The vihuela and guitar crossroads: looking for evidence

home vihuelas guitars viols contact

Ornamental detail from a Koran produced in Valencia, Spain 1182-3.

* * *

Roses in late 16th – early 17th century vihuelas: some thoughts and ideas.

One of the most fascinating of 28 historical documents recently published, “Inventory and valuation of the workshop contents of the violero Mateo de Arratia of Toledo”, dated 30 June 1575 [1], contains the following entry: two new vihuelas in Portuguese ebony, one with a sunken rose (lazo hondo) and the other with a rose in the soundboard (lazo en la tapa). Reference to the type of roses used in instruments is not just restricted to this particular account and seems to have served as one of the main defining characteristics (together with the instrument’s body type) in descriptions of the vihuela and the guitar. In certain cases, as we will see further, apart from being a purely constructional reference, it also tells us how the makers’ skills and abilities were judged and differentiated. The main purpose of the present study, however, is to try to establish what could have been meant by these two definitions: ‘lazo hondo’ and ‘lazo en la tapa’.

Firstly ‘lazo hondo’; the most obvious analogy that comes to mind is a type of multi leveled rose with progressively descending patterns into the inside of the instrument’s body. Roses of this type can be found on a relatively large number of surviving instruments, not only guitars but also citterns, harpsichords and even viols from the late 16th - early 18th century. Most often these “three-dimensional” roses are made entirely of parchment although occasionally upper layers of their ornamental patterns could have been made of wood as well. The other type of the rose, which is equally well represented on the instruments of the above-mentioned period, consists, as a rule, of several very thin layers of wood and parchment arranged in a sandwich-like way. It does not sink so deeply into the inside of the instrument (the overall thickness of the rose of this type can be as little as c 1.0 mm) but is set just below the beveled edge of the sound hole [see images 1, 2 & 3]. Therefore, to a certain degree, it can also be classified as ‘lazo hondo’ but whether this is really so will remain to be determined. The rose on the vihuela E. 0748 from the collection of the Cite de la Musique belongs to this latter type [2]. Only small fractions of the rose on the Quito vihuela are preserved, so one can not be exactly sure of its original method of construction, although from what looks like fragments of parchment around the perimeter of the sound hole, it could have been of a sunken, ‘lazo hondo’ type [3].

The presence of these two types of roses on the earliest surviving guitars is particularly important for us because their constructional features (and, as a result, their acoustical properties too) may well be in many ways very close, if not identical to those of the late 16th – early 17th century vihuelas [4]. This idea of similarity of approach to the construction of the vihuela and the guitar is evidenced, for example, in the “Certificate of examination of Juan Rodriguez” of 27 December 1578 which states that: “… examiners of the craft of violeros … have examined the journeyman Juan Rodriguez in the making of a vihuela with a sunken rose and a guitar in the same manner…(una bihuela con lazo hondo y en una guirarra de la misma manera)” [5]. Although, apart from the type of the rose, no other distinct characteristics of the instruments are given, they were most probably of a plain (llana) type, in other words, with flat backs. This point becomes more evident from the account that follows below and can be further exemplified by the fact that this examination was carried out on a journeyman, who was only about to embark on his new career as an independent violero.

The “Certificate of examination for the violero Pedro Tofiño” of 1588 presents us with a more differentiated approach when it comes to the matter of roses and may bring us a bit closer to understanding why the choice of rose type was such an important issue: “The said overseers and examiners … have examined the said Pedro Tofiño on a plain vihuela and on a cittern with a sunken rose (una vihuela llana y una citara con lazos hondos), which the said Pedro Tofiño made in their presence, … and … agreed and gave him a licence and faculty, as an accepted and examined master craftsman in the making of a plain vihuela and a cittern with only sunken roses, so he can, from this date onwards, freely make and repair only that type of instrument … without hindrance or penalty, as long as he does not make viols, harps or vaulted vihuelas, or decorate the table with inlays, or with carved roses (no pueda haver biguela de arco ni arpa ni biguela aconvada ni echar ataracea ni lazo en la tapa) until he is examined again …” [6].

