16th-Century Knives Engraved with Musical Scores Are Now Performed by a Modern Choir

notation knife renaissance

Notation Knife. ca. 1550. Artist unknown. Victoria & Albert Museum.

It turns out that Renaissance diners in Italy enjoyed a little music with their feasts. And they kept their musical scores recorded in an unexpected location—their knives. This means that aside from carving up meat, this cutlery helped provide the evening's entertainment.

These 16th-century knives are now scattered in museum collections around the world, including examples at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Musée national de la Renaissance at Château d'Ecouen in France. Known as notation knives, Kirstin Kennedy, a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, notes that we can't be entirely certain how they were used, though the form gives us some ideas. That collection's example has a sharp edge, which would imply its use in cutting meat, yet its width suggests that it may have been used to present slices of meat to diners.

As for the engraving? Each side of the blade has musical notations, making the most of the space. And each knife represents one part for a singer. So, a complete set of knives actually come together to create a harmonious chorus. Fittingly, one side contains a statement of grace, and the other a benediction to be sung at the end of the meal. The grace reads: “The blessing of the table. May the three-in-one bless that which we are about to eat.” On the opposite side of the blade, the benediction states: “The saying of grace. We give thanks to you God for your generosity.”

These simple statements turn into something quite grand when sung. The Royal College of Music recorded the music from the V&A knife to spectacular results.

Grace (Version 1)

Benediction (Version 1)

Knives with musical scores carved on the blades originate from 16th century Italy and are called notation knives. They are present in collections across the world, including these examples from the Musée national de la Renaissance at Château d'Ecouen in France.

h/t: [Open Culture]

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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