Iconography and the Grip of the Trombone in the Renaissance and Baroque
Occasionally there is discussion about how the sackbut, or early trombone, should be held. In contrast to the modern trombone, the stays on these early trombones were flat, so the left-hand grip of the overall instrument could not be quite the same as that of the modern trombone. This change in grip could affect aspects of performance such as the physical balance of the instrument and how much pressure was applied to the embouchure. Some also assert that the slide was held in such a way as to preclude bringing the slide all the way in for first position. (See, for example, Keith McGowan, "The World of the Early Sackbut Player: Flat or Round?" Early Music, August 1994).
These 81 artistic renderings may shed some light on the issue, although, as always with iconography, one has to consider the possibility that the renderings are not literal. There are some very awkward-looking grips, not to mention awkward depictions of the instrument (see, for example, images by Pagan and Saftleven, below).
Let me say very clearly that I do not think all of these grips are accurate. That is the point! Because there is a strong likelihood that some are inaccurate, it is important to look at multiple depictions and look for broad trends, rather than examining one or two examples and trying to reconstruct things based on a very small data set.
For the left-hand grip, there are slightly more overhand examples in the instrument's earliest history, through the 16th century, and then the underhand grip becomes more popular. Regarding the other hand, the way the slide is held appears to be all over the map. For both left-hand grip and slide grip, there is significant variety to make the case that the way the instrument was held may not have been as consistent as such things are today.
Most of the images appear in "detail" form, necessarily cropping out other parts of the picture; for full images of many of the examples, as well as greater historical context and full bibliographic citations for each item, see the Trombone History Timeline.
1488-93—Rome, Italy: In the Carafa Chapel of the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the earliest reliable visual depiction of a trombone is painted: a fresco by Filippino Lippientitled The Assumption of the Virgin (see below detail; public domain) (Kurtzman, Trombe; Herbert, Susato 118; Partridge 118; Goldner 73).
1494-97—Italy: Benedetto da Maiano’s marble sculpture, The Coronation of Alfonso II, features what are probably 3 trombone players. Although the sculpture is badly damaged, a full trombone is visible in the hands of one of the brass players, and the embouchure and grip of another player are clearly visible. Regarding the way the instruments are held, notice the non-underhand left-hand grip of both the players. Also observe the non-underhand slide grip (see 2 details below; public domain images) (Carl, Benedetto da Maiano 1:359). The sculpture is now held in Florence’s Museo Nazionale Bargello.
1496—Venice, Italy: In Gentile Bellini’s painting, Procession in Piazza San Marco, a lengthy procession includes a wind band with at least one trombone. The player appears to be using an overhand grip (see below detail; public domain) (Venice, Accademia).
16th century—Venice, Italy: An oil painting from the Venetian School depicts a pastoral concert that includes trombone, cornett, cittern, clavichord, violin, and viol (see detail and full image below; public domain). The grip of both the left hand and the slide is underhand. Note: This painting may not be in exact chronological order in this collection of images, since its date is very generally listed as "16th century." Special thanks to David Van Edwards.
1501-25—Portugal: Assumption of the Virgin (Assunção da Virgem), a painting attributed to Cristovão de Utreque, includes an angel playing trombone. The left-hand grip of the trombone is overhand (see below image; public domain) (Museu Municipal Leonel Trindade).
c. 1503—Siena, Italy: Bernardino Pinturicchio includes a trombonist in his painting, Coronation of Pius III, a fresco decorating the exterior of the Piccolomini Library in the cathedral of Siena. The trombonist is part of a trio of wind players seen performing at center-right (only the detail is shown below; public domain) (Jenkens 159; Cecchi 19). This is the earliest work of a trombone in art, to my knowledge, in which the grip of both hands is clearly shown. The left-hand grip is clearly overhand.
1508—Gonesse, France: In what may constitute the earliest non-Italian visual depiction of the trombone, a painted panel on the organ balcony at Abbey Eglise Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul features an angel-trombonist. The player is clearly using an overhand grip for the left hand (see below detail; public domain) (Fischer, Organology; Luri, Les Anges).
