By Inge Kjemtrup
Had Count Cozio di Salabue never lived, the history of the violin would be much the poorer, particularly when it comes to what we know about Antonio Stradivari. Over the course of his long life, Count Cozio (1755–1840) was an instrument collector, a dealer, a patron, and archivist. He is the bridge between the great Italian makers of the 17th and 18th centuries and our own era. In part because of the detailed information he recorded in his carteggio (“papers”) and his memoirs, modern collectors, musicians, and dealers can look at a Stradivari violin with an understanding and appreciation of the history, craftsmanship, and traditions that created it.
Cozio revered Stradivari. His passion for the Cremonese master’s instruments inspired him to seek them out from sources all over Italy and beyond, and even, in an extraordinary act for the time, to buy the contents of Stradivari’s workshop from his son, Paolo. Today those contents—patterns, sketches, notes, labels, an array of tools—are in the Museo Stradivariano in Cremona.
As John Dilworth observes, craft rather than sound was Cozio’s lodestar for evaluating instruments.
“He’s the first person to actually sit down and write things down from observing instruments, and to be reasonably methodical about it,” says British violin maker John Dilworth. But Cozio was also a man with a mission, Dilworth adds. “He became a violin fan at an early age and realized that the knowledge was disappearing, that instruments were disappearing from Italy, and that there wasn’t any group of makers left. He went on a mission to try to save the craft in Italy. On the other hand, he was also looking to make money out of it.”
Tarisio founder and director Jason Price agrees that Cozio may have been looking to revive a craft that had languished after Stradivari’s death in 1737. “It seemed really difficult then to make a career of making violins, so people stopped making at the levels they were making before, and the second generation of cheaper, rougher makers came out.” There were also other violin makers elsewhere in Europe, and Cremona was no longer the only place to purchase stringed instruments for a court orchestra or ensemble. Says Price, “Cozio had the money to follow his passions and put together a collection of what he liked”—and many of those instruments came from Cremona.
Count Ignazio Alessandro Cozio di Salabue was born in 1755 into an aristocratic family in Casale Monferrato, in the Piedmont Hills some 40 miles from Turin. Though there was said to have been an Amati violin in the family, the young Cozio seems not to have been a player. “I assume like all aristocratic children he was given lessons but he seems to have enjoyed looking at the fiddle more than he did playing it,” says Dilworth. What drew him to the violin world isn’t clear, though obsession seems to have run in the family. His father, Carlo, had a passion for chess—he was a fine chess player and the author of two books about it.
His family sent the teenaged Cozio to the military academy in Turin “to get a bit of spine in him,” says Dilworth, adding caustically “He obviously didn’t like it.” In Turin, the 16-year-old Cozio met violin maker Giovanni Battista Guadagnini, then 60 years old and with a waning career. The two would make a business arrangement: Cozio would buy every instrument Guadagnini would make, with an important proviso that they would be made according to Stradivari’s style. (Guadagnini had already misrepresented himself to Cozio as a Stradivari student, yet, as Price notes, his earlier instruments “look nothing like a Strad.”)
“When Cozio commissioned Guadagnini to make this exclusive series of instruments, he already knew that Stradivari was already the one that everyone should be copying and that to do anything else was just a waste of time,” says Price.
In 1775, probably thanks to a lead from Guadagnini, Cozio managed to buy Stradivari’s entire workshop in Cremona from his son, Paolo Stradivari. “There were over 100 instruments in the Strad house; all the molds, all the tools, odds and ends of Bergonzi instruments,” says Dilworth. Cozio carefully studied these, taking notes in his carteggio and on the objects themselves.
It’s his study of Stradivari’s work that is one of Cozio’s greatest legacies, says Dilworth. “In his notebooks, he starts categorizing the Strads he has by their mold, which is something you don’t see anyone else doing.”
The deal between Cozio and Guadagnini was short-lived. Perhaps, suggests Dilworth, Guadagnini found it difficult to repress his own style in order to tailor his violins to Cozio’s requirements. Cozio soon turned to collecting, dealing (through intermediaries, as directly handling money was unbecoming in an aristocrat), and cataloging the instruments he handled. He worked closely with Domenico and Pietro Giovanni Mantegazza in Milan to extend his collection, which would include instruments by Stradivari, Guadagnini, Amati, and Bergonzi, among many others.
As John Dilworth observes, craft rather than sound was Cozio’s lodestar for evaluating instruments. For Cozio, the careful work seen on instruments made by Stradivari would always overshadow the rougher work of Guarneri del Gesù, no matter how much value others would place on the sound quality of an instrument.
It’s interesting to see how Cozio’s business was built on trust, a requirement when he could not personally oversee the transactions. The Tarisio auction house recently sold a letter written by Cozio dated March 3, 1803 requesting the return of a 1730 Stradivari violin which had been loaned to a Madame Donas from Casale. “Cozio instructs his ‘Carissimo Amico’ to please return the violin to the care of his agent Mattia Berrone,” says the catalog description. A note in different handwriting at the foot of the letter indicates the violin was returned.
In Cozio’s final years, with a fine collection of instruments still in his possession, he opened negotiations to sell it all to Luigi Tarisio (1796–1854). From Tarisio, some of the instruments found their way to the French maker and dealer J.B. Vuillaume in Paris, and from there to dealers and players all over the world.
I ask Price and Dilworth to weigh in on the value of Cozio’s carteggio and his memoirs, translated into English by Brandon Frazier. Price finds Cozio’s observations and notes to be “extremely useful because it shows the first known points of many of the important Strads, Guarneris, and Amatis. It’s also very useful to see price comparisons: how much was an Amati versus a Stradivari. It’s interesting to see the growth of prices over his lifetime.”
Dilworth remarks, “The legacy is to me that he laid the foundation of the appreciation of the instrument and expertise as a pursuit. People had their opinions about things, but he put it down in writing and tried to analyze it. The fact that you can take an individual Strad right back to when it belonged to him, and he sometimes tells you where he bought that from, from Signora so-and-so who bought it from Stradivari in 1716, that’s beautiful.”