The conservation of the 1690 ‘spinetta ovale’ by Bartolomeo Cristofori - an approach based on an archaeological analogy


Grant O’Brien


            There seems little need here to beat around the bush and so I would like to make my position perfectly clear from the outset.  The reasons for making the stand I have taken are based on many years of experience in this field, and this experience is based both on a theoretical point of view as well as on a practical, grass-roots, getting-my-hands-dirty practice. For this particular instrument I feel that absolutely no restoration, conservation nor consolidation work should be done on it.  I feel it should not be cleaned, and not even dusted off.  It should be left exactly like it is and not touched further in any way.  There is no deterioration of any part of the fabric of the instrument, so there is no need for any intervention at all.  This might seem an extreme position to take so I want to explain why I have taken this, to many, radical point of view.


Oval virginal by Bartolomeo Cristofori, Florence, 1690

Bardini Collection, Accademia delle belle Arte, Florence


            In my opinion this instrument is special in a number of different ways, and these are listed below in order to explain why this particular instrument should be given special consideration, and why I feel obliged to take this stand.

1.  This instrument was made by Bartolomeo Cristofori.  The workmanship and inventiveness displayed by the instruments of Cristofori are of the highest order and his genius has probably never been surpassed by any other keyboard maker of the historical period.  Cristofori is generally best known for his invention of the forerunner of the modern piano.  In 1700 it was described in the archives asUn Arpicembalo di Bartolomeo Cristofori, di nuova inventione, che fa il piano e il forte, a due registri principali unisoni[1].  The primary feature of this ‘new invention’ was not that it used mechanised hammers to strike the string, an idea that had been tried before, but that it used an escapement mechanism which released the hammer from the player’s control just at the point where the hammer struck the strings.  It was an innovation of sheer brilliance.  But it is not just the theoretical design of this new mechanism that is exceptional.  The execution of the invention was also carried out with accomplished expertise and consummate skill.  In addition to this highly-developed hammer escapement mechanism, his surviving fortepianos display many other features found in pianos from a period much later than Cristofori’s, and in some cases not surpassed for at least 120 years.  Both from the point of view of the design and of the execution of the design these pianos are of virtuosic genius.

However even without the invention of the escapement mechanism, Cristofori would still be known as a maker of stature and historical importance.  The surviving examples of his harpsichords, virginals and pianos are all of unusual design and execution.  He invented the spinettone[2] and designed the oval virginal[3] under discussion here.  Both of these are also of Cristofori’s creation and are designed and executed with consummate skill.  As an example of these, take the virginal or ‘spinetta ovale’ being discussed here as a case in point.  This instrument is remarkable in a number of different ways.  Firstly it has a disposition with 2 sets of 8' strings, unlike most virginals which have only one set of strings.  Indeed virginals having 2 sets of 8' strings have been known at least since 1594[4] so that, although they are rare, virginals with more than one set of strings have been known throughout the historical period of early keyboard instrument making.  The unusual layout and shape of this virginal are immediately obvious.  The design requires that the strings of alternate notes be placed first on one side of the case and then on the other.  This alternation between the short strings placed at the sides of the case with the long strings placed centrally gives rise to the unusual shape of the instrument.  The graph of the string scalings of this instrument are shown below in Figure 1 and illustrate two important features.  Firstly it demonstrates that Cristofori manages to carry out the design of the instrument such that the scalings are Pythagorean in the treble (that is that they double in length with each octave drop in pitch and so they therefore follow a straight line on this semi-logarithmic graph).  Secondly it shows that, although the strings alternate in position from one bridge one side of the instrument to a second bridge on the other, the points indicating the string lengths on this graph are as accurate as if they were all placed on a single bridge with a smooth shape.

This is but one example of the skill of the person who made this instrument.  Among Italian keyboard makers I place Cristofori shoulder to shoulder with Antonio Stradivarius who was his exact contemporary[5].  We must treat Cristofori’s instruments with the same respect and admiration that we would treat an instrument by Stradivarius. 


