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Conserving a Medieval citole

Medieval citole

The British Museum’s citole is one of Britain’s earliest complete stringed instruments. Dating from around 1300-1330, it has survived because of the quality of its craftsmanship, its association with Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603) and her favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and its modification to keep pace with changing musical fashion.

Over its long history the instrument has undergone repair and adaptation, including the replacement of soundboards, finger-boards, strings and other fittings. But its magnificently carved boxwood (Buxus sempervivens) body neck and headpiece remain virtually intact.

Detailed examination of the citole components by British Museum conservators revealed previously suspected but unseen alterations, and some that are all too visible, like nails in the fingerboard. Radiography has been used to study features of the original construction as well as internal alterations which show that it could have been played with a bow.

Using X-ray fluorescence analysis, Museum scientists have been able to discover the characteristics of the metal and glass components, while microscopic analysis has enabled the identification of the wood.

Interpreting past restorations and modifications allowed for informed judgements to be made about conservation treatment. The current restoration aimed to give the citole the appearance of a playable instrument without putting it under the stresses that such treatment would have on it. Unlike some of the earlier modifications, these latest restorations, such as the replacement of a broken peg, a new bridge and new strings, are all completely detachable.