Or are you looking for Search the Archives?

Please complete the form to email this item.

Baffo harpsichord

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Venice (made)

  • Date:

    1574 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Baffo, Giovanni Antonio (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Pine case, inner face veneered with rosewood, partly inlaid with boxwood; cypress soundboard

  • Museum number:

    6007:1 to 3-1859

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 10a, The Françoise and Georges Selz Gallery, case 2 []

This harpsichord was built by Giovanni Baffo, the leading maker of harpsichords in Venice, one of the main instrument-producing centres in Europe during the 16th century. The instrument is decorated with traditional Islamic patterns, then widely used in Venice, and also fashionable classical motifs, such as Apollo and the Muses, a suitable theme for musical instruments. This instrument has undergone a number of changes, including the altering of the range of the notes, a sign that even if musical fashions changed during the next century the prestige of Baffo's instruments remained intact.

Physical description

Harpsichord with one set of keys consisting of 50 notes, ranging from GG/BB to c3, with two sets of strings tuned at the same pitch. The soundboard is made of plain cypress wood, with a rosette made up of elaborate gothic tracery in parchment, built round six lobes enclosing a hexagon with concave sides. The instrument is abruptly truncated at the end.

The edges of the instrument, jack rail and base of the keyboard are decorated with ivory studs. These parts, together with the nameboard and inner sides above the sound board, are veneered with rosewood, decorated with gilt moresques and inlaid with interlinking rhomboid patterns made up of ivory and boxwood. On two such rhomboids at either end of the name board the maker has signed and dated this harpsichord.

The instrument is placed in a case decorated on the outside with scrolls along the bent and straight sides and a garland of roses on the outside of the lid, which was probably added about two hundred years after the instrument was made. The inside of the lid is elaborately decorated with grotesque ornament and consists of two parts, linked with staple hinges: the smaller part covers the keys and jackrail and the larger one the soundboard . The former consists of a circular batswing frame in the centre enclosing two winged putti holding up the three-crescent emblem of the Strozzi family. This frame is flanked by two moulded rectangular ones, each containing a prancing winged putto. All three frames are linked with bandwork, and the spaces in between are filled with masks and scrolls. A batswing lunette is placed at each end. The main part of the lid is dominated with a cartouche containing Apollo and the Muses. Either side are winged putti, masks, batswings lunettes and sphynxes and other grottesques. The decoration is crudely cut off at the end.

Place of Origin

Venice (made)


1574 (made)


Baffo, Giovanni Antonio (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Pine case, inner face veneered with rosewood, partly inlaid with boxwood; cypress soundboard

Marks and inscriptions

Giovanni Antonio Baffo of Venice, 1574
1) Decoration 2) Makers's mark; Latin; Roman; In Two panels above the keyboard; painted; paint; Baffo; 1574


Length: 223 cm, Width: 90.7 cm, Depth: 18.7 cm

Object history note

The instrument was made by Giovanni Baffo, who described himself as Venetus, i.e. 'Venetian' or 'from Venice'. However, the instrument bears the triple-crescent emblem of the Strozzi family, an eminent banking family from Florence, but more associated with Naples than Venice. It is now thought that Baffo may well have made the Queen Elizabeth virginals, and so there is no reason why he should not have made an instrument for an eminent family in Florence, a city far closer to Venice that London! It came to the attention of Sir Henry Cole, the first director of the South Kensington Museum, during a year spent in Italy in 1859, when he visited the sale rooms of William Blundell Spence in Fiesole, just outside Florence. He referred in his diary (17th Feb 1859) to "a pianoforte [sic] very decoratively painted inside, dated and signed Antonio Baffo Venetus 1574 a most desirable acquisition." Just how Spence acquired this instrument remains unknown.

The instrument's range of notes was probably originally C/E - f3, but was altered at a later date to the more fashionable range of GG/BB - c3. The bass notes formed a short octave, which ommitted notes that were seldom needed. There were originally two sets of strings, with one tuned an octave above the other, but this was replaced with a second set, also tuned an octave lower. This meant doing away with a bridge in the middle of the soundboard. The instrument was restored to playing order by John Barnes of the Russell Collection of Keyboard instruments in 1964.