Graph of the string scalings of the Cristofori oval virginal

Figure 1 - The scalings of both the short and long strings

‘Spinetta ovale’, Bartolomeo Cristofori, Florence, 1690

Collezione di Strumenti Musicali, Galleria dell’Accademia delle Belle Arte, Florence


2.  Unlike most instruments which have survived a period of 300 years since they were built, this instrument has a direct and unambiguous link with the historical archives.  This has been discussed thoroughly by Giuliana Montanari[6].  There is only a small handful of surviving instruments which have any connection with the surviving archives, and for which we know details of the maker, the cost of the various aspects of the labour and materials of its construction, its first owner, as well as the political and cultural position of the builder and first owner.

3. No instruments are known to have survived from Cristofori’s activity in Padova.  This instrument is therefore the oldest surviving instrument by Cristofori, and probably the first instrument that he made for the Medici court.  Therefore among the surviving works of Cristofori, this instrument occupies a unique position.

4. Among surviving instruments known to me, this virginal is also unique in not having been touched for at least one hundred years while it remained unknown and uncared for in the Palazzo Bardini in Florence.  I can think of no other instrument which has had a similar history and which has been discovered in the recent past.  At the end of my book on Ruckers[7] I point out the importance of such untouched and unrestored instruments: 

"Having assembled the material for this book one thing now stands out very clearly to me.  It has been the unrestored instruments, the neglected instruments and the unaltered instruments that have been the most important sources of information and discovery.  . . . "

An instrument like this virginal which has not been touched for such a long period of time is therefore a potential source of information which has been lost on other instruments which have been restored and altered in modern times.


            Thus given the historical importance of the maker and the instrument, the links between this instrument and the archives, and the fact that the instrument has not been touched for a very long time, it is this last point that leads me to say:  “Leave this instrument completely alone.  Don’t clean it.  Don’t consolidate it.  Do not touch it further.  Conserve it as it is making sure that any parts liable to detachment are not subjected to danger, and that any parts already detached or that have come unglued are not lost in the future[8]”.


            I would draw the attention of the reader to the Appendix at the end of this paper[9].  This is a résumé of the results of some major conventions and meetings of restorers, conservationists, and archaeologists.  It is a kind of concise recent history of the philosophy of conservation and restoration.  Even in this abbreviated form the change in emphasis and priorities is quite clear.  In particular I would like to draw attention to point 3, the UNESCO Recommendations on International Principles Applicable on Archaeological Excavations published in 1956.  Here attention is drawn towards “maintaining untouched, partially or totally, a certain number of archaeological sites of different periods in order that their excavation can benefit from improved techniques and more advanced archaeological knowledge”.  In other words it is necessary to leave certain archaeological sites untouched to await future technological advances in the methods of archaeological excavation and in archaeological knowledge. 


            This is a principle that has been followed in the field of archaeology since 1956 - now almost 50 years ago.  It is a principle of which even the layman who is not an archaeologist is currently being made aware.  I saw a BBC television programme recently on the excavations of an archaeological site in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt - the famous tomb KV5.  Evidence of this tomb had been lost since the early nineteenth century until it was re-discovered by some clever detective work by Kent Weeks.  During the course of the programme this principle was made perfectly clear.  The site is that of the tombs of more than 100 of the children of Ramases II[10] the pharaoh who is recorded in the Bible as having enslaved the Israelites at the time of Moses.  Although a number of the tombs was excavated, many more were left untouched to be excavated in the future when technologies and knowledge have improved.  The temptation to excavate the whole site was avoided, perhaps by-passing a tomb containing untold riches in the process, in order to leave something totally untouched for future scholars and researchers, and for future developments in understanding, techniques and technology.