1516—Freiburg, Germany: Hans Baldung’s painting, Coronation of the Virgin, the central panel of an altarpiece located in the Freiburg Cathedral, includes an angel-trombonist among a group of angels playing wind instruments above and to the left of the Virgin. The left-hand grip appears to be overhand and the slide grip is unusual (see below detail; public domain) (Burkhard pl. 2).
c. 1520—Spain: The Engagement of St. Ursula and Prince Etherius, sometimes also titled St. Ursula and Prince Etherius Making a Solemn Vow, a panel painting from the Master of Saint Auta Altarpiece, depicts a trombonist with a wind band performing from a loft or window. The painting may represent the earliest visual depiction of a black trombonist. The left-hand grip of the player is clearly overhand but is unusual in that it does not appear to line up correctly with the stay (see below detail; public domain) (Lisbon, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Inv. No. 597) (Bowles, Musikleben 30-31).
c. 1522-23—Munich, Germany: Albrecht Altdorfer’s Mary and Child in Glory includes a depiction of an angel trombonist among several other angel musicians. It is difficult to see, but the left-hand grip appears to be overhand rather than underhand (see detail below; public domain; Winzinger 45) (thanks to Stewart Carter and Herbert Myers for help identifying this painting).
c. 1520—Nuremberg, Germany: A mural attributed to Hans Holbein and Albrecht Dürer depicts two trombonists as members of the town wind band playing from a balcony. Both trombonists appear to be using an overhand grip in the left hand. The trombonist in front has an extension handle on his slide (see below detail; public domain) (Hindley, 113; Lang, Pictorial History 17).
c. 1520—Rome, Italy: Polidoro da Caravaggio (the less-famous Caravaggio, sometimes known as Polidoro Caldara) paints Apollo with the Muses on a chest or panel. The depiction includes one of the muses playing trombone. The left-hand grip appears to be underhand (see below detail) (Fürst Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna, Inv. GE207) (Paul Schubring, Cassoni, Leipzig, 1915, Pl. 847).
c. 1525—Setúbal, Portugal: An anonymous artist (possibly Jorge Afonso) paints Assunção da Virgem (Assumption of the Virgin) in the Church of Convento de Jesus. Among the angel-musicians depicted are 4 singers and 4 instrumentalists (3 shawms and a trombone). The bell is on the wrong side of the player's head, and the left hand is in the wrong place, but the trombone's left-hand grip of the instrument is overhand (see below detail; public domain) (Markl 134; Gaio 251; Setúbal, Museu Municipal).
1526—Austria: In series of woodcuts titled The Triumph of Maximilian, plate 77 features a group of trombonists on horseback. The instructions for the engravings on plates 77 and 78 read, “After them shall come on horseback Burgundian fifers in the Burgundian colors with bombardons, shawms, and rauschpfeiffen. And they shall all be wearing laurel wreaths.” See below image (Burgkmair, Triumph 9, plate 77; public domain image).
1526—Austria: In the same series of woodcuts as above, The Triumph of Maximilian, another image (Plate 20, below) depicts Hans Neuschel, a famous trombonist and leader of the court wind band, playing in a wagon along with two shawms and two crumhorns. His left-hand grip is unusual (but see also the plate above), with two fingers above and the others below (see detail below; Burgkmair, Triumph 4, plate 20; public domain image).
c. 1530—Portugal: Musical Angels, a detail from Frei Carlos's Assumption of the Virgin, depicts angels playing trombone, trumpet, shawm, and pipe (or recorder) (see below detail; public domain) (Lisbon, National Museum of Ancient Art). The bell of the trombone, by the way, appears to have been retouched, resulting in an unlikely bell flare. If you look closely you can see a hint of what appears to be the original bell flare under the dark gray-green paint. The left-hand grip is overhand.
