1652 Alexandre Voboam l’aîné

1652 Alexandre Voboam

Paris, France

The closing years of the sixteenth century bore witness to a decline in popularity of the four-course Renaissance guitar ushering in a period which saw the guitar fall out of fashion. Cyclical highs and lows have defined the instrument’s long history, driven by the vagaries of ever-changing musical tastes. The second quarter of the seventeenth century, however, witnessed the guitar’s revival – this time returning as a five-course instrument at the dawn of the Baroque.

Date 1652
Location Paris, France
Length of Guitar 953mm
String Length 705mm
Upper Bout Width 215mm
Waist Width 191mm
Lower Bout Width 257mm
Side Depth at Waist 88mm
Soundboard: Spruce | Back: Five cedar panels separated by four ivory strips | Sides: Cedar | Details: Bridge is unoriginal.

Maker Biography

Performance Video

The guitar’s resurgence is best explained in the writings of a French magistrate Pierre Trichet, who in 1641 described the guitar craze sweeping France and the rest of Europe. Trichet attributed much of the guitar’s popularity to the relative ease of playing the instrument as compared to the cumbersome Baroque lute, a sentiment that may have been commonplace. In 1647, Sir Ralph Verney, an English nobleman who had fled to France during the turmoil of the English Civil War, wrote to his wife Mary suggesting that their son’s tutor should “teach him the gittar and to sing to it, for the Lute is soe tedious a thing that I doubt (unlesse hee made it his whole businesse) hee would never play well.”  

The five-course guitar’s continued rise in popularity was no doubt helped by the celebrated career of the Italian guitar virtuoso/composer, Francesco Corbetta (c. 1615–1681), whose performances for the aristocracy throughout Europe were heralded with much acclaim. Corbetta eventually joined Charles II at the Restoration Court in London in the early 1660s where for many years he held a position performing, composing, and tutoring. His pupils included Princess Anne Stuart, the future Queen Anne of Great Britain.

While several exceptional guitars have survived from the seventeenth century, it is the instruments built by the Sellas family of Venice, the Voboam family of Paris, Joachim Tielke of Hamburg, and the legendary Antonio Stradivari of Cremona that are recognized as the finest examples of Baroque and Rococo guitar lutherie.

The Voboam family settled in Paris at the turn of the seventeenth century, likely immigrating from the Netherlands. The dynasty began with René Voboam, who appears to have been active beginning in or around 1630, and ended three generations later with René’s great grandson, Jean-Jacques Voboam.

Fewer than 30 guitars signed by Voboam family members are known to have survived, four of them by Alexandre Voboam the elder (presumably René’s younger brother). Three guitars by Alexandre I carry the date of 1652, including the Alexandre Voboam in the Austin-Marie Collection.

The French musicologist Florence Gétreau has described and categorized three basic models of guitar built by Voboam family luthiers: common, classic, and decorative. Of the three Alexandre Voboam guitars from 1652, two are what she refers to as “common” in that they have a relatively plain design. The third guitar (the Voboam in this collection) represents what she refers to as Alexandre’s “classical” style: a five-course guitar with a flat back made of five cedar panels separated by four strips of ivory, adorned with a diagonal inlay pattern of ebony and ivory bordering the perimeter of the body and continuing up the neck to the nut. The inlay pattern is repeated on the headstock. The ribs are made of three strips of African blackwood separated by two ivory bands. The top is made of spruce and the bridge (unoriginal) is adorned with an ornate mustache appliqué of ebony. There is an ivory plaque affixed to the head that reads: Alexandre voboam a paris 1652.

A third category of guitars that Gétreau refers to as “decorative” were likely special orders built for wealthy clients and royalty. These instruments were heavily embellished, often making ample use of red-stained tortoiseshell, ivory, and ebony in florid designs.

Most Voboam guitars sit behind glass in museum cases scattered across the globe. Very few remain in private hands, adding to the rarity of the instrument in this collection.