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Not for Sale: Mariano Fernandez Guitarra Septima, Circa 1880

There’s a scarcity of information about the luthier Mariano Fernandez, who was active in Mexico City in the late 19th century. Only three or so guitars made by him are known to exist. This magnificent example of his workmanship resides in the collection at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota.

By Alan di Perna Photo: Emanuele Marconi

There’s a scarcity of information about the luthier Mariano Fernandez, who was active in Mexico City in the late 19th century. Only three or so guitars made by him are known to exist. This magnificent example of his workmanship resides in the collection at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota.

“It’s really tricky not to know much about such an accomplished guitar maker,” says the museum’s Curator of Stringed Instruments, Arian Sheets. “We don’t even know who Fernandez trained under, if anyone, or who his colleagues were.”

But we only need our eyes to appreciate Fernandez’s mastery. The intricate inlay work that adorns this guitar’s body, fingerboard and headstock was meticulously rendered in three colors of abalone, bird’s eye maple veneer, nickel-silver wire inlay and green and black mineral pigments.

“The workmanship is the nicest I’ve ever seen, particularly the beauty of how the inlays are cut,” Sheets comments. “It’s ornate in the manner of the French school, but with the French guitars you’ll often see little flaws in the workmanship. This instrument is tight everywhere. The workmanship on the interior is every bit as perfect and exquisite as the exterior.”

Sheets adds that the guitar’s ladder-braced interior is more reminiscent of 19th century German guitar-making than the fan-braced Spanish style. Ultimately, this Fernandez is a quintessentially Mexican guitar, but while Mexico is often associated with folkloric instruments, this guitar was made for classical playing.

“There’s a long tradition of classical music in Mexico,” Sheets points out. “Really magnificent instruments for classical playing were made for the middle and upper classes. In the 19th century, the guitarra septima was associated with composers whose works celebrated the heroes of Mexico’s struggle for independence from Spain. The instrument was documented as early as 1776.”

This Fernandez is strung in seven courses—hence the name guitarra septima—with double strings for the four lower courses and single strings for the three higher courses. That makes a total of 11 strings, which means that one of the 12 tuners isn’t used on the instrument as it is presently strung.

“This has to be one of the instruments that preceded the American 12-string guitar,” Sheets says. “When the 12-string first appeared in American and German catalogs in the early 20th century, it was frequently cited as a ‘Mexican guitar.’ ”

When the museum first acquired the guitar in 2011, it was not in the pristine condition seen here. A family of mice had taken up residence in the instrument’s case and interior. Restoration work was performed by the NMM’s Conservation Research Assistant at the time, Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet.

“He did a tremendous job,” says Sheets. “Jonathan reproduced some of the beautifully cut pearl inlays. He is from Mexico City, so he was very proud to work on the instrument. He told us that there was a tradition of very fine inlaid box making in Mexico, and there is some resemblance between those boxes and the inlay work on this guitar.”

While not much is known about Mariano Fernandez, Sheets adds, “there’s no question that these instruments are works of art.”

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