The beautiful Boissart mandore, part 2 of 3: Observations on the Boissart mandore

The history of a stunning 17th(?) century instrument, observations on its lutherie, and questions over its dating.

In part 1 we looked at the pre-history of the renaissance mandore, tracing its family history in the mediaeval oud, lute and gittern. Now we examine one exquisite instrument, the Boissart mandore in the V&A, decoding its remarkable carvings and reconstructing its biography from the visible evidence of the changes it has been through. As far as I know, this is the first critical examination of the life of the Boissart mandore.

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All photographs by Ian Pittaway, included courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. On all pictures, click for higher resolution view.

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Paul Baker and I were met at the Victoria and Albert Museum by the very helpful Hanne Faurby, assistant curator in the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department, and led behind the scenes to meet furniture and instrument conservator Nigel Bamforth to view the Boissart mandore. (For the history and origins of the mandore, see The beautiful Boissart mandore, part 1 of 3). It was purchased by the museum in 1866 for £140.00 and dated by the V&A first to c. 1570, then revised to 1640. Being a sui generis relic, we were not allowed to handle the instrument ourselves so Nigel, with impeccable courtesy and great patience, held and moved it with nitrite gloves as I photographed and Paul took measurements.

It is stunning. The shock of its small size stopped me in my tracks as I first walked towards it, realising the scale and intricacy of its exquisite carving. The centimetre rule and Nigel’s hands in the photographs will give you an idea of just how small it is: total length only 420mm, maximum width 120mm, maximum depth 39mm. Paul’s full measurements are at the foot of this article.

Classical carvings

The back, neck and pegbox are made of hollowed-out and carved pearwood; with a spruce soundboard; edging and fingerboard veneer of ebony; and an ivory nut.

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The bowl is surprisingly shallow. We expected it to have an even, round curve, like the half-pear shape of a lute or gittern. Instead, the bowl curves back from the soundboard and becomes almost completely flat across the back. No doubt this made the exquisite and complex carving just a little more practical to execute.

Famously, the advent of the European renaissance was a rediscovering of classical Greek and Roman culture, this rebirth originating in Italy in the second half of the 14th century and spreading across western Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. Greek mythology is present all over this instrument: the back depicts the story of the judgement of Paris with decorative tendrils, leaves and flowers; the back of the pegbox has the carved head of mythological monster Medusa; and the front of the pegbox has the carved head of a bird/woman hybrid, either a siren or a harpy.

The judgement of Paris

ThBoissart05e classical Greek story of the judgement of Paris carved on the bowl is a tale of vengeance, vanity, and the dangerous folly of kidnapping someone else’s wife. All of the gods are invited by Zeus, god of the sky, lightning, thunder, law, order, and justice, to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis – all, that is, except Eris, goddess of discord. Being the goddess of discord, she turns up, anyway, seeking revenge for her snub. Knowing the discordant hubris in the hearts of the divine female wedding guests, she throws a golden apple among the assembled goddesses, addressed ‘for the fairest’. Three lay claim to the apple, shown left to right on the carving: Hera (to the Greeks, Juno to the Romans), Queen of the Gods, goddess of marriage, women, childbirth and family, seen with two of her denoting symbols, the sceptre in her hand and the peacocks behind her; Athena (Minerva), goddess of wisdom and crafts, treading on one of her denoting symbols, a spear; and Aphrodite (Venus), goddess of love, beauty and sexuality, seen with her son, Eros (Cupid), god of love, with his wings and quiver of arrows, holding onto his mother’s leg as his bow lies on the ground.

So the three goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, ask Zeus to judge which of them truly is the fairest of all (none of them thinking to question where the prize apple came from). Zeus (who clearly hasn’t considered this, either) gives the job to Paris, Prince of Troy, a mortal known for his fairness. Each goddess attempts to bribe Paris: Hera by offering to make him king of Europe and Asia; Athena offering the gift of wisdom and skill in war; and Aphrodite by offering the world’s most beautiful woman, Helen of Sparta (who surely should therefore have been ‘the fairest’ and sent the golden apple). Paris is swayed by thoughts of beautiful Helen, so he accepts Aphrodite’s gift and awards her the apple. Unfortunately, Helen of Sparta is already the wife of the Greek King, Menelaus, so when she is abducted by Paris – making her Helen of Troy – King Menelaus’ expedition to regain her brings about the Trojan War. It doesn’t end well, so Eris gets her revenge.

