In Assisi, Crafting One’s Own Lutes
As a child growing up in Assisi, craftsman of medieval stringed instruments, Luca Piccioni, would have been familiar with such instruments from an early age. School trips in elementary school would have included guided visits of the medieval fresco wonders in the 13th-century Basilica di San Francesco. Gazing at the 14th-century Simone Martini frescoes in the Basilica Inferiore di San Franesco (the Lower Basilica), I wonder if Luca noted then the instruments, that one day he would handcraft, play and teach?
About four years ago, he made that Simone Martini chitarrino (“small guitar” – or gittern) strummed by a serious musician elegantly dressed in green and gold in the fresco in the Cappella di San Martino (Chapel of St Martin) of the Basilica Inferiore.
He showed it to me recently when I visited his bottega (workshop):
Luca has also reproduced the rosone (rose window) of the Basilica Superiore (Upper Basilica) on one of his lutes:
He produces his medieval stringed instruments in a small workshop behind his parents’ house in a side street in Santa Maria degli Angeli, an Assisi frazione (small suburb):
Luca’s bottega is a short distance from the 16th-century Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli……
…..built over the Porziuncola (“little portion”), the tiny chapel restored by St. Francis and his first followers in the 13th-century.
Inside the small chapel, Prete Ilario da Viterbo painted angeli musicanti (“music-playing angels”) at the end of the 14th century: the angels flank Christ and the Virgin enthroned in the tip of the arch behind the altar:
Images of those angel musicians are on the walls of Luca’s workshop:
The smiling angel in elegant gold is strumming a viella and the other in red is playing a lute:
Luca hasn’t reproduced that lute but he has reproduced the one strummed by the angel just behind the Virgin in the 15th-century wooden triptych by Matteo da Gualdo, now in Assisi’s Museo Capitolare di San Rufino (Museum of the Cathedral of San Rufino):
Made for a musician in Sicily, the rose of the lute soundbox in spruce and parchment is a masterpiece itself:
Luca has an in-depth knowledge of the depiction of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque instruments in art so I wondered if he had ever reproduced the musical instruments of the angeli musicanti flanking San Francesco in the 15th-century gonfalone (processional banner) of a medieval guild in that same museum:
He had not, Luca told me in a recent telephone conversation and then we talked in detail about those angeli musicanti and their instruments. Luca spoke as if he were right in front of that splendid gonfalone.
On my recent visit to his workshop, Luca told me about the origin of his ties to lutes, guitars and other stringed instruments. His veritable passione began at age nine with classical guitar lessons taught by Vincenzo Cipriani, a noted Assisi liutaio (maker of lutes or luthier) as well as a musician.
When he was nineteen, Luca worked part-time for four years with an art restoration while studying at the music conservatory of Terni, specializing in the music and artisanal instruments from the Middle Ages to the Baroque period. He made his own guitar for his exams there, using spruce, rosewood, and ebony.
You can see him in the photo below (on the left) playing that guitar some years ago in a concert of folk music:
While studying guitar, he also studied voice at the Conservatorio in Perugia and then studied the lute in Verona. He continued his study of music in Basel, Switzerland, taking the course, Master of Arts in Specialized Musical Performance at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis.
Over the years, Luca has performed in numerous concerts in Italy and abroad while also continuing his studies of the construction of medieval and Renaissance instruments.
Together with percussionist and psalterist, Massimiliano Dragoni, Luca founded the Ensemble Anonima Frottolisti, centered on the re-discovery of 15th and 16th-century frottole (polyphonic popular musical compositions).
And when not playing his lute – or giving musical lessons – he is probably designing or making a lute or gittern. Here are are some of the roses he has created for lute sound boxes:
And Luca’s craftmanship includes other instruments as well: when I visited, Luca was working on a harp, happy to explain to me how the instrument was being constructed. A lute was hanging behind him as he worked on the harp:
…and also a gittern dangling near a treasured maiolica sign that one of his music students had painted for him….
…with the inscription, “Luca Piccioni – lute-maker”:
Luca played his lute with the San Francesco rose window for me (N.B. mask on here as I was closer to him!):
Models, forms, slices of wood he would use for other instruments were in various corners of the workshop…
..and other pieces of cut wood were hanging on the wall – beneath a photo of Luca with the guitar he made.
Near that photo was a lute-in-progress:
On another wall, forms for instruments were placed over an image of the 13th-century Cimabue fresco of St. Francis in the Basilica Superiore:
The Cimabue fresco in the Basilica di San Francesco is very near the choir stall masterpiece with 102 seats, carved and inlaid for the Franciscans by Domenico Indovini and assistants, completed in 1501.
The backrest of 0ne of the seats is adorned with inlaid medieval musical instruments:
Luca knows the inlaid instruments well – logicamente – but due to lack of visible detail, those instruments could never be replicated.
Countless other artworks have inspired Luca’s craftsmanship including another Renaissance inlaid masterpiece, the 15th-century Renaissance Studiolo (“small study”) of Duke Guidobaldo di Montefeltro once in the Gubbio Ducal Palace.
As of 1939, the studiolo is in the Met and a copy is in Gubbio. Luca crafted the inlaid cetra (zither) of the Studiolo for a world-famous musician of medieval music:
Luca has also been inspired for his creations by the Flemish artist Gerard David (15th-16th c.): the rose on a lute soundboard was reproduced by Luca for the lute of a Portughese musician.
The pegs of an instrument in a David painting have also been reproduced by Luca on an instrument:
Years ago, Luca reproduced the rose window of Assisi’s 11th-century Benedictine Church of San Pietro for the rose on a lute soundboard:
I wonder if the rose window of the 12th-century Cathedral of San Rufino might be a future inspiration?
In any case, I know I’ll want to return soon to Luca’s bottega: to view the next masterpiece of this talented young craftsman.
…..and maybe with tour guests for a new tour, “Meeting the Artisans of Assisi”……?
(Mille grazie, Luca, for your time and grande passione. Thanks, too, to Ella Grima for some of the photos).
See the photos of Luca at work by Assisi photographer, Andrea Cova
Read about a fine artisan of Assisi, specializing in wood-carving
Click here to read about – and see! – the artisanal books and paper in Assisi