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The Renaissance Sordellina

Polyphemus playing the Sordellina (half 17° cent., Metropolitan Museum of New York)


A Courtly Zampogna as the origin of the Popular Zampogna

From where did the Italian Zampogna originate?


I'm referring to the instrument as we know it, with two pipes for the melody and one or more drones inserted in a single stock.


What musical need gave rise to the creation of this instrument? I asked these questions in the course of my enthusiastic research into the Mediterranean Zampogna, to which the Sordellina certainly gives a partial but interesting answer.


In fact, while the name sampogna appears in texts in the vernacular right from the end of the fourteenth century, there is no clear visual representation of this instrument, in contrast to the many representations of Medieval bagpipes.


Above all, we analyse the changes regarding the musical repertory and style.
The emergence of music in thirds: a world of sound that already began to become apparent at the beginning of the fifteenth century, and definitively established itself at the end of the century. In fact, in the Renaissance the upper voices in four-part polyphonies established this melodic procedure for thirds (even parallel to the music of the villanelle!). So, why not construct a bagpipe that plays in thirds?

A Study



The sordellina was reconstructed by Franco Calanca (1) who, based on various indications and research on my part which started in 2003, constructed this important instrument, a link between the courtly and the popular zampogne. The numerous gaps in the information have been filled by iconographic investigation, by the study of the manuscript and of the descriptions of the Harmonie Universelle (1636) by Marin Mersenne. Thus, after several attempts, we achieved a first model composed of 2 chanters, with double reeds in thirds, and 2 drones in eighths, for which the solution of the simpler reeds was chosen, since they had a more delicate sound. Our hypothesis is that the sordellina has a natural scale of G minor, because most of the pieces by Baldano seem to be in a minor key, with the keys used to play in the major key. The application of the keys has, for the moment, reached those of F flat and B natural on the left pipe, and B natural, E natural and E flat on the right-hand one. Finally, a lever has been applied to open and close the passage of air in the reeds, allowing a clear beginning and closing of the sound.





After Pope Sixtus V, in 1480, definitively revoked the excommunication for musicians, who were elevated from the role of jesters to an equal rank with craftsman and artists, new horizons opened with new settings for culture: the courts, open to humanistic culture and sensitive to the practice of music, to its creation and to its teaching.

In Naples where, from the middle of the fifteenth century, the Spaniards (first the Aragonese, then the Castilians) settled, there was a great ferment due to the contact between the Spanish and the local cultures, with a strong impulse towards development both in instruments and musical forms.

Of the instruments, there are some which knew a period of grace but then fell into disuse; among these are the Buttafuoco and the Sordellina which, since they lack historical examples we can refer to, have been recently reconstructed on the basis of iconographic material, organological descriptions and the chronicles of the time.


Of the music in vogue, there are above all polyphonic pieces, in general of three parts, like the villanelle and the moresche: the first, in verses, with a mainly omorhythmic writing; the second, more complex, use passages in counterpoint and continual changes of tempo. In the texts, the moresche use a popular, metaphorical and onomatopoeic language, with continual references to peasant settings, to animals, to the telling of comic and grotesque storied; the villanelle, on the other hand, present more aulic texts, with references to situations of love and courtship, although they do not lack a popular character.




Giovanni Lorenzo Baldano, a noble of Savona (1576-1660), a lover of literature, music and poetry, was the author of “Libro per scriver l’intavolatura per sonare sopra le sordelline” Tablature Book for Playing the Sordellina) dedicated to his lover, the noblewoman Clara Maria Cerrato.


Baldano was a key figure, because he has left us a manuscript, discovered only recently, containing about 160 pieces for the Sordellina, as a Renaissance zampogna for the court. A precious witness of the musical world of Naples, a city in close trading contact with Savona, Baldano proved to be a proficient composer of sonnets and canzonette (he was a friend of the poet Gabriello Chiabrera), which confirms the use of the sordellina to accompany the singing.


This Libro, which has come down to us dated 1600, holds a repertory that to our eyes seems limitless, and thus of a unique importance (2): it includes all the main dances of the sixteenth century (the Ruggiero, the Bergamasca, the Girometta, the Ciaccona, etc.), popular themes, refined themes and some rare examples of chamber music for the sordellina. Here there is also the famous “Ballo del Gran Duca” by Emilio De’ Cavalieri, even with an added amorous lyric. The writing process is interesting (in fact, not always clear) which is based on the technique of intavolatura (tablature), that is on the use of numbers and signs to indicate respectively the holes and the length of the notes.


Fortunately, the Libro also contains invaluable indications for tuning the instrument, which enable us to decipher it. There is an extraordinary documentation of the art of the variation on a given theme, so that we are able to understand its development: usually, each time the theme is re-proposed it appeas in a more virtuoso form.


In addition, at the end of the Libro, there are 36 pieces for buttafuoco (an instrument which can be identified as a hammer dulcimer played together with a zufolo, a small flute) but their writing cannot be deciphered, because Baldano gives us no key for reading it. In the comparison of styles with the pieces for sordellina one notes a simplification in writing and an absence of subsequent variations.



Goffredo Degli Esposti


(1)   Franco Calanca +39 3401436349.

(2)   “Libro per scriver l’intavolatura per sonare sopra le sordelline” (Savona, 1600), edito nel 1995 da EDITRICE LIGURIA, via dei Mari, 4r – 17100 Savona.

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