Medusa

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The carved head of Medusa, with her open mouth, including tongue and teeth; her protruding chin; her eyes, including lids and pupils; her furrowed eyebrows and lined, frowning temple; her clearly defined cheekbones; and her head of writhing fork-tongued snakes, crawling up onto the lower pegbox with tails hanging down onto the back of the mandore’s neck and slithering over the side of the pegbox, is a work of astonishing skill and fine detail. One amusing feature not discernable in the photograph is that the placing of the first gut fret would necessarily have to be tied across the back of the neck between Medusa’s lower lip and her slightly protruding chin. The clever placing of this carved detail would mean the fret would be securely placed here.

According to Greek mythology, Medusa was one of three Gorgon sisters who were priestesses of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and crafts (she of the judgement of Paris). Medusa, the only sister to be mortal, was, according to Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, A.D. 8, “once most beautiful, and the jealous aspiration of many suitors. Of all her beauties none was more admired than her hair”. Her life changed forever when Poseidon, god of the sea, earthquakes, storms, and horses, raped her in the Athenian temple. (Poseidon also had his way with consenting Aphrodite, she also of the judgement of Paris, who was herself wildly promiscuous and manipulative.) As a result of Medusa being raped, the goddess Athena punished her for defiling her temple, a classic(al) case of blaming the victim. She even extended the punishment to Medusa’s sisters, blame by association, a vendetta or honour punishment. And Poseidon’s punishment? That didn’t occur to Athena: so much for being the goddess of wisdom. Athena punished Medusa by turning her beautiful hair into a lair of venomous snakes and ensured that no man would ever lust after her again: whoever looked upon Medusa would turn to stone.

King Polydectes later sent Perseus to slay Medusa, thinking he was sending him to his death, but the gods intervened with the means to slay her by decapitation: Athena (Minerva), who had originally cursed Medusa, lent a reflective bronze shield in which to see Medusa indirectly and thereby not be turned to stone; Hermes (Mercury) lent his flying winged sandals for an effective attack and escape, and a curved sword studded with diamonds to ensure effective decapitation; and Pluto (Hades or Dis Pater) lent a helmet of invisibility to hide himself. Even dead, Medusa’s removed head retained its cursed ability, so Perseus used it as a weapon until he gave it to Athena to place facing forwards on her breastplate.

Recount this story next time someone tries to talk to you about ‘ancient wisdom’ and ‘timeless values’. Fabulous carving, though!

A siren or a harpy?

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Boissart12It was common on mediaeval, renaissance and baroque stringed instruments for the tip of the pegbox to be decorated with a carved head. To add to the other extraordinary carving, here we have the head of a bird/woman hybrid, either a siren or a harpy. Draped down the back of the pegbox are long plumes of feathers, leading up to the head, on each side of which are circular scrolls decorated with feather motifs and partially covered with an eagle’s head facing forward. The main head has a clearly detailed chin, an open mouth half-transformed into a beak with feathers protruding downwards from each side, a nostrilled nose, clearly defined cheek bones, wide open eyes and an undulating furrowed brow. On each side, a long feather is drawing down and forwards from the top of the head, appearing to become a curly lock of hair as it ends.

In Greek mythology, there are between two and five sirens in different accounts. Various traditions give no account or different accounts of their lineage: some traditions have them as daughters of sea god Phorcys, who presides over the hidden dangers of the deep. Phorcys was also father of the Gorgons, one of whom, Medusa, is carved on the other end of the pegbox.

The sirens are nymphs, divine spirits who animate nature and are associated with a particular location, such as a wood or a stretch of water. They played with Persephone, goddess of springtime, vegetation, and maidenhood, who was the daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest. Persephone was abducted by Pluto, ruler of the underworld, in order to make her his queen. In one version of the story, the sirens were not able to protect Persephone, so Demeter gave them wings to look for her. In another version, the sirens did nothing to intervene, so Demeter cursed them, transforming them into half woman and half bird creatures.

Different renditions give different combinations of bird and woman. Early Greek art depicts sirens in the shape of birds, with bird feathers, scaly feet, and the large head of a woman. Later, they were women with the legs of birds, with or without wings, playing a variety of musical instruments, especially harps (which may be the reason for its presence on the mandore). The 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia, Suda, describes them as sparrows from the chest up and women below; or as little birds with women’s faces. They were famed for their beautiful singing voices, using their sad, enchanting songs to lure sailors to the island on which they lived to certain death. When Odysseus and his crew had to sail past their island, he had his crew stop up their ears with wax so they couldn’t hear and had himself strapped to the mast so that he may hear without bringing about his own doom. One story has the sirens challenging the muses, the goddesses of inspiration for literature, science, and the arts, to a singing competition. The muses won and, for their prize, they plucked out the sirens’ principal wing feathers and made crowns of them. Late classical depictions of sirens portray them with top half woman, bottom half fish, combining the physical form of the mermaid with the deadly singing of the siren.

Or this beautifully carved mandore head may be a harpy, another woman/bird hybrid. In Greek and Roman mythology, harpies were originally wind spirits. Their name means ‘snatchers’, as they are scavengers, stealing food from their victims while they eat (like seagulls – I speak from experience). Greek poet Hesiod wrote that there were two harpies, calling them “lovely-haired” creatures, which may account on the carved head for the curved feather appearing to turn into a lock of hair. In early art, harpies were beautiful women with wings; in later art, they were ugly, with Roman and Byzantine writers describing them as having the heads of maidens, long claws instead of hands, and faces pale with hunger.

An overall theme?

Is there an overall theme uniting all the carving? There are certainly connections:

  • Medusa was a priestess of Athena, who is central to the judgement of Paris;
  • Medusa was raped by Poseidon, who also had children with Aphrodite, winner of the competition in the judgement of Paris;
  • Pluto’s kidnap of Persephone was the reason for the sirens turning into woman/bird hybrids, and Pluto also lent Perseus a helmet of invisibility to kill Medusa;
  • the sirens were daughters of sea god Phorcys, who was also father of the Gorgons and therefore of Medusa.

This may be all that ties them together; or there is the potential theme of the dangers of hubris, narcissism, self-righteousness, present at every step in the stories depicted: three goddesses vie to be chosen the fairest … which leads to kidnap of another mans’ wife and to war … Poseidon rapes Medusa … so Medusa the victim is punished by Athena who can’t see beyond her own importance …Pluto abducts Persephone to be his unwilling wife … which leads to the vengeful curse on the sirens.

But this may be trying to read too much into the design. The person who commissioned it or the artisan who made it – and we don’t have any information on who it was – may or may not have had a unifying theme in mind, but the player was most certainly a person of money to be able to afford such a beautiful musical artefact.

Mandore mysteries

Boissart17So we move to the front of the mandore, very plain in comparison to the back: a spruce soundboard with a carved rose; and a bridge, soundboard edging and fingerboard veneer made of ebony. Here we have a host of mysteries, pointing to a story in need of piecing together.

First, one incontrovertible fact. The 7 tuning pegs and their holes on the pegbox are uniform and clearly original. We have 6 pegs extant and 1 missing. But the holes in the bridge and the grooves in the nut are for 5 single strings. We are looking at an instrument that has been modified to reduce the number of strings by replacing the bridge and the nut.

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Above the end-scrolls on the bridge are marks on the soundboard that indicate the removal of a previous bridge with significantly larger scrolls. Since we know from the pegbox that the current bridge must be a replacement, these marks indicate the size and shape of the scrolls on the previous bridge.

Boissart14A close look at the rose raises an obvious question: why is the rose so plain, so unskilled and rough compared to the glorious carving on the back? Can the same person who created the judgement of Paris, Medusa and the siren/harpy really have made such a rough-hewn rose with knife cuts, used as markers for creating the rose, visible beyond their intended point on the design? Luthiers today tend to be sole artisans, whereas renaissance and baroque makers tended to work in teams, so it would be understandable for the carving specialist to work on the back and the soundboard rose specialist to work on the front. But the comparative level of skill is so mismatched that I find it impossible to believe that a single workshop would allow it.

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Just about visible in the above photograph (click to enlarge) and easier to notice in person is the uneven width of ebony edging around the soundboard, viewed from the top. It is also uneven in depth, viewed from the side: in some places a sliver of the soundboard is visible between the edging and the body, but in other places the edging hides the soundboard entirely, as it should. This means that the rebate for the edging was roughly cut, clearly not a task undertaken by someone with the patience and skill of the carver.

Near the nut on the ebony fingerboard is a line indicating that the veneer is not of one piece. This may be understandable on a large instrument, but why would a maker of such a tiny instrument, with a back showing such astonishing skill, be so stingy with materials and show such apparent disregard for its appearance?

The fingerboard also has some scratches marked on at five points – one of these marks is clearly meant in place of the one next to it. What are these scratches for? Did the restorer mark the points at which frets would be tied? It is difficult to imagine any other reason for marking a fingerboard. But, if so, then this demonstrates the restorer’s incompetence. Fret placing obviously has to be accurate, and the two adjacent scratches demonstrate careless inaccuracy. More seriously than that, in any possible temperament, all of the scratches are in the wrong place for frets and even show the wrong number of frets. Why would this happen?

Boissart15Further inspection of the ebony edging reveals another detail with clues about the history of this instrument. There are two slim ebony points set into the soundboard to continue the line of the neck, and both have cracks right through them. This may indicate that the current soundboard has, at some point, been removed and replaced without due care, causing stress where the soundboard meets the neck, resulting in these two cracks.

There is one remaining puzzle. Luthiers of instruments of this kind will affix a label on the inside of the bowl before gluing on the soundboard, so placed that it can be read by looking carefully through the rose. It will generally include the maker’s name, the town or city and the year of completion. Inside the Boissart mandore there is nothing. In the 19th century, this instrument was thought by the V&A to date to c. 1570 on the basis of the style of carving (more of which below). The V&A’s records state that some time between 1966 and 1968 an inscription in ink was noticed on the side of the instrument: “BOISSART 1640”. Neither Paul nor I could see this on the day we viewed. We looked again at the photographs. We still couldn’t see it. A few days later I emailed Hanne Faurby, assistant curator, to have another look. She couldn’t see it. She asked conservator Nigel Bamforth to look. He couldn’t see it. Nigel asked a colleague to look, who also couldn’t see it. Where has it gone? Curious, too, that the V&A states, “It is dated 1640 and signed by Boissart, an otherwise unknown but highly skilled maker” said to have worked in Paris, presumably on the basis of the carving style (again, see below): how could a maker of such skill be so completely obscure? Would he really neglect to place his label inside his instrument?

Possible answers

I have to agree with Paul Baker that the soundboard is not original due to the relative lack of skill of its maker. I also assume that the mandore originally had a maker’s label, since I know of no examples of lutes where the maker inscribed their name on the outside rather than placing a label inside. If Boissart was the original maker of the whole mandore, there is no reason why his signature would have been inked so obscurely on the outside with no label inside. If, for some reason, the label had been lost when the soundboard was replaced, Boissart would have taken that opportunity to affix a replacement label. I therefore have to conclude that Boissart was not the original maker, but someone who did some restoration or remedial work.

In email correspondence, Peter Forrester “agreed about lute labels but I do know of two citterns, and perhaps another, where the maker’s name is inscribed on the inside of the cut-away neck next to the body.” One such is in the V&A, an Italian cittern made in 1582, which has the name of the maker, city and year in Romanesque script on the side of the neck facing the player: “Augustinus Citaroedus Urbino MDLXXXII”. Another curious and perhaps telling example is also in the V&A, a German bell cittern bearing the name Joachim Tielke of Hamburg, also on the edge of the neck facing the player. This highly ornate instrument was made by probably the greatest luthier in Germany in his lifetime. Tielke lived from 1641 to 1719, yet the cittern clearly bears the date 1539, 102 years before his birth. Why would the maker, or a later inscriber, include a date which is clearly forged? Peter Forrester explained that “a ‘significant’ restorer would usually place his label inside (sometimes over the original!). There are plenty of examples in lutes.” But in this case, it cannot even be said to have been Tielke giving himself credit for improving or restoring an older instrument, as the earliest known bell cittern (cithrinchen) was made by Tielke himself and dated 1676. The instrument in question cannot therefore have been made in 1539 and, in any case, one would expect the restorer to give the year of their own restoration. We know that skilled musicians tended to prefer older, seasoned, played-in instruments to new ones: was this a case of Tielke or a later owner forging a date to make the instrument appear older?

It’s curious, but the issue of dating on labels and inscriptions does perhaps cast light on the Boissart mandore. In the cases of the above citterns, the makers’ inscriptions on the neck are large, visible and relatively ornate: in other words, the maker (or, in the case of the Tielke cittern, possibly the faker) wanted to make a show of it, to make it obvious. This is a clear motivation for a maker of repute to take the unusual step of more visible inscribing rather than internal paper labelling. So whatever the fate of the original label, “BOISSART 1640” in tiny ink on the side of the body doesn’t fit what one would expect a maker to do.

Stephen Morey, in his Mandolins of the 18th century (Editrice Turris, 1993), states that the date is uncertain and could be 1610. The writing must have been very small indeed, or very faded, or both, since it took V&A staff from its acquisition in 1866 until 1966-68 to find it – a whole century – and no one can find it now. Peter Forrester explains, “Most inks fade with time. Ink on something exposed to light – an instrument for example – will fade much more quickly than a page of manuscript kept covered as part of a book. UV light shows up some faded inks.” This would explain why it took a century after acquisition to spot perhaps badly faded ink in very small and difficult to read writing, and why five people nearly half a century after that could see nothing, despite our best efforts. I wonder what we’d see if the V&A put the mandore under UV light?

The idea that 1640 is not the original date of manufacture does seem to fit all of the facts, and indeed was the V&A’s first estimation. In the 19th century it was dated to c. 1570 on the basis of its carving in the manner of the First School of Fontainebleau, a movement of largely imported Italian and some French artists working in the royal Chateau of Fontainebleau, 40 miles southeast of Paris, the primary royal residence of Francis I, the French King. Their art in painting, engraving, sculpture and architecture was characterised, as we see on this mandore, by renaissance decorative motifs such as grotesques (Medusa and the siren or harpy), strapwork (curling strips or bands, often interwoven in a geometric pattern, such as carved around the edge of the back and surrounding the judgement of Paris) and putti (depictions of a chubby male child, usually nude and sometimes winged, as we see with the insertion of Eros/Cupid into the judgement of Paris), plus a degree of eroticism (the naked figures of three goddesses). The Fontainebleau artists were not known for being instrument makers, so it is highly likely that this mandore was made ‘in the style of’ rather than by one of the school’s famous practitioners; though it is possible that a luthier made the basic bowl then subcontracted the carving to a member of the Fontainebleau school.

While it is true, as Peter Forrester pointed out, that some craftsmen lagged behind current fashions, the V&A’s statement, post-ink-inscription-discovery, that the instrument “provides a striking example of the survival of mannerist themes in the Fontainebleau style well into the 17th century” is unnecessary and anachronistic if the 1640 date refers to restoration work. The earlier date would also provide a neater time-line for the mandore, not only to coincide with the Fontainebleau school, but also because by 1640 the gittern-style carved mandore was outdated: all other surviving examples by then, as well as those depicted in paintings, were in the multi-ribbed lute style.

And so to the contradiction between the 7 string pegbox and the 5 string nut and bridge. Potentially the original 7 strings could have been in a configuration of 4 courses (3 doubles, single top) tuned in fourths and fifths, or perhaps 5 courses in fourths and fifths or in lute tuning (1, 2 & 3 single, 4 & 5 double). Given the very tight string spacing on such a tiny instrument, Peter Forrester thinks 4 courses more likely.

Mandores in period drawings, surviving instruments and mandore manuscripts confirm the 4 course arrangement and the later conversion to 5 single strings to keep up with musical trends. A mandore by Wendelin Tieffenbrucker (who changed his name to Vendelio Venere for the Italian market), who has instruments surviving from the 1580s and 90s, made a 7 string mandore consisting of 4 courses with a single top. A mandore from c. 1600 marked “W.E.”, probably Wendelin Eberl, is strung the same. The drawing in François de Chancy’s Tablature de Mandore, 1629, has 4 single strings, as does that in Marin Mersenne’s Harmonie Universelle, 1636. The mandore manuscripts of D-Us 132 (Kapsel), 1625-1630; Smr Misc. 133b, 1625-1630; Skene, 1625-1635; and D-Us 132 (Tresor), 1626; all require 5 single strings.

Paul Baker summarises it like this: “So it looks as if we have a general picture of double-strung 4 course mandores up to about 1600, and single-strung 4 and 5 course by about 1630, with most of the manuscripts specifying 5 courses.”

So it is certain that this mandore was given a new bridge and nut for 5 single strings to keep up with current trends and, judging by the dates above, 1640 is a very good candidate for this conversion (and not the earlier 1610, as Stephen Morey thought the difficult-to-read ink might say).

