Last month, I had the great pleasure of spending an afternoon at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. It was my first time visiting this magnificent venue.
While exploring the Raphael Room on the museum’s second floor, I came upon this guitar.
Since there are no object labels at the ISGM, I had to consult the museum’s website to find out about this fascinating instrument. From there, I learned much. First and foremost, I learned that it is properly known as a Chitarra Battente or “strumming guitar.”
This chitarra battente was built in the 1720s by Jacopo Mosca Cavelli of Perugia, Italy. It is 36 1/4 inches long and made of wood, “elaborately decorated with inlay of mother-of-pearl, bone, and tortoise shell backed with gold leaf to highlight the translucency of this material.”
Isabella Stewart Gardner purchased it in Rome in (approximately) 1895.
The “rare and precious object” has fourteen thin metal strings, arranged in four triple courses and one double course. The chitarra battente was typical of Southern Italian music in the 1700s and often used by street musicians. Its role was “to add rhythm to songs and dances, such as the tarantella.”
Here are a few close-up photos, starting with the headstock.
In 2016, this guitar was the beneficiary of a serious restoration effort by the conservators at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The first step in this restoration process was to take the Cavelli to Massachusetts General Hospital for a CT scan which produced 1600 images of the guitar’s interior.
The next step was undertaken at Boston Medical Center where an endoscopy was performed on the guitar. This procedure gave a view of the inside of the instrument where, beneath a thick layer of centuries old dust, a paper label was discovered with luthier Cavelli’s signature and the year 172_ (the last number being obscured).
Here is a video of part of the endoscopy.
From the moment I first saw this instrument, I wondered what it would sound like.
I found my answer in the person of Marcello Vitale.
Mr. Vitale – born in 1969 in Benevento, Italy – is a virtuoso performer, recording artist, composer and teacher of the chitarra battente. (His 2002 album is titled Chitarra Battente.)
Here is a video that was posted on YouTube in 2017 of Mr. Vitale performing on a 10-string chitarra battente. After a long spoken introduction – in Italian – his playing begins at 1:34.
Finally, the Isabella Stewart Gardner website informed me that there is only one other instrument made by Jacopo Mosca Cavelli known to be in a museum’s collection. That fortunate museum is Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Wait. Really? Oh, yes!
I wrote about that instrument in my post “A Trip To The Museum” on March 13, 2014.
Here’s the picture! That other chitarra battente by Jacopo Mosca Cavelli is on the left.
The world of the guitar is a wide and wonderful place.
P.S.: I love museums.