An English ‘Da Vinci Code’? MMA 1989.44: An early viol by John Rose in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

During my fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005-2006, I pursued a project to understand the design processes of English makers of the viola da gamba. Within this, I found several anomalies, one of which was the viol attributed to John Rose (MMA 1989.44) the famed Elizabethan maker of viols. To my mind the anomalies showed that the design was outside of the general traditions of English making, but that this was not a reason to dismiss the attribution. Other features of the instrument substantiated the possibility that it was English, and the alternative possibility that emerged was that this was made earlier than the mainstream of English viol making, hence at some time from about 1560 onwards, giving further credence to the attribution to John Rose, the elder.


MMA 1989.44 has long had an attribution to John Rose, which I support wholeheartedly. The belly is very old, but by a later hand leaving the heavily decorated ribs, back and fruitwood scroll as original. I generally make the argument that the heavy arabesques found on this and similar viols follows an aesthetic that fell out of fashion around 1580, as is demonstrated by it’s disappearance from English portraiture around this time, but I do make allowances for the trend continuing of a while under individual circumstances. The purfling around the edge of the heel is a feature common to Rose viols and indicates that the instrument was purfled around the edges after the neck was fitted, something that does not happen after about 1605. I am firm in proposing that this may be a significantly early example of English work and may be an example of the earliest period  of English viol making made sometime plausibly as early as 1560.

The taxing process of deconstructing a design is not given here. It amounts to hours and hours of trial and error, and as a consequence the end result can seem disappointingly simple. It is not so much simple, but mathematically elegant, and what I discovered was a beautiful confluence of proportional mechanics that come together to produce a coherent design that has significance within the world of Renaissance mathematics and philosophy. As always the starting point of the deconstruction was to isolate the compass points which best described the centre of the upper and lower circles of the instrument, and to try to find a rationale for how they are located. This proved unexpectedly simple after some trial and error, revealing that the distance between the two centre-points was equal to the width of the upper bouts of the instrument. As a geometrical construction, these could be accounted for by generating a trinity of congruent circles whose relation to one and other was that of Vesica Pisces, hence invoking two of the most important and overt principles of celestial mathematics as it would have been understood to a Renaissance mind.

Met Rose1

The next stage of the proportional system is to expand the size of the circles by the ratio 5:6. This represents the smallest harmonic interval of the musical scale, the minor third, and as a result is an important harmonic proportion. The bottom circle represents the dimensions of the lower bout, the uppermost part of the upper circle represents the top of the body of the viol where the neck butts against it. I found in due course that intersections with the middle circle provide an explanation for locating the corners of the instrument.

Met Rose2

The result can be compared against the outline of MMA1989.44 thus. Note that the structure is precisely drawn, but the instrument’s outline is subject to distortions caused by the making process, to some extent the age of the instrument, and the reliability of the photograph used for the purposes of this analysis. However, generally speaking the form can be made to accommodate the scheme.

Met Rose3.jpg

A second way to describe these proportions is through a series of rectangles made from the same units of measurement. As the illustration below shows, a rectangle of proportion 5:6 has the same withs as the 5 and 6 of the upper and lower bouts above.


Met Rose6 .jpg


Thereupon a pair of congruent rectangles of the proportion 5:6 arranged one on top of each other can likewise properly describe the framework of the viol (one rotated by 90 degrees). The string and neck length can be extrapolated further, as the neck being equal again to the width of the lower bout, and the bridge should be properly placed along the side where the two rectangles meet.


Following on the same theme, the location of the fold can be given as 5/6 of the length of the back (to the end of the top block, excluding the heel).

Met Rose10 .jpg

Hence we are able to see a basic skeleton for the construction of this viol that relies on a congruent underlay of both circles and rectangles of the proportion 5:6 of the full length (excluding the heel). It should be noted that with the exception of finding the position of the fold, the rectangles only need exist in a theoretical drawing of the instrument, and the outline can be made from the circles alone. Once the limits of the instrument are established, it is simple with a carpenters rule and a square to establish a proportional 5:6 location for the fold of the back.


The scheme against the original instrument can be seen here thus:

Met Rose11

It also works to inform the gross proportions of another instrument, also by John Rose but of a different form.

Viol by John Rose, circa 1580 (Caldwell Collection)

The same premise can also be used for the “Beaufort Bass” viol in the Ashmolean Museum which also supports a strong attribution to Rose. The exception being a manipulation in the concept to work for a 4:5 (major third) rather than 5:6 (minor third). This allows for a broader lower half of the instrument and is closer in proportion to the violin. Henry Jaye working in the early seventeenth century also alternated between these proportions according to the model that he was making.