There is no necessity to make a whole soundboard for the stringing conversion, only to make a new nut and bridge. But the only credible explanation for the huge skill differential between back and front and the poor quality of ebony edging is that at some point a new soundboard was made and fitted.

Peter Forrester: “I’d agree that the bridge is a replacement, and very likely the soundboard. The uneven ebony edging should really indicate alteration rather than replacement. The rebate for this is made by running a special knife around the edge of the fitted soundboard which gives a gauged width so, when new, the edging will have just one width all the way round. If the soundboard is taken off – loose bars, shrinkage, etc. – it may well not fit again exactly, so that trimming will be necessary which will remove width from the edging. Unless of course, luck gives an exact fit (sometimes!), or a new rebate is made for replacement edging, which is extra and tricky work. Of course a replacement soundboard may also need removing and replacing. In my own experience with carved citterns, etc., shrinkage of the back is more likely to give problems than shrinkage of the front.”

So Peter suggests it is possible that a new soundboard was fitted properly, removed, then refitted unevenly due to the natural movements of the wood over time, making it not a good fit the second time.

Paul Baker agrees – and also offers a more prosaic explanation: “Peter may be right about the soundboard being removed and not replaced accurately, resulting in variable width edging. Or maybe the repairer just cut the rebate by eye with a knife rather than a cutting gauge, possibly using his finger as a guide. Chop it out pronto, glue in the edging, and trim it off where it protrudes when the glue’s dry. So it needn’t imply a badly refitted soundboard, just sloppy workmanship, as on the rose.”

And so to other possibly sloppy workmanship: the shape of the marks on the soundboard above the bridge, indicating that a bridge with larger scrolls was there previously. If we assume this was the bridge for 7 strings in 4 courses, the new soundboard must have been made and fitted before the conversion to 5 strings, meaning that this mandore went through two stages of modification, firstly to replace a damaged soundboard, secondly to convert the stringing arrangement.

Summary conclusion

So we return to the question, ‘Why, if Boissart took the soundboard off, didn’t he attach his own restorer’s label? Why would he pen a nondescript attribution on the side?’ At this point in the mystery, I think asking this question makes it all clear.

This instrument began as a 4 course mandore, being a single top string and 3 doubles, 7 strings in all, as evidenced by 7 pegs and the available string spacing. It originally had a different soundboard, nut and bridge in keeping with the stunning carving and the number of pegs. The evidence of the carving points to its original lutherie being c. 1570 in France in the style of the First School of Fontainebleau. It was clearly made for someone for whom money was not a problem.

We need an event that both ruined the original soundboard and removed the original maker’s label. Paul suggests a disastrous spillage of wine, irrevocably staining the soundboard and falling through to soak the label, rendering it unreadable. Thus both were removed. Who wants a stained soundboard and a horrible stained label you can’t even read to ruin the look of your beautiful instrument?

The roughly carved rose on the soundboard is at variance with the exquisitely skilled carving, so we see not only the work of two different artisans of two very different levels of skill but also at two different times. It may well be that, by the time a new soundboard was made and fitted, the mandore was in different hands – a family heirloom, perhaps. It appears that the new owner just didn’t have the money to give it the restoration it deserved, so the new soundboard was done on the cheap.

So why didn’t Boissart, if he made or refitted the new soundboard, glue in his own label? It may have been out of reverence for the original maker, so he inked his name on the side instead. It seems more likely that Boissart never did take the soundboard off: he wasn’t the original maker, nor the maker and fitter of the new soundboard, nor the remover and refitter of the new soundboard (if that happened), but the man who replaced the bridge and nut in 1640, converting it from 4 courses to 5 strings. Not being required to have access to the inside, he inked his converter’s name on the outside instead.

Thus I propose that the original dating and the later dating by the V&A are both correct. Circa 1570 is the right approximate date for the beautiful carving in the manner of the then contemporaneous First School of Fontainebleau; but this artistic school was not contemporaneous with “BOISSART 1640”: this was inked on the side when Monsieur Boissart made the conversion, making and fitting the new bridge and nut to suit the new trend in mandore playing.

It may have been that, either after the accident that removed the original soundboard and label, or after the conversion to 5 strings, the new soundboard needed removing, most likely due to a loose rattling bar on the inside. Having done the internal remedial work, our nameless restorer, neither the original maker nor the course converter Monsieur Boissart, had problems placing the soundboard back neatly, resulting in uneven ebony edging and perhaps repair marks on the ebony points that lead from the neck joint. This could have been made good by paying a higher price for a more experienced and reputable restorer, but that didn’t happen, indicating someone on a budget, a job paid for by someone without the financial means of the original owner.

