Luthier Pietro Railich’s Ornate 17th-Century Gem

August 6th, 2014

By Alan di Perna | Photo by Massimo Gammacurta

A love of ornamentation is one hallmark of the baroque period in the arts. Few musical instruments exemplify this blingy aesthetic more eloquently than this five-course guitar, built circa 1650 by noted maker Pietro Railich. It is part of the extensive collection of early guitars and other plucked stringed instruments at St. Cecilia’s Hall, the University of Edinburgh’s musical instrument museum.

Railich was born in Germany in 1615 but had relocated to Venice by 1625, where he apprenticed to the luthier Matteo Sellas before moving on to Padua. Today, his guitars are scarce, but what makes this guitar especially rare and unique is that its back, sides, and neck are made of thousands of pieces of wood in a parquetry pattern. It is one of the most ornate guitars of the remarkably bedizened baroque period.

“In fact, it is not just the parquetry that shows this,” says St. Cecilia’s curator, Darryl Martin. “The soundboard is decorated with an elaborate star-and-arch design, and the fingerboard has a rope-work design all done in ebony and ivory. Now missing are decorative mustachios from either end of the bridge. There are some instruments of comparable decoration, and some in which the decoration overshadows—probably to the point of acoustic detriment—the other qualities. But the wear on this instrument from players’ fingers clearly shows that it was intended as a playable instrument first and foremost.”

Martin adds that the Railich was built when the baroque guitar was at its peak popularity across Europe. “At this time, there were composers such as [Francesco] Corbetta in Paris and [Gaspar] Sanz in Italy writing for guitar, and their music is still played today,” he says. “Likewise in England, it was a time leading up to an explosion of popularity for the instrument. There are records to show that Louis XIV of France loved the guitar, and that James II of England was a keen player who popularized it for the English court.”