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  • Place of origin:

    Milan (Date marked on instrument, made)

  • Date:

    1577 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Rossi, Annibale (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Cypress case and soundboard, boxwood and ivory ornaments, inlaid with pearls, amethysts, lapis lazuli, jasper, agate, turquoise and other precious and semi-precious stones

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Furniture, Room 133, The Dr Susan Weber Gallery, case BY5, shelf CASE1 []

Of all musical instruments, those with keyboards were the grandest, and an ability to play them well was considered a princely virtue. Even more so if the owner possessed an elaborately decorated instrument like this one. However, the actual makers are mostly obscure figures, only known to us from signed and dated surviving examples of their work. Therefore it was an exceptional accolade for Annibale Rossi (active 1542-1577) of Milan in northern Italy, who signed the present virginal, to be praised in Paolo Morigi's work, La Nobilità di Milano (1595): there he was said to have made an instrument 'with the keys all of precious stones' for a 'learned and refined nobleman'. It is possible that this is the instrument he described.

Examination prior to display during 2011 and 2012 revealed evidence that an original more restrained scheme of decoration was augmented at a later date, probably in the nineteenth century, with more panels of lapis lazuli, the ivory cartouches and the addition of the silver-mounted gems.

Physical description

The virginal is seven-sided, with an inset keyboard on the front side, flanked by panels veneered in ebony set with panels of ivory strapwork and gems in repeating patterns. The jack-rail is held in position by slots modelled to resemble the mouths of a monster and a lion, and is decorated with four carved ivory putti along the top playing musical instruments. One putto playes a lute, another a hurdy-gurdy, another a viol and another a lyra da braccio (a Renaissance violin).
The front side of the jack rail and the front-facing inner edges of the case also have panels decorated with ivory and gems. The sides and back of the case are undecorated.

The keyboard has natural keys of ivory set with lapis lazuli and jasper of various colours, with carved ivory front edges, embellished with black and gold paint and set with pearls. The accidental keys have lapis lazuli slips with ivory surrounds set in ebony. The keyboard has a range of fifty notes, C/E-f3. The horizontal panel above the keyboard has applied boxwood masks set with pearls, and satyrs with splayed legs, in the manner of Cornelis Bos (1506-56). The decoration is strongly influenced by the strapwork ornament first developed by Rosso Fiorentino in the Galerie François I at Fontainebleau (1535-9), and widely circulated through prints by Bos, Lorenz Störer and others. A style of ornament which originated in Italy this returned there by means of engravings printed in France, the Netherlands and Germany. At each end of the keyboard stands a boxwood statuette, Venus and Cupid on the left and Mars on the right. The soundboard contains a wooden rose of exceptionally large diameter (145 mm), carved in relief with strapwork cartouches, winged grotesques in the style of Bos and a bust of a putto in the centre.

This is a very early example of pietre dure furniture decoration (the keyboard and beneath some of the gemstones) and a rare example of a musical instrument decorated with stone. The instrument is decorated with a total of 1,928 stones: 857 turquoises, 361 pearls, 103 lapis lazuli, 28 amethysts, 58 topazes, 6 carnelians, 40 emeralds, 32 saphires, 117 garnets, 242 small garnets and rubies, 4 crystals, 9 agates, 52 jaspers, and 19 small jaspers and agates. However many of these appear to be much later additions. Only the stones in the keyboard and some of the lapis lazuli panels are certainly part of the original scheme.

During conservation in 2012 ebony inlay was found underneath some of the applied ivory, and and inlaid jasper panel under one of the rectangular pieces of lapis lazuli, suggesting that the decoration of the virginal was altered after the virginal was completed. At present it is not clear when the decoration was altered, nor how much of the decoration on the case was added later. However it is probably that the ivory cartouches and the gems which stud the case were added in the mid 19th century, possibly in Paris. The pins which attach the silver-mounted gems are of a type which was not made before about 1830. Investigation also revealed that earlier inlays had been removed and later stones glued on in their place.

The gems are applied to the case using several techniques. Many are set in silver, with closed-back settings with a metal pin soldered to the back before the gem was mounted, for attaching it to the carcase. The 'rub-over' settings have a silver rim or 'collet' all the way round, which is burnished down around the edges to hold the gem tightly in place. The gem sits on a small shelf within the collet raising it up above the surface of the instrument. The gems that are set within the ivory cartouches do not have silver settings, and most are probably glued to the surface. The rock crystal gems were painted on the backs with red colour lined with foil, to imitate rubies or spinels. Through the semi-transparent crystal small pins can be seen, glued into placed in drilled holes, for attaching these gems to the wood.

The tiny pearls are a mixture of halved seed pearls and 'blister pearls', the latter cut from protuberances inside the mother-of-pearl shells.

There is no longer a separate outer case but this extremely elaborate instrument must certainly have had one. The ivory putti standing along the jack rail would not have fitted into the case and close examination reveals that these are later additions.

Place of Origin

Milan (Date marked on instrument, made)


1577 (made)


Rossi, Annibale (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Cypress case and soundboard, boxwood and ivory ornaments, inlaid with pearls, amethysts, lapis lazuli, jasper, agate, turquoise and other precious and semi-precious stones

Marks and inscriptions

Annibale Rossi Milan 1577


Height: 29 cm inc. ivory figures, Width: 148.3 cm at front widest, Depth: 56.6 cm at deepest point

Object history note

This virginal, made in 1577, is the last known instrument made by Annibale Rossi and is a very early example of pietre dure (hardstone) decoration, an art practised in Rome from about 1550 and Florence from 1588. A contemporary account mentioning Rossi appeared as early as 1595: 'Annibale Rosso was worthy of praise, as he was the first to modernize virginals into the shape in which we now see them. This skilful maker constructed among other works a virginal [clavicordo] of uncommon beauty and excellence, with the keys all of precious stones and with the most elegant ornaments. This instrument was sold for 500 crowns, and is now in the possession of the learned and refined nobleman Signor Carlo Trivulzio. Ferrante (Rosso), his son, is following in the footsteps of his father in all respects and continuing to make improvements in clavichords, thereby making a name for himself' (Paolo Morigi's 'La Nobilità de Milano' 1595, original Italian text in Carl Engel, 'A Descriptive Catalogue of the Musical Instruments in the South Kensington Museum', London 1870. p.53.

Given the vagueness of terms then used for keyboard instruments, Trivulzio's 'clavicordo' could well have been this virginal. The fact that such an instrument was mentioned in a book on the nobility of Milan clearly demonstrates that such an elaborate instrument would have added greatly to the status of the owner.

But for the contemporary reference to him, Rossi would remain a very obscure figure. Also known as 'De Roxis' and 'Rosso'. A virginal maker in Milan, the earliest recorded date is 1542, and he died between 1577 and 1595 (Philip James, 'Early Keyboard Instruments' 1930, which records four other examples). His son, Ferrante, carried on his father's business; surviving examples of his work date from 1580 to 1590. The V&A owns another instrument by Annibale Rossi, (Museum no. 156-1869), dated 1555, (ie. 22 years earlier) which is far less ornate. The jewelled virginal was part of the collections of Antoine Louis Clapisson (1808-66), a French composer, and while being exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867 was bought by Henry Cole of the V&A in 1869 for £1,200, a price unprecedented for any musical instrument previously purchased by the museum.

Historical context note

Terminology for virginals and spinets is often unclear. This instrument has been until recently described as a 'spinet', but is actually of a type described by musicologists today (2011) as a 'virginal'. Spinets and virginals, along with harpsichords, are stringed keyboard instruments in which the strings have a plucking mechanism rather than a striking mechanism as in a piano. The term 'virginal' was used in England to denote all plucked instruments well into the 17th century, and some writers still use it to denote smaller instruments in rectangular cases, and use 'spinet' to mean a pentagonal or polygonal instrument. The origin of the term 'virginal' is obscure but might be associated with female performers.

