Cittern, 34cm mensur, possibly English, circa 1600
Vermillion, South Dakota, National Music Museum
Inv. No. NMM 13500

Last updated Sunday, April 02, 2023.
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Photo: Christie's, © 2007.

Photo: Christie's, © 2007.

Photo: Christie's, © 2007.

Photo: Christie's, © 2007.

Photo: Christie's, © 2007.

Photo: Christie's, © 2007.

Photo: Christie's, © 2007.
General Description

This cittern was auctioned by Christie's on April 2, 2007 and sold for $180,000 (hammer price plus buyer's premium) to the National Music Museum (formerly the Shrine to Music Museum) at the Univeristy of South Dakota, USA.1

A general description of the cittern by Christie's reads as follows:

A CITTERN PROBABLY ENGLISH, CIRCA 1600 Illegibly labeled, the front with a fruitwood and gilded parchment rose, the striped back of alternating woods, the pegbox for nine strings in five courses terminating in the form of a dogs head, string length 13 3/8 in (340 mm), overall length 24¼ in (616 mm).2

Provenance / Maker

Photo: Andrew Rutherford

Photo: Andrew Rutherford

Photo: Andrew Rutherford

The cittern was described by Christie's as being sold "from the collection of the Barons Nathaniel and Albert von Rothschild."3. Nothing of the instrument's provenance prior to this is currently known by this author. While a maker's label is present, the only thing that can be said for certain is that the first letter is a stamped letter 'P',4 the rest of the label being too obscure to read, at present. Christie's attribution of this instrument as being "probably English" can be seen by some of the information below.

A full analysis of the woods is yet to be done, however a preliminary identification of the woods is as follows:5

Back: 4 pieces of fruitwood (dark staves) and 3 pieces of Curly Maple (light staves)
Sides: mildly figured fruitwood
Soundboard: coniferwood (probably Spruce)
Neck and head: fruitwood, possibly Pear
Fingerboard: quartered fruitwood
String holder/comb: Rosewood or Oak6
Fret "wedges": possibly Ebony and unfigured Snakewood7


maximum length: 616 mm*
string length: 340 mm*
nut to fret 12: 170 mm*
maximum width: 191 mm*

length, from bottom of body to edge of pilaster closest to pegbox, not including comb: 258 mm
width, maximum : 191 mm
width, minimum (at edge of pilaster closest to comb): 52 mm
distance from bottom of body (not including comb) to rose center: 160 mm
rose diameter, inset: 63 mm
arch across top, just below rose: c. 5mm
arch across top, about 2cm below bridge: c. 2mm
thickness, measured at edge only: c. 1.5-1.8 mm

width, maximum: 191 mm
width, minimum (at edge of pilaster closest to comb): 51 mm
width at pilasters (including thickness of pilasters): 61.5 mm
arch across back: 10 mm**
arch lengthwise along back: 12 mm**
thickness, at edge: c. 1.5 mm

Photo: Andrew Rutherford

thickness (measured at a crack): c.1.5 mm
height at heel, including top and back: 43 mm
height at bottom, including top and back: 23 mm

width at nut: 38 mm
width at 11th fret: 40 mm
width of fingerboard at fret 12: 39 mm9 (there is a sharp chamfer between fret 11 and 12)*
depth at 2nd fret: 8 mm
depth at end of fingerboard: 9 mm
thickness of strip covering fret ends at edge of fingerboard (each): 2 mm

Measured in mm, from nut:
fret 1: 22
fret 2: 31
fret 3: 55.6
fret 4: 69.5
fret 5: 86
fret 6: 101.3
fret 7: 113.8
fret 8: 126
fret 9: 137.7
fret 10: 149.8
fret 11: 160.2
fret 12: 170
fret 13: 181
fret 14: 188.8
fret 15: 197
fret 16: 204.8
fret 17: 213.5

depth at heel, including fingerboard and back thickness: 51.3 mm
depth at nut, including fingerboard: 24 mm*
depth at 2nd fret, including fingerboard: 21 mm
depth just before heel, including fingerboard: 28.5 mm
width of neck under fingerboard, at nut: 23 mm
width of neck under fingerboard, at heel: 25 mm

width: 13mm

width at nut: 38 mm
width at narrowest point, below dog's head: 21 mm
width at widest point of dog's head: 34.5 mm
height at nut: 29.3 mm
height at base of head: 17.5 mm
height at thickest point of head: 33.7 mm
length from bottom of pegbox to end of head: 170 mm
length of inside of pegbox, approx.120 mm
width of pegbox cheeks: approx. 6 mm
length of string relief carved into sides of pegbox: 26.5 mm

