other countries – Joachim Tielke in Hamburg, for example, adopt it at the end of the seventeenth century, it appears from surviving instruments to be an exclusively English trait in the decades around 1600.

Jaye’s relief carving differs between instruments, either a rather flattish naturalistic acanthus leaf pattern seen on the 1619 Jaye bass and in earlier instruments such as the Ashmolean’s Richard Blunt of 1604, or a Mannerist Renaissance form of his 1624 bass viol that is inherited directly from earlier from templates either inherited or derived from the John Rose workshop prior to 1600. Although the pegbox walls have been lowered with circular punches, there is a small vestigial clover leaf in the corner of the pegbox side, which is very much in common with Blunt’s work of around 1604 and the Jaye of 1619.

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Details from Richard Blunt c.1605 (Boston, MFA) the Raitta cittern and Jaye 1619 (London, RCM).

Other elements of the pegbox suggest English work. Without direct comparisons, the low relief carving and it’s acanthus design is well within the forms that are familiar on English viols. Likewise the approach to cutting the pegbox.

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Interior work on the pegbox of a Henry Jaye violin is essentially identical.

The instrument shares with Henry Jaye, for example a similar shape of chamfer as the pegbox meets the nut of the instrument, and the general margins of the carving are much the same, once again more in line with English instruments where relief carving is an accepted feature of the scroll and outside of other extant comparables. It may even seem over simplistic, but in the sixteenth century a violin-type pegbox was still not the expected technology for citterns which harkened back to earlier instruments with the pegs protruding from a solid block instead.

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Relief-carved scrolls are usual for English viols of this period and rare elsewhere. The general scaling of the cittern’s scroll accords well with Henry Jaye’s work especially noting the margins around the edge.

Choices of wood, finally, seem to be a consistent characteristic of English making, with decisions about purfling that follow. Varieties of fruitwood are used extensively, although the nature of them is that as they get old the cell structures tend to look increasingly similar and a general darkening means that it is not really practical to identify individual words. Nevertheless, plum or pear is a likely contender for the ribs and neck, whilst a darker wood that may equally be yew is used on the back alternating with maple. In all cases there seems to be a particular interest in using especially gnarled and characterful pieces of maple. Purfling on English instruments of this group alternates depending on the wood – on maple it is black/white/black, and on yew or other dark woods it changes to white/black/white. This is the case on the Francis Palmer bandora of 1619, and of an instrument possibly by William Bowcleffe made around 1600 or earlier, as well as on the cittern. Later makers in other countries, especially eighteenth century France adopted similar styles, but omit the purfling detail, and tend to use distinctly different woods.

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No element of itself guarantees that the instrument was made in England and not elsewhere, yet point after point about the instrument has strong concordances amongst a  handful of instruments that are regarded as English of a certain type, and that hold together coherently, and they in turn extend out towards a wider nexus of instruments of broader and in some cases more confident attribution. Just as importantly there are are no competing traditions of making that significantly cross reference these traits. When examined in this manner, it does not matter that it is the only cittern in existence when the same craftsmanship traits exist throughout allied instruments made around the same time, though someone who is only interested in citterns would find it difficult to build connections with different instruments the likenesses are such that it becomes illogical to hold out for an alternative proposition.

After the instrument was sold to the National Music Museum in South Dakota, John Koster and Andrew Dipper were able to look at the label with greater detail than was possible in the limited time and facilities of the auction house. It is printed and as best we know reads “Petrus Raitta” with an illegible date. One possibility is that it is reference to Raitea, the name of the Roman province that included Füssen, whose instrument making guild produced makers that travelled around the entire of Europe. As a result, the only place, from Bologna to Venice to London that the instrument is unlikely to have been made in is Fussen itself, as “Petrus Raitta” would seem to be a name adopted by someone that had moved away from his native town (as Gaspar da Salo worked in Brescia, Giovanni Maria da Brescia worked in Venice, the Bassano family from Bassano worked in Venice and London and so forth). Although England seems to have had its own native instrument makers, explicitly John Rose, the Bassano family, Comeys from Cremona and the Lupo family from Milan were amongst Italian instrument makers brought to London in 1538, whilst German makers also seem to have settled in number around the city. Early records of lute makers in England as far back as the 1560s with John White “almaine” indicate the settling of German makers in England of one sort or another. Sometime after 1600 Jacob Rayman settled in Southwark from Füssen and it is entirely consistent that a maker should style himself in this manner. Potentially working with him was Thomas Miller alias Maller of St Andrew’s Holborn “Dutchman and noe denizen” who was recorded in 1621 working also in Southwark, recalling another familiar Füssen name.

In terms of dating the instrument, it was impossible to be completely clear on when the instrument was made. In this blog, several of the examples used to demonstrate authenticity come from around 1580 and others from the mid 1620s. In many respects that represents a long period of time and change, but in musical instruments and many other decorative art forms the high point of the Elizabethan era became a “golden Age”. A date around 1580, therefore is as viable as one from the 1620s given the long period with little stylistic change.

After her death, James I consciously modelled his court as a successor of Elizabeth because he feared that casting her legacy aside would make him politically unpopular. Hence that there are only subtle differences in what some architectural historians call the ‘Jacobethan’ period. English virginals continued a circa 1590s aesthetic well into the 1670s, whilst the Francis Palmer orpharion is an excellent example of an instrument associated most with the 1580s produced in 1619 with no significant variation on its design and John Rose’s concepts of the viol only see subtle changes in the seventeenth century. The gilded parchment on the rosette is particularly close to the style seen in Henry Jaye’s work of around 1620 and that alone provides an indication that the instrument may possibly be from the later part of a period that ends around 1625 with the influence of Inigo Jones and the markedly different approach to monarchy of Charles I with the attendant changes in fashion. Dendrochronology undertaken by Peter Ratcliff in 2017 gives a definite youngest tree ring date of 1610, placing the instrument well within the period of Henry Jaye’s viols (to which it seems particularly familiar) and the Francis Palmer bandora.

“Peter of Fussen” working in London in around the final years of Shakespeare’s life and integrated within the local traditions of instrument making, and perhaps drawn to Southwark where other Douchmen and Alamains were making instruments, closely related to the Jaye workshop? There is nothing unlikely about that, it’s just a shame we don’t know a tiny bit more.

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