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]