1538—Germany: Heinrich Aldegrever portrays a trio of trombone and two trumpets in a woodcut entitled The Brass Players (Die Posaunisten) from the series The Great Wedding Dances. The trombonist's grip on the instrument (which is with the right hand rather than the left) is underhand (see below image; public domain) (Duffin, Trompette des Menestrels).
1540—Southwest Germany: An anonymous oil painting entitled Der Castalische Brunn depicts a trombonist playing with an outdoor ensemble. A detail of the image, below, shows that the trombonist has an overhand grip in the left hand (see below detail; public domain) (Historisches Museum Basel, Inv. No. 1906.2901).
1549—Munich, Germany: Outdoor Feast, a painting by Hans Mielich (Müelich), court painter for Duke Albrecht V, depicts an outdoor wedding banquet. The music ensemble includes two trombone players, one of whom appears to have multiple instruments in his hands and is apparently in the act of switching from one trombone to another. The left-hand grip of the trombonist who is actually playing appears to be overhand (see detail below; Kenton plate 14; Buchner plate 95).
1556-59—Venice, Italy: Matteo Pagan’s Procession in St. Mark’s Square on Palm Sunday includes what appears to be an awkwardly-rendered (and awkwardly-held) trombone, labeled trombe piffari, among the members of the wind band (see below detail; public domain) (Landon 36; Fenlon, Magnificence 34; Venice, Museo Correr).
c. 1562-68—Germany: An embroidered tablecloth depicts an aristocratic woman playing trombone. The left-hand grip is difficult to see but appears to be overhand (see below image; public domain) (Herbert, Trombone 79).
1568—Germany: An engraving by Jost Amman called A Bridge for Adultery Built by King Arthur includes a trombonist performing outdoors with a quartet of three wind instruments and a viol. The left-hand grip of the trombonist is underhand (see below detail; public domain) (Buchner 26; Naylor 35).
c. 1570—An engraving by Franz Ignaz Brun from the Nine Muses series features an angel-musician playing trombone. The left-hand grip is underhand (see below image; public domain) (British Museum).
c. 1575—Scene biblique avec banquet, by an unknown artist, depicts a group of musicians performing from a balcony or raised platform during a banquet. The instrumentation appears to be 3 shawms and a trombone. Based on other depictions of trombones in biblical feasts (see c. 1545 and c. 1580), and based on the group's instrumentation, the date of the work is probably mid- to late-16th century. The left-hand grip is overhand and the slide grip is underhand (see detail below; public domain) (French National Library).
1577—Pallanza, Italy: Aurelio Luini and Carl Urbino complete a fresco in the church, Madonna di Campagna, that includes an angel-trombonist. Both the left-hand grip and the slide grip are underhand (see below detail; public domain).
1581—Dresden, Germany: A quartet of 3 strings and a trombone is depicted by artist Friedrich Bercht as part of celebrations surrounding the visit of Archduke Charles of Austria to Dresden (see below image; public domain) (Dresden, Sächsische Landesbibliothek). The left-hand grip of the trombonist appears to be more overhand than underhand.
1589—Strasbourg, France: Martin Braun, a wealthy merchant, adds new upper floors and commissions carvings and paintings for Maison Kammerzell (also known as Kammerzellhaus), a famous half-timbered building across from the Strasbourg Cathedral. Among the numerous outside carvings of musicians is an angel playing the trombone. The grip for both hands is overhand. Like many works of art of such age, the current carvings are the result of multiple restorations (see below image; public domain) (Pudlowski 50; special thanks to Valentin Guérin).
1589-1598—When the Morning Stars Sang Together, an engraving by Adriaen Collaert, after an image by Jan van der Straeten, includes an angel-trombonist among a number of angel-musicians. Although the trombonist is partially obscured and the hands are reversed (probably due to the reversal inherent in printmaking), the position and angle of the arm holding the instrument would seem to suggest an overhand grip rather than an underhand one (see below detail; public domain) (Goodfriend, pl. 16).
c. 1590—Rome, Italy: A fresco by Cristoforo Roncalli (Pomarancio) in the cupola of Sant’Andrea della Valle depicts music-making angels, including one playing trombone. The style of grip is unclear (see detail below; public domain).