So, finally, to bring these threads together, here are four speculative stories that appear to fit the facts – the spectacular carved body, the inferior soundboard, the marks near the bridge, the uneven ebony edging, the lack of a maker’s label, the name and date inked on the outside not on an inside label. I’ve placed them in order of credibility, what I take to be least credible first …

Story 1

The mandore was made in 1640 in an old-fashioned carving style and with the old-fashioned 4 courses rather than the now in vogue 5 strings. We have the original spectacular back and the original disappointingly inferior soundboard and edging, made by two different people of hugely differing skill in the workshop of the otherwise completely unheard of Boissart. Boissart either didn’t notice on this occasion or didn’t mind that an unsupervised apprentice was working on the same instrument as one of the best carvers ever to grace anyone’s workshop. Monsieur Boissart, alone of all makers, wrote his name in ink on the body of his instruments rather than use the almost entirely ubiquitous makers’ labels or the rarely used decorative inscription on the neck. It was, at some later date than 1640, converted from 4 courses to 5 single strings, once again lagging behind current musical trends.

Story 2

The mandore was commissioned in 1640, to be made by a luthier who really wasn’t up to the job. Knowing he couldn’t cut the mustard and do the job the player ordered, he roughed out the bowl to the correct shape and then subcontracted the carving to someone who worked in the old-fashioned style of The First School of Fontainebleau. Being a sloppy worker, as evidenced by the standard of the soundboard, fingerboard and edging, and the scratches on the fingerboard indicating frets in the wrong place, the luthier forgot to put his label in and so inked it on the side instead. At a later date, the player wanted a conversion from 4 courses to 5 strings. True to form, he didn’t take proper measurements and made a new bridge smaller than the one he replaced, leaving marks where the old bridge scrolls had been.

Story 3

In Paul’s words: “A magnificent heirloom from c. 1570, old-fashioned now, but still occasionally played, suffers a spilled wine accident. Let’s say c. 1630. The current owners don’t have the money (or inclination) to restore it properly, so they consult a jobbing luthier who will get it running again on the cheap. He removes the ruined soundboard, takes out the wine-soaked label, possibly scrapes the inside a bit to clean it, makes and fits a new soundboard, shoves some edging on (quickly and roughly, like the rose, because he’s on a restricted budget) and possibly puts the original bridge back. And probably just forgets to stick his own label in, or doesn’t bother because it’s a cheap job and he doesn’t want to be associated with it. Now we have a roughly mended but serviceable 4 course mandore. A few years later, no-one’s playing a 4 course, so it’s taken to the same luthier, or another one, and converted to a 5 course, single strung instrument. That’s just a new bridge and nut. Two cheap jobs, either or both performed by the mysterious M. Boissart in 1640.” In this case, it may be that the scratches on the ebony fingerboard indicate, not wrongly placed frets, but a leftover piece of wood from another job where those scratches made sense. This would fit in with it being a quick, cheap repair. Peter adds that “M. Boissart could be a talented amateur carver: there were many aristocrats who dabbled in arts and crafts.” So Boissart may have been a dabbler, fixing a broken instrument on the cheap, or for a friend, or possibly for himself.

Story 4

The 7 string, 4 course mandore was made in c. 1570 by someone in, near or heavily influenced by the First School of Fontainebleau, with a different soundboard, fingerboard, nut and bridge to the ones we see now, in keeping with the back. It was originally owned by a lover of music who didn’t have to think about money but, on the owner’s infirmity or death, it passed into the hands of someone who did, probably a relative. At some point after the original owner had stopped playing it, or after the inheritor had received it, some terrible accident ruined the soundboard, the fingerboard veneer and the maker’s label. By now, 4 courses were out of date, so the new owner, loving his inherited instrument, longing to play it but strapped for cash, had a new soundboard and fingerboard fitted, together with a new nut and bridge to accommodate 5 single strings. Because it was done on the cheap and the repairer was not an instrument restorer, the repairer’s basic skills didn’t stretch to putting frets in the right place, one explanation for the incorrectly placed scratches on the fingerboard; and neither did his skills stretch to the idea of making a new bridge the same size as the old one, so leaving marks where the old bridge’s larger scrolls had been. Not only that, the damaged ebony points on the soundboard show the restorer’s slapdash methods and the size and shape of the ebony he had left for the fingerboard meant he fitted it in two pieces – he wouldn’t ordinarily use ebony veneer in his line of work so he wasn’t going to bother to buy any more. Thus we have an alternative explanation for the scratches on the fingerboard: he used two pieces of ebony left over from another job, the larger of which had scratches that made sense on the job it was left over from. Not being a luthier (perhaps being Peter Forrester’s aristocratic dabbler), the person who did this work didn’t fit a label, instead he signed “BOISSART 1640” in tiny ink on the side.

Thank you

Picking up clues to piece together the life of a single instrument has been an absorbing and fascinating journey. I owe a debt in this article for the generous time-giving of Hanne Faurby, assistant curator in the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department, and Nigel Bamforth, furniture and instrument preserver, both at the V&A; for the fascinating conversations and ruminations I’ve had in person and online with luthier Paul Baker and online with luthier Peter Forrester, particularly for their pushing me to think further and questioning some of my assumptions. If any erroneous conclusions remain they are entirely my own. If you think that’s the case, I’d be pleased to receive your discussions or corrections.

So the next step is to have Paul Baker make me a mandore, not an exact copy of Boissart, but the same size and dimensions, with a design based on chosen elements of it. That requires an altogether different article. We’re photographing every stage.

“Boissart” mandore measurements by Paul Baker (all in mm)

Total length 420
Body length 210
Maximum body depth (soundboard surface to deepest point on back carving) 39
Width 120 maximum
String length (measured between nut and front of bridge) 281
Neck width at nut 36
Nut width 37
String band at nut (between centres of highest and lowest strings) 29
Neck width at body joint 46 (body joint taken as 110 mm from the nut – there is no actual joint, as the body is carved from one piece)
Tail to front of bridge 45
Bridge overall width 89
String band at bridge 46 (between centres of highest and lowest strings)
Bridge centre section width 58
Bridge depth 12.5 (no visible treble-bass taper)
Bridge height 5.5 (no visible treble-bass taper)
String height above soundboard at bridge 3.5 (no visible treble-bass taper)
Rose diameter (pierced area only) 45
Rose diameter (including carved edge) 47
Tail to rose centre 130
Soundboard thickness 1.5 or less (visual estimate)
Ebony edging on soundboard 1.5 wide (visual estimate)

June 2015

 

Postscript.

Over the months since this article first went online, I’ve had several very interesting and entertaining conversations with Québécois luthier François Beauchemin, who has unearthed the following reference in Die Geigen und Lautenmacher vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart (The violin and lute makers from the Middle Ages to the present) by Willibald Leo von Lütgendorff (a.k.a. Lütgendorff-Leinburg), first published in Frankfurt in 1904, p. 50:

Boissart – Paris, 1606
Lauten- und Geigenmacher, von dem nur wenig mehr als der Name erhalten.

Boissart – Paris, 1606
Lute and violin maker, of which not much is known beside the name.

François Beauchemin points out that von Lütgendorff’s book of 1904 is 63 years or so before the “BOISSART 1640” signature was found on the V&A mandore; and that 1606 is close enough to 1640 for this to be the very same Boissart, especially as in both cases the name is associated with Paris.

This is intriguing but, like the inscription on the mandore, tantalisingly vague. It raises the following questions: If this is the same luthier, and thus he worked for at least 34 years, why has he left so little trace behind? From where did von Lütgendorff take his reference? There is no image of a maker’s signature or label from Boissart in his book.

I suggest this may confirm the central thesis of my research. Since we know of no other luthier by the name of Boissart and both references are well within the same lifetime, this increases the chances of it being the same person. Von Lütgendorff’s Boissart is associated with Paris and our mandore repairer Boissart has a once-removed association with Paris through working on the instrument carved in the style of the First School of Fontainebleau, located 40 miles southeast of Paris. Perhaps the fact that we can only find two vague references to Boissart – one on the mandore and one from who knows where, referenced by von Lütgendorff – confirms the idea that he was a small-time maker who made little impression because he wasn’t very good, as we see on the repair job for the otherwise glorious ‘Boissart mandore’; and additionally perhaps because it wasn’t his main business, possibly an adequate but not very talented dabbler.

With my grateful thanks to François Beauchemin.

September 2015