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Devin Thomas
Antique Harpsichords
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1658 de Zentis

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Italian Harpsichord built in 1658 by Jerome de Zentis in Rome

Click here for a short Sound Sample of the 1658 de Zentis - designated by him as the "primo" register (back 8')

This instrument came into my hands through a private party who purchased it when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City sold it out of their collection several years ago. It was originally acquired by the Met in the 1880's and had been its 'poster child' on various occasions since that time in its publications featuring the musical instrument collection. Once you see the photos of this instrument, you can see why. It is one of the most extensively and sophisticatedly decorated antique Italian harpsichords which I have seen.

I knew about this instrument for years and greatly admired the decoration at a distance. I had only seen it once during a visit to the Met many years ago, and then under very poor lighting conditions. So much of the decoration was radically obscured...a necessary precaution to avoid any deterioration of the decoration that might be caused by excessive exposure to light. I was also puzzled by the very strange looking legs on this instrument.

When I heard that it was in the workshop of a colleague, I arranged immediately to see the instrument. What I saw was a petite harpsichord that was complete, that is no parts were missing, though some jacks had been replaced over the last 348 years since the instrument was made. However, the strings from a previous attempt to make the instrument play were mostly gone and what was there was iron instead of brass. Also, the condition of the soundboard was deplorable. It had a multitude of cracks in it, some of which were allowing the soundboard to warp upward, and the bridge was actually unglued for about 70% of its length. Tapping on the soundboard told me that the ribs were also detached in numerous places. Apparently this was nothing new because at some point a pathetic attempt to remedy this using flathead woodscrews was made. The instrument was clearly in need of being restored, especially the soundboard.

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But what really interested me was to observe the acoustical thinking expressed by the maker in this little instrument. It wasn't long before I had determined that this instrument was the work of a genius musical instrument maker. Everything original in the instrument, which was almost everything, was acoustically enhanced. The only work on this scale of acoustical refinement I have seen in antique instruments has been in the instruments of the greatest musical instrument makers of all time. In such instruments, nothing is left to chance, that is, every piece in the instrument is acoustically enhanced to optimize its sounding properties.

It was only after I acquired this instrument, some years later, that I was able to witness for myself exactly how extensively the maker had applied his acoustical craft to this instrument. Even the wierd looking legs are acoustically enhanced, which means that they are original to the instrument (though there has been some doubt in the minds of some about this). Only an absolute master of acoustics could have produced them.

Once I had acquired this instrument in late 2004, I was determined to put the instrument in full playing condition so I could satisfy myself that my initial evaluation of the maker's art was accurate. This meant I had to remove the soundboard and repair all the cracks, reglue the bridge, the ribs, and the rosette back onto the soundboard, and make any internal repairs resulting from the various attempts to incorrectly string the instrument, which, indeed, had resulted in a structural disintegration of the liner in the bass and the high treble, making it impossible for the instrument to hold tension in those areas of the instrument.

This is where the story really becomes interesting. What I found was an instrument that was built in the Northern European fashion. The maker had begun with a complete Italian harpsichord with a compass of C/E-f'''. He removed all the moldings from this instrument and glued to the bottom of the instrument a crude frame all around the instrument, like what one finds on the northern instruments. He then trimmed that frame flush to the edge of the case, then glued a 5/16ths inch thick veneer of spruce to the case all the way around the case, except the front. Again, like what one finds on northern instruments.

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Next, he cannibalized a pre-existing fully and extremely beautifully decorated harpsichord case, made in the Naples area (because it had a very long pointed tail), and resawed all the decoration off the sides (cheek, bentside, tail and spine)and glued them onto the sides of the harpsichord, again in the manner of the northern instrument makers. He added wood to the lid of the case he cannibalized to make it fit the harpsichord he was working on, then got a painter to devise a painting on that section so it blended perfectly with the original extremely high quality paintings already on the lid (inside and out) from that case. I suspect that he did all this because he was in a hurry to produce a spectacular looking harpsichord in as short a time as possible.

Since it is known that Jerome de Zentis worked in Stockholm, Sweden for about 10 years as the Royal Musical Instrument Maker to the court of Queen Christina, and it is known that she converted to Catholicism and abdicated the Swedish throne and moved to Rome to be near the Pope in 1658, the date on the instrument, it would stand to reason that she would have shipped her royal instrument maker ahead of her to Rome to build an instrument for her to use the moment she arrived. Since de Zentis was from Rome, I suspect that he merely had to locate one of his earlier constructions and set about building the instrument to fulfill her expectations as quickly as possible. Hence, the 'lifting' of parts from every possible source to save time, then making them work all in the same instrument as elegantly as possible...such that the result would be fit for a Queen. That indeed is exactly what can be observed in this instrument.

