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Queen Elizabeth’s virginal scribbles, scratches and sgraffito

Nanke Schellmann
Furniture Conservation, RCA/V&A MA Student

Figure 1

Figure 1. Detail of the Queen Elizabeth’s Virginal. Museum No .19-1887 (click image for larger version)

The recent completion of the British Galleries project has led to the redisplay of many of the Museum’s most prestigious pieces. Among these is an early spinet known as Queen Elizabeth’s Virginal (19-1887). During its conservation, a previously unseen inscription was discovered in the surface decoration. This article will discuss the decorative techniques used on the spinet and their importance in the interpretation of this new historical evidence.

The instrument is thought to be one of the few personal belongings, within the Museum’s collection, of the ‘Virgin Queen’ Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1603. With its variety of different decorative techniques and luxurious materials this instrument is a very fine example of high quality 16th century Venetian craftsmanship. The rich embellishment of the spinet includes magnificent ornamentation in red and blue glazes on gold, an elaborate laminated wood and parchment rosette set into the soundboard, keys inlayed with various woods, ivory or bone and metal and key fronts decorated with embossed and gilded paper (Figure 1).

The most striking and very unusual part of the spinet’s decoration is the surface embellishment with its Moresque sgraffito design executed in blue and red on a lustrous gold ground, giving the illusion of solid gold onto which a delicate textile is stretched. This particularly detailed and complex decoration technique is rarely found on musical instruments.

Sgraffito comes from the Italian expression for ‘scratchwork’. It is a decorative technique in which layers of contrasting colour are applied to a surface and a pattern is scratched through the upper layer to reveal the colour underneath. It is usually found in the rendering of textiles in panel paintings and painted sculpture, imitating fabrics figured or threaded with metal. In the Middle Ages sgraffito decoration was commonly found on altar pieces, where it was used to depict the richly decorated brocade clothing of saints. Later in the Renaissance, however, this technique was applied to luxury objects made for both the church and wealthy individuals.

In the second half of the 16th century Queen Elizabeth I was one of the most powerful rulers in Europe. Like her father, Henry VIII, Elizabeth was extremely well educated and very musical. The Queen is known to have been an accomplished player on the virginal and, considering her position, it would have been appropriate to commission a musical instrument of the greatest extravagance from Venice, the centre of commerce and fashion at that time. 'For with Elizabeth I, style was everything'. 1

Whilst the instrument is attributed to the Venetian harpsichord maker Giovanni Antonio Baffo 2 , the artist who decorated this outstanding instrument remains unknown. It is unlikely that the spinet’s maker and the artist of the decoration were the same person. The skills of making a high quality keyboard instrument, and of executing such complex decoration draw on distinctly different training and trades. As the decoration has its roots in the panel painting tradition it was therefore most likely applied by a professional painter.

Sgraffito decoration was in general created in several stages. At first, the wooden carcase of the object was coated with animal glue size, primarily to seal the surface and prevent the adhesive of the later applied layers from being absorbed into the wood. Then, several layers of a mixture of slaked calcium sulphate and heated glue size, termed ‘gesso’, were applied. The gesso provided a surface that, after drying, could be abraded to a perfectly smooth finish.

When a gold brocade decoration was to be executed by the sgraffito technique, it was necessary to burnish the gold for two reasons. Firstly, the gold had to adhere well to its ground in order not to be scraped away during the scratching action. Secondly, burnished gold makes the surface appear much livelier, for it reflects light far better than unburnished gold would do. The gesso surface was coated with a layer of bole, a soft clay naturally pigmented by iron oxide. Bole produces a warm coloured ground which prevents the extremely thin and therefore slightly transparent sheet of gold from appearing cold and lifeless. Furthermore, it has a platelet structure which allows the gold to be burnished.

Figure 2

Figure 2. View of the area above the jackrail where the inscription was found and detail. Photos: Nanke Schellmann (click image for larger version)

Once the gilding was complete, the next step in executing the sgraffito was the application of paint layers onto the gold surface. In the case of the spinet, paints based on red lake and blue azurite pigment were used, producing a contrasting effect which later would further be highlighted by the glittering gold of the sgraffito. Generally, egg tempera or resin was required as a binder for it adheres well to the metal ground. The colours were applied over the burnished gold and then the decorative design was scratched into the paint layer with a wooden stylus. It was essential that the paint had not dried completely, so that it could be neatly removed without damaging the delicate gold layer underneath.

