whole unsplit gut string

In the production cycle of the XVI, XVII, XVIII and XIX centuries, the animals whose intestines were commonly used in the string-making industry in Rome, Naples, Lyon, Munich, etc. were both goat (expecially in Neaples area) and sheep intestines. The latter category was then subdivided into lamb gut, sheep gut and finally mutton gut.

In the slaughterhouses they used to treat any animal, always for alimentary reasons only; it was then up to the string-maker to select the intestines (coming from different sources and sometimes from very far away) according to their gauges, following the rule, that we have come to know, that the guts of smaller gauge had to be used only for the thinnest strings, and vice versa.

It is particularly interesting the singular situation found in Rome and Naples, where, during Easter time, huge quantities of lambs and young goats were slaughtered, whose intestines were then destined for the production of the Lute chanterelles, which were then sold throughout all Europe.

The common situation that is found in many Italian documents of the XVIII and XIX century is that with three or four whole guts you should get the range of diameters typical of the Violin first string: therefore, the original guts must have been really quite thin.



A Roman document from the mid-17th century (Attanasio Kircher, “Musurgia Unniversalis”, Rome 1650) even reports the interesting information that the first string of a Lute was made using only a single whole lamb gut:

The use of whole guts was therefore the rule in those countries (such as Spain, Portugal and Italy) where there was availability of small animals that allowed the use of three, sometimes four of their coupled and twisted guts, to obtain the range of diameters suitable as the first string of a Violin.

In other countries (France, Austria, Germany, etc.) the situation was quite different: their lambs, either for the breed, the climate or the type of feeding, were larger than those of Italy and Spain, and were never slaughtered at an early age (even for the good quality of the wool) , as opposed to what happened in Italy. Because of the larger intestine section, it was impossible to obtain suitable diameters for the Violin first string: this is the main reason for the huge orders of Lute and Violin first strings addressed to Rome and Naples by the various European nations in the XVII, XVIII and XIX centuries. There are several documents from the XVIII and XIX centuries, especially from France, which analyze well the situation and conclude that, because of their type of sheep, it was impossible to imitate the quality of the Neapolitan first strings.

This type of problem gave origin to the ingenious solution of splitting the intestine lengthwise and halfway in order to obtain thinner strips so as to circumvent the obstacle, a technique that is still used today by virtually all string makers, whether they deal with beef’s casings or sheep’s casings.

From the documents that were found, it would seem that this technique was introduced in Germany only in the late XVIII century (the German inventor won a prize from the local municipality), while its use was actually known as early as the second half of the XVI century, at least: in the statutes of the string makers of Rome in 1587, 1591, 1642 and 1678 it was in fact forbidden to make strings from intestines ‘split in the middle’, under penalty of heavy fines or even whip and jail and the  espulsion from the roman stringmaker’s corporation:



In the statutes of Lisbon string makers of the late 17th century it was also stated that a string maker who was discovered mixing whole guts with guts cut into strips would be forced to pay a hefty fine:


It would therefore be a commercial fraud. An Italian document from the middle of 1846 states that the use of strips to make strings instead of using the whole gut, is to be considered a fraud and it also explains how to detect it:



But why in Italy and Portugal were they so strict against those who cut / used the gut in strips? Wasn’t it an ingenious system to be able to use even the larger and more available casings?

Until a few months ago, it was commonly believed that a string made from whole gut should have the same acoustic properties as a string made from strips. Our recent rediscovery of the ancient system used in Italy to make whole gut strings has instead shown a completely different reality: strings made of whole unsplit guts have greater acoustic performance, they reach a stable tuning more easily, they are more resistant to traction and also much more stable to climate changes as compared to the same string made out with the same intestine cut in strips.

This series of findings would definitively explain why the strings produced in Italy (and to a lesser extent in Spain) enjoyed the reputation that has always been praised in European documents from the late sixteenth to the first half of the twentieth century and also explains why it was so carefully monitored that there were no fraudulent initiatives by local string makers.


But does whole gut really sound better?


As mentioned earlier, uncut whole gut strings not only have proven acoustically high performance in terms of volume and achievable sound nuances, but also have high tensile strength, fast and stable intonation and resistance to climate changes. If we lived in those past times, we would have certainly done everything to preserve such quality by persecuting any form of fraud.

We asked ourselves what could be the reason for this better sound, stability and mechanical resistance: if we make two identical strings from the same gut (but one of which is obtained from strips) we get very different results.

We have come to the conclusion that the possible ‘secret’ of this special quality is the result of the natural conformation of the intestine, which presents on the one hand a sort of robust and thin longitudinal ‘lace’ on which the thin and delicate ‘tubing’ of the intestine adheres. During the twisting phase, it spreads around the above-mentioned lace which, on the contrary, results in traction at its ends, almost as if to create a hypothetical covered rope whose core is the aforesaid ‘lace’.

Here is a video showing this: