The American Musical Instrument Society (AMIS) promotes better understanding of all aspects of the history, design, construction, restoration, and usage of musical instruments in all cultures and from all periods. In June 2022, their annual meeting was held at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.
Italian Non-sounding Musical Instruments in the Age of the Marvelous: Functional Objects Without Function
Arianna Rigamonti is a PhD candidate in Music and Material Culture at the Royal College of Music, London, as a London Arts and Humanities Partnership (LAHP) Doctoral Studentship Holder. She completed two internships, at St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh, and at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. She holds a master’s degree in musicology from the Department of Musicology and Cultural Heritage of the University of Pavia and a violin diploma from the Donizetti Conservatory of Bergamo.
Why build a musical instrument that could not make any sound? Why wear a sumptuous and uncomfortable gown with many voluminous layers? Why own a treasured sword with no purpose of using it? The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have been often described as the “age of the marvelous” for the extraordinary interest in the aesthetic of wonder, which emerged in literature, figurative arts, artifacts, and music. During this age, eliciting surprise became a primary aim, sometimes obtained through objects that had renounced their original function. This paper looks at Italian marvelous musical instruments—or their iconographic representations—from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that could not make any sound. Their acoustical function was set aside in favor of their extraordinary manufacture, the preciousness of their materials, or their appearance. Musical instruments made of marble, tortoiseshell, gold, or with surprising shapes were exhibited in cabinets of curiosities or portrayed in allegorical depictions. They represented symbolic objects of marvel rather than tools to make music. For their visual attractiveness, such instruments have been retaining their places for centuries in museums and have attracted the attention of scholars who have studied their manufacture and technical features. Yet no research has ever assessed the comprehensive phenomenon of non-sounding musical instruments within their cultural context. Looking at other objects or tools that were built in the shape of functional items, such as cloths, pieces of furniture and weapons, the proposed paper aims to discuss the significance of musical instruments that could not be played. Through the evaluation of silent instruments within their cultural context, this study will shed more light on the understanding of the aesthetic of marvel in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy.