c. 1625 Matteo Sellas

Venice, Italy

The closing years of the sixteenth century saw the first music written for the five-course guitar, initially involving a simple strumming technique used for accompanying other musicians. Because of its simplicity, many people were drawn to the guitar in contrast to its contemporary – the Baroque lute – which had evolved into an 11-course instrument by this time and was simply too much for the average player to contemplate.

Date c. 1625
Location Venice, Italy
Length of Guitar 920mm
String Length 640mm
Upper Bout Width 205mm
Waist Width 180mm
Lower Bout Width 253mm
Side Depth at Waist 78mm
Soundboard: Spruce | Back: Alternating strips of bone and snakewood | Sides: Alternating strips of bone and snakewood | Details: Embellished with ivory, ebony, tortoiseshell, and pearl; the bridge and part of the head are unoriginal.

Maker Biography

Performance Video

The Italian guitar virtuoso and composer Francesco Corbetta was to elevate the guitar’s prestige by developing a sophisticated repertoire for it, helping it to gain popularity as a solo instrument throughout Europe. It is believed that it was Corbetta who inspired both King Charles II of England and later his niece, Queen Anne, to take up the guitar.

The most renowned builders of the seventeenth-century five-course guitar were the Voboam family of Paris, Joachim Tielke of Hamburg, Antonio Stradivari of Cremona, and perhaps the most famous of guitar makers, the Sellas family of Venice.

Born Matthäus Seelos in Fuessen, Germany, Matteo Sellas (c. 1580–1654) established his workshop in Venice in the 1620s. The many unsigned extant examples found today may have been made by the apprentices who trained in Matteo’s workshop. Alternatively, many experts argue that Sellas’s signatures, usually placed on an ivory plaque found at the head, were often removed by unscrupulous dealers and added to a lesser instrument, thus creating two Sellas guitars to increase their profits. It’s therefore possible that some of the instruments not displaying any name today may have been made by Sellas.

The ratio of decorative guitars to plain ones is unknown because lavishly decorated instruments were probably afforded greater care, improving their chances for survival. Many of these fine guitars were likely converted due to changing music styles. This might include changing the number of strings and/or altering the bridge and its position. Fortunately, this practice prevented many instruments from being discarded altogether.

The Sellas School guitar from c. 1625 in the Austin-Marie Collection is embellished with ivory, ebony, tortoiseshell, and mother of pearl. Its delicately pierced rose was a common feature in instruments up until the mid-eighteenth century.

A dendrochronological report was prepared by Peter Ratcliff in 2010 for the soundboard of the Sellas School guitar in this collection. He found that the bass side most significantly matched reference and instrument chronologies from the year 1620, and that the treble side matched chronologies from the year 1616. There were over 100 positive results with series taken from other musical instruments and reference chronologies. It is believed that this instrument was built in or around 1625.

The soundboard is supported by two harmonic bars and one sloping bar in a design similar to that used by the Fabricatores two centuries later. The rose is of cut and pierced parchment in multilayers. The neck and head are veneered in ebony with ivory floral vines. The back and sides are made of alternating strips of bone and snakewood. The bridge and part of the head are unoriginal.

Performance Video