Provocative Objects / Spaces

9 May 2024 -

Provocative Objects: The Queen Elizabeth Virginal

Once one of the most powerful monarchs in the world, Queen Elizabeth I would play music ‘when solitary to shun melancholy’ as I do in my little London flat.[1] She would sit surrounded by the most well-designed objects available, including the most innovative and beautiful musical instruments. This example was made in Venice in 1594 by the famous Giovanni Antonio Baffo. Known as a virginal in England (though without connotations to the Virgin Queen, spinets were small keyboard instruments that were popular with young women. This is a provocative object as it contains a multitude of design influences that do not just stretch across the globe, but across time periods, and passing through the hands of one of England’s most famous queens.

Ottoman: The striking Arabesque design that covers the instrument uses floral motifs with swirling patterns and rounded shapes, very typical of other objects from this time period such as writing boxes and engraving designs.[2] The Tudor fascination with the aesthetics of the Ottoman empire began with Henry VIII, and so the virginal’s design was not a one-off but part of a greater trend within England and within the monarchy.[3] As it was made in Italy there is much to say of the relationship between the powerful European country and the large Eastern Empire: while strained through warfare and boarder conflicts, there was flourishing trade and a great movement of people in both directions. This naturally influenced aesthetics, with a merging of Venetian and Ottoman ideas that contributed to the Queen Elizabeth Virginal’s design.

Italian: The style of the virginal is also distinctly Venetian in terms of its shape, materials, and construction. For example, there was a tradition for the inclusion and the design of the soundboard rose which was only found on Italian instruments.[4]

English: Arguably, the reason that this instrument has been so well preserved is due to its royal connection. An owner would see this connection very clearly through the heraldry on the front: the royal coat of arms, and Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn’s badge of a crowned falcon holding a sceptre stood on a tree stump. By including heraldry on the virginal, in conjunction with the expensive imported ivory keys and popular arabesque ornament, the instrument when in the Queen’s possession would have shown her royal status and extreme wealth.

Japanese: During my research, I discovered the existence of a case for the virginal which is not displayed alongside in the gallery and, despite frequent mentions, was not frequently described or illustrated. Made in Britain around one hundred years after the main instrument, the case is covered in crimson velvet and opens to show the use of japanning on the inside. Through searching the V&A’s Collections Database, I found a ‘British, 1678-80, case covered with crimson velvet’ which you can see illustrated in the 1888 plate. Japanning is a surface decoration which imitates the black lacquered objects imported to Europe from the Orient in the late sixteenth century. It was popular on furniture items and other items made out of wood, such as cabinets. The case while not in Elizabeth’s possession, was also made for someone with the wealth to afford to keep up with the changing trends in design. Ownership of goods from Japan and the fashion for ‘chinoiserie’ in many different mediums continued through to the nineteenth century ensuring the continuing relevance in the virginal’s design.

A single object can tell us many stories: the design of the Queen Elizabeth Virginal gives an entangled story that is not atypical of objects from the early modern period. It tells us of global design being connected through centuries, of international relations, cross-cultural exchange, and the preservation of aesthetics. It implies collaboration and communication in a time period thought to be very different to our own, yet proves globalisation precedes our modern times.


Object: Giovanni Antonio Baffo, The Queen Elizabeth Virginal, 1594, cypress, bone, and ebony, 190 x 40.4 x 19 cm, London, V&A Museum, 19-1887 < queen-elizabeth- virginal-spinet-baffo-giovanni-antonio/>
Image: William Gibbs, Queen Elizabeth’s Virginal, Plate VIII, 1888, illustration, in Alfred J. Hipkins, Musical Instruments: Historic, Rare and Unique, (London: A&C Black, 1888)

[1] ‘when fche was solitary hir allaine, till sfchew melancholy’, Sir James Melville of Halhill, Memoris of his own life p.168

[2] Unknown maker, Writing Box, c.1525, walnut and oak lined with leather and silk velvet, 5 x 41 x 27 cm, London, V&A Museum, W.29:1 to 10-1932 < writing-box-unknown/>

[3] Jerry Brotton, This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (London: Penguin Books, 2016), p.23.

[4] Denzil Wraight, ‘Italian Virginals’ (December 2005) (para. 12 of 13). See also W. D. Hendry, ‘Decorative Rosettes on Italian Keyboard Instruments’< Mozart_harpsichord_files/Mozart_harps_rosette_files/Rosette_techni ques_files/ Rose_making_Hendry.htm> for an accurate and detailed description of how to create the rosettes.

Started by the DHS Ambassadors in 2022, the Design History Society’s Provocative Objects and Places blog series looks at spaces and objects that challenge and confront us as design historians.

Past topics have ranged from the ancient Colosseum in Rome to the ultramodern Antilia in Mumbai; pink razors and Barbies to Lalique’s Bacchantes vase and nineteenth-century asylum photography. The full collection of previous posts can be found here.

We invite submissions for guest blog posts from students, early career researchers, and established academics to those with a general interest in design history. Posts can be on any object or place from any era, anywhere in the world, which in some way incites discussion and debate.

Posts should be 500-800 words in length, accompanied by at least one image with associated credits and clearances, and a short bio. Please send to the DHS Senior Administrator, Dr Jenna Allsopp


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