            I am astounded that this principle has been followed by archaeologists for almost 50 years, but has not even been considered or discussed in the field of the conservation of musical instruments.  Why has it taken us so long to realise the validity of this principle and the necessity to apply it to our own field?  Why have we watched so much information about the instruments which we are so keen to ‘conserve’ disappear during routine conservation and restoration procedures?  In my opinion we must begin to leave some musical instruments which are in a wholly or partly unaltered condition as study objects for musicologists and organologists of the future.  If not, nothing that has not been altered in some way is going to be left for future research.  We have been restoring instrument at an incredible rate in the recent past.  In doing so we have learned a lot both about historical musical practice and about restoration procedures.  But as a restorer myself I can also say that a large amount of information has been destroyed in the process.  Although we might attempt to follow the principle of reversibility which was so popular only a few years ago, in fact nothing that we do is totally reversible.  Every single operation carried out by a conservator or restorer alters the object permanently and irreversibly in some way.  This means of course that we need agreement between individual museums about which instruments in their respective collections are worthy of this special treatment (in fact, lack of treatment).  This would require international agreement in order to be most effective, but even agreement within individual institutions would be very valuable.  It is up to us to take this global view and in particular it is a role in which I feel CIMCIM[11] should take a leading position. 


            I feel that we should do as the archaeologists and leave the 1690 virginal by Cristofori to be ‘excavated’ at some point in the future.  The educational possibilities of taking this point of view are impressive.  A display devoted to the instrument, to its history, to the importance of its maker, and to its connections with the Medici archives could make an interesting and educational exhibition.  The reasons for leaving it untouched according to the archaeological conventions summarised here could be included as part of the exhibition, along with some of the results of the research that has already been carried out on the instrument.  The latter might include the drawing made of the instrument, the analysis of the materials, the design based on the Florentine soldo, the results of the archival research, etc.  These would all help the layman to understand the exceptional position of this instrument in the field of organology in particular and in Western cultural history generally.  All of this set off by the copy made by Kerstin Schwarz and Tony Chinnery and the reasons for making the copy would make a presentation of significant educational importance and benefit to the layman and the expert alike.  An exhibition taking such an enlightened position could stand as a leading light to other similar institutions. 


            In conclusion, I revert to my statement given above that “It has been the unrestored instruments, the neglected instruments and the unaltered instruments that have been the most important sources of information and discovery” which I made at the end of my work on Ruckers.  Un-stated here is the fact that the restored and playing instruments, with new cloths in their keyboards, with replaced quills and jacks, with new stringing replacing earlier strings, with varnished soundboards where the originals were left untreated, and with any number of other modern interventions, were of little use in understanding the original state and the original technologies of the Ruckers.  As soon as an unglued joint is repaired the original method used to glue that joint becomes obliterated.  As soon as the cloths in the keyboards of an instrument are replaced the original depth of touch, plucking order and the lost motion before and after the jacks have plucked are all lost.  These are all among the many important variables which affect the playing properties of an instrument in a way which is very important to the player and therefore very important to the way in which the music is interpreted by him or her.  There are other features like quill length, plucking direction, and plucking order that are all too easily altered in a restoration or conservation procedure, and it is often very difficult to re-determine what these were after the intrusion of the modern conservationist or restorer has taken place.  And this applies equally well to the acoustical parts of the instrument which affect the sound, the property often given the greatest importance by the player and listener of the music being performed.  The use of solvents to clean a painted or varnished soundboard has not been investigated scientifically, and yet liquids which almost certainly affect the acoustical properties of the wood are used for this purpose.  Soundboard cracks are re-glued and reinforced underneath, soundbars are replaced, re-glued or added, or sometimes soundboards are removed entirely to gain access to the inside of the instrument.  All of these procedures are carried out routinely without any scientific knowledge of how these procedures affect the sound.


            Having spent many years studying the instruments of the Ruckers family, and more recently studying the instruments of the Italian school, these are facts that have become abundantly clear to me.  In order to leave something for our successors who wish to do similar investigations, we must now halt the tide of restoring and conserving everything in sight and leave some examples of unaltered instruments for study in the future.  The questions that I now ask about an instrument are different from those that I would have asked 30 years ago.  The measurements that I take when I study an instrument now are different from those that I once took.  How can we know now what questions we will be asking in another 30 years, and how can we be confident that our interventions now will not destroy the evidence needed to answer the questions that will be posed in the future?  To me the answer is blatantly obvious:  with objects as complicated as musical instruments, the only way we can be certain of this is to leave a certain small number of instruments totally untouched, unaltered and not subject to any conservation treatment.  I therefore feel that, as forward-looking organologists, we must apply the same principles to our own field as archaeologists have applied to theirs for almost 50 years.  Where better to begin than with this virginal, the so-called ‘spinetta ovale’, of Cristofori?  Let’s learn from the experience of the archaeologists.  Let’s leave this instrument completely untouched without making any intervention to it of any sort.  Its historical, cultural, technological and musical importance all point to this being the only route forward.


