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The mystery of gut bass strings in the 16th and 17th centuries:
The role of loaded gut
by Mimmo Peruffo


(Vol. XXIX n° 2, May 1994, 'Lute Society of America Quarterly', pp.5-14)

translated from the Italian original by Ivo Magherini


Among the hypotheses conceived by scholars about the possible manufacturing processes employed by 16th and 17th centuries string makers to produce all-gut bass strings, that of loading the gut by means of appropriate treatments deserves serious consideration, on the ground of direct and indirect confirmations at our disposal. This confirmations homogeneously coming from different fields, each on its own account, allow us to sketch an altogether sufficiently clear picture of how, in the 2nd half of the 16th century and for over a hundred years, the problem of acoustical performance of all-gut bass strings could have been solved by ancients.

As it is well known, when, in an attempt to perform renaissance and baroque repertoires observing philological criteria, modern gut strings are employed for the lower registers of plucked and bowed instruments, they unequivocally give a very poor acoustical performance. As a consequence, when performing musical material from these historic periods, we are always faced with an all but negligible paradox, stemming from the fact of having unavoidably to employ overspun strings for music conceived before their historic appearance. With some families of instruments, such as viola da gamba the problem of acoustical performance for modern gut strings begins normally to appear already beyond the 4th string, rapidly to became more serious for the lower ones. With lutes, the consequences are even more striking, and begin to appear, roughly, after the 5th course and particular in the lower ones, especially if all lying over one neck of limited length, such as, for instance 11 course baroque lutes. A very good example of which appears in the famous portrait of lutenist Charles Mouton (1).

The hope of unravelling the mystery behind the manufacturing techniques once used to produce all-gut bass strings (which after the introduction of overspun strings, were to fall in progressive and irreversible neglect) spurred an intensive research on the part of scholars who, once ascertained that modern thicker strings are rather stiff, thought that the heart of the problem was to be sought in the twisting process commonly employed today, which does not allow a sufficient degree of elasticity; an important parameter to make a string sonorous (2).

The amount of twist thus began to be considerably increased, seen that it allowed some increase in the elasticity of the structure (3). Unfortunately, in the region of the lowest frequencies such procedure proved insufficient. So other more complex twisting methods were adopted (4)(5), some of which reproduce exactly the structure of a rope. By proceeding in this direction a noticeable decrease in the string's stiffness was finally arrived at the cost of loosing its smoothness, which is at odds with many written and iconographical sources of the 16th and 17th centuries. This caused some dispute about the historical reliability of such a manufacturing process (6).

This, in short, can be considered the state of experimentation which is certainly made more difficult by the fact that no old string from the 16th or 17th centuries seems to survive today. Likewise, very little of technological significance comes to us from treaties of the past and from recently discovered string makers statutes (7)(8). The string makers' secrets were carefully guarded, an easily understandable attitude in times when there were no certain commercial guarantees, while fraud lied constantly in ambush. In the string makers corporation statute in Rome (1642) and Naples (1653 and 1685) for example, the only technologically relevant information seems to be the prohibition to shear (longitudinally?) gut and what the size the frames should be. In fact, most chapters deal with prevention and repression of frauds.