What we may learn from this account first of all, is that the level of a maker’s skill was measured by his ability to execute certain carving procedures (as such instruments from the ‘prohibited’ list, as viols and harps would certainly require a higher level of competence not only in carving but equally more complicated assembling techniques). As for the inlays (ataracea in this particular context can also be interpreted as intarsia or mosaics), they clearly denote (see also Toledo 1617 account below) more elaborately made instruments, for which this particular maker would still need to gain the necessary skills. In a way, the wording of the account seems to echo the rather austere external features of the surviving E.0748 vihuela (albeit with a vaulted and fluted body) – plain, undecorated soundboard with a “sunken” (?) rose and with no ornamental inlays. Even more so, the very fact that the sunken rose (lazo hondo) is mentioned on both the vihuela and the cittern, with no indications of the violeros’ own involvement in its making, may simply mean that those roses were already supplied pre-fabricated by craftsmen of a dedicated trade [7]. Although no deep sunken rose is present on the surviving vihuelas (except, perhaps, on the Quito vihuela?), they are well represented on both the early 17th – mid 18th century guitars as well as late 17th – early 18th century citterns.

As for the “lazo en la tapa”, the apparently logical interpretation that first comes to mind is for a “rose cut in the soundboard wood”, in a similar way to roses in soundboards of lutes. But can we really apply this seemingly obvious analogy to the case of vihuelas? Neither iconographical nor written sources are sufficiently detailed to provide any clearer idea for this important but rather subtle organological feature of historical vihuela construction. A fair degree of confusion, however, would inevitably arise if we tried to imagine the lute-type of the rose in the soundboard of the late 16th – early 17th century vihuela as well as its closest historical companion - the guitar. No “lazo a la tapa”, which is cut directly into the soundboard wood, is present on any surviving guitars from the early 17th century onwards (please correct me if I am not right!). It doesn’t even seem reasonable, taking into account a fairly large number of surviving early – mid 17th century guitars, to admit the presence of a rose of this type on the soundboard; the construction of which is so fundamentally different from that of the lute.

The barring arrangement of the vihuela and guitar soundboard as well as its thickness differ quite dramatically from a typical lute soundboard. The E.0748 vihuela has just two bars with “wedge” shaped bar end supports on the sides of the instrument and a soundboard thickness ranging from 3.5 mm in the central area to 2.0 mm on the edges. Two soundboard bars in combination with “tuning-fork” shaped bar end supports are found on the Quito vihuela [8] and on one of the earliest surviving late 16th – early 17th century Spanish guitar in the Convento de la Encarnatión, Ávila [9]. Although the original soundboard on the Belchior Dias instrument did not survive, the remains from the four bar end supports on its sides suggest an identical barring arrangement, with a possible proportional reduction of the soundboard thickness (as compared to the E.0748 vihuela) in accordance with the smaller size of the instrument.

The two bars with accompanying bar end supports on the sides remained, as the surviving instruments demonstrate, one of the most characteristic features of Spanish guitar construction up to the mid 18th century when it gradually started to be replaced with a fan-system of struts. This, in turn, resulted in the use of thinner soundboards (but still no roses cut ‘in a lute way’!) The very idea of the two-bar arrangement would seem to preclude the use of the lute-type of rose altogether, both on the guitar and the vihuela. For a rose to be cut in the soundboard of a lute, it has to be thinned down in that area to c. 1.0 mm, supported with a paper backing and small bars underneath and from one to three cross bars for its entire width. This way of construction on the late 16th century vihuela / guitar soundboard would look rather odd, hardly consistent with its structural and acoustical nature. Even if the rose is cut in, say, a 2.5 – 3.0 mm thick spruce (!) soundboard, it would still need to be supported from underneath with an additional barring structure, which is again contradictory to the idea of the two-bar arrangement. Neither of these ways nor any traces of such have survived, at least to my knowledge, on the early 17th – mid 18th century guitars of Iberian, Italian or French origin. It simply lies beyond the logic of those two rather differently structured instruments - the lute and the vihuela. Interestingly enough, on some surviving examples of late 16th – early 17th century viols we seem to find examples of both ‘lazo en la tapa’ and ‘lazo hondo’ types of roses. The first is represented with a two-layer (wood and parchment) rose which is set flush with the soundboard surface, while the second, is with a sunken rose of a three-dimensional design [ see images 4, 5 & 6].

