Violin Maker James McKean visits the striking cello in New York at the Met

The masterworks of the three greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance are linked not just by their beauty and the impact they had on the world, but also by their rarity. Only a dozen works by the Florentine master of the early Renaissance, Masaccio, have survived including his best-known work, the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel.

While Leonardo da Vinci was prolific in his notebooks and drawings, only about 20 paintings are generally accepted as being by his hand.

Likewise, violin maker Andrea Amati lived well into old age, and is known to have had a shop in Cremona for the greater part of his life, but only 21 of his instruments have survived.

For those who live in the United States, seeing works by these masters is even more difficult. There are only two paintings by Masaccio in the Western Hemisphere—one at the Getty in Los Angeles, and the other, a portrait of a young man, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. There, in the next room, you can see the only painting by da Vinci in North America: a portrait of a woman known as Ginevra de’ Benci (so named because of the painting of juniper on the verso of the panel).

This past summer, however, it was possible to see three instruments by Andrea Amati at the Metropolitan Museum in New York: a violin, a viola, and a cello.

The violin, made around 1560, is a treasured part of the Met’s musical-instrument gallery. The viola is on extended loan from the noted collection of the late Sau-Wing Lam. The cello, known as the “King” for its painted decorations of the arms of King Charles IX of France, was lent for the summer by the National Music Museum, located on the campus of the University of South Dakota, in Vermillion.

One Friday last June, I traveled to New York for a final adjustment on my latest cello, and thought I’d take the chance to finally see the King, the cello I had known for the 40 years I’ve been a maker, though I’d never actually laid eyes on it.

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Late in September 1974, my father had read in the newspaper that Rembert Wurlitzer, the leading violin shop of the day, was closing its doors. He left work early and took the train to the city, but by the time he got there, the shop’s doors were locked. He knocked anyway, and after a pause, someone came to the door.

“We’re closed,” the man said through the glass.

“My son is at violin-making school,” my dad said. “I have to get him something from Wurlitzer.”

That, apparently, was all he needed to say. The lock clicked, the door swung open, and my dad was ushered in. I’d like to believe that the man he spoke with was Hans Nebel, then head of the shop. Nebel had been the person who, one year earlier, had told me about the new school that Peter Prier, his old schoolmate from Mittenwald, had just opened in Salt Lake City.

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“We don’t have much left,” whoever it was said, looking around. “Wait here.”

He picked up a book from the counter, the last one left, and handed it to my dad.

The next week, at the school, I opened the package and pulled out the book: a copy of Simone Sacconi’s I ‘Segreti’ di Stradivari. It was in Italian, then the only version available. Sacconi, who had died only the year before, had been the legendary maker and restorer at Wurlitzer’s. To open the book and leaf though it was to enter a world that had previously existed only in my imagination: the Golden Age of Cremonese Violin Making, with the greatest expert who had ever lived as my guide.

The book became my Bible, as it had for so many other aspiring young violin makers. I pored over it, memorizing the photographs and drawings. It seemed even better that the text was in Italian. With an Italian-English dictionary at hand, I puzzled out what I could. “Con fondo in salice” under a cello by Stradivari, meant “willow back.” Soon, though, I managed to secure a bootleg translation, a smudged photocopy of a typewritten manuscript.

But, when I could finally read it, the text turned out to be the least important part. The illustrations are what captured my attention—the drawings and templates, but most of all, the photographs. It was a scroll that struck me the hardest, and ironically, it was one of the only photos of an instrument not by Stradivari. It was by Andrea Amati. Enlarged to fit the better part of two pages, the views of the side, front, and back were the most perfect set of interlocking curves I had ever seen. It was pure elegance brought to life. Delicate, bold, inevitable in the way the spiral of the volute unwound, the beauty of the two diverging curves of the pegbox was only surpassed by the space they defined between them.

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I had seen the cello in countless other illustrations over the years—a full-color poster has become almost ubiquitous in violin shops. But no matter how often I had seen images, finally being in front of the real thing was a surprise.

