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.


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)


The Renaissance Buttafuoco was an instrument linked to the popular world but, given its effectiveness and appreciation, it was also used in the noble sphere (and played by these, as in the case of Baldano; moreover, it is depicted on the bas-reliefs of some tombstones of noble families , in Naples).


The relationship of the Buttafuoco with the musical tradition of the Pyrenees and with the Spanish tradition in general, is an important criteria to help clarify the origin and area of expansion.


As regards Italy, it is interesting to note the coincidence of the geographical area of greatest diffusion of the instrument with the South which, in this historical period, was under the dominion of the Spaniards settled in the Viceroyalty of Naples.

Starting from this era, we can begin to consider the Buttafuoco / String Drum as a complete instrument, that is double, since it appears in art played by a single musician simultaneously with a pipe (small 3-hole flute).




This frieze contains other musicians, some clothed and others as naked allegorical figures. There are a pair of trumpets, two others with the triangle and the drum, a viola, a lute, etc.


In the first dating hypothesis (1415), he would be an Angevin (French) musician, which I do not feel like speculating. In the second dating hypothesis (1481), more likely to me, he could very well be an Aragonese musician, given that Alfonso V, king of Aragon, called the Magnanimous, settled in Naples in 1443 (note: for the study of this document I refer to another future article).


The instrument in this image -  the "Assumption of the Virgin Mary" (1488-1492), by Filippino Lippi, there is an angel playing the flute accompanying himself with a psalter (with a strange shape closer to the speakers harmonicas of violas) with three strings struck by a stick (perhaps inheritance of the chorus).


Since its shape is somewhat different from the traditional one, this could be the version known as the "Altobasso". Note the detail above in the image of the fresco in the Chapel of Cardinal Caraffa.

In Italy, in the Renaissance period, the buttafuoco is precisely identifiable with the stick psalter
(with 4-6 strings) which is played on drones (as in the musical tradition of the Pyrenees, where it is
called a string drum); its characteristic is to be played, by the same player, together with a flute (a
small flute with only 3 holes). Supported with one arm, usually the left, and leaning against the
body, the buttafuoco is struck with a stick (at the time called mace) held by the right hand, while the
left hand plays the flute (otherwise called siscariello). Thus, a single player can play the melody,
the rhythm and the harmonic support, and it is possible to perform the dances that were
appreciated by the dancers at the time.

Among the earliest depictions of the Buttafuoco / String Drum, with four strings, is in the
Cathedral of Matera (1534), where this instrument is played in pairs with a tambourine. See below...


Frieze - Sulmona. Palazzo of the Annunziata Church complex)

Buttafuoco Lippi

Filippino Lippi - detail from The Assumption of the Virgin Mary - Carafa Chapel

Unfortunately, the Buttafuoco has disappeared from Italian popular music (its traces have been lost since the mid-17th century). However, it can be considered widespread in the Renaissance, especially between 1500 and 1630. To document this, there are several pictorial representations, drawings, miniatures, and sculptures in our churches, as well as literary quotations and archival documents.

The Renaissance buttafuoco was, together with the colascione, the guitar, and later the violin, an instrument belonging to professional musicians who passed between the noble and religious environment, like the popular one but, given its effectiveness and appreciation, it was also played by nobles (in fact it is depicted on the bas-reliefs of some tombstones of noble families, in Naples), and widespread in various parts of Italy and Europe.

In these 3 following images, the Buttafuoco is next to a pipe and drum player, as if to remember the close relationship and musical similarity: the pipe is the same, while you can have either a leather drum or a string drum .


On the other hand, the pipe and tabor was a professional instrument (it was used to teach dances and in dance parties), as well as being an instrument of military use (in music for marching). Note the length of the flute (it is known that the flute had at least 2 most used sizes, soprano and tenor, and a third bass size).



Following, two more representations in which the buttafuoco is played without the pipe. 

Note, in the central image below, under the foot of the figure who plays it, the typical Renaissance case for flutes of various sizes


Regarding the training and professional transmission of instrumental technique, we have the following:

- 1534, (in Cosenza, Calabria) between a Neapolitan master, Iacovo Ispolo, and the young Filippo
Sisca di Figline, it was established that ... for a three-year period Filippo would be at the master's
service and "that ipso magisterium Jacovo had them in learning the art de sonare as frauto as the
cembalo and other instruments ... in the end of this three years this magister Jacovo will donate to
this Filippo a Canto (soprano flute) and a Buttafoco with five strings".

- 1537, the agreement is renewed "... et ipso magistro Iacovo promicte cum juramento inparare the
predicto Filippo so as to play the buctafoco drum and frauto so much of Canto (soprano flute) or as
a tenor as well as to dance and donate them all bassedanze et a dances".

This means, clearly specified here, that the flute played with the buttafuoco could have two roles, soprano and tenor, in performing both dances and basses. And that musical education involved teaching several instruments. We are in Cosenza, not too far from Matera (170 km, approx.), Precisely in the years in which the crib of the Cathedral is carved in which there is a Buttafuoco player.



