The Guitare en Bateau (Ital.
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
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
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
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
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.