But as with the Mona Lisa, arguably the most well-known image in the world, what strikes you is not that famous half-smile or the folded hands, but how small it is. In the same way, my first impression of the cello was not one of seeing an old friend, but of how modern it looks. Looking at the viola by Andrea Amati in the next case, and then the violin just beyond, only served to reinforce the feeling that they could have been made today, and that the cello, in its tonal concept, was no different from my latest one that I had just adjusted (in tonal concept, that is—the flat, full arching, the widely spaced soundholes, the long table on the top). In execution and beauty of design, though, I was reminded of how humbling it had always been when an instrument by Amati’s sons Antonio and Girolamo, or grandson Nicolò, came in the shop. They have an untouchable, almost inexpressible beauty. No matter how long I looked, I would end up asking, how did they do that?

The King cello has been much altered since it was first made—narrowed, reduced in size, and adapted for four strings and a modern setup—and yet, it still has that unmistakable signature of the family on the back’s lower treble corner. Worn, but original, the purfling is of a uniquely rich blackness, but also has an outer curve that descends and magically reverses direction to converge with the uprising curve of the C bout to create long corners of unmatched elegance.

And yet, here it was, on the first known cello ever made, designed and built around the time that Michelangelo was still painting The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. The same corners are on the violin and the viola, also the earliest-known classical instruments. In all aspects, you find the same perfect harmony of curves and space, repeated for more than 150 years through four generations of the Amati family, but never surpassed.

The scroll, the first-known classical scroll, is still among the most beautiful ever carved. And, even more amazing to me as a maker, these three instruments were built with a concept of tone that has also never been surpassed.

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Violins are not like sculptures, fixed in one spot. They are more like dancers, seen in motion as they are held and played. That is why a violin maker, looking at a scroll or the body of a violin, is always turning it this way and that. It’s the interplay of the curves that brings the instrument alive as much as the bow. I don’t know what was going through the minds of the few other visitors to the gallery that afternoon as I ducked this way and that, circling the glass cases, abruptly shifting back, all to wake the scrolls and the arches and make them sing.

In the case of the King cello, or the other now lost works of Andrea Amati, the instrument far exceeds its particular beauty. The Tribute Money, the most famous of the Masaccio frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel, has also suffered greatly over the centuries. According to Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, every great artist that followed Masaccio made a pilgrimage to the chapel: They came to learn his way of seeing. Da Vinci’s use of oil glazes and sfumato had an equally transformational effect on the way people saw the world.

Amati didn’t invent the violin, any more than Masaccio invented perspective, or da Vinci invented oil painting. But, just as it has been said that the Age of Humanism began with Masaccio, and reached its fullest flowering with da Vinci, so the age of the violin began with Amati. In his hands what had been folk art was transformed into a classical tradition that has existed—virtually unchanged—for half a millennium. What was most striking about seeing the cello, violin, and viola was how of the present they seemed to be.

Even though they were more than a century older than anything else in the gallery, from stringed instruments to keyboards, they were the most modern in appearance. All the rest were antiques, securely rooted in a time and place. Even in its battered state, like an old warrior at rest, the cello was alive, vibrant, and ready to once again sally forth and make music.

The musical-instrument gallery is on the second floor of the museum, way in the back, and I always get lost trying to find my way back to the main hall. It took even longer to find my way that June afternoon, because the museum recently redesigned the galleries, changing all the rooms.

Passing through a roomful of Rembrandts, I once again found myself brought to a halt by one particular late self-portrait. An old man, Rembrandt catches your eye, regarding you across the centuries, outside of time: I am here, just as you are. In the next room, I am stopped again, this time by Juan de Pareja, Diego Velásquez’s former slave and the subject of a painting the artist executed to warm up for his portrait of the pope. Holding his gaze, time disappears: We exist, present in this world.

In the last gallery before I leave, a group of peasants harvesting a field of summer grain pauses for a meal, painted by Pieter Bruegel at the very same time several hundred miles south, across the Alps, that Andrea Amati was finishing a cello. A man dozes in the shade of a tree, a woman pauses, spoon half raised, to share a bit of gossip, another man empties the last of a jug. It’s a hot day, probably as hot as it is just outside the doors of the museum, and I think of lunch. But first, I take the time to go back to see the cello, the King.

As I stand there, we regard each other, a life shared for almost half a century, the two sides of a black-and-white photograph in a book from a time out of mind.

Photos courtesy of the National Music Museum

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