The making of different musical instruments has attained their highest peak in different countries at different times. It just so happens that the art of creating violins reached its perfection in Italy in the 16th-18th centuries. Instruments created during this span of time are among most precious objects in the world. Extremely valuable and utterly irreplaceable. Their age, most ages, contributes to the acoustic characteristics (although there are some indicators that there is some loss of sound quality over time). Despite fully qualifying to be museum pieces, locked up in temperature controlled cases, old violins remain in active use by famous musicians. Such is their purpose! The general public usually does not know much about the provenance of the instruments they hear and see on stage, but for performing artists having the right violin is a matter of life and death. In this article we will discuss some aspects of violin making that are only known to professionals.
The violin, as it is known today, first appeared in Northern Italy in the beginning of the 16th century. From there, the craft and art of violin making spread to Germany, France and England. There are different ways to categorize Italian luthiers (a somewhat rare term meaning the makers of stringed instruments), but usually this is done by schools (not in the traditional sense).
- The Brescian School, (1520-1620), began on the foundations that Gaspard Duiffopruggar had laid, and represented most famously by Gaspard da Salo, whose direct pupil was Maggini, and more distantly Mariani, Venturino, Budiani, Matteo Bente, Peregrino Zanetto etc.
- Perhaps the most important school was that of Cremona, (1550-1766), with the Amatis, Stradivari, Guarneri, Bergonzi, Guadagnini etc.
- The Neapolitan School, (1680-1800), represented through the Milanese and Neapolitan masters. The families were those of Grancino, Testore, Gagliano, Landolfi, etc
- The Florentine School, (1680-1760), also including masters from Rome and Bologna, was represented by the names of Gabrielli, Anselmo, Florentus, Techler, and Tononi.
- The Venetian School, (1690-1764), whose prominent masters are Domenicus, Montagnana, and Sanctus Seraphin. The first might also be associated with the Cremona school, since he spent his time of apprenticeship at Cremona, and his works are also esteemed by those prefer that school.
Friedrich Niederheitmann noted in his book on Italian violin makers:
It is to be observed with most of the Italian violin-makers that they work at first in the foot. steps of their master, but as soon as they gain consciousness of their own power they form their own paths to right and left, they devise new outlines and archings, and as each one prefers what he himself creates, so the various schools originate through the varying changes and differences of opinion and diversions of each master.
An important aspect of early violin making was the relative lack of attention to the visual aspects of the end product. While the natural curves of a violin are a thing of beauty, the Brescian and the Cremona schools were reluctant to explore additional ways to improve the instruments’ esthetics. Considering the number of masters operating out of Italy, it is not surprising that throughout the 18th century high quality instruments could be purchased at very reasonable prices. The popularity different makers also varied over time. Violins made by the Amati family had a great deal of success, while Guarneri’s works only came to the front after Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840) developed an effection for the violin known today as Il Cannone Guarnerius. Apparently, the great violin player had lost his precious Amati, but when a Guarneri was loaned to him by an acquaintance, he simply refused to give it back (according to another version of the story, the instrument’s owner did not want it back for fear that those strings would be profaned by someone else, other than the great maestro). Paganini called it his “little cannon”, referring to the gun-like explosions of sound that the violin was capable of.This is perhaps one of the most renowned violins in the world and it is only played occasionally, which is a great honor to a musician. Some very successful copies of Il Cannone Guarnerius have also been made. It appears that the exact dimensions and materials of this instrument have attained a certain level of perfection, despite its unassuming looks.
Charles de Briot, in a similar fashion, made violins created by Giovanni Maggini significantly more desirable. As de Briot’s fame increased, so did the price of Magginis. It is safe to say, however, that by the end of the 19th century all of the classic violin makers came to be appreciated.
Collectors and forgeries
The existence of so many objects with unique qualities led to many individuals collecting them. Louis Tarisio was among the early examples of violin connoisseurs. He can be credited with rescuing many fine instruments out of oblivious in small Italian villages. Not all collectors were as sophisticated, which created a market of people who could not understand subtle nuances of violins, relying solely on labels. Forgery attempts became rampant. Sometimes, entirely fake label were inserted, on other occasions actual old labels were glued inside practically worthless instruments. Another unfortunate effect of violin handling by unqualified individuals was the practices of taking out “excess wood,” ruining otherwise excellent old specimens.
Legends about violin makers
The variation in quality of materials and varnish in Guarneri violins is so notorius that a legend exists of the so-called “prison violins.” Supposedly Joseph Guarneri led such an unscrupulous life that he ended up incarcerated for a long period of time. His daughter and one of the gaolors procured the materials so he could spend his time in prison purposefully. The resulting violins were terrible to look at, but sounded great nonetheless.
Jacob Stainer, a man of checkered past, trained to become a violin maker. Towards the end of his life, he is rumored to have made 16 beautiful instruments, with golden varnish, sounding like the woman’s voice. He supposedly sent 12 of them to the electors of the Empire and presented four to the Emperor.