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The virginal is seven-sided, with an inset keyboard on the front side, flanked by panels veneered in ebony set with panels of ivory strapwork and gems in repeating patterns. The jack-rail is held in position by slots modelled to resemble the mouths of a monster and a lion, and is decorated with four carved ivory putti along the top playing musical instruments. One putto playes a lute, another a hurdy-gurdy, another a viol and another a lyra da braccio (a Renaissance violin). The front side of the jack rail and the front-facing inner edges of the case also have panels decorated with ivory and gems. The sides and back of the case are undecorated. The keyboard has natural keys of ivory set with lapis lazuli and jasper of various colours, with carved ivory front edges, embellished with black and gold paint and set with pearls. The accidental keys have lapis lazuli slips with ivory surrounds set in ebony. The keyboard has a range of fifty notes, C/E-f3. The horizontal panel above the keyboard has applied boxwood masks set with pearls, and satyrs with splayed legs, in the manner of Cornelis Bos (1506-56). The decoration is strongly influenced by the strapwork ornament first developed by Rosso Fiorentino in the Galerie François I at Fontainebleau (1535-9), and widely circulated through prints by Bos, Lorenz Störer and others. A style of ornament which originated in Italy this returned there by means of engravings printed in France, the Netherlands and Germany. At each end of the keyboard stands a boxwood statuette, Venus and Cupid on the left and Mars on the right. The soundboard contains a wooden rose of exceptionally large diameter (145 mm), carved in relief with strapwork cartouches, winged grotesques in the style of Bos and a bust of a putto in the centre. This is a very early example of pietre dure furniture decoration (the keyboard and beneath some of the gemstones) and a rare example of a musical instrument decorated with stone. The instrument is decorated with a total of 1,928 stones: 857 turquoises, 361 pearls, 103 lapis lazuli, 28 amethysts, 58 topazes, 6 carnelians, 40 emeralds, 32 saphires, 117 garnets, 242 small garnets and rubies, 4 crystals, 9 agates, 52 jaspers, and 19 small jaspers and agates. However many of these appear to be much later additions. Only the stones in the keyboard and some of the lapis lazuli panels are certainly part of the original scheme. During conservation in 2012 ebony inlay was found underneath some of the applied ivory, and and inlaid jasper panel under one of the rectangular pieces of lapis lazuli, suggesting that the decoration of the virginal was altered after the virginal was completed. At present it is not clear when the decoration was altered, nor how much of the decoration on the case was added later. However it is probably that the ivory cartouches and the gems which stud the case were added in the mid 19th century, possibly in Paris. The pins which attach the silver-mounted gems are of a type which was not made before about 1830. Investigation also revealed that earlier inlays had been removed and later stones glued on in their place. The gems are applied to the case using several techniques. Many are set in silver, with closed-back settings with a metal pin soldered to the back before the gem was mounted, for attaching it to the carcase. The 'rub-over' settings have a silver rim or 'collet' all the way round, which is burnished down around the edges to hold the gem tightly in place. The gem sits on a small shelf within the collet raising it up above the surface of the instrument. The gems that are set within the ivory cartouches do not have silver settings, and most are probably glued to the surface. The rock crystal gems were painted on the backs with red colour lined with foil, to imitate rubies or spinels. Through the semi-transparent crystal small pins can be seen, glued into placed in drilled holes, for attaching these gems to the wood. The tiny pearls are a mixture of halved seed pearls and 'blister pearls', the latter cut from protuberances inside the mother-of-pearl shells. There is no longer a separate outer case but this extremely elaborate instrument must certainly have had one. The ivory putti standing along the jack rail would not have fitted into the case and close examination reveals that these are later additions.

  • Date:
    1577 (made)
  • Maker:
    Rossi, Annibale
  • Collection:
    Victoria and Albert Museum
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  • Materials:Cypress case and soundboard, boxwood and ivory ornaments, inlaid with pearls, amethysts, lapis lazuli, jasper, agate, turquoise and other precious and semi-precious stones
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  • Inscriptions:ANNIBALLIS DE ROXIS MEDIOLANENSIS MDLXXVII Annibale Rossi Milan 1577
  • Hornbostel-Sachs category:
  • Repository:Victoria and Albert Museum
  • Measurements:Height: 29 cm inc. ivory figures, Width: 148.3 cm at front widest, Depth: 56.6 cm at deepest point