In Focus: A vihuela de arco

Arching front

Pablo Soriano explores this mysterious vihuela de arco found in Spain

This one-of-a-kind vihuela is part of the collection of the Encarnación Monastery in Ávila, 70 miles north-west of Madrid. It is in a remarkable state of preservation and shows no appreciable modifications. Its body outline is not far from those of violin-family instruments. The vihuela has five strings and no evidence of frets. String pressure from the instrument bridge has left a faint imprint on the top which, combined with some maker’s marks on the inside of the ribs, suggest a string length of around 580– 600mm.

Unfortunately the instrument has no label or interior brands or inscriptions. Some dendrochronological tests have been attempted but no matches found, which necessitates the use of alternative dating methods. The monastery was founded in 1479, and even though the appearance of the wood and craftsmanship point to an early date of construction, it is not easy to argue that the vihuela was made around this time. The closest reference is a 1580 painting by El Greco titled The Martyrdom of St Maurice, housed in the Royal Monastery of El Escorial. This painting shows an instrument with similar outline and dimensions being played by an angel. With this in mind, the instrument could be dated to around the mid-16th century, in which case it would be one of the earliest-known bowed stringed instruments.

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