Fabian Jonietz, Scientific Assistant, Kunsthistorisches Institut, Florence

Arcadia Lost: Ruberto del Beccuto’s (1575¬–1621) ‘strumenti stravagantissimi’

Around 1600, musical instruments were virtually a standard component of the Italian Kunst- und Wunderkammer. Even if written descriptions sometimes make it possible to partially identify the instruments in such collections, lack of documentation often prevents more detailed study. The case of the collection of the Florentine patrician Ruberto del Beccuto, however, provides important insight into the structures and ideals of the early modern practice of collecting musical instruments. His heterogeneous assemblage of conventional, ancient, exotic, and newly-invented flutes, trumpets, horns, bagpipes, organs and other wind instruments is documented in a written inventory including almost eighty drawings in red chalk and ink. This inventory furnishes evidence of the richness and variety of the collection (which included, for example, even a section for bird whistles), and furthermore, some of the drawings illustrate details such as individual mouth pieces.

Apparently, Ruberto sought to establish an encyclopedic collection of all known kinds of wind instruments – comparable to the attempt of Michael Praetorius, who reconstructed the development of instruments from antiquity onwards in his contemporaneous theoretical writings (1614–19). Ruberto’s dual role as collector and inventor is also not without precedent: his contemporary Niccolò Gaddi, for example, probably the most important private collector in Florence of his time, was also known for his invention of a new organ. Similarly to Gaddi’s collection of artworks and objects from nature, Ruberto also amassed botanical items, including rare seeds and dried fruit. Distinguishing himself from Gaddi and most other owners of Kunst- und Wunderkammern, however, Ruberto put musical instruments at the absolute centre of his interests, displaying them not in a ‘museum’ in the modern sense, but within a vibrant quasi-salon with frequent gatherings including learned discussions and most likely musical practice. His instruments were also occasionally presented to the whole city during festivities, but the most meaningful aspect of Ruberto Del Beccuto’s collection is probably the usual place of the collection and the housing of Ruberto’s semi-academic institution itself: a rather small house with a garden in a suburban quarter within the walls of Florence, which he christened with the evocative name ‘Arcadia civile’.