In present usage the term 'virginal' applies to instruments with strings running at right angles to the keys, and with long bass strings at the front. The term 'spinet' denotes instruments with strings at an oblique angle and with long bass strings at the back. The spinet is a small version of the harpsichord, but with only one set of keys. Both instruments were originally portable and were laid on a table top for playing.

Virginals were first made in early 16th century Italy, and were made in a variety of shapes, from rectangular to polygonal, and are distinguished from northern European examples by having wholly or partly projecting keyboards. Italian virginals were generally made of thin cypress wood, topped with elegant mouldings, complemented by another moulding at the bottom. The case joints are mitred. Virtually the whole musical literature of the period can be played on virginal, which was often used for domestic music-making, and had a surprisingly loud sound. (For fuller account of virginals and spinets, see 'The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments'.)

Social context
Flora Dennis, in 'At Home in Renaissance Italy', describes how domestic music-making was transformed between 1400 and 1600, particularly after the first printed music appeared in Italy in 1501. New music appropriate for a domestic performance emerged, along with new types of musical instruments, which were produced in ever greater numbers. By the end of the sixteenth century even artisans might possess a small keyboard instrument.

Keyboard instruments could be highly ornamental; virginals were often painted, and people at the highest social levels would collect them. There was a tendency towards room specialisation, resulting in the Renaissance 'music room' (stanza de'suoli, or studio di musica). An inventory of the possessions of the Florentine Niccolò Gaddi at his death in 1591 lists a music room containing thirty-eight instruments. Fra Sabba da Castiglione recommended furnishing the house with musical instruments, 'because such instruments as these greatly delight the ears...and they also greatly please the eye' (see 'At Home in Renaissance Italy, ch.16 note 29: Sabba da Castinglione, Ricordi, quoted in Barocchi (1978), III, p.2919).

Descriptive line

Virginal, Cypress case with keys and decoration of hardstones and gems, Annibale Rossi, Milan, Italian, 1577, the gems added in the 19th century.

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

Wilk, Christopher, ed. . Western Furniture 1350 to the Present Day. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1996. 230p., ill. ISBN 085667463X.
Schott, Howard and Anthony Baines, Catalogue of Musical Instruments in the Victoria and Albert Museum, with supplementary notes by James Yorke. London: Victoria and Albert Museum,1998. pp.36-39.
Ajmar-Wollheim, Marta, and Flora Dennis, At Home in Renaissance Italy, London, V&A Publications, 2006, pp.228-243.
Sadie, Stanley (ed), The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, (3 vols), London: Macmillan Press Limited, 1984.
Franca Falletti, Renato Meucci, Gabriele Rossi-Rognoni (eds), Marvels of Sound and Beauty; Italian Baroque Musical Instruments, ed. , Exhibition catalogue, Florence, Galleria dell' Accademia, 2007, cat. 8 pp.151-153.