Ashmol festooned 4 5.jpg
The “Beaufort Bass” by John Rose, circa 1580 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

A Da Vinci Code?

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One of the tenets that I think is very important to impress on the reader is that it didn’t necessarily take the role of an instrument maker to produce a sophisticated design, and whilst it is not impossible for this to be the case by any means, we should also consider the role of  mathematicians, alchemists and philosophers in the role of creating a new kind of design, and by looking beyond the immediate boundaries of musical instrument making, we find that it existed in close proximity to members of intellectual society that took on this role. Hence, Hans Holbein’s Ambassadors reveals astronomical devices whose invention can be directly associated with Henry VIII’s horologist, Niklaus Kratzner.

Hans Holbein, the artist knew an incredible amount about the kind of inventions made by Niklaus Kratzner ‘deviser of the King’s Horologies’ in order to paint this portrait.

During John Rose’s lifetime figures such as John Dee, the Queen’s advisor on alchemy, divination and hermetic philosophy could well be a contender for creating sophisticated ideas. It was he, in 1561 who published his translation of Euclid’s Elements. Repeatedly we see evidence of these celebrated thinkers enjoying patronage amongst the courts of Renaissance Europe. Both as a painter and an engineer, Leonardo da Vinci relied upon others to realise the majority of his ideas at the Sforza court of Milan, as another great influence on Renaissance musical instruments, Lorenzo da Pavia also served as a guiding intermediary between Isabella d’Este and the variety of craftsmen and artists who served her court.

John Dee aged 68 in 1594, who published Euclid’s Elements in English translation in 1561.

John Dee’s marvellously written Introduction to Euclid’s Elements provides a picture of the possible relationship between Mechanicien and a mechanical workman:

A Mechanicien, or a Mechanicall workman is he, whose skill is, without knowledge of Mathematicall demonstration, perfectly to worke and finishe any sensible worke, by the Mathematicien principall or deriuatiue, demonstrated or demonstrable. Full well I know, that he which inuenteth, or maketh these demonstrations, is generally called A speculatiue Mechanicien: which differreth nothyng from a Mechanicall Mathematicien. So, in respect of diuerse actions, one man may haue the name of sundry artes: as, some tyme, of a Logicien, some tymes (in the same matter otherwise handled) of a Rethoricien. 

Dee’s writing is not for the faint-hearted and a good familiarity with Elizabethan prose is necessary to get through the meandering philosophising, but he is essentially advocating for a highly skilled group of craftsmen able to fully understand the designs put to them by those with an intellectual training. Essentially demonstrating the kind of comprehension of university topics that could be enjoyed by a good country Grammar School boy such as William Shakespeare. Indeed, Dee was entirely amenable to the idea that someone who used numbers, rule and compass as an artificer was entirely capable to raising to a greater level of intellectual understanding in order to devise new concepts:

Besides this, how many a Common Artificer, is there, in these Realmes of England and Ireland, that dealeth with Numbers, Rule, & Cumpasse: Who, with their owne Skill and experience, already had, will be able (by these good helpes and informations) to finde out, and deuise, new workes, straunge Engines, and Instrumentes: for sundry purposes in the Common Wealth? or for priuate pleasure? and for the better maintayning of their owne estate? I will not (therefore) fight against myne owne shadowe. For, no man (I am sure) will open his mouth against this Enterprise.

From Dee’s testimony we can neither rule out the idea that a maker such as Rose (or Andrea Amati in Cremona equally) was capable of forming sophisticated design ideas of his own, nor was it out of the question for him to work fluently and competently with ideas that had been created in collaboration or had been passed down to him by learned mathematicians such as Dee himself.

One example of the fascination with numbers that resonates well with this design of instrument is from the recusant Catholic, Sir Thomas Tresham who built his famous triangular lodge at Rushton, Northamptonshire in the period 1593 to 1597, a rare and rather outstanding example of the fascination with mystical philosophy that was deeply held within Renaissance thought.


A schematic diagram shows how every aspect of the lodge recalls divine geometry and the Holy Trinity. With this amount of fascination with divine numbers, the idea of an instrument formed around something as simple as a trinity of circles with a co-relationship of the vesica pisces would seem to be child’s play in relative terms and utterly to be expected in a musical instrument that performed a ‘philosophical’ function within the realms of the quadrivium and broader intellectual Renaissance thought.


Whilst the premise would seem to be a simple one the layered meanings that can be implied from the Rose viol’s geometry underline a deep intellectual sophistication. Whilst the design is “simple” this is a reflection of the elegance of the proportional scheme rather than being an elementary design as such.