Another testimony (in Cassano, 38 km from Cosenza, on the direction of Matera):
- 1565 Synod of Giambattista Serbellone elected by the Holy See for the Diocese of Cassano:
“That there are not musical and pagan instruments in the churches. It is inconvenient and dissaprov ed of by the said Holy Council ... ... to use certain secular (profane?) instruments, such as Ceramelle, Buttafochi, Tamborini and the like ... ".
Here we have the prohibition of “profane” instruments in the church, after the Council of Trent
(1545-63); thus, his representation in religious subjects begins to diminish.

- 1574, Cesare Negri, Le Gratie d’Amore. In the Author's Masquerade in honor of Don Giovanni
d’Austria, held in Milan, it is quoted: "Follow a Shepherd with a buttafoco ...".



- 1587, in the Medici Cloakroom of Florence it is quoted: “A t buttafoco with his stick…”.


- 1592, in the inventory (list) of the Marquis Ferdinando d’Alarçon, descendant of an aristocratic
Spanish family, the following are included:  "Two robes of Bottafoco " (two cloth cases).
The relationship of the Buttafuoco with the musical tradition of the Pyrenees and with
the Spanish tradition in general, is an important criteria to clarify the origin, area of ​​expansion and
conservation; but currently it is not possible to say with certainty where this was invented.



string drum
(Feast of Herod and Beheading of St. John the Baptist XVI century, church of Barruera, Boí,
Catalan Pyrenees - disappeared work but documented by photos from 1922)
This above is one of the oldest Spanish images showing it in use in a noble setting, played in
tandem with a viola da braccio.
As for Italy, it is interesting to note the correspondence of the geographical area of greatest
diffusion of this instrument with the South which was under the dominion of the Spaniards
(although there is no lack of evidence for other areas of Italy as well).

string drum


(1487-1506, Master of Javerre, Spain);0
reproduction of the panel of Saint Vincent entouré d’anges musiciens / Ecole catalane du XVe
(click on the link)

In fact, the Spaniards (first Aragonese, later Castilians) settled in Naples from the mid-fifteenth
century, so there is a great ferment due to the encounter between Spanish and native cultures,
with a strong impulse to the development of both instruments and musical forms. Among the tools,
there are some, such as the buttafuoco, which had a period of grace but which will then fall into

string drum between viola da gamba and rebeca
(Jorge Alfonso - Adoration of the Shepherds, 1515, Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon)
In the Spanish Viceroyalty of Naples, the music in vogue are mainly polyphonic pieces, generally in
3 parts, such as the villanelle and the moresche: the first, strophic, with a predominantly
homorhythmic writing; the latter, more complex, employ counterpoint passages and continuous
tempo changes. In the texts, the Moorish women use a popular language, metaphorical and
onomatopoeic, with continuous references to peasant environments, to animals, in an unfolding of
often comic and grotesque stories; the villanelle sometimes present more courtly texts, with
references to situations of love and courtship, while not lacking those of a popular character.


Not a few of these music are adaptable for the Buttafuoco.


tring drum
(Jorge Alfonso - Assumption, part 1515, Lisbon, Museo Nac. De arte antigua, Portugal)
For the documentation of dances, however, the Book of Giovanni Lorenzo Baldano (1600-1603),
documents 36! A wide repertoire, therefore, of unique importance (1): in fact, all the main dances
of the 16th century are included (the Ruggiero, the Gran Duca's Ball, the Bergamasca, the
Girometta, Ciaccona). Giovanni Lorenzo Baldano, noble of Savona (1576-1660), and precious
witness of the influence of the musical environment of Naples, a city that was in close commercial

contact with Savona and where he had most likely stayed, is a key figure, because there he leaves
a manuscript, unknown until a few years ago (the first part contains about 160 passages for
sordellina, a courtly bagpipe). Baldano writes this book in cryptic form, dedicating it to his beloved,
the noble Clara Maria Cerrato. At the end of the book (actually, reversing it, it is at the opposite
beginning), there are the 36 pieces for Buttafuoco.


It should be noted that most of this music, performed by Baldano, correspond to those listed by
Basile in his early 17th century opera (see following chapter).

