Italian harpsichords

Single manual harpsichord by Alessandro Trasuntino, Venice 1531; London, Royal College of Music Museum of Instruments

This is a harpsichord with separate outer case which is enforced to secure from damage with additional wooden slabs. The lavish painting is common for harpsichord lids in general but rather rare among Italian instruments.

music sample:
(excerpt from) Giovanni di Macque: Gagliarda
played by Gustav Leonhardt
Harpsichord by Carlo Grimaldi, Messina 1692


Italian harpsichords had some characteristic features of an unmistakable pattern: Soundboard and frame were often made of cypress and were so light that even a grand could be carried by one person if necessary. This, however, was made possible by making the walls so thin that the instruments needed extra outer cases for preservation since the slightest bump from the outside could cause great damage. For playing the instrument usually was taken out of its case and put on a table. After about 1610 some instruments were also made firmly linked with an outer case, but still imitating the older pattern ("false inner-outer").

Usually an Italian harpsichord had only one manual and two stops or even only one - another reason why these instruments were so light, but this design produced a rather mighty but a bit "short" sound blending particularly well with a single voice but also pronounced among several instruments ideal for „Basso continuo“ playing. So the harpsichord became the most common instrument for conductors of secular music (a function taken by the organ in church) but less suitable for solo playing than the more voluminous instruments outside Italy and so solo keyboard music declined in Italy after mid-17th century.

This particular construction and specific dimensioning of the strings made Italian harpsichord extraordinarily durable - some instruments in museums show no cracks or bends by string tension even after centuries - quite to the opposite of more rugged Flemish instruments. In addition they were also exported and are still widespread.

The later developments and alterations in Flanders or France had no influence to Italy; thus Italian harpsichords did not change for centuries  until pushed aside by an invention by an ingenious harpsichord maker which was hardly noted in Italy itself: the „Gravicembalo col piano e forte“ by Bartolomeo Cristofori.


© Greifenberger Institut für Musikinstrumentenkunde |