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Reference Library Articles

Venetian Baroque Guitar, attributed to Matteo Sellas, circa 1625

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The closing years of the sixteenth century saw the first music written for the five-course guitar. Initially this involved a simple chord strumming technique used for accompanying other musicians. It was because of its simplicity many people took to this form of guitar, all while the baroque lute had developed into a fourteen-course ‘beast’ which for the average person was too much to contemplate. The Italian guitarist Francesco Corbetta was to change that, by developing the early five-course guitar’s repertoire which initiated a craze for the instrument in London and Paris. Corbetta was probably the reason why Charles II of Spain in the late seventeenth century and Queen Anne of England at the beginning of the eighteenth century, took up the guitar themselves.

The instruments embellishments of ivory, ebony, tortoiseshell or pearl, not to mention the delicately pierced rose (although this had an acoustical purpose), were common place in instruments up until the mid eighteenth century. In many cases it is doubtful if the maker did the inlay work, and it may have been the craft guilds who prohibited them from doing so. There is also evidence that the violero (instrument maker) sometimes imported inlaid soundboards. The ratio of decorative guitars compared to plain ones is not known because the lavishly decorated ones were more likely to have survived, the most renowned being those by the Voboam family of Paris, Joachim Tielke of Hamburg and most perhaps famously those by the Sellas family of Venice. During the changing musical fashions, many of these fine guitars were converted. Fortunately, this required minimal changes: the number of strings, the kind of bridge, and sometimes its position, but again this prevented many from being discarded altogether.  

Matteo Sellas (circa 1600–1654) established his workshop in Venice in the 1620s. The many un-signed extant examples found today, may have been made by the apprentices who trained through Matteo’s workshop. Alternatively, many experts argue that Sellas’ signatures, usually located to an ivory plaque on the head, together with engraved decorative scenes, were often removed by unscrupulous dealers and added to a plain guitar, thus creating two ‘Sellas’ guitars and increasing their profits. Therefore in some instances, those not displaying any name today are more likely to have been made by a reputable maker.   

A dendrochronological report was prepared for the soundboard of the guitar by Peter Ratcliff in 2010. He found that the bass side most significantly matched reference and instrument chronologies at year 1620 and that of the treble side, matched chronologies at year 1616.There were over 100 positive results with series from other musical instruments and reference chronologies.

There are very few surviving Baroque guitars of this stature and condition, with the vast majority residing behind glass cases in museums. It is a small wonder that this 400 year old guitar survived the ravages of time, to be both playable and in remarkable condition (albeit restored), waiting for its next custodian, whether a curator, a player, or lover of art, to take-on the responsibility of preserving it for future generations to admire and enjoy.