Unveiling the Mysteries of the King Cello

National Music Museum, University of South Dakota

Understanding the past life of the world's oldest surviving cello through CT scans and iconographic studies.  

Commonly referred to as “The King,” this  is the oldest cello known to survive.  No one knows exactly when it was made, but we believe that it was built around the mid-16th century by the master craftsman, Andrea Amati (ca. 1505-1577) in Cremona, Italy.  Sometime between 1560-1574, it was painted and gilded with the coat-of-arms and motto of the young King Charles IX of France (1550-1574), son of Catherine de' Medici (1519-1589).  The cello remained with the monarchy until the French Revolution.  In 1801, everything changed.

In 1801, violin maker   Sebastian Renault, who worked in Paris from about 1765-1811, reduced the size of the royal cello by about two inches, snipping away the wood here and there, much as a tailor might alter a suit of clothing.  Additional changes may have been made by others in succeeding years.

Several places where wood was removed from the back of the cello can easily be identified.  The upper portion of the letter “K” (standing for “Karolus"--King Charles IX) is missing--only the bottom of that letter remains, peeking out from under a crown (left).  The figure of Justice, holding a sword in her right hand, is clearly missing her waist and the left arm that once held a set of scales  (right).

A Latin motto is painted and gilded on the ribs.

The cello's neck was replaced in 1801, but the original scroll and pegbox were retained.  They not only show remnants of the original painting, but also provide evidence that the instrument originally had only three strings--not the current four.

Back of cello's pegbox retains its original gilded painting.

Computed tomography (CT scanning) is a medical imaging technology that generates a three-dimensional digital image of the interior of an object.  The King cello is shown below undergoing a CT scan courtesy of the Sanford Vermillion Medical Center (Vermillion, South Dakota).

CT technology is a non-destructive method that allows musical instrument researchers the ability to safely view the interior of closed instruments, while simultaneously producing digital data that can be manipulated to capture images at different angles and views that are impossible to obtain with conventional x-ray technology.  CT scans have already confirmed the presence of non-original wood joints on the King cello.  They are also useful for identifying various wood-grain patterns, glue joints, woodworm damage, repairs, and other details that otherwise would remain unseen.  (See “Medical Imaging Enables Staff to See the 'Whole' Picture,” cited in credits.)

CT scans can help uncover valuable information about structural changes made to the upper end of cello's back where most of the iconographic clues have worn off over the centuries.

Scholars at the National Music Museum are continuing their study of the King cello.  Not only will this research help determine the cello's original size and configuration, but, as has been suggested by NMM researcher, Matthew Zeller, “the research could shed new light on the historical and social contexts surrounding the instrument and [its] maker.”

Credits: Story

Researcher — Matthew Zeller, Graduate Assistant, "The Violin-Family Designs of Andrea Amati:  Reconstructing the Original Outlines of the 'King' Cello and 'Propugnaculo' Viola," M.M. Thesis (Vermillion:  University of South Dakota, 2014) and  "Medical Scans Reveal Secrets of World's Oldest Cello" The Strad (http://www.thestrad.com/latest/news/ medical-scans-reveal-secrets-of-world-s-oldest-cello)
Photographer — Bill Willroth, Sr.
Photographer — Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet
Photographer — Tony Jones
NMM Staff — Sarah Deters and Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet, "Medical Imaging Enables Staff to See the 'Whole' Picture" (http://orgs.usd.edu/nmm/News/Newsletter/August2010/ CTScans.html)

Credits: All media
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