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Grand piano with a grander history at the MFA

Museum of Fine Arts

In 1792, at the age of 25, Manuel de Godoy was made prime minister of Spain and “universal minister of Spain and the Indies” to boot. His monarch, Carlos IV, relied utterly on his advice and gave him a handsome palace in Madrid, even while Godoy, renowned as a libertine, was almost certainly carrying on an affair with Carlos’s wife, Queen Maria Luisa.

Godoy’s palace required extensive repair and redecoration. In 1796, a few years before commissioning Francisco Goya to paint four tondos for the vault of its large vestibule, Godoy commissioned this splendid grand piano from England’s preeminent maker of keyboards, John Broadwood and Son.

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You can see it in the musical instruments gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts. And although you cannot, alas, make it tinkle, you can look at it as long as you like.

There’s plenty to see. The piano’s boxy but harmonious case was designed by the cabinetmaker Thomas Sheraton. It is beautifully ornamented in the neoclassical style. Supported by four tapering, squared-off legs, its surface is dominated by light and glossy satinwood.

Above the keyboard it boasts a sumptuous decorative scheme of inlaid tropical woods (which would once have been much more colorful). And at top and bottom it has strips of darker purpleheart, an extremely water-resistant and durable wood. These set off an orderly decorative scheme that includes opaque, glass-paste casts of ancient Greek coins by James Tassie, and medallions and cameos made of jasperware designed by Josiah Wedgwood. (The founder of the legendary Wedgwood pottery company, Wedgwood was also a prominent abolitionist and the grandfather of Charles Darwin.)

Not only is the piano the only known keyboard with a case designed by Sheraton, one of the leading cabinetmakers in England in his day, but also it is the earliest extant piano with a range of six full octaves.

No wonder it is a star attraction at the MFA.

Intriguingly, the instrument’s case also boasts the Spanish royal coat of arms. This has beguiled scholars: Why not Godoy’s coat of arms, since he was the one who commissioned it?

It’s possible that Godoy commissioned it as a gift for his lover, the queen. Or perhaps the royal couple were so taken with the instrument that they effectively commandeered it for themselves?

The latter seems unlikely: Godoy held too much power to be so treated. In any case, the fate of the piano between 1808, when the king and queen were deposed, and the early 20th century, when it showed up in Paris, remains a mystery.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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