The Cittern in Vermeer's Paintings

Girl Intterupted in her Music, Johannes Vermeer
Girl Interrupted in her Music (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1658–1661
Oil on canvas, 39.3 x 44.4 cm.
Frick Collection, New York

The cittern was one of the most popular musical instruments of the mid-seventeenth century and it was also the one most frequently depicted by Vermeer. Although its form may recall the more familiar lute, it has a very different history and above all, it produces a very different sound making it adapted for different music. The cittern's string are made of metal while the lute's are of natural animal gut. In particular, the brass strings of the cittern sound much louder, also because they are played with a plectrum. Its sprightly and cheerful sound is comparable to the modern banjo although a good cittern sounds a bit like the virginal. Instead, the lute is plucked by the bare fingers and produces a softer, nostalgic tone.

We find five citterns represented in Vermeer's 36 extant paintings even though the whole instrument is visible only in The Love Letter. The work's crystalline edges and brilliant color scheme which sparkles with life seem suggestive of the cittern's own tonal properties. The artist may have chosen to depict the cittern particular instrument because of its particular iconographical meaning which was more evident to his viewers although it can not be ruled out that its curious, almond-like form would have equally appealed to his aesthetic sensibilities.

The Glass of Wine, Johannes Vermeer
The Glass of Wine
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1658–1661
Oil on canvas, 65 x 77 cm.
Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

In three paintings, The Concert, The Girl Interrupted in her Music and The Glass of Wine, the cittern lies partially hidden on a table or a chair even though the more informed viewer has no problem in identifying its typical flat body, different from the pear-shaped body of the lute. In the early Procuress instead, its typical ornately carved peghead leaves no doubt that it is indeed a cittern and not another instrument. In the Girl Wearing a Pearl Necklace a neutron autoradiographic image demonstrates that a cittern was also included a sixth time (it was set upon the foreground chair), but it was later painted out by the master himself for unknown reasons.


The Cittern
Dutch: cister or cither
German: Cister
Italian: cetra
French:. cistre

The cittern, belonging to the lute family, is likewise a "composite cordophone" (Hornbostel-Sachs, see Lute). The string bearer (neck) and the resonator (soundboard) form an organic unity; the sound is produced by plucking the strings, in this case usually with a plectrum.


Apollo Citharoedus with kithara

In Italian Renaissance humanist culture the cittern was regarded as a classical revival of the ancient Greek kithara (from which its name derives; see Winternitz), but it seems to have its direct development from the medieval citole and have likewise some similarities with the fiddle, as its plucked form. There are no surviving instruments from the early period, but various iconographic sources including intarsie, miniatures in manuscripts or sculptures. The composer and theorist Johannes Tinctoris seems to describe an early kind of the cittern in his De Inventione (c. 1487): "Yet another derivative of the lyra is the instrument called cetula by the Italians, who invented it. It has four brass or steel strings ... and it is played with a quill. Since the cetula is flat, it is fitted with certain wooden elevations on the neck, arranged proportionately, and known as frets. The strings are pressed against these by the fingers to make a higher or lower note."

The structure and tuning of the cittern varied almost from country to country. While in England, France and northern Europe the small four-course-instrument was mainly used, Italian musicians preferred the larger six-course instrument.

The cittern achieved its greatest importance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Above all in Italy and in England it was held in high esteem both as an accompanying instrument for the singing voice or for dance music. Later, many compositions were written expressively for it, often intricate and difficult to play. The first printed books, principally with pieces by Guillaume Morlaye, Pierre Phalèse, Robert Ballard and Adrian Le Roy (with instructions for tuning and stringing) were published in France and Flandern (1552–1582).

The first Italian publication of cittern music was Paolo Virchi's Il primo libro di tabolatura di citthara (1574) for a fully chromatic six-course instrument, which demanded considerable technical virtuosity. One of the famed Italian instrument makers for string instruments was Girolamo Virchi (father of Paolo V.) of Brescia, a center for musical instrument making in that time. Some of his instruments have survived, among them the lavishly decorated cittern made for Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol (see right)

In England the first cittern music appeared in the mid-sixteenth century in the Mulliner Book with eight pieces for four-course cittern and one for five-course cittern. The most famous English composers were Anthony Holborne with his well-known Cittharn Schoole (1597) and c (A Booke of New Lessons for the Cithern & Gittern, 1652).

Published music for the cittern in Germany is mainly represented by Sixt Kargel. The first two editions of his Renovata Cythara (1569 and 1575) are lost, but a reprint of 1580 survived. In the seventeenth century Michael Praetorius suggested using citterns in his vocal publications Polyhymnia (1619). A later seventeenth-century German development is a small, bell-shaped instrument, known as "Cithrinchen" (little cittern) which had its own repertory, but retains most of the classical characteristics of the cittern. In South Germany and the German-speaking areas of Switzerland the cittern remained in use until the early twentieth century, but with some of the constructional features of earlier citterns. The various names like "Bergzither" (mountain) or "Thüringer Waldzither" (forrest) indicate its use mainly in traditional folk music.

.by Adelheid Rech.

The Love letter, Johannes Vermeer
The Love Letter (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1667–1670
Oil on canvas, 44 x
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
The Concert, Johannes Vermeer
The Concert (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1663–1666
Oil on canvas, 72.5 x 64.7 cm.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston
The {Procuress, Johannes Vermeer
The Procuress (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
Oil on canvas, 143 x 130 cm.
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden
Cittern built by Girolamo Virchi (Brescia 1574) for the Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol. The head is a beautiful sculpture meant to portray the death of Lucretia.

Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien
Three citterns in Marin Mersenne's
Harmonie universelle