1591—Rome, Italy: Artist Ferrau Fenzoni includes an angel playing trombone in a ceiling painting in the chapel of St. Francis in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. The left-hand grip is underhand (see below detail) (Schwed, New Drawings by Ferrau Fenzoni).
1592-9—Germany: An anonymous painting from the Album of Hieremias Buroner of Augsburg depicts a consort that includes a trombonist who appears to be using an overhand grip (see below image; public domain) (Remnant, Musical Instruments of the West 202; London, British Library).
1593—Landsberg am Lech, Germany: Assumption of the Virgin, a painting by Pieter de Witte (also known as Pietro Candido and Peter Candid) located at the Marienaltar of the Heilig Kreuzkirche, includes and angel playing trombone. The player's slide grip is out of view, but the left-hand grip is clearly underhand (see below detail; public domain) (Burresi 73-74; painting now located at Landsberg am Lech Neues Stadtmuseum).
c. 1595—Italy: An engraving by Antonio Tempesta entitled A Musical Gathering in the Company of Caged Birds, from Various Methods of Capturing Birds, features a trombone performing with a mixed consort of strings, winds, and keyboard. A wind consort performs in the background. The trombonist's grip on the instrument is underhand. Obviously, because of the printing process involved in an engraving, the image is reversed, making it look like the trombonist is playing left-handed (see below detail; public domain).
c. 1595—Italy: Francesco Albani’s painting, Trinity with the Virgin Mary and Musician Angels, includes an angel playing trombone. The left-hand grip appears to be underhand (see detail below; public domain) (Puglisi 96; Finaldi 24; Fitzwilliam Museum).
1598—Memmingen, Germany: An organ shutter painting in Stadtpfarrkirche St. Martin by H. Kuhl depicts King David surrounded by musicians, including a trombonist. The left-hand grip is underhand (see detail and full image below; public domain) (Die bemalten Orgelflügel 102).
1598-1606—Valencia, Spain: Bartolomé Matarana paints a fresco of angel musicians in the the church of Real Colegio–Seminario de Corpus Christi that includes what are probably two trombones. Only the slide portions are obvious, although possible bell flares can be seen upon close inspection (see below 2 details) (Olson, Angel Musicians).
17th century––Thaleia, Muse of Comic Poetry, an anonymous engraving, includes the following caption: "If our story is great, or if it is a comedy of life, Our story, even after it has been told does not satisfy God, It does not create the eternal well-being which pleases us; And expressed it does not include the praises of God" (see below image; public domain) (Naylor 96).
17th century—Malvaglia, Switzerland: A fresco in the parish church of San Martino features a concert of angel musicians with a trombonist. The grip is a somewhat awkward-looking underhand one (see below detail; public domain).
c. 1600—Milan, Italy: Camillo Procaccini’s fresco in Sant’Angelo features an angel playing trombone among a group of angel musicians. The left-hand grip is underhand (see below detail; public domain) (source: wikimedia commons). For additional documentation, see Neilson,Camillo Procaccini: Paintings and Drawings, pl. 77.
1601—Wolfenbüttel, Germany: A festival book for Landgrave Moritz of Hesse-Kassel documenting the 1596 celebrations in honor of the baptism his daughter, Elizabeth, includes 3 different images (by artist Wilhelm Dilich) of trombones in musical ensembles walking in procession (see below image; public domain) (Dilich 00135). All 3 seem to show an underhand grip on both hands.
1609—Rome, Italy: Guido Reni’s Gloria d’angeli, a fresco located in S. Gregorio Magno, Cappella di S. Silvia, includes two trombones (see 2nd and 3rd details, below) (Cavalli, pl. 28 and 32; Pepper, pl. 30). An anonymous drawing (shown first below), almost certainly either a preparatory sketch for or a copy of Reni’s fresco, shows the grip in even better detail (Paris, Louvre; Wangermée vol. 1 287).