The construction of a mandolino is like that of a lute, but the mandolino is smaller, and the pegbox is not bent back at a sharp angle as it is on most lutes. The vibrating string length is quite short, typically between 30 and 35 cm. Like early lutes and unlike the modern mandolin, the mandolino had five or six courses, and the stringing was in gut rather than wire. Some instruments were single strung, and some were double strung – that is, they were made with two strings for each pitch like most lutes or the modern mandolin, depending on the date and city where they were made. The tuning of the mandolino was also dependent on date and location, but generally used a pattern of fourths with one third, so that there are usually two octaves between the pitch of the first course and that of the sixth for 6-course instruments.
The playing technique may be similar to that of a lute, employing the fingers to pluck individual strings or chords, or the instrument may be played with a plectrum instead.
The mandolino was a primarily an Italian instrument and in fact was most popular in the region around Naples.
Only a few seventeenth-century instruments have survived. One of them was made by Antonio Stradivari, who, though he is much more famous today for his outstanding violins, also built lutes and guitars.
Collections of music for the mandolino published during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries contain sacred and secular music presented as vocal solos with accompaniment, as well as purely instrumental music, intended for both sacred and secular use. The level of complexity, sophistication and technical difficulty is comparable to that of music appearing in some publications for lute during the same period.
- Tyler, James and Sparks, Paul, The Early Mandolin – The Mandolino and the Neapolitan Mandoline. Oxford University Press, London (1992)