Saturday, October 20, 2012

Unusual Artifacts: The Annibale Rossi Virginal, 1577

Italy, c. 1577
This and all related images from:
The Victoria & Albert Museum

What is the difference between the musical instrument we call a “virginal” and the one we refer to as a “spinet”? Even museum curators find that the terminology for virginals and spinets is often unclear.

The instrument that you see pictured above—from the Victoria & Albert Musem--has been until recently described as a “spinet.” However, further research into the terms shows that this is actually of a type of instrument which is described by musicologists today as a “virginal.” Spinets and virginals, along with harpsichords, are stringed keyboard instruments which are special inasmuch as the strings have a plucking mechanism rather than a striking mechanism as in a piano. They are decidedly similar instruments.

The term “virginal”(thought to be chosen for its association with young female musicians) was commonly used in England to denote all plucked instruments, and some writers still use it to denote smaller instruments in rectangular cases. This practice was in use from the Sixteenth Century onward. Meanwhile, the term “spinet” has long been used to refer to a pentagonal or polygonal instrument.

Recently, the term “virginal” has been more accurately bequeathed to instruments with strings running at right angles to the keys, and with long bass strings at the front while the term 'spinet' denotes instruments with strings at an oblique angle and with the longer bass strings at the back. In other words, the spinet is a smaller version of the harpsichord—an instrument with only one set of keys.

In either case, both types of instruments were originally designed to be portable and were laid on a table top for playing.

The very first virginals were produced in Sixteenth-Century Italy. These early examples were created in a variety of shapes, from rectangular to polygonal. These Italian virginals were generally crafted of thin cypress wood, topped with elegant moldings and trim-pieces, and adorned with exotic inlays. These small instruments were surprisingly loud and could produce the entire range of notes in popular music of the time.

Here, we see such a virginal from Sixteenth-Century Italy with a cypress case and soundboard. It boasts boxwood and ivory ornaments, and is inlaid with pearls, amethysts, lapis lazuli, jasper, agate, turquoise and other precious and semi-precious stones. Since the ability to play an instrument was considered a “princely virtue,” instruments were treated with the utmost respect and were regally adorned. This example shimmers with 1,928 precious and semi-precious stones.

Annibale Rossi (active 1542-1577) of Milan in northern Italy, was the maker of this elaborate virginal. Rossi’s signature is still easily read on the piece. Rossi was praised in Paolo Morigi's work, La Nobilità di Milano (1595): wherein he was said to have produced an instrument “with the keys all of precious stones” for a “learned and refined nobleman.” Such a mention was quite an accolade considering that while the instruments and their owners were often praised, their makers were usually not.

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