Some insights as to what might be hidden behind the definition of ‘lazo en la tapa’ emerge from the “Proposal of Ordinances for the craft of violeros of Toledo” of 1617. The section of this document which deals with the examination procedure in the making of “a plain six-course vihuela (una biguela llana de seis ordehes) “ also defines that “this instrument has to have inlaid rings, an ebony fingerboard and a boxwood rose with thirty-six points (este ynstrumento a de llevar veril y plantilla de hevano con un lazo de box de treinta y seis)” [10]. A further reference towards the end of the document, which aims to provide a sort of guidance for vihuela repair, only re-confirms the earlier statement: “… if anyone were to bring an ebony vihuela to have a soundboard fitted, this [soundboard] must be of spruce *pinewood* with a rose of boxwood and not of parchment (que si alguno ttrujere biguela de hebano para que le hechen tapa que se le heche de pinay bete *pino* y con lazo de boj y no de pergamino)”. This description may well indeed represent the ‘lazo en la tapa’ type of the rose with inlayed rings surrounding it for the purpose of disguising the border of the inserted rose made of different material than that of the spruce *pinewood*. In addition, a carved boxwood rose would almost certainly be of comparable thickness and of a similar shade of colour as the soundboard, which would make this ‘lazo en la tapa’ way of construction even more logical.

This account is also, in a way, consistent with the above-mentioned description of the examination of Pedro Tofiño on a plain vihuela and the use of ‘lazo hondo’, which would most probably be made of parchment. The only difference here lies clearly in the matter of aesthetics, which seems to have been ruled by the choice of corresponding materials: an ebony vihuela – a carved boxwood rose, a simpler, more modest instrument by the beginning violero – a parchment ‘lazo hondo’. At least one of the surviving sources, however, proves that it was not always the case. An inventory dated 1580 lists: “… an ebony guitar with a sunken rose, together with its case, and an inscription on the head that reads Juan Rodriguez (una guitarra de ebano con el lazo hondo con un letrero en la cabeza que dice Juan Rodreguez con su caja)” [11]. Note that neither of the documents mentions the procedures of making roses as such, either of parchment or carved in boxwood. Equally so, neither admits an alternative construction of the rose, one which could be cut directly into the soundboard wood!

Boxwood roses are also repeatedly mentioned between 1632 – 1636 on the instruments made by Pablo de Herrera and Manuel de Vega, apparently on a cocobolo tiplecito (small tiple) and guitars (some of them made of Portuguese ebony) [12]. Additional evidence that the carved vihuela roses might have been made of boxwood later in the 17th century is contained in the “Inventory of the workshop contents of Antonio de Medina at the time of his marriage to Catalina Rodriguez” of 1674, which lists: Ebony, box and walnut wood to make biguelas … (Ma en Madera de hevano box y nogal para fabrica de biguelas…) [13]. This is the only instance related to the vihuela in this rather extensive listing of tools, equipment, materials and instruments (thirty-one guitars but also two harps and two archlutes) [14].

The mentioning of a spruce *pinewood* soundboard in the Toledo ordinances of 1617 together with the boxwood and parchment roses has some additional significance for, as we can see in some surviving late 16th – early 17th century citterns and even harpsichords with the soundboards made of different materials than spruce (notably cypress and cedar of Lebanon), their roses can be cut directly into the soundboard [see images 7, 8 & 9]. The manner of their execution, however, is somewhat different and is more related to the actions of carving and sawing than cutting. Differences in the ornamental design, as compared with a typical lute-type of the rose are also apparent. In addition, there is also no noticeable thinning of soundboard in the rose area. The choice of a different soundboard material here fulfils the purpose: carving in harder, rather slab-cut wood certainly proves ‘technologically’ more consistent than in quarter-cut spruce or pine and this is all too clearly demonstrated by these examples.