String holder / comb:
width: 43 mm
thickness of string attachment ("teeth"): c. 6 mm
total thickness (including part "set in" to bottom block): approx. 12 mm
length (edge of top to longest point, does not include amount "set in" to block): approx 14mm

on soundboard: b/w/b purfling, c. 1.3 mm, double, around edge and rosette
on back, dark staves only: w/b/w, c. 1.4 mm, double, stopping short of neck block area
on fingerboard: w/b/w, c. 1.4 mm, double, stopping at 12th fret on bass side, at 17th fret on treble side


The top appears to be some sort of spruce with lots of repaired worm damage.11

There are two sets of "triple" (black/white/black) purfling around the rose: one immediately next to the rose to disguise the rose/belly joint (the rose is set flush with the top of the belly), the other at a small distance beyond. Similar purfling traces the edge of the belly. From close-up photos it appears that some of the black purfling has cracked or separated, suggesting that the purfling may be some sort of black filler (carbon black and wax?).12 According to Peter Forrester, this may be evidence of a repair or could be original—the result of using individual strips of veneer for the purfling rather than glued-together strips.13


Photo: Andrew Rutherford

Photo: Andrew Rutherford


The back is made of seven staves of alternating color, four dark and three light. A white/black/white purfling similar to that used on the fingerboard is used on the four darker staves of the back only.14

The back / side construction seems somewhat unusual. The sides appear originally to have been wrapped around the back after the usual method of construction 15 and can be seen to be "let in" to the stave near the pilasters (see upper photo at left). However, somewhere near the middle of the next fruitwood stave the back covers the sides, as can be seen clearly in photos of the bottom (see photo at lower left).16 This anomaly might be evidence of a compromise created during a repair necessitated by the shrinkage of the soundboard.17


Photo: Andrew Rutherford

Photo: Andrew Rutherford

Photo: Andrew Rutherford

Photo: Andrew Rutherford

Photo: Andrew Rutherford

The top of the pegbox consists partly of the continuation of the fingerboard (see "Neck and Fingerboard") and has "half-moon" patterns carved into the tops of the pegbox cheeks. Both the back and sides of the pegbox are covered with relief carvings (similar to the carving found on the neck heel) after the manner of English viols, including circles stamped into the background areas. In addition, the pegholes have collars carved around them.18

The end of the pegbox terminates in a dog's head. It may be worth noting that the head does not point back toward the instrument as is common on other extant instruments and most (or all?) iconographic sources.

Neck and Fingerboard

Photo: Andrew Rutherford

Photo: Andrew Rutherford

The neck is "cut away" at the bass side of the fingerboard after the usual manner. The fingerboard extends into the pegbox and is incorporated into the decorative carving at the sides.19 The end of the fingerboard is attached to the soundboard rather than cantilevered over it.

On the face of the fingerboard there is "triple" purfling on both the bass and treble sides (see close-up photo under Images, above), though oddly reversed in color-pattern (white/black/white).20 Purfling on the treble side ends at the 17th fret; that on the bass side ends at the 12th.

The heel of the neck is also carved in relief after the manner of decorated English viols and is decorated with additional circles and stars; applied carved pilasters cover the neck block/side joint.21

Photo: Andrew Rutherford

Photo: Andrew Rutherford

Fretting is chromatic and appears to employ only 17 frets (the 18th usually being absent on chromatic instruments; the 19th left off deliberately because of the small scale length?). The brass frets are held in by wooden "wedges" which employ the alternating color-coding usually seen on chromatic instruments, with lighter colored wedges at frets 1, 4, 6, 8, 11, 13, and 15.

The fret ends are covered on both the treble and bass sides by "capping strips." (The treble-side strip can be seen separating from the fretboard in the close-up photo of the rose, above.) The wooden "wedges" taper about 1mm (as viewed from above), with the wider part at the treble side of the fingerboard. Since the fret-ends are covered on both sides of the fingerboard, it is not currently possible to tell if the wedges are slanted, dovetailed, or additionally tapered along their depth.22

The fretting employs a temperament pretty closely matching one-sixth comma meantone.23 This difference can be seen in the image at right which juxtaposes the fretting with a modern equal-tempered fretting.24

Photo: Andrew Rutherford

Photo: Andrew Rutherford

Photo: Andrew Rutherford

According to the description by Christie's, the pegbox can accomodate "nine strings in five courses"; however a quick count of the pegs shows there only to be eight pegs in the pegbox with no apparent room for another.

The current 8 strings have been respaced to create eight single strings in eight course rather than eight strings in four courses, requiring alteration to both nut and bridge. The nut and bridge are not believed to be original.25 The reason for the change in string setup is unknown and would certainly make any attempt to play the instrument as it is now next to impossible.

String Holder



Photo: Andrew Rutherford

Photo: Andrew Rutherford

The strings are anchored at the bottom of the instrument via a wooden "comb". While this feature is somewhat older in style and commonly found on carved citterns, it is not entirely unknown in constructed ones (see, for example, the large possibly-late 17th century cittern D.32026 in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, France).

