Trumpets kept pretty much to themselves as fanfare instruments throughout the Renaissance and even into the Baroque, and the instrument actually changes very little over that time. Without the trumpet, the usual Renaissance brass ensemble consisted of the sackbut with the cornetto, or Zink, as Praetorius and his countrymen termed it (also known in England simply as the “cornet” or “cornett”). Thus, depite larger sizes of cornetto including the “lizard” and “serpent,” the most common combination for the cornetto was with sackbuts.

Cornetto. Woodcut by Tobias Stimmer (1539-85).


Ivory Oliphant. Horn of St Blasius. Sicilian (12th century). Cleveland Museum of Art, 30.740.

Cornetts, sackbuts, & curtal. Lo Splendore d’Italia. The Whole Noyse. Intrada II 58602 (1993). Trk 36 Canzon vigesimaterza.


The cornetto is unusual in that it has no descendants among today’s instruments: it’s like a woodwind, in that it is essentially a tube with fingerholes to change the pitch; but what makes it unusual is that it produces the sound by means of a small trumpet-like mouthpiece, creating — according to some listeners — a tone that sounds like a cross between a soft trumpet and an oboe. The name “cornetto” derives from corno, the horn or ivory from which instruments like the oliphant were made earlier in the Middle Ages. Renaissance cornetti were sometimes made of ivory also, but most typically of wood with a glued cover of blackened leather. Two plain wooden types of cornetti existed as well, however: the cornetto diritto (a straight cornett of tapered wood), and the cornetto muto (like the straight cornett but with a mouthpiece integral to the body of the instrument instead of detachable). As its name implies, the cornetto muto was softer than the other types.

Cornettino, cornett, lizard, cornetto diritto, cornetto muto. Plate VIII (detail) from Syntagma Musicum II, De Organographia, by Michael Praetorius (1618-19). Serpent from Harmonie Universelle by Marin Mersenne (1635), bk. 5, prop. 24.


Wind band with shawms, cornett, sackbuts, and curtal. Procession in Brussels (detail, 1615). Dennis van Alsloot. Madrid, Prado.

Cornett with chitarrone & viol. Quel Lascivissimo Cornetto: Virtuoso solo music for cornetto. Bruce Dickey, cornetto, with Tragicomedia. Accent ACC 9173 D (1991). Trk 13 Petite fleur (excerpt — ornaments by Dalla Casa).


The cornetto’s advantage over the trumpet was its great melodic flexibility, and that is probably why it was preferred as the treble instrument in ensemble combinations with the sackbut. That flexibility was exploited in a late-Renaissance repertoire for solo cornetto that was eventually surpassed only by the pyrotechnics of the violin in the early Baroque era.