Historical significance: Although Giovanni Baffo seems not to have made any great innovations in building this harpsichord, he was nevertheless one of the most sought after makers of his day. If recent attributions with regard to the Queen Elizabeth Virginals are correct, his customers even included foreign royalty. It is possible that the inside of the lid of the outer case was painted to match an important room in the house, that had been recently decorated in the latest fashion. The fact that radical alterations were made to the stringing of the instrument at a later date indicates that Baffo's harpsichords retained their prestige long after they were first made and musical fashions had changed.

Historical context note

Harpsichords or clavicemballi, as they were known, were highly prized throughout Italy and were found in chambers of the well-to-do or scholars' studies or studioli.
The main centres of production were Flanders and Northern Italy, particularly Venice, but until about 1600 more virginals were made in the former region and more harpsichords in the latter. Unlike the heavier Flemish models, Italian harpsichords were light, with cypress wood carcases and fitted with protective outer cases, lavishly decorated on the inside of the lid. Being able to read music and play keyboard instruments was the mark of a princely education, as was an awareness of the mathematical qualities of music.

Descriptive line

Harpsichord with one set of keys consisting of 50 notes

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Howard Schott: Catalogue of Musical Instruments in the Victoria and Albert Museum - Part I: Keyboard Instruments (London, V & A Publications, 1998), pp. 32 - 35.
Denzil Wraight: The stringing of Italian keyboard instruments, c. 1500 - 1650. - Part Two. Catalogue of Instruments. These submitted for PhD at the Queen's University of Belfast. (January 1997), pp. 48 - 53.
Clive Wainwright, shopping for South Kensington: Fortnum and Cole in Florence 1858-1859, in Journal of the History of Collections II no.2 (1999) pp.171-185, fig.10
Music Recording
LP28537 Baffo Harpsichord played (6007-1859) by Valda Avelin, Victoria & Albert Museum, 5.5.64.

Front. (10 FRM 113378)

1. Passacaglia in B Flat - 2' 38".
2. Toccata in G - 5' 33"
3. Toccata in A Minor - 4' 28".

Ajmar-Wollheim, Marta and Flora Dennis, At Home in Renaissance Italy, London: V&A Publishing, 2006.

Labels and date

By Giovanni Antonio Baffo, Italian (Venice), 1574
Inscribed in two panels above the keyboard: JOANES ANTONIUS BAFFO VENETUS MDLXIIII.
Ivory covered naturals and ebony sharps. Pine case and body, cypress soundboard. The decoration inside the lid consists of grotesques, putti and a cartouche of Apollo and the Muses, derived from a painting by Lucca Penni (about 1550). The present range, thought to have been altered in about 1630, is fifty notes, GG/BB (Short Octave) - c3. It now has two 8 foot registers.

Keyboard Catalogue No.: 7

This instrument has been considerably altered; notes were added in the base, and two eight foot stops would seem to have replaced the original four foot and a eight foot stop (i.e. two sets of strings, the former an octave higher than the latter).

The expressions "Eight Foot" and "Four Foot" are taken from organ terminology and originally referred to the lengths of pipe. Surviving instruments by Baffo date from 1570 until 1581, including one in the possession of Ferdinand de' Medici of Florence.

6007-1859 [pre September 2000]
Giovanni Antonio Baffo

Harpsichords like this could be imposing, visually impressive objects, contributing to the decoration of a room as well as filling it with music when played. The painted case of this example includes the coat of arms of the Florentine Strozzi family, who were known musical enthusiasts. As instruments were produced in greater quantities in Italy during the 15th and 16th centuries, Venice became an important centre of manufacture.

Coniferous softwood, cypress, sycamore and pear wood decorated with ivory, rosewood, boxwood, ebony and parchment
Inscribed above the keyboard: ‘JOANES ANTONIVS BAFFO VENETVS MDLXXIIII’. With a coat of arms with three crescent moons, probably belonging to the Florentine Strozzi family.
V&A: 6007-1859 [5 Oct 2006 - 7 Jan 2007]


Pine; Boxwood; Rosewood; Cypress; Ebony; Parchment


Inlay; Painting; Joining


Musical instruments

Production Type



Furniture and Woodwork Collection

Large image request

Please confirm you are using these images within the following terms and conditions, by acknowledging each of the following key points:

Please let us know how you intend to use the images you will be downloading.