According to Peter Forrester, one probable method of fastening strings to a comb (suggested by the lack of wear under the combs and at the teeth ends) involves using a single length of wire for both strings of a course and a rod under the comb: One string end is threaded from a tuning peg, down through one of the slots in the comb, around a metal rod held in place by the tension of the strings, then fed back through the next slot in the comb and back to the next tuning peg (see Illustration 1 in the article "Wood and Wire"). The other method of hooking the loops of individual strings around the teeth of the comb could result in the wood of the teeth breaking, which can be seen on many surviving instruments. This instrument appears to use this latter method of anchoring the strings and has the same number of teeth as strings.

While a comb on an otherwise constructed instrument is not unusual,26 and it is not entirely uncommon to have the string loops attached to the teeth of the comb,27 it should be noted that this comb is slightly unusual in a number of other respects, suggesting that it may not be original or may have been altered. For one, the comb shows an unusual lack of wear at the teeth and under the comb, but there are too few slots in the comb for the "rod under comb" method to be used.28 Also, according to Peter Forrester, under the comb there is not usually such a sharp corner with the body.29 A final determination of the autheniticity of the comb will need to await a full examination from the National Music Museum.

Plans / Drawings
A drawing of the instrument may be available from Andrew Rutherford. For contact information, see the Cittern Makers and Suppliers page on this site.
Literature / Additional Resources
  • Christie's Catalog: Fine Musical Instruments. Auction: April 2, 2007. Location: New York. Sale No. 1816.
  • The National Music Museum (formerly Shrine to Music Museum) at Univeristy of South Dakota, Vermillion, South Dakota, USA.
  • Select articles about the "Small English cittern" (size, tuning, etc.):30
    • Forrester, Peter. "The Morley Consort." Fellowship of Makers and Researchers of Historical Instruments (FoMRHI) Quarterly (July 1989), pp. 46-50.
    • Segerman, Ephraim. "Instruments of the Consort." FoMRHI Quarterly (January 1996), pp. 43-49.
    • Forrester, Peter. "The Cittern in Consort." FoMRHI Quarterly (April 1996), pp. 65-74.
    • Segerman, Ephraim. "Comm. 1468" FoMRHI Quarterly (July 1996), pp. 43-50.
    • Forrester, Peter. "Comm. 1481" FoMRHI Quarterly (October 1996), pp. 27-29.
    • Gill, Donald. "Comm. 1482" FoMRHI Quarterly (October 1996), p. 29.
    • Forrester, Peter. "Comm. 1496" FoMRHI Quarterly (January 1997), p. 21.
    • Segerman, Ephraim. "Comm. 1497" FoMRHI Quarterly (January 1997), pp. 22-24.
    • Segerman, Ephraim. "Comm. 1498" FoMRHI Quarterly (January 1997), pp. 25-26.
    • Segerman, Ephraim. "A Short History of the Cittern." Galpin Society Journal (April 1999), pp. 77-107.
    • Forrester, Peter. "Correspondence."Galpin Society Journal (April 2000), pp. 347-349.
I would like to acknowledge the invaluable help and support given by both Andrew Rutherford and Peter Forrester. As one can see from the footnotes, a large number of e-mails have been sent back and forth. Their patience with my constant stream of questions is greatly appreciated. Also, without Mr. Rutherford's kind submission of pictures and measurements, this page would not be a tenth of what it is.
  1. The museum also owns a cittern attributed to Augustinus or Franciscus citaroedus, Urbino, Italy, ca. 1550, for which see [back]

  2. Christie's online sale description. Lot Number 0034. Sale Number 1816. 31 March, 2007. [back]

  3. Ibid. [back]

  4. E-mail to the author from Andrew Rutherford. "Re: Christie's cittern - addendum." 13 April, 2007. [back]

  5. Ibid. except for the "wedges," for which see note 7, below. [back]

  6. Andrew Rutherford, who was able to look at the instrument in person, suggested that the comb may be made of rosewood; however, Ben Hebbert of Christie's suggested that it may in fact be of Oak. (E-mail to the author from Peter Forrester. "Re: more pics." 7 April, 2007, and confirmed by an another e-mail to the author from Darryl Martin. "RE: 'English' cittern." 11 April, 2007.) A final determination will need to be made by the National Music Museum. [back]

  7. E-mail to the author from Andrew Rutherford. "Re: Christie's cittern - frets." 29 April, 2007. [back]

  8. Measurements were taken by Andrew Rutherford and reported in an e-mail to the author from Andrew Rutherford "Re: Christie's cittern - addendum." 13 April, 2007 (not the same email as in note 4, above), with the exception of Fretting, reported in an e-mail to the author by Andrew Rutherford, ibid. note 7, above. Additional measurements (marked with an asterisk *) were provided by Ben Hebbert via Darryl Martin in an e-mail to the author, "RE: 'English' cittern." 11 April, 2007. Two additional measurements (marked with double-asterisks **) were provided by Andrew Rutherford from the National Music Museum and e-mailed to the author, "Re: the Christie's page - at last." 10 June, 2007.

