Medieval Instruments III c: Guitarras

Guitarra Latina


Unlike the Guitarra Morisca, which came from the Middle East, was associated with Islamic culture, and had a recognizable structure, Guitarra Latina was probably a more generic term. For musicians in Alfonso’s time it may have meant only “a plucked stringed instrument: not the Muslim one.” Though there is a regional flavor, the instruments looked like those found elsewhere in Europe: short lutes, with short necks, but which occasionally seem to have adopted some of the long lutes’ characteristics. Thus we cannot be certain of their precise role in the music: whether they were considered and played as short lutes or long. Some of these plucked instruments are shown paired with fiddles. In France and England this combination of fiddle and “citole” was popular for several centuries.

Above are the three illuminations showing what is likely the guitarra latina: two of the characteristic “Spanish” type and two others. At the left is the typical pairing of fiddle and Latin guitar, or citole. Once again they are tuning. In the center is an almost identical picture: fiddle and plucked instrument, though of a very different type. It is a short lute, that is, the neck is shorter than the body, but it has a sickle-shaped peg box terminating in an animal head, a characteristic of French instruments. Its oval body, reminiscent of the Guitarra Morisca, may also have a skin face. On the right there is one of each of the two types of Latin guitars, though the neck of the instrument on the right, also with an oval soundbox, seems a little long. But that may only be an artistic effect, along with the rather large pegbox (depicted as big as the body).

Above, broken in two, is the illumination for the prologue to manuscript E2. Alfonso, in the middle, symbolically dictates the book to his tonsured scribes at the right, while his courtiers, on the left, look on with approval. Meanwhile, in the wings, musicians wait their turn. Even in such a prestigious position–the first illumination of the manuscript–they are depicted tuning. One wonders whether the illustrator was well acquainted with musicians and naturally portrayed them in their second-most-common activity or whether he was not musical and merely amazed at how much time they spent doing it. Even though the instruments shown are fiddle and guitarra latina (times two), they are tuning separately, so perhaps they will not play as a duo, or the separation is an artistic convenience. Notice that, though the musicians are well dressed, including red hose, they wear none of the trappings of nobility: unlike many of the musicians in the body of the manuscript who are clearly depicted as noble performers.

We have two guitarras latina in Alfonso X. The one we use most I made in 1980. The assumption has always been that most medieval stringed instruments were carved out of the block rather than built up from staves. This is more an article of faith (or lack of faith in medieval technology) than a reflection of fact. But it is true that in traditional Eurasian instrument making, even today, it is more common (and seemingly easier and faster) for the craftsman to hollow out the body with an adze than to take the time to split, saw, plane, and join planks. In Al-Andalus, however, the technology was certainly available and used in lute construction, so I chose to build this instrument up, as I had the fiddles some years before. The cherry neck has inlaid bone, mixed diatonic frets, bearing four strings and the head is derived from the famous eagle vase of Abbot Suger. The body is made from maple with a fancy walnut and maple back and a spruce face. It has a very loud, clear, pleasant sound. I was inspired by traditional banjo tunings which arrange the strings to enable the melody to be played in as open a tuning as possible. Thus we use a variety of different tunings for different cantigas, including DACF, DADF, DADA (and CGCG), DGCD, DGCG, and the “lute” tuning, DGCF. Each one has a unique quality (an “advantage”) which we try to exploit.

Many of our instruments, being of unusual sizes and shapes, do not have cases but the fiddles and the Guitarra Latina are exceptions. Tina, as we call her (from La Tina), resides in a 19th century wood fiddle case with her name on the lid, lined with sheepskin, colorful felt, and an ex voto of eyes to protect her from harm. The eagle head is hooded when not being played, as the first picture shows. The instrument’s pegbox also bears red glass and carnelian beads, a 13th century Abbasid dirham, and an apotropaic (Turkish) eye bead. One can’t be too careful after seven centuries.