On the other hand, some surviving citterns and viols with pine or spruce soundboards display a certain degree of consistency with the above mentioned accounts related to vihuelas and are fitted with either sunken (parchment) or flat (sandwich layers of wood and parchment) roses. One of the examples of the latter type of rose which is found on the late 16th century Italian cittern made by Giovanni Salvatori [15], (and is of similar construction to the rose on the E.0748 vihuela) in this case appears to be inserted flush with the soundboard surface [see image 10]. This also gives us another possible idea of how the multi layered wood and parchment type of roses could have been used in a “lazo en la tapa” sort of way, in addition to the above mentioned boxwood roses of the Toledo ordinances of 1617.

Let us now turn again to the inventory of the workshop contents of the violero Mateo de Arratia of Toledo of 1575. This is one of the most comprehensive of existing listings of what might have been found in a workshop environment of the 16th century Spanish violero and it clearly shows that this maker was almost certainly of a higher degree of qualification than, for example, Pedro Tofiño of Madrid. As for the subject of roses, there is the following entry: Fourteen gouges thirteen with boxwood handles to make roses and one for general work (Qatorze guvias las treze de hazer lazos con sus qavos de boz y una del oficio). Just to complement this, A round piece of boxwood a yard long with two other pieces half-sawn (Un pedazo de box rredondo de una vara de largo con otros dos pedaços empeçados aserrar) is also listed in this account. The shear amount of these tools seems hardly necessary for carving the lute-type of the rose, in particular in such material as spruce. However, they would certainly prove useful either for cutting (some of these ‘gouges’ might also be used as ‘punches’) multi layered wood and parchment or boxwood roses. The signs of usage of these kinds of tools can be seen on some original roses [see image 11].

A similar set of tools for carving roses is also mentioned almost one hundred years later in the “Inventory of the workshop contents and belongings of Joseph Gonzalez made after the death of his wife Isabel de Ortega” of 1670 that lists “Nine gouges to carve roses, one large and a broken burin” (Nueve gubias de hacer lazos y otra gubie grande y un zincel quebrado)” [16].

The other entry from the account of Mateo de Arratia of Toledo which, in a way, brings a totally different dimension to our understanding of how Spanish violeros approached their business, by integrating trades from their recent imperial territories - in this case from none other than Venice! It reads as follows: “Eighty-eight tops from Venice with roses, at three and a half reales (Ochenta y ocho tapas de las de venicia con sus lazos a tres reales)”, apparently the most expensively valued entry of the account, at the equivalent of 10472 Maravedis.

Stocks of soundboards are also mentioned in a number of other historical accounts published in [1] but only that of Mateo de Arratia informs us where they may have originated from. There is no direct reference in the surviving Ordinances that the violeros were allowed to use ready-made parts, but it may be that it was possible after they had reached a certain degree of status in their career [17].

From the names of the instruments as well as the other items of equipment listed in the inventory, it appears that at least the following instruments were being made in the workshop of Mateo de Arratia: vihuelas, guitars, citoles (citolas), citterns (citara) and small gitarrones (gitarrones peqeños). At the time being, it is only possible to guess whether such a massive stock of soundboards had been prepared for vihuelas, citterns or for the growing demand in guitars. One fact in relation to roses, however, deserves mentioning. The basic pattern of the ornament of the rose on the soundboard of the E.0748 vihuela [18] is identical, at least to my knowledge, to roses in several other surviving instruments: two guitars, an Italian harpsichord and a mandolino [see image 12]. Therefore the possibility is not excluded that the parchment roses mentioned in the above quoted accounts (or at least some of them) were made outside Spain, while those carved of boxwood were supposed to be made by the violeros themselves and represented the uniquely Spanish trend in the historic vihuela (and, possibly, guitar) making traditions.


