he beauty of a musical instrument apart from its sound does not stem from a few aspects of its decoration, but from the balance of its proportions. "What's good for the eye is good for the ear" has guided luthiers and other instrument makers for centuries in their quest for perfection.Grant Tomlinson, applying varnish to the back of a Renaissance Lute
in Vancouver, 1991.
In the three hundred some years between the beginning of the Renaissance and the end of the baroque period, there was a broad array of musical styles. Changes were closely linked with history and social conventions, which dictated the kinds of art objects people preferred at different periods. For example, the Italian Renaissance, with its humanist approach inherited from the Greeks, encouraged the production of musical instruments that, in addition to pleasing the ear, would satisfy and delight the eye, like painting and architecture.
This philosophy also spawned the belief that "Man is the measure" in the rule of proportions. Vitruvius (Marcus Vitruvius Pollio), a Roman architect employed by the emperor Augustus, conveyed this notion in De Architectura, which explains that the human body and its extended limbs mark the confines of a perfect circle and a square. This rule of proportions, called "the golden mean," was illustrated by numerous Renaissance artists, the most famous of whom was undoubtedly Leonardo da Vinci (see The Vitruvian Man of Perfect Proportions).
Studies on the proportions of Renaissance and baroque musical instruments suggest that luthiers of those periods were aware of the mathematical concept of the golden mean. Its application to instrument making produced shapes which are considered aesthetically perfect and which, on closer study, reveal the geometry of the instrument. This geometry provided the luthier with a simple method to achieve a harmonious shape.
During the baroque period, this sober and somewhat abstract aestheticism coexisted with a decorative style so exuberant that it sometimes overwhelmed the true function of musical instruments, which came to symbolize social standing.
Yet, the practice of decorating musical instruments is very old indeed. Some decorated instruments have been found to date back to the Stone Age and the Bronze Age in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece. In the Middle Ages, the decoration of the psaltery led to the tradition of rose decorations found on later stringed instruments. The organ, associated with religious music, was decorated with sculptures that blended with the architecture of its site. In secular music, some instruments began to be embellished; for example, the hurdy-gurdy was given a sculpted head. This decorative practice continued in the centuries that followed, reaching its peak in the baroque period. Decorative styles subsequently became more subdued, confined to details such as roses on soundboards, sculpted heads, and marquetry.
With the advent of the industrial era and mass production, instrumental decorations gradually disappeared. By the turn of the century, hand-decorated instruments had all but vanished. The practice was revived only later, with the renewed interest in early music and instruments produced in the historically correct manner. Today, the instruments played in symphony orchestras are quite sober. The focus is mainly on the instrument's tone, along with its harmonious shape, pleasing colour, fine craftsmanship and, for the musician playing it, balance and personal suitability.