    There is some discrepancy between measurements taken by Rutherford and Hebbert, especially in the areas of the fingerboard, neck, and total depth of body. A brief comparison of these discrepencies is provided here:




    width of fingerboard, at nut:

    38 mm

    39 mm

    width of fingerboard, at fret 11 :

    40 mm

    41 mm

    width of fingerboard, at fret 12:

    (not measured)

    39 mm

    depth of neck at heel, including fingerboard:

    28.5 mm ("just before heel")

    31 mm ("at neck/body joint")

    depth of body at heel

    43 mm (see "Sides")

    49 mm


  9. Possibly 38 mm? NB discrepency in measurements, note 8, above. [back]

  10. Ibid. note 7, above. According to Mr. Rutherford, the fret measurements "were taken in a rather frantic environment of screechy violins and crazed instrument collectors, so numbers may not be completely accurate." [back]

  11. Rutherford, "Christie's cittern - addendum," note 8, above. [back]

  12. E-mail to the author from David Kilpatrick. "Re: [CITTERN] Re: Christie's cittern." 8 April, 2007. [back]

  13. E-mail to the author from Peter Forrester. "Re: Christie's cittern - purfling" 24 April, 2007. Mr. Forrester notes, "With age, glue can fail, especially in association with wood shrinkage and distortion. This is particularly likely in the softwood of the sound-board, and especially around the rose. Should the purfling fall out, it can be replaced with new wood or mastic (glue + wood dust; coloured wax/resin; etc.) There may well be gaps just caused by shrinkage where mastic is the easiest filler."

    Mr. Forrester also notes that the difference in the width of purfling (c.1.3 mm for b/w/b, c.1.4 mm for w/b/w) "could directly suggest the use of 3 separate strips. Heron-Allan, Violin-Making as it was and is, 1885, spends four pages of his construction section on purfling, much on the superiority of using separate strips and their production (from plain and dyed plane wood)." E-mail to the author. "Re: the Christie's page - at last." 12 June, 2007. [back]

  14. Rutherford, "Christie's cittern - addendum," note 8. [back]

  15. For more information on this topic, see Peter Forrester's article, "Wood and Wire", available on this site. [back]

  16. Rutherford, "Christie's cittern - addendum," note 8. [back]

  17. E-mail to the author from Peter Forrester. "Re: Christies cittern." 15 April, 2007. Mr. Forrester notes, "Possibly the belly wood has shrunk more than the hardwoods. A repairer would need to shorten the length of the sides to match the belly. Then he would be left with a back slightly too large. Usually he would be able to cut it down slightly. However in this case the purfling in the dark strakes [staves] would be interfered with. So, a compromise?" [back]

  18. All descriptions ibid. Rutherford, "Christie's cittern - addendum," note 8, above. [back]

  19. Ibid. [back]

  20. Andrew Rutherford has suggested that the w/b/w purfling could be explained by the use of fruitwood for the fingerboard. E-mail to the author. See note 4, above.

  21. Rutherford, "Christie's cittern - addendum," note 8. [back]

  22. Rutherford. "Re: Christie's cittern - frets," note 7. [back]

  23. Ibid. [back]

  24. Thanks to David Kilpatrick for creating and permitting this image to be shared. [back]

  25. E-mail to the author from Darryl Martin. "RE: 'English' cittern." 12 April, 2007. [back]

  26. Other examples are Campi's ceterone, the "Amati" cittern in Florence, and the Piero Paulo and Merusaglia instruments. [back]

  27. For an example, see Liepzig 612 . For an illustration, see the "Saitenhalter der Zister Inv.-Nr. 612" at [back]

  28. E-mail to the author from Peter Forrester. "Re: Christie's cittern page". 15 April, 2007. [back]

  29. Forrester. "Re: Christies cittern," note 17. [back]

  30. This select list is taken from Peter Forrester's article, "Wood, Wire and Geometry" in Michaelsteiner Konferenzberichte 66: Gittare und Zister — Bauweise, Spieltechnik und Geschichte bis 1800. (2005). ISBN 3-89512-125-8. For a complete listing of the contents of that volume, see the Articles page on this site. [back]

How to cite this page: Hartig, Andrew. "Cittern, 34cm mensur, possibly English, circa 1600" Renovata Cythara: The Renaissance Cittern Site. Ed. Andrew Hartig. 02 April 2023. 21 February 2024. <>.

All site contents, unless otherwise stated, are copyright © Andrew M. Hartig, 1999-2023. All rights reserved.