At least three varieties of roses seem to have been used in the vihuelas and the guitars made by the Spanish violeros in the late 16th – early 17 century:

1) multi leveled“three dimensional” roses made entirely of parchment,
2) multi layered“sandwich” roses consisting of thin layers of wood and parchment,
3) roses carved of a solid piece of boxwood.

The first and third types are more likely to be associated with what the original sources name as ‘lazo hondo’ and ‘lazo a la tapa’ accordingly. The second type can possibly be classified either as ‘lazo hondo’ if the rose is attached to the inside of the sound hole, or ‘lazo a la tapa’ if it is set flush with the soundboard surface. The third type is the most likely candidate for the ‘lazo a la tapa’ type of rose. The first two types could have been made either by the violeros themselves or, more likely, by craftsmen of the dedicated trades, while the boxwood roses seem to have been made exclusively by the violeros. References to boxwood roses in Spanish documents throughout the 17th century and their apparent absence on the surviving early – late 17th century Italian and French guitars may indicate that this type of rose was uniquely reserved for the late 16th – early 18th century Spanish vihuela and guitar making tradition.

As the use of harder varieties of wood other than quarter-cut spruce or fir (such as cypress) on gut-strung plucked instruments of the late 16th – early 17th centuries (namely guitars and vihuelas) does not seem to coincide with their constructional and acoustical principles - as is overwhelmingly manifested in the surviving vihuelas and early 17th century guitars; the use of roses cut directly into the soundboard wood equally seems as an unlikely idea. Therefore the association of what historical sources describe as ‘lazo a la tapa’ with roses cut directly into the soundboard wood should most probably be ruled out.

* * *

[1] José L. Romanillos Vega & Marian Harris Winspear: The Vihuela de Mano and the Spanish Guitar (VMSG), The Sanguino Press, Guifosa 2002, pp. 479 - 482

[2] Illustrated in Aux origines de la guitare: la vihuela de mano, Cité de la Musique, Paris 2004, p. 67

[3] Illustrated in The Spanish Guitar, New York – Madrid, 1991 – 1992

[4] The idea that the vihuelas could also have been re-used as guitars, on the wave of the growing popularity of the latter towards the end of the 16th – early 17th century, is vividly expressed in the following document, Declaration by the examiners of the Guild of violeros about the examination of Francisco de Lipuste: “The said examiners exhibited and demonstrated in my presence as notary, one instrument which at the moment is strung as a guitar but was constructed by Francisco de Lipuste as a vihuela; it is, at present, strung as a guitar to make it easier for the said Francisco de Lipuste to sell – he has tried, and is still trying, to sell it …” (see pp. 469 – 471 of VMSG). I will give more in-depth analysis of the constructional features and their acoustical implications in relation to late 16th – early 17th century vihuelas and guitars in a separate publication. Those who are interested in this subject can also read J.Romanillos’ own reflections on the related matters in the prologue section of VMSG.

[5] VMSG, op. cit., pp. 449, 450

[6] VMSG, op. cit., pp. 451 – 454. Note that “lazo en la tapa” was ‘automatically’ translated here as “carved rose” although no such precedent is given in the text.

[7] A rather later source “Deed of capital assets that Marcos Antonio Gonzalez took into his marriage with Doña Phelipa Gonzalez” of 1766 lists: Roses and glue at one hundred reales (De lazos y cola en cien reales). See VMSG, op. cit., pp. 511, 512

[8] The Spanish Guitar, op. cit., p. 43

[9] VMSG, op. cit., p. xxiii

[10] VMSG, op. cit., pp. 439 - 441

[11] VMSG, op. cit., p. 343

[12] Cristina Bordas, La Construccion de Vihuelas y Guitarras en Madrid en los siglos XVI y XVII, in La Guitarra en la Historia (volumen VI), Córdoba 1995, pp. 59 – 62

[13] VMSG, op. cit., pp. 501 - 504

[14] The mentioning of two names biguela as opposed to guitarra in the same account may proof that vihuelas were still being made even in the late 17th century albeit in very small quantities in proportion to guitars. This also seems to contradict to commonly held belief that the names guitar and vihuela were used in the late 17th – mid 18th centuries interchangeably. However, we may never be able to proof the exact way of tuning of those late vihuelas.