- Dr Grant O’Brien

- This text was delivered at a conference about the future restoration and conservation of the 'oval spinet' at the Accademia delle Belle Arte, Florence, 21  October, 2002.  It was received with a resounding standing applause.  The paper was not, however, published in the proceedings of the conference about this virginal:  Bartolomeo Cristofori.  La spinetta[sic] del 1690/The 1690 oval spinet[sic], edited by Gabriele Rossi-Rognoni, (Sillabe for the Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, 2002. 



Appendix - Conservation Ethics:

Outline of the relevant results of some major conventions

and meetings of restorers, conservationists, and archaeologists


1     1904 - Recommendations of the Madrid Conference (6th International Congress of Architects - see Journal of RIBA, April 23, 1904):  Point 2:  “Dead monuments should be preserved only by such strengthening as is indispensable in order to prevent their falling into ruin, since the importance of a monument of this kind is in its historical and technical value . . .”.

2     1931 - Charter of Athens.  Point IV.  The usefulness of modern techniques and materials is called into question.

3   1956 - UNESCO.  Recommendations on International Principles Applicable on Archaeological Excavations.  Article 9:  “. . . maintaining untouched, partially or totally, a certain number of archaeological sites of different periods in order that their excavation can benefit from improved techniques and more advanced archaeological knowledge  . . .  well defined “witness” areas might be left unexcavated in several places in order to allow eventual verification  . . .”.

4    1963. - International Institute of Conservation - American Group (now the American Institute of Conservation), Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice, New York, June 8, 1963, revised 1979.  Article A:  respect for the historic, aesthetic and physical integrity of the object.  Article E:  principle of reversibility (avoid the use of techniques the results of which cannot be undone . . .).

5    1964 - The Charter of Venice:  The International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites  Article 9:  The process of restoration is a highly specialised operation.  Its aim is to preserve and reveal the aesthetic and historic value of the monument and is based on respect for original material and authentic documents.  It must stop at the point where conjecture begins, and in this case, moreover, any indispensable work must be distinct from the architectural composition and bear a contemporary stamp.

6    1972 - Carta del Restauro.  Article 8:  Proper techniques and materials should be used in order not to impede future intervention by restorers.  This is the logical alternative to the principle of reversibility.

7    1987 - Carta 1987 della Conservazione e del Restauro, Prof. Paolo Marconi (follows on from 6 above).  Article 1:  definitions.  Conservation:  collective preventative and protective operations of the preservation of an object in its actual state.  Restoration:  Intervention with respect for the principles of conservation, based on meticulous studies and aiming at better legibility and even re-use of the object. 


Concept:  Constructionally correct restoration

            This concept has arisen recently because many restorers appear to be concerned primarily with maintaining the authenticity of the appearance of an object or a site to the detriment of the authenticity of the historical constructional system.  What is more important - the appearance of an object or system, or the way the system was constructed and designed?  For most museum curators and directors it is the physical appearance of the object or system, rather than the way it operates physically and how it was designed and built. 


            To counter the latter attitude, more study and education is needed to abolish the lack of belief in the mechanical capacity of systems that differ greatly from our own, namely the lack of belief in the mechanical capacity of historical systems.  Such historical mechanical systems functioned perfectly adequately for their intended purpose, and so we therefore need intact examples of ancient mechanical systems and technologies which have not undergone modern intervention.



[1] “A harpsichord by Bartolomeo Cristofori, recently invented, with two unison registers that can play loud and soft”.  Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Guardaroba Mediceo, filza 117.  See Giuliana Montanari, ‘Bartolomeo Cristofori; a list and historical survey of his instruments, Early Music, 3 (1991) p.385.

