In May 2014 the University’s collections.ed.ac.uk site went live. Having been up for a little over a year it is easy to provide evidence to show how successful it has been – the MIMEd curatorial staff get many emails from people who have seen some of our instruments on the site. Indeed, the statistics on the site show that the MIMEd pages have been visited approximately 100,000 times in total.
Delving deeper into the statistics does throw up a few slight shocks. MIMEd has a number of iconic items, and the curatorial staff would perhaps have expected to see one of these classic instruments being accessed most. Perhaps the Taskin harpsichord, or the Ruckers harpsichord with its uniquely-surviving transposing keyboards. Or perhaps a really early instrument – the mid-sixteenth century Bassano recorder, or his violins, or perhaps the Schnitzer trombone from 1594. Even our Buchenberg lute, or a Staufer, Lacote, or Fabricatore guitar. Or even – judging from its popularity when on display before the collection closed – the Fender electric guitar
It was surprising that it was none of the above, but rather the harpsichord by Stefano Bolcioni. In one way it is gratifying to know this – the Bolcioni will be the first instrument to be seen on the right-hand side as one walks into the keyboard galleries from the reception area once the collection re-opens to the public.
The Bolcioni harpsichord is listed as a triple-manual harpsichord, and perhaps it is the three keyboards that make it of particular interest. But in this is a tale that is well worth the telling. It was collected by Raymond Russell, who, in his book The Harpsichord and Clavichord (still the standard introductory textbook) included it as a genuine three-manual instrument. But, certainly soon after its arrival with Russell’s other instruments in Edinburgh – or possibly before – it was realised that much of what is seen is the handiwork of Leopold Francioilini, a notorious Florentine forger, and the instrument was included in one of his sale catalogues. Even after passing through his hands the instrument was further altered, gaining a new stand, and case exterior and lid interior decoration.
Franciolini’s work was fairly comprehensive and invasive. He started with a genuine single manual harpsichord by Bolcioni, replaced much of the interior (including cutting part of the soundboard) to fit the three keyboards (perhaps from an organ) into the case, made new bridges, wrestplank and nuts, and gave a registration where each keyboard had its own set of strings, albeit that the keyboards could be partly coupled to get more than one set of strings playing at a time. Looking at the instrument, it is unlikely it ever was playable in this altered state. But, just as the three keyboards are probably greatly responsible for the number of times the harpsichord has been accessed on collections.ed.ac.uk, it no doubt helped fetch a price much in excess of if it was left in original condition.
Despite the alterations, the original state can be determined with only minor points of conjecture. It is particularly interesting (at least to organologists) that its original state has split keys (so that the note e-flat is a slightly different pitch to d-sharp, and g-sharp is different to a-flat). This was, in fact, quite common in Italy in the early seventeenth century, but it had an extended bass which allowed the player access to notes below to “normal” lowest one. This was very rare, with only a handful of surviving examples having evidence of this arrangement.
All of the displayed keyboard instruments will be organised into various themes. The Bolcioni will be in a section called “Copies and Counterfeits” alongside the Falkener harpsichord, Hubert clavichord and 1638 Ruckers harpsichord.