[15] In the collection of Musée de la Musique, Paris.

[16] VMSG, op. cit., pp. 497 – 500

[17] See also: Peter Kiraly, “Did lute makers just assemble their lutes?” Lute News, No. 53

[18] The pattern is based on a “three-petal” flower design which is repeated in six segments.


* * *

Design on a bronze bowl, Iran, early 13th century.

* * *

© 2004 Alexander Batov

Image 1. Multi layered wood and parchment rose on a mid 17th century Italian guitar ascribed to the Sellas family of makers which were active in Venice from the first quarter of the 17th century. It consists of five layers (wood / parchment /wood / parchment / parchment) and is similar in construction to the rose on the E.0748 vihuela (Cite de la Musique, Paris), the only difference being that the latter is made of six layers (wood / parchment /wood / parchment /wood / parchment).


Image 2. A) Scorch marks around the perimeter show that a pointed hot iron was used during the rose attachment to the soundboard (causing the glue to set more quickly). Similar technique was also used for fixing small bars supporting the roses of lutes. B) Parchment “re-enforcement” of underlying cypress (middle) layer.

Image 3 The basic division marking (of a circle in sections and concentric rings) for the pattern of this rose was scribed by the maker directly onto the upper layer of wood with the help of a sharp pointed tool and a pair of dividers. The two layers of cypress (each of which is re-enforced with very thin parchment from underneath) with the grain arranged in a crosswise direction are clearly visible here.


Image 4 Two-layer wood and parchment “lazo a la tapa”rose on a tenor viol by Henry Jaye, 1667 (V&A museum, London). The upper layer appears to be made of boxwood, also note tracing lines made with a sharp point, similar to those found on the rose of the Sellas guitar (see image 3 above).


Image 5 Two-layer (wood / wood or parchment?) “lazo a la tapa” rose on the late 16th century viol attributed to Gasparo da Salò, Brescia (Ashmolean museum, Oxford).


Image 6 Sunken “lazo hondo” rose on a Venetian 16th century viol (Ashmolean museum, Oxford). Also note square mosaic inlays similar to those on the soundboard of the Jaquemart-Ándre vihuela.


Image 7 Carved and gilded “lazo a la tapa” rose on the late 16th Italian cittern by Gasparo da Salò (Ashmolean museum, Oxford).


Image 8 Carved “lazo a la tapa” rose with underlying layer of parchment on an anonymous mid - late 17th century Italian cittern from the V&A Museum: note that this rose is cut through the entire thickness of the soundboard (i.e. no noticeable reduction of soundboard thickness in the area of the rose). In this case the layer of parchment on the underside seems to serve both decorative and constructive functions.


Image 9 Carved and / or sawn “lazo a la tapa” rose on an Italian c.1550 spinet (V & A museum, London). As with the rose illustrated above, this example also appears to be cut through the entire thickness of cypress soundboard.

Image 10 Multi layered wood and parchment rose used in a “lazo a la tapa” way, as found on the 16th century Italian cittern made by Giovanni Salvatori (Cite de la Musique, Paris).

Image 11 Signs of usage of gouges on the bottom parchment layer of the rose from the mid-17th century guitar ascribed to the Sellas family of makers (see also images 1, 2 & 3 above).


Image 12 Clockwise from top left picture: mid 17th century Italian (or Spanish?) guitar (Deutches Museum, Munich), 16th century Italian spinet (Kunsthistorishes Museum, Nuremberg), mandolino by Francesco and Guiseppe Presbler, Milan 1778 (RCM, London), mid - late 18th century Spanish guitar* (private collection, Spain).

* Many thanks to Jaume Bosser for allowing to publish this photograph.

home vihuelas guitars viols contact

Last updated 24 November 2004