List of passages from the Book of G. L. Baldano:
1 – Ruggiero
2 – La Bassa delle villanelle
3 – Girometta
4 – Sarabanda
5 – La Follia
6 – Le Reginelle
7 – Gagliarda
8 – Canario
9 – Ruggiero in Saltarello
10 – Corrente La Vidovella
11- Corrente Morinero
12 – Corrente Zaninetta pigliate fondin
13 – La Musa
14 – Le Cerasele
15 – La Bergamasca
16 – Corrente Te l’accaterò, te l’accatterò
17 – La Musa In altro modo
18 – Iva alla vigna
19 – Tordione
20 – Spagnoletta
21 – Villano
22 – Bassa imperiale
23 – Pavaniglia
24 – Bassa delle Ninffe
25 – Sfessania
26 – Madama la domanda
27 – Spalata
28 – Tenore
29 – La Bassa delle villanele con sua perfettione
30 – Mastro Ruggiero
31 – Ruggiero
32 – Le Cerasele
33 – Norcina
34 – La Cerrata

35 – Bella Claretta balli vorente
36 – Lucia mozzata

Tablature of Buttafoco, 18 °, G. L. Baldano, 1600, Savona.
Unfortunately, the Di Buttafoco tablature cannot be deciphered, because Baldano uses a type of
writing without providing any reading key (on the contrary, for the sordellina tablature it provides a
legend). In the stylistic comparison with the passages for sordellina, we note a simplification of the
writing and an absence of subsequent variations.
However, lately, I have been able to make a hypothesis of interpretation of the tablature, which I
am working on.



Some literary testimonials:

Sometimes referred to as the Vuttafuoco rather than Buttafuoco, as a result of a betacism: a phonetic phenomenon where the " b " can be transformed into " v " or vice versa; in surnames for example. Vattiato forBattiato, Basile for Vasile, etc.)

- 1600 ca., Aurelio Virgiliano, Il Dolcimelo. Among the instruments of the chapter "garbage can" (to
be made disappear or that were already disappearing) we quote: ";the Buttafoco"

- 1612, Giulio Cesare Cortese, La Vaiasseide. In the poem we find:
"Then, to entertain us until the nigthfall
We called one with the vottafuoco"

- 1621, in the Medici Cloakroom of Florence it is quoted: "An old buttafuoco with his mace ..."; and
";A wooden buttafuoco with his mace ...";.

- 1622, in the Medici Cloakroom of Florence it is quoted: "An old buttafuoco, with his mace ..."t;

- 1627, Rome, in the State Archives, in the inventory of Cardinal Del Monte there is: "... A

- 1628, Bartolomeo Zito, La Vaiasseide. In the poem we find: ";... and with the vottafuoco, the
siscariello (little flute), and the harp if we start dancing.";

17th century, Museo Settala: pag. 391 .... Marine trumpets. Dulcimer. Buctafoco. (and before:
Sordellina of singular harmony …)

- 1632, Giulio Cesare Cortese, Li Travagliuse Ammure de Ciullo and Perna: ";... where the stars tothe vottafuoco de le Sfere make Tordeglione..."; (page 340)



Among the most interesting, and colorful, evidence of musical activity in Naples during this
period, there is what is narrated in "Lo Cunto de li cunti" by Giambattista Basile


(Naples c. 1575-1632). This fairytale book, set up like Boccaccio's “Decameron”, opens and closes each of the 5 days with descriptions of convivial moments with music and dancing; the Vuttafuoco is never missing, combined with the colascione and other percussion instruments (t

1634, Giambattista Basile, Lo Cunto de li Cunti. In this work we find: “the king brought them
vottafuoche and,…, he made a great party…”.
Again ";... they brought them vottafuoche, ... with great
taste to dance, ..."
. Finally  "de servants, ... they came quickly with colascione, tammorrielle, cetole, harps, ... vottafuoche ..., made a beautiful symphony and sonatas …";.

buttafuoco, vertically, under various musical instruments
(detail of the portrait of Scapino - Francesco Gabrielli - by Carlo Biffi, 1633 - Bologna)

- 1635, Giambattista Basile, Egloche. In Talia:

"... there are vottafuoche and rebecchine.";
In Calliope:
“the concert was worth more
of the past time ...
... the vottafuoco with the siscariello (pipe), ... ";

"... he gives her the siscariello ...
... wants the vottafuoche; “.

buttafuoco paired with lira da braccio
(Giovan Battista Bracelli - Figures with musical instruments and Boscharecci, 1630? -
part.engraving - British Museum)

- 1664, Paolo Maria Terzago, Museum Septalianum (Modena), list. "Instrument familiar to
Calabreans ... they call it Buttafuoco ...".

- 1666, Pietro Francesco Scartabelli, Museum or Gallery, list. "... A buttafuoco known to Africans,
& widely used among Calabresi ....".
Here, it seems to me important to pay attention to these last two testimonies: they delimit an area
(South, Calabria) and specify the name of the buttafuoco.

(Ventura Salimbeni, fresco with musician angels, Oratory of the Holy Trinity, 1602 - Siena)


In this period, the 18th century, it became a fashionable musical instrument at the French Court. Now his
representations are increasing, as a characteristic rural instrument for outdoor dances (same story
for bagpipes and hurdy-gurdies). This is because in France, both the nobles and the wealthy
bourgeoisie, to escape from a monotonous existence full of constraints, became passionate
about rural life and "gallant parties ", bucolic atmospheres.


Here then is the flourishing of country concerts and dances, with representations of soloists or
small instrumental ensembles as in the following images