Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Sing for Your Supper:  Renaissance Notation Knives

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Renaissance Notation Knife, about 1550

Renaissance Notation Knife, about 1550. Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A slice of life from Renaissance Italy has been preserved in the form of knives with musical notation.  These rare knives, dating from about 1550, can be found in the collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and in a few other locations.  For a detailed picture of a complete set, see this article from the WQXR blog.

Each knife contains the vocal line for one male voice (superius, contratenor, tenor, bassus).  One side of the blade displays a benediction, and the other, grace to be sung at the table.  You can hear (and download) recordings of the beautiful polyphonic music on the knives from this webpage of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

If you’re thinking, “they don’t make things like that anymore,”

Plastic Notation Knife

you’re almost right.  One artisan has created a beautiful modern reproduction that you can see at the link.



Image attribution:  Renaissance notation knife, Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Modern clear plastic notation knife, C. Gallant, 2017.


One thought on “Sing for Your Supper:  Renaissance Notation Knives

  1. Way neat- thanks lots, Chris. There’s an awful lot of functional (and not) musical notation on furniture and of course in paintings- much of which has been transcribed and published and/or recorded over the years. Well, you know that famous beginning section of Morley’s Plaine and Easie Introduction, in which the part-books are brought out after (before?) dinner and everyone is bidden to sing their part. So the tradition of singing around the table is very old and well-established- but I had never come across the knives bit- thanks!


    Liked by 1 person

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