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The Guitare en Bateau (Ital. Chitarra Ballente)

Various reference works and encyclopedias suggest that the technology of "drawing" metal wire was invented in (or introduced to) Europe in the 13th century-certainly early enough to have spurred the development of various families of string instruments (medieval psalteries, harps, zithers, and probably prototypes of fingerboard instruments such as citterns). Wire strung keyboard instruments (clavichords, harpsichords) are generally thought to date from the early 15th century.

But what might this have to do with renaissance, baroque, and classic guitars? And their predecessors? It is common knowledge that they normally were not strung with wire, but rather with gut strings. And instruments of this type were extant well before the 13th century!

One of the distinguishing marks of the renaissance, baroque, and classic guitars is their so-called "terminal" bridge, which not only elevates the strings above the fingerboard, but also (being glued in place) holds the strings, anchoring them to the table of the instrument. Needless to say, fragile, lightweight guitars and lutes could not take the tension that steel wires exerted, which is why historically the only kind of guitar "properly" strung with wire was the Italian baroque (17th & 18th century) chitarra battente. Typically it exhibited a cut and cambered (some would say "cranked") table, like the table of the Neapolitan mandolin, on which a supporting, non-terminal bridge would sit. The strings passed over the bridge and were anchored at the extreme edge of the instrument. Originally an Italian instrument, it came to be known in France as the guitare en bateau (boat guitar, boat-shaped guitar).

How is one to understand the term "boat" guitar? The Italian "battente" evidently means "beating" or "strumming." The French might well have dubbed the wire-strung chitarra battente a guitare a battre, or worse yet (and Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have loved this), a guitare a gratter! The French, bless their native tongue, don't seem to have a word for strumming. Not to correct history, but the closest they could have come to describing this new Italian strummed guitar would have been to call it a "guitar to be beaten" or a "guitar to be scratched (scraped)!" But there might be more to the historic modifier (en bateau) than meets the eye.

True, the semi-nautical shape of this instrument suggests the hull of a boat. So a "boat-shaped guitar" is a plausible translation. But perhaps more significant is the notion (offered in my previous article on the migrating guitar) that sailors took guitars like this with them on their voyages overseas. I would contend that these migrating, strummed, folk instruments with wire strings truly were "guitares en bateau"--that they probably needed to have wire strings to hold up in the extreme climactic conditions and heavy humidity aboard ship, and to sustain endless days and nights of strumming.

Several points can be made to support this hypothesis. First the ubiquitous wire-strung American or Western guitar had to have come from Europe in some fashion, unless we are prepared to accept a native American Indian derivation for it (unlikely). The wire-strung "boat" guitar explains it. It obviously came to America- or at least the idea of wire strings did-- en bateau.

Second, evidence exists that original gut-strung 5-course baroque guitars were sometimes altered to accept wire strings (perhaps in anticipation of rough use or ocean voyages?). Three such instruments dating from the seventeenth century are described in Tom and Mary Anne Evans' Guitars from the Renaissance to Rock (New York, 1977):

- by Matteo Sellas, Venice, 1623 (p. 30)
- by Giorgio Sellas, Venice, 1627 (p 31)
- by Giorgio & Michael Sellas, Venice, 1652 (p. 33)

Venice was, as we know a major sea port and trading center. It should not surprise us that many instruments made here sooner or later were converted to wire strings (export models, perhaps?), if not originally built for wire strings.

Several mysteries attend the foregoing scenario. To cite just two:

Chitarra Ballente.
Maker and origin unknown, probably 17 or 18 C., Italy
Collection W.E Hill & Sons.
Chitarra Ballente. 17 C. Italy
Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments,
University of Michigan, Ann Harbor
1 - In general, why did baroque (normal, gut-strung guitars) have double strings for each course? Was it for the sake of sympathetic vibrations and resonance? Or to increase the odds that a concert could be gotten through without both strings of a given course breaking (a purely practical consideration)? It has always been a cherished notion of mine that both factors account for the double strings not only in lutes, but also in baroque guitars. But the second factor (durability) is no longer relevant when wire strings are used (how seldom they break!). And resonance increases with the use of heavier wire strings; so theoretically, at least, the wire-strung chitarra battente did not require double strings. Nor in theory, did similar instruments such as the chitarrone, cittern, tamburitza, and the mandolin. So why did they have them? Purely because of tradition?

2 - Toward the end of the 18th century, when the baroque era and the baroque guitar had both run their course, one begins to find evidence of guitars originally designed for just single strings. The evidence suggests that this development is closely linked to the birth of the classic, six-string guitar. Did the option of wire stringing contribute to the development of the six-single-string classic guitar? We shall pursue this in the next installment of this column.