'8. Polygonal Spinet (Milan, 1577)
Annibale de' Rossi(active in Milan from 1542 to 1577)
Ebony, ivory, gems and semiprecious stones
London, Victoria & Albert Museum, inv. no. 809-1869
INSTRUMENT by James Yorke
This instrument is inscribed 'ANNIBALLIS DE ROXIS MEDIOLANENSIS MDLXXVII’ and decorated with 1,928 stones, precious and semiprecious, set mostly in ivory strapwork cartouches, which makes it perhaps the earliest dated object to be Covered with pietre dure, a form of decoration practised in Rome from about 1550 c., and in Florence from 1588.The strapwork cartouches and grotesque ornaments ultimately derive from the decorations of Rosso Fiorentino in the Galerie François I at Fontainebleau (1533-1539) and were spread throughout Europe by engravers such as Cornelis Bos and Lorenz Störer.
To the left of the keyboard is a boxwood statuette of Venus and Cupid, and to the right one of Mars. The jack rail is placed in slots, one of which is carved in the form of the head of a lion, and decorated along the top with four small ivory winged putti, playing a lute, hurdy-gurdy, viol and a lira da braccio respectively.
The keyboard compass is of fifty notes, C/E-f”’.The naturals are of ivory set with stones of various kinds and colours with elaborate arcaded fronts. The accidentals have lapis lazuli slips with ivory surrounds set in ebony. Bottom C and top f"' are inlaid with an arabesque pattern. The jacks are probably original and certainly of great age (a number of them appear to differ from the others in a slight degree as regards the contour of the bottom end and the smoothness of the wood; these may be replacements). The jacks are provided with a double set of dampers. The tongues are fitted with brass springs secured with sealing wax to the body of the jack.
The jewelled spinet is the last dated instrument known to have been made by Annibale, whose son Ferrante carried on the business after his death. It formed part of the collections of the French composer and teacher Antoine Louis Clapisson (1808-1866) and was exhibited in the History of Labour section of the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867. It was bought in 1869 for £1,200 on the personal initiative of Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882), then director of the South Kensington Museum (now known as the Victoria & Albert Museum). John Charles Robinson, Superintendent of Art at this museum and one of Europe's leading experts on Italian Art, was appalled at what he regarded as a hasty and extravagant act in buying an instrument that no longer had its case, unlike the Giovanni Baffo Harpsichord (1574) which had been bought in 1859 for only £6¬7-0d (£6.35). Posterity would probably regard Cole's bold action as fully justified.

ENGEL 1874, pp. 272-275; RUSSELL 1968, pp. 35-36; THORNTON 1968, 1982 (2), p. 6; Scott 1982, pp. 36¬39; COSTANTINI 1998, pp. 331-341.

OUTER CASE by Annamaria Giusti
The precious nature of the decorations make this one of the most lavish examples of Renaissance musical instrument production [Fig. I]. The outer cladding of the body is of ebony, a rare wood whose dark colour emphasizes the rich ivory inlay work. The inlays are a series of elegant variations of the scroll; they are densely arranged according to classical criteria of symmetry to serve as settings for an extraordinary number and variety of gemstones.
This colourful "little treasure" comprises a total of 1,928 stones of different sizes. The catalogue of the Victoria & Albert Museum lists them as: 857 turquoises, 103 lapis lazuli, 58 topazes, 40 emeralds, 117 garnets, 4 crystals, 52 jaspers, 361 pearls, 28 amethysts, 6 carnelians, 32 sapphires, 242 small garnets and rubies, 9 agates and 19 small jaspers and agates. The power of this decoration as precious in materials as sophisticated in workmanship almost overshadows the sculpted ornaments. These are a 'concert' of four seated, instrument-playing ivory putti above the strings, and two boxwood figurines on either side of the keyboard.
The author and date of this marvel are contained in the inscription that runs above the inlaid ivory keyboard, Annibale de' Rossi of Milan. The earliest of his four surviving spinets is dated 1550.
Although the exact chronology of his work is unknown, it can be placed in the second half of the century: he was probably dead by 1595 when P. Morigia dedicated a passage to him in La Nobilitate di Milano, that was published that same year.
Morigia wrote: 'Degno di lode fu Annibale Rosso, per essere stato it prima inventore di rimodernare i clavicordi in quella forma.moder-na, come hoggid si veggono. Questo virtuoso fece fro gli altri lavori un clavicordo di rare bellezza e bonta, con i tasti tutti di pietre pre-ciose e di vaghissimi ornamenti, the fu venduto per scudi cinquecento ed e possesso del virtuosissimo illustre Sig. CarloTrivulzio'(I).The passage concludes with the information that Annibale's son, Ferrante, was carrying on his father's business.
The fact that Morigia called the instrument a 'clavichord' is explained by Schott (1982, pp. 36-39), as it referred to a stringed keyboard instrument of limited size. Furthermore, it seems extremely likely that instrument Mo-rigia described is our spinet precisely be¬cause of its extraordinarily precious nature and the fact that it was purchased by Carlo Trivulzio for a very significant price.
Leaving to the experts on musical instruments, the task of judging Rossi's skill in "modernizing" this type of spinet, I do have to emphasize the fully "modern" decorative style -in both the choice and combination of various precious materials and the exquisite design of the ornamental portions. Furthermore, it is important to note the originality of transferring the late-Renaissance concept of jewel-studded furniture, (mainly applied to table cabinets or studioli: small safes for valuables on which with the outer cladding served as an "introduction" to the treasures stored inside), to a musical instrument.
Annibale de' Rossi's workshop could readily find a stimulus for this rare creation in sixteenth century Milan where there was a flourishing and superb glyptic tradition, and a deeply rooted passion for collecting and using rare stones. It was also a style that circulated among the main artistic cities throughout the Italian peninsula of the period, if we think that one of the incunabula of Florentine mosaic work, the octagonal table Vasari designed for Bindo Altoviti (Giusti 1992, P. 14) uses the same precious trio of ebony, ivory and semi-precious stones. For the dis- criminating collectors of the period, the object's function, be it cabinet-safe, table or musical instrument, took second place to the artistic quality of the piece where inventiveness, material extravagance and virtuoso skill were joined in creating splendid master- pieces of applied art.
MORIGIA 1595, p. 289; ENGEL 1874, pp. 272-275; RUSSELL 1968, pp. 35-36; WINTERNITZ 1968, p. 89; GONZALEZ-PALACIOS 1981, II, p. 8; SCHOTT 1982, pp. 36-39.
I 'Annibale Rosso was worthy of praise for having been the first inventor to modernize the clavichords as we see them today. Among others, this virtuoso made a clavichord of rare beauty and quality, with all the keys of precious stones and vaghissimi orna¬ments that was sold for five hundred scudi and is owned by the illustrious Mister Carlo Trivulzio'.