[2] The spinettone, like the ‘spinetta ovale’, has two sets of jacks and two sets of strings, but in the spinettone one set of strings is at 8' pitch and one is at 4' pitch.  The spinettone also has a shifting keyboard which can be pulled in and out to engage one or the other, or both, sets of jacks.  Like all true spinets it has a wing shape with angled strings and keylevers all of roughly the same length (unlike the spinetta ovale which is a virginal, and which has keylevers of markedly different lengths.  The spinettone is, however, very large because the bass strings are very long with very little bass string-scaling foreshortening.

[3] These oval virginals are called ‘spinette’ or ‘spinette ovale’ in Italian.  They are, however, technically virginals from an organological point of view and not spinets.  Like the normal polygonal and rectangular virginals, the strings lie at right angles to the keylevers.  However, unlike the normal virginals with which we are all familiar, these virginals by Cristofori have alternate strings placed on either side of the instrument with the longest strings placed centrally along an axis defined by the two points at the apex of the curved ends.  Unfortunately in Italian there is no way of making the normal scientific distinction between a virginal with its strings placed (essentially) at right angles to the keys and with keys of variable length, from a spinet with strings placed at an angle of about 45º to the keylevers, and keys essentially all of the same length.  There also seems to be an unfortunate strong resistance among Italian organologists to the use the term virginale’, even though this term appears in a number of Italian dictionaries and several Italian encyclopaedias of music and musical instruments.

[4] For example an extremely fine virginal by Ioannes Celestini made in Venice in 1594 is conserved in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (Inventory number 1908.69).  This instrument, like the two Cristofori oval virginals, has a mechanism for shifting the keyboard back and forward so that the jacks can engage either or both of the two sets of strings.  Another undated Celestini virginal also with a 2x8' disposition is in the collection of Fenton House in Hampstead, London (Inventory number NT/FEN/I/12).  The latter instrument is anonymous and undated but has been confidently attributed by myself in an unpublished report to the Curator of the Fenton House museum.

[5] Antonio Stradivari, born in Cremona in 1644 or 1648-49 (the date of his birth is uncertain), died in Cremona 18 December, 1737; Bartolomeo Cristofori, born in Padova 4 May, 1655, died in Florence 27 January, 1731.  The Dizionario Enciclopedico Universale della Musica e dei Musicisti, (Utet, Torino, 1988, 2/1999) with 15 volumes plus one volume of Appendices, each volume of about 800 pages, devotes 6 columns to Stradivarius and only a half a column to Cristofori (less than it devotes to the English harpsichord-maker Kirckman).  To me this is a remarkable imbalance given the sheer genius of this man as well as the importance of the piano to the history of music over the last two centuries at least.

[6] See Giuliana Montanari, ‘Bartolomeo Cristofori.  A list and historical survey of his instruments’, Early Music, 19 Nº 3 (1991) 383-96 and ‘Le spinette ovale e la collezione di strumenti a penna del Granprincipe Ferdinando de’ Medici/The oval spinets[sic] of Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici’s collection of quilled instruments’, Bartolomeo Cristofori.  La spinetta del 1690/The 1690 oval spinet[sic], edited by Gabriele Rossi-Rognoni, (Sillabe for the Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, 2002) 32-43.

[7] Grant O’Brien, Ruckers.  A Harpsichord and Virginal Building Tradition, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990) p.233.

[8] Very often the parts that have already become detached or unglued are the ones that are the most useful for analysis and study.

[9] My thanks to Gordon Thomas of the Archaeology Department of the University of Edinburgh for drawing my attention to these points and for providing information about the excavation site in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.

[10] This site was excavated by Kent R. Weeks in one of the most exciting and publicized digs of modern archaeology.  See Kent R Weeks, The Lost Tomb: the Greatest Discovery at the Valley of the Kings Since Tutankhamun, (1999).  This is an inexpensive book available online from Amazon giving both a relatively detailed account of the excavation as well as a good account of the modern philosophy of archaeology.

[11] CIMCIM:  Comité International des Musées et Collections d'Instruments de Musique.  See the website:


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