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The Buttafuoco


A Study


Goffredo Degli Esposti

                                           The Buttafuoco or the String Drum in Italy


The theme of this essay is to broaden the information, application and view of the Buttafuoco:


The instrument is a large percussion psalter, almost rectangular in shape, which is played simultaneously with a 3-holed flute.

The Buttafuoco is one of the main sixteenth-seventeenth-century stringed instruments characteristic of the Neapolitan area. It had its historical development in Western Europe, from the Middle Ages to the Baroque, and is still in use in the traditional music of a limited geographical area in ​​the Pyrenees, divided by the border between Spain and France, where it is mainly identified with the name "String Drum".

As a musician-researcher-experimenter, I am presenting for you here here proposing the buttafuoco in its most recent final experimental form. It was initially present (reuse) in the repertoire of Italian dances from the second half of the 16th and early 17th centuries, and as is currently used by me in my current performance repertoire and composition.

This essay will touch on a range of topics, comparing the historical Buttafuoco with the traditional
String Drum and my presentation is illustrated with images and literary quotations as I portray this instrument.

Although my iconographic documentation is much more extensive, I publish here only a selection of
images, enough to illustrate the history and significance of the Buttafuoco.

A Study

The Buttafuoco can be described as a percussion psalter which, as a drone instrument, is played supported with one arm, usually the left, and leaning against the body. It is characteristically played simultaneously with a small traditional flute of the period also using the left hand.  The Buttafuoco is struck with a stick - at the time called a mace -  held in the right hand, while the left hand plays the flute.


A single player is able to play the melody, the rhythm while at the same time providing the harmonic support. This provided the essential support for the dances of the time.


The sound of the Buttafuoco is characterised by the strong presence of harmonics, enhanced thanks to the presence of harpoons (wooden or metal tangents) on which the strings strike, once struck, during their oscillation.

The Buttafuoco is not particularly difficult to play. It is a percussion instrument, and the stick that strikes it creates rhythms by hitting all of the strings at the same time , without inclination. 


It is much more difficult to manage the 3-hole flute, while managing the harmonies; the flute has a fairly large range of about two octaves, and is suitable for modal melodies or an instrumental drone.

The sound of the buttafuoco is characterized by the strong presence of harmonics, enhancedthanks to the presence of harpoons (wooden or metal tangents) on which the strings strike, oncestruck, during their oscillation.photoOn a technical level, actually, the buttafuoco is not difficult to play, because it is a percussioninstrument, and the stick that strikes it performs rhythms by hitting all the strings at the same time(therefore without inclination, but used with a dish). It is much more difficult to manage the 3-holepipe, due to the technique of harmonic sounds; the flare has a fairly large scale (about two octaves), suitable for modal melodies (ie on the drones of the instrument).



Probably of Spanish origin, and in use in Italy as a traditional strung percussion instrument of the Middle Ages, is one of the main stringed instruments characteristic of the Neapolitan area.
The buttafuoco / string drum is spread over three eras, each with its own characteristics:

The Middle Ages
The instrument is basically a long psalter with few strings (2 or 3), which is placed on the body and is struck with one or two sticks. It is mainly depicted in religious scenes.

The Renaissance
The instrument has several strings (from 5 to 9), played as drones, or grouped in choirs, it is struck with a single stick while the other hand plays a small flute.
It is mostly depicted in religious scenes, played by angels, but we also have images, a few, of secular scenes.

The Baroque
The strings are grouped in chords; it can play both drone and single basses. It takes a long trapezoidal shape with wave shaped sides. It changes in the depiction of religious scenes (the angels who play it disappear and it remains only in those  outdoors) while images of rural scenes with pastoral dances prevail.


For the Middle Ages we must refer to the work of the musicologist Rosario Álvarez who identified
this type of two-stringed drum (from the 15th century), and which is called dicordio percutido (in
Latin it means 2 struck strings) or chorus (also in Latin , or chorus, which is the name given to the
pair of strings, tuned the same, typical of some chordophones).

Giraldus Cambrensis (c. 1146 - c. 1223), a Welsh cleric of the 12th century, tells us that the chorus
was played by the Scots (besides the chitara and the tympanon) and by the Welsh (as well as alla
chitara and tibiae), and it seems who also used metal (brass) strings.
Aimeric de Peyrac (1330? - 1407), Benedictine abbot in Moissac, says that the chorus has double
strings tuned together and strident (Quidam Chorus consonantes, Duplicem chordam

Eustache Deschamps (ca.1340 - ca.1406), in one of her ballads, written for the death of the great
Guillaume de Machaut, says: "Rothes, guiternes, flaûtres, chalémie, Traversaines, Et vous, Nymphes de boys, Tympanne aussi, mettés en oeuvre dois Et le choro. n’y ait nul qui réplique Faites devoirs, plourés, gentils Galois La mort Machau, the noble rhétorique… "


chorus (15th century, church of Caudebec en Caux, France)
Jean Lefèvre (1320-1380), procurator at the Parliament of Paris, in the poem La Vieille, which is
the translation from Latin into old French of a long poem, also writes it in the form and manner of
being played:
«Cymbale en poussant font grant noise
Et le choron d’une grant boise
Quant on le bat dessus la corde
Avecques les autres agrees ".

chorus (painting on parchment - 15th century, Bibliothèque de Lyon)

chorus (early 15th century, terracotta vault of the Palau Dalmases chapel, Barcelona)

chorus (15th century, Book of Hours, France, Morgan Library)