At this point, things become a little mystical as we find uniquely that when the circles are derived around the trinity of the Vesica Pisces then whatever proportions are applied between the two, the sum total always adds up. This seems very simple and logical but it does not work on other very similar designs such as viols produced in England in the seventeenth century, to which slightly different ideals were applied. There is a layer of meaning in this idea, that goes directly to Vitruvius and his ideal about the divine proportion of Man. In this his argument towards Man being made in God’s form is based on the observation that the human form fits in both a circle and a rectangle of the same proportion. Given that there is one proportion in play, this is shown as the type of rectangle known as a square.


In the words of Leonardo Da Vinci: For the human body is so designed by nature that the face, from the chin to the top of the forehead and the lowest roots of the hair, is a tenth part of the whole height; the open hand from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger is just the same; the head from the chin to the crown is an eighth, and with the neck and shoulder from the top of the breast to the lowest roots of the hair is a sixth; from the middle of the breast to the summit of the crown is a fourth. If we take the height of the face itself, the distance from the bottom of the chin to the under side of the nostrils is one third of it; the nose from the under side of the nostrils to a line between the eyebrows is the same; from there to the lowest roots of the hair is also a third, comprising the forehead. The length of the foot is one sixth of the height of the body; of the forearm, one fourth; and the breadth of the breast is also one fourth. The other members, too, have their own symmetrical proportions, and it was by employing them that the famous painters and sculptors of antiquity attained to great and endless renown.

Similarly, in the members of a temple there ought to be the greatest harmony in the symmetrical relations of the different parts to the general magnitude of the whole. Then again, in the human body the central point is naturally the navel. For if a man be placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a pair of compasses centred at his navel, the fingers and toes of his two hands and feet will touch the circumference of a circle described therefrom. And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square figure may be found from it. For if we measure the distance from the soles of the feet to the top of the head, and then apply that measure to the outstretched arms, the breadth will be found to be the same as the height, as in the case of plane surfaces which are perfectly square

One of several interpretations of the Vitruvian Man from Cesare Cesarianos’s 1521 translation of Vitruvius’ De Architectura. 

Vitruvius’s ideal had a great deal of weight in the sixteenth century, not least Leonardo da Vinci’s exposition of the principle, but it appears in various books on architecture, proportion and music and it seems a logical step from the basic principles of divine harmony of Man’s form to create an exposition that uses real musical harmony – the proportions of two different notes – in order to express aspects of divine philosophy within the design of the instrument. The minor third, upon which MMA 1989.44 is designed is the smallest harmonic interval of the musical scale. The Ashmolean’s festooned viol is at 4:5, the major third. The idea in each case that two harmonias are linked by the most sacred Holy Trinity reads well for the kind of mysticism that was deeply rooted in English philosophical thought of the Renaissance.


Met Rose6


A curiosity of this system of geometry is that it seems to have been short-lived, and by the time of Henry Jaye in the early 1600s it had been modified into a different form, in which the centre of the circles require a radically different explanation for their location. As a result this framework fails to reconcile their shape. Why would a clearly excellent form that produces some remarkable instruments be seemingly abandoned in the late sixteenth century? A hypothesis that addresses this quandary steps back towards the Rushton Triangular lodge, built in the 1590s as an ostentatious demonstration of recusant Catholicism in a country whose views towards Catholicism since the Reformation were far from straightforward. It may be that the overt use of a mystical geometry found acceptance within a market who were conscious of it’s use in the third quarter of the sixteenth century, but that changing Protestant ideals became more and more conscious of mystical numerology as a sign of crypto-catholic sympathy.

Detail from the first edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563) illustrating the level of anti-Catholic sentiment in Britain at the time.

Later instruments are adapted around a more overtly Pythagorian model of harmonia, and in a realpolitik influenced by the threat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and later in the Guy Fawkes Plot and a world in which the Queen’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham ran a network of agents to seek out catholicism that mirrored the Spanish Inquisition in it’s zeal and ruthlessness. It is perhaps of note that one of his principle agents, Arthur Gregory was an experimental musical instrument maker seeking patents in 1608/09 from the Royal Court for the design of what appears to have been the Baryton, though information is too diffuse to make any firm connections. Nonetheless, rather than drawing any deep crypto-catholic symbolism into the discrete design of viola da gamba in England (something that William Byrd would have surely delighted in), it is perhaps more a case of ‘better safe than sorry’ that this design fell out of fashion for a more overtly secular one during the uncertain years of the late sixteenth century. … More on that in a later blog.




    1. benjaminhebbert

      Thanks so much Laurence – it’s been a long time since I did the initial research – thanks to your encouragement to come to New York, and the period of letting it settle has helped to confirm things in my mind.


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