The Genoese Mandolin: Just One of the Italian 18th-Century Mandolins

by Federico Filippi Prévost de Bord

During the eighteenth century in Italy what constituted a mandolin differed in shape and tuning by geographic area, and many variants are now almost forgotten. The mandolino alla genovese, or Genoese mandolin, is an instrument that only survives through objects which have now become part of public and private collections. The study of some surviving instruments has allowed us to identify their constructional characteristics and link them to the luthiers active in Genoa in the eighteenth century. A still greater challenge has been to understand what music was played on it – this research is ongoing.

Front and back of a beautiful Genoese mandolin, Metropolitan Museum of Art 89.4.1069

The constructional features that distinguish this mandolin from the other models widespread in Italy during the eighteenth century are clearly identifiable. The strings are arranged in six double courses, with metal frets, the headstock has perpendicular tuning pegs, the sound board is slightly hot-bent near the bridge, the bowl-back is usually made with 9 or 13 ribs, the neck joint is at the ninth fret (in some cases at the seventh or eighth); at the bottom the strings are anchored with endpins fixed in the back and the vibrating string length is approximately between 29 and 31 centimetres.

Some instruments are finely inlaid and embellished with mother-of-pearl and ivory on the soundboard and on the headstock, while most of them have a funnel-shaped rosette in colored parchment, sometimes lost because of its fragility; the pickguard with the typical parallelogram shape is always present, made of tortoiseshell or dark wood. The strings used were probably in gut and some instruments are provided with rings at the bottom and on the pegbox to secure a shoulder strap.

A scale for the Genoese mandolin using all the six courses, from the manuscript Ms Euing R.d.29, Euing Collection, University of Glasgow, fol. 9r.

The instrument was possibly tuned an octave higher than the guitar, e a d’ g’ b’ e’’, which is shown in the manuscript ‘La scola del leutino, o sia mandolino alla genovese’ [1], but this does not correspond to known musical repertoire. There is no eighteenth-century mandolin music that clearly presupposes this kind of tuning, though some cases are ambiguous [2]. Further evidence of the guitar type stringing can be seen on some mandolin frets in which correspond to the notes frequently used.

Contrary evidence can be found in the Real lexicon der musikinstrumente by Curt Sachs [3], in which the Genoese mandolin is briefly described as a five courses instrument tuned in g c’ e’ a’ d’’ or six strings in g b' e' a' d'' g'', while a model of “Senese” mandolin is cited that was tuned as a violin if it had four choruses or as a guitar if it had six courses. [4]

Between the end of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century the Neapolitan model prevailed over the other Italian mandolins. This transition can be seen on instruments which have been converted from six to four courses. The Genoese mandolin that belonged to Paganini was modified with a clean cut of the pegbox reducing the number of pegs to eight [4].

Unfortunately, mandolins of this type do not explicitly specify the name of the manufacturer with a label. In many cases, however, there are marks on the back or behind the pegbox that may suggest some names of luthiers active in Genoa in the eighteenth century. Instruments bear the names of the makers Giuseppe Graziani and Agostino Delle Piane, of whom there are also some violins signed and dated respectively in 1762 and 1780-1, but of the instruments examined the largest number can be traced back to Cristiano Nonnemacker (born 1703, last recorded 1766), who was probably the first to make them.

The number of recognisable Genoese mandolins surviving today totals more than thirty. A project cataloguing the branding marks is currently underway and has helped to identify the makers of Genoese mandolins preserved, one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, two at the Museu de la musica in Barcelona, one at the Musikmuseet in Copenaghen and one at the Victoria and Albert collection in London.

[1] An article about this mandolin method will be published soon in ‘Il Paganini’, Quaderno del Conservatorio Niccolò Paganini, Rivista annuale, n.5/2019.

[2] Ibid.

[3] CURT SACHS, ‘Real-Lexicon der Musikinstrumente: zugleich ein Polyglossar für das gesamte Instrumententgebiet’, Julius Bard, Berlino, 1913, pp. 252-253.

[4] The very short description indicates that the author probably did not have a great deal of information: the first tuning proposed for the Genoese is not found in other sources and there are no surviving mandolins of this model having five courses; the second tuning is the same of the baroque mandolin and could be a possibility, also for the avaibility of music repertoire.

[5] A photo of this mandolin is in PHILIP J. BONE, The guitar and mandolin: biographies of celebrated players and composers for these instruments, Schott & Co., Second edition, London, 1954.

Federico Filippi Prévost de Bord is a classical guitar student at the Conservatorio Niccolò Paganini in Genova. Prior to this he graduated with honours in Music and New Technologies by presenting a thesis on musical technologies for teaching music and history of music. During the Erasmus+ Programme he attended the Reid School of Music at the University of Edinburgh, deepening his studies on the history of musical instruments and focusing his research on the Genoese mandolin.




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