When the sgraffito decoration was complete and the paint dry, a hard resin-based varnish was applied. This not only protected the delicate paint layer on the spinet from dirt but also from wear caused by handling during every-day use of the musical instrument.

During conservation, in the careful examination of its surface decoration, a previously unknown inscription displaying the figure ‘1594’ was discovered (Figure 2). This tiny number, approximately 1.2 mm x 11 mm, is scratched into the blue paint layer above the far end of the jackrail on the inside back of the instrument and is upside down, from the point of view of someone playing the instrument. The inscription is not immediately visible, and it appears to have been intentionally hidden. Compared with the overall size of the instrument, the figures are minute and furthermore placed right below the raised moulding which is lining the instrument’s edge. The fact that the numbers are inverted and sited in the shadow of the moulding makes them appear, at first sight, to be nothing more than meaningless marks or unintentional scratches.

However, the suggestion that it is original numbering is underlined by several observations. Firstly, the inscription is absolutely consistent in character and technique with the overall sgraffito design. The inscription has been scraped into the blue paint layer, whilst it was still soft, to reveal the gold beneath. If the inscription was done after paint and varnish had hardened, the edges of the figures would appear fractured and the delicate gold ground would most likely have been damaged – this is not the case. Also, the numbers are inscribed the ‘right way’ up from the artist’s point of view, for he would have turned the spinet vertically on its back to be able to decorate the inside of the case above the soundboard while standing behind the instrument.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Comparison between the virginal’s inscription and contemporary handwritings. Queen Elizabeth’s Virginal (centre), Albrecht Dürer (a-d), Nicholas Hilliard (e-f) and Adriano Capitelli (g). Photography: Nanke Schellmann, Nick Frayling (e-f) (click image for larger version)

Secondly, the figures are typical of handwriting of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. One reliable source for the depiction of numbers in contemporary writing and design is seen in the works of Albrecht Dürer. Many of his woodcuts and engravings are clearly dated. Adriano Capitelli’s Lexicon Abbreviaturarum is a further source for the comparison of inscriptions. 3 This book lists a great variety of historic numbers in handwritings throughout the centuries and provides examples that match the inscription on the Virginals. Nicholas Hilliard’s miniatures were consulted as interesting examples of similar writing. On some of his miniatures the dates shown have a striking resemblance with the virginal’s inscription. Hilliard used gold paint to write the minute numbers on a bright blue background and although the techniques differ, the contrasting effect is very similar (Figure 3).

The spinet had previously been dated to about 1570 on the basis of the instrument’s method of construction and the style of its characteristic decoration. Due to the consistency of technique and style, it can be inferred that the number is a date linked to the application of the decoration. The newly discovered figure ‘1594’ is close to the attributed date of manufacture and it therefore, with fair certainty, refers to the specific year in which the decoration of the virginal was executed.

The discovery of the inscription contributes to the knowledge about the history of these keyboard instruments and their makers. So far, instruments by the Venetian artist Giovanni Antonio Baffo have been dated between 1570 and 1579. 4 The discovery of the date on Queen Elizabeth’s virginal may extend Baffo’s ascertained period of activity to twenty four years, until 1594. In addition, the association of a precise date with a specific instrument allows mouldings and other details on the instrument to be linked to a more specific period. This can be extremely helpful in providing the information which is required to identify musical instruments and the workshop from which they originate.


1 David Starkey, Elizabeth, London 2001, p.82

2 Dr. Denzil Wraight, The Stringing of Italian Keyboard Instruments c.1500 – c.1650, PhD dissertation, Queen’s University of Belfast, 1997, p.50

3 Adriano Capitelli, Lexicon Abbreviaturarum, zweite verbesserte Auflage, Leipzig 1928, pp.222-28

4 Dr. Denzil Wraight, ibid., p.49 ff