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Baroque guitar


The origins of the guitar are still quite obscure, but the instrument acquired its characteristic shape at the beginning of the 16th century.

The guitars of the 16th and 17th are very different from the current guitars. Their backs can be flat or curved, and their strings are grouped in pairs to form choirs. Guitars with four and five choirs coexisted until the 18th century. The lightness of the construction of these instruments evokes the construction of the lute rather than that of the current guitar.

In the 16th century, polyphonic music was magnified by the lute. This delicate instrument perfectly captures the subtleties of the encounters between the different voices of a musical work. From the beginning of the 17th century, this type of musical aesthetics was gradually enriched by chord writing. The guitar seems to have played a significant role in this evolution. It allows a very expressive play, mixing chords (rasguado) and melodic style (punteado), with many variations and a great refinement. Music for guitar is often written in a particular notation: alfabeto. The alfabeto indicates which chord to play, but it is up to the musician to choose how he will present the notes included in this chord. In the 17th century, the guitar was a particularly suitable instrument for improvisation. The repertoire for baroque guitar is abundant: dances, accompaniment of vocal works, virtuoso pieces.

The baroque guitar tuning ("re-entrant" tuning) facilitates this mixed interplay between melody, polyphony and chords. The beauty of music written for old guitars cannot really be enhanced by an interpretation on a modern guitar.

The guitar seems to have been a particularly popular instrument throughout Europe. His success with a wide audience sometimes led him to be somewhat despised by some authors of the time, who preferred the lute. However, the aristocrats never despised the instrument: Charles II of England and Louis XIV were enthusiastic guitarists. Great masters such as Francesco Corbetta, Gaspar Sanz or Robert de Visé, gave the baroque guitar its letters of nobility, while opening the way to the romantic repertoire.

The guitars built by Matteo and Giorgio Sellas, René and Alexandre Voboam, Joachim Tielke and Antonio Stradivari, often sumptuously decorated, testify to the esteem in which the guitar was held in wealthy circles. The instrument shown below is a wonderful example of this.



Guitar inv. nr. 0550 was bought by the first director of the Brussels Musical Instruments Museum in 1879. It was formerly property of the well-known luthier Auguste Tolbecque. On the pegbox there's an engraved inscription: 'Matheo Sellas / alla Corona in / Venetia'. Matteo Sellas was an instrument maker of German origin, active in Venice in the first half of the 17th century. It has five choirs and ten dorsal pegs.

Heigth: 87.5 cm

Width: 26 cm

The back of the soundbox is made of wooden ribs separated by ivory. On the soundboard is a rose made of lead. This rose is not original. It is signed 'H H' and probably comes from a keyboard instrument by Henri Hemsch. It is surrounded by ivory and ebony (Mahillon) or black paste (Awouters) inlay. On the fingerboard, there are ivory plates which illustrate two fables by Phaedrus: the Wolf and the Crane; the Fox and the Stork. The back of the neck is made of an inlay of ivory and ebony (Mahillon) or black paste (Awouters).

At some time in its history, this guitar has been transformed into a chitarra battente, with a free (not glued) bridge and strings that were attached at the bottom of the soundbox. At that time, the neck was shortened and has remained the same until now. The original neck must have been longer. The guitar was transformed once again into a more classical instrument with glued bridge before it came to the Museum. Possible this work was done by Tolbecque. Radiographies have given evidence of important internal transformations of the original instrument, but its external aspect remains significant of the remarkable make of baroque guitars, and in particular of Matteo Sellas.


Victor-Charles Mahillon, Catalogue descriptif et analytique du Musée Instrumental du Conservatoire Royal de Musique de Bruxelles, i, Gent, 1893

Exposiçao Internacional de Instrumentos Antigos, V Festival Gulbenkian de Musica, Lisbonne, 1961, n°39

Instruments de musique des XVIe et XVIIe siècles, catalogue de l'exposition du Musée Instrumental de Bruxelles en l'Hôtel de Sully, Paris, juin 1969, s.l., 1969

V. Depiereux-Devresse, La guitare: formes, structures interne et externe, décorations. Catalogue analytique et descriptif des guitares du Musée Instrumental de Bruxelles, Mémoire présenté pour l'obtention de la licence en Archéologie et Histoire de l'Art, Louvain-la-Neuve, Université catholique de Louvain, 1984

M. Awouters, "Befaamde barokgitaren uit de verzameling van het Brussels Instrumentenmuseum", Musica Antiqua, 3/3, 1986, p. 74

Guitar, Matteo Sellas, Venice, ca 1640
Guitar, Matteo Sellas, Venice, ca 1640
Guitar, Matteo Sellas, Venice, ca 1640
Guitar, Matteo Sellas, Venice, ca 1640