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Click here for another short Sound Sample of the 1658 de Zentis - designated by him as the "secundo" register (the forward 8')

Finally, he reused and added wood to the soundboard of his original harpsichord because he removed wood from the gap side of the pinblock to make everything work with the keyboard, he had 'lifted from another instrument', which was shorter, meaning he had to add a strip of wood to the belly rail to keep the gap dimensions intact. This meant he needed to shift the old soundboard towards the treble, which necessitated adding wood in the bass end. I know this because there are two incomplete sets of hitchpin holes in both the soundboard and in the liner. I say incomplete because in the bass end of the soundboard, there is only one set of holes. And in the treble, the first set of holes gets closer and closer to the edge of the soundboard under the soundboard molding as that part of the soundboard needed to be pared away to make it fit the case in its new position. There are also indications of the wood in the bass having been 'lifted from another instrument' as there are holes filled with gesso and tinted in that part of the soundboard.

Everything in the instrument suggests extreme haste and total masterful competence. Everything appears planned and intentional. Everything is clearly thought out acoustically speaking. Nothing is haphazard. Nothing is sloppy, even though much of the work is casual (a common trait in much of the best instrument making in the 17th century). Nothing done at that time is incompetent.

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Finally, de Zentis trimmed out the entire instrument in moldings. This is a fantastically difficult business requiring a superlative level of craft to create curved moldings along the top and inside of the lid where the shape follows the bentside. There are other details where having a curved molding on a flat surface can be found on this instrument. The question is: where did this idea come from? I am sure this question occurred to the folks at the Museum, too. Additionally, where did the design for the legs come from? The leg design is really wierd! However, knowing that the legs were built by someone who was a master of acoustics means that they are original. Therefore, there had to be something that inspired such a wierd design. Well, a friend of mine in Spain, Ron Walker, a serious antiquarian, supplied the answer. The design was 'lifted' from examples of ancient Roman furniture designs which could have been found around Rome at the time. The depictions found on wall paintings from that period show furniture that are clearly decorated with moldings all around, like the de Zentis harpsichord, and which follow the curvatures on flat surfaces. They also show legs of very similar designs. In other words, he cleverly and shrewdly connected his great patroness with the ancient Romans by borrowing their designs for furniture ornamentation for the instrument he was 'throwing together' for her.

The result of this work was a harpsichord of such great beauty and refinement that everyone who has owned it has gone through significant pains to preserve it from destruction. The only owner who failed in this was the Metropolitan Museum of Art folks in the early 1920's who put this treasure into the hands of a ??restorer?? who was clearly given instructions to create a folding keyboard cover for the instrument. We know this because the man was clearly proud of what he did and signed his name using a label for his business...sticking it to the back of the appliance. Whatever their reasons were for doing this, it clearly shows that, back then, they had no respect for the instrument as an acoustical document from that period.

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Once I got the soundboard back into the instrument and before I strung it up, I determined that I would store the original action inside the bottom of the instrument where there was space to tuck it safely for future restoration purposes. Then, I installed all new jacks and registers, as made from the originals, in order to get the instrument back into reliable working condition. The factor that forced this decision is that someone had GLUED!!!! bird feathers into the quill holes. Rather than waste time trying to carefully remove all those permanently installed quills, I thought it would be faster and more appropriate to install a new action and preserve the original action for restoration at a future time. Since working with all those small, exceedingly brittle parts required the patience of Job, something I am not graced with, I felt that new jacks and registers would make the instrument immediately more reliable and safer in the long term for anyone who was going to play the instrument and needed to replace quills on a regular basis. And because the keyboard only needed minor repairs and a basic regulation as well as reclothing, the instrument could be made fully functional almost immediately.

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Click here for a final short Sound Sample of the 1658 de Zentis - designated by him as the "primo & secundo" registers together(the two x 8')

You can tell from the three sound samples on this page that the sound of this instrument is as wonderful and precious as the appearance. It is the embodiment of charm and sweetness. By the way, each 8' register when sounding by itself creates a "d'amore" effect because the other 8' is totally undamped, making the sound meltingly delectible to hear. And, it is for this reason that I have invited players to make recordings on this instrument before it is sold to someone less generous than myself in this regard. It would be a real shame if, now that this great instrument is playing again for the first time since the late 17th century, the world was not privileged to hear the 'voice' of a true master of acoustics from that time and place. The sound is indeed fit for a Queen.

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Here is a photo of the de Zentis I made with my first Acoustical Technology student, Max Doronin. You can hear from the recording that the instrument bears a family resemblance.