Legend is oftentimes more interesting than fact. While factuallyguitar soundhole rosettes are an outgrowth of the hand-carveddecoration and ornamentation found in and around soundholes oflutes, the legend of lute soundholes really stirs the imagination.
The legend is that much of the initial impetus behind the kindof decorative soundhole work seen in Renaissance artistry layin the diffuse early beliefs that demons lived in obscure, darkplaces. To counteract the possibility that evil spirits inhabitedthese dark holes, various positive, benign, and/or beautifyingtouches were adapted to these scary places--and musical instrumentsoundholes certainly fit the bill.
This Dark Age fear progressed and became more elaborate throughthe Middle Ages. It was not until the Renaissance that this fearwas replaced by genuine impulses toward artistic beautification.A tremendous number of ornamental patterns were developed withwhich to do this. This effort was further encouraged by an emergingclass of wealthy patrons of the arts, who insisted on having thebest and most beautiful work available. Many surviving Renaissanceinstruments are veritable tours de force of ornamentalwork.
Historically, it was in about 1850, about 150 years after thepassing of the intense popularity of the lute and similar earlyinstruments, that the guitar took its present form. Antonio deTorres was the first luthier to successfully integrate variousideas from others. He concentrated his efforts on producing abetter tone by improving the top soundboard. He also standardizedthe string length to approximately 26 inches - the length stillused today.
One element was the open soundhole, as opposed to the carvedsoundholes found on lutes. From a practical standpoint, it wasfound that an open soundhole made for a louder instrument thanone in which the soundhole was blocked by decorative ornamentation.
Two factors came into play regarding the decoration and ornamentationof the open soundhole. The first factor was aesthetic; it justlooked good. Could it have been a modern version of the lute soundholedecoration legend? I will leave this to the readers' imagination.
The second factor was structural; rosettes function to reinforcethe area around the soundhole. Because of the delicacy of thetopwood, it is necessary to interrupt and seal the end grain ofthe wood around the soundhole perimeter.
The term end grain refers to the actual wood grain, as at theend of a board, resulting from a cut across the grain. It is throughthis end grain that mositure is absorbed or lost. As wood expandsand contracts due to changes in temperature and humidity, itsnatural tendency is to crack.
In order to stabilize this end grain area, which also receivesvibration by nature of its proximity to the soundhole, luthiersseal off the end grain by carving a channel or channels aroundthe soundhole. These channels are filled in with decorative strips,and the results are called rosettes.
This was first done using a process known as intarsia. Intarsiais the art or technique of decorating a surface by inlaying elementsone at a time, and creating the pattern step by step, from designto execution, developed during the Renaissance. These mosaicswere put together, one at a time, in the instrument face.
Intarsia is infinitely flexible, limited only by one's imagination,and results in one-of-a- kind work as opposed to the modern inlaying,in one step, of complete and mass-produced wood or celluloid ornamentation.While intarsia was the best way to achieve and express inlay artistryduring the Renaissance, today it is the sole province of a veryfew hand craftsmen.
**Thanks to Ervin Somogyi for his assistance with this article