Table of Measurements [omitted here]'

Engel, Carl, Descriptive Catalogue of Musical Instruments in teh South Kensington Museum, 1874, pp. 272-275

Labels and date

ITALIAN (Milan); signed and dated 1577
By Annibale dei Rossi
Decorated with boxwood, ebony, ivory, and a total of 1,928 semi-precious and precious stones, including turquoises, pearls, lapis lazuli, garnets, emeralds, etc.

In 1595 P. Mongi wrote that 'Annibale Rosso was worthy of praise, since he was the first to modernise clavichords into the shape in which we now see them. This skillful maker constructed among other works a clavichord of uncommon beauty and excellence, with the keys all of precious stones, and with the most elegant ornaments. This instrument was sold for 500 crowns, and is now in the possession of the learned and refined nobleman, Signor Carlo Trivulzio.' The instrument described is very probably that shown here, which was purchased by the Museum in 1869 for £1,300 having been shown at the 1867 Paris Exhibition.
Although this instrument is exceptionally sumptuous, its elaborate decoration has many parallels. In the Musical Instruments Gallery (Room 40) is another late 16th century spinet (402-1872), encrusted with coloured glass decoration. []
1577 with later additions
Probably by Annibale Rossi (active 1542–77)

Italy (Milan)
Case and soundboard (original): cypress
Stone decoration: jasper, agate and lapis lazuli, with pearls, amethysts, turquoise and other precious and semi-precious stones
Ornaments: boxwood, ivory and bone
Keys (original): wood, veneered with jasper, lapis lazuli, ivory and ebony

Museum no. 809-1869

Eye-catching cut and polished stones can be used like jewellery on furniture. This famous virginal incorporates hundreds of individual stones, but many were probably added long after the instrument was made to enhance its prestige and value. The additional stones are held in silver settings, with the larger ones set over reflective metal foil. However, the pietre dure veneered keys are original.


Cypress; Ivory; Jasper; Lapis lazuli; Ebony; Pearl; Amethyst; Boxwood



Subjects depicted

Grotesques; Mask; Strapwork; Cartouche; Musician; Putto; Satyr


Furniture; Musical instruments


Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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