By Philip J. Kass

Ever since old violins first became cherished, we have formed romantic ideas about them and their makers. The truth of the matter is far more prosaic. While violin making, as practiced by a small number of superbly gifted craftsmen, such as Antonio Stradivari and Nicolo Amati, could create great wealth, for the most part it was the province of struggling artisans, many of whom lived and died in less than humble circumstances. Stradivari, astonishingly inventive and imaginative, might have had the means to make a fortune, but he was more the exception than the rule, and as his times turned against the trade, he wisely directed his younger children into more lucrative professions.

For indeed, the times were turning against them. Italy, in relative decline since the 1500s, entered ever tougher financial and trade conditions during the 1700s. This is reflected in the dying days of the Great Age of Cremona, in the perpetual struggles of the makers in Milan, in the falling quality in the works of most major centers, and in the wholesale abandonment of violin making in favor of guitars in cities such as Genoa and Turin. Only in Venice and Naples were conditions conducive to the trade.

It is also evident in the peripatetic movements of violin makers, scrambling with their families to find environments where they could make a living by their craft. Makers such as J.M. Valenzano went to Spain and southern France before finally settling, late in life, in Rome. Vincenzo Panormo, perhaps the most traveled of all, ended up in London after wandering through Naples, Marseilles, Ireland, and Paris (this latter city on two occasions).

Perhaps the most remarkable of these wanderers, though, is Giovanni Battista Guadagnini.

Guadagnini is among the most fascinating luthiers of the post-Cremona age, both for his life and his craft. In a difficult era, he was among the most successful of his generation. He achieved that through close associations with his clientele, the ordinary musicians of his day, through a willingness to abandon homes in search of greener pastures when work opportunities arose, and a strikingly transparent manner that seemed to translate his thought process into wood and varnish.

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1766 G.B. Guadagnini, Parma (left) and 1785 ‘Dorothy DeLay’ G.B. Guadagnini, Turin. Labeled, ‘Joannes Baptifta Guadagnini, Cremonenfis fecit Taurini, 1778, GBG, T’ (right)

Leaving home was probably easy—he had a great deal of practice in that.

He was born on June 23, 1711, in the village of Bilegno in the valley of the Tidone River near Piacenza. His family worked as farm managers; his early years were spent throughout that region as his father went from job to job. In 1739, he left the valley to settle in Piacenza proper. It was in this period, after his arrival in Piacenza, that he is thought to have begun violin making. His teachers are unknown, although it’s fairly certain that he did not study with any of the Cremonese masters.

However, in an era when guilds were also in decline, he might have found it easy to transfer woodworking skills from farm equipment to violins.

While in Piacenza, Guadagnini befriended the Ferrari brothers, leading violinists and cellists of their day—they became his principle patrons and supporters throughout subsequent years. When in 1749 they took positions in Milan, Guadagnini naturally followed them.

Milan in 1749–50 was a city full of music but with a weak environment for violin makers. The past 50 years had seen the collapse of the old dynasties, and only the last of the Testores still struggled to earn a living. Guadagnini, along with Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi (ca. 1710–84), who also immigrated to the city, rapidly became the premiere luthiers there. However, in 1757, the situation changed again. The Ferraris moved once more, but more critically, the new Duke of Parma was actively promoting (and lavishing money on) music and the arts. And so, in 1758, Guadagnini made the move to Parma, possibly stopping for a short time in Cremona along the way.

Parma initially proved very welcoming, and quite quickly Guadagnini gained the patronage of the duke and appointment as court luthier. This continued until 1766, when the Duke died and was replaced by a son who did not share his father’s interests, and soon began closing all the court institutions. By 1771, it had become obvious that not only Guadagnini’s clients but also Guadagnini himself were going to lose their jobs, so Guadagnini arranged for a severance from the court and left for his next and final destination: Turin.

Turin had an active court and a celebrated opera house, but shortly after Guadagnini’s arrival the reigning King of Sardinia died, and the city entered an extended period of mourning, during which musical performances were curtailed. However, luck remained on his side in the form of the young Ignazio Alessandro Cozio, Count of Salabue. Cozio had dreams of resurrecting Cremonese violin making, and thought that Guadagnini, who by this time was promoting himself as Cremonese, would make this happen. The Count required him to make violins using the Stradivari forms and tools that Cozio, through an introduction from Guadagnini, had acquired from the Stradivari family. The older luthier bristled at being told how to make violins, but nonetheless from 1773 to 1776 Guadagnini became Cozio’s “house” violin maker.

When no longer compelled to follow the Stradivari form, Guadagnini did finally choose to work in Stradivari’s manner, but he based it on the master’s late works. This final stage of Guadagnini’s career was especially productive. He worked right up to the end: His last instruments date from the year of his death. However, when he died in Turin on September 18, 1786, the trade took a critical turn. His sons Gaetano (1750–1817) and Carlo (1767–1816) continued working, but almost exclusively as guitar builders—the market for violins had collapsed. He had no other pupils, and it was far from clear that he left any legacy that the modern age would appreciate.

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1785 ‘Dorothy DeLay’, G.B. Guadagnini, Turin (left) and 1744 ‘Segelman’ G.B. Guadagnini, Piacenza (right)

Guadagnini’s future fame came from sources both expected and unexpected: his descendants, who kept the name alive until 1948, and the mistaken notion that his father had been a pupil of Stradivari. Indeed, by the time that Guadagnini firmly adopted the Stradivari model, a growing number of musicians were selecting that maker as the ne plus altre of violin making. However, Guadagnini is much more interesting for the ways in which he didn’t copy Stradivari, behavior that deserves closer attention.

It is a truism of old violin making that no one had a clue as to what we today expect from their instruments. No one thought he was supposed to copy anyone else, except to some vague degree the brothers Amati and Stainer. Guadagnini is perhaps the first Italian maker to consciously imitate Stradivari without having been his pupil. He did so in his own rough-and-ready manner, using the shortcuts he’d developed over a lifetime, but the essentials he achieved perfectly. We’d never mistake his work for Stradivari, but it is obviously derived from him.

We also need to consider the old makers’ circumstances. Generations of Amatis, Stradivaris, and Guarneris had made more than enough violins to supply the entirety of Italy, at least until they could persuade enough French, Austrian, and English people to buy them at elevated  prices. This was beginning to happen during Guadagnini’s lifetime, but he still had to sell what he made, which meant satisfying the changing tastes of the musicians of his time. Here he was reasonably successful. He was neither as rich as Stradivari, nor as poor as Testore. He had a large family, but he managed to feed them. He did so by making what would sell. This meant traveling a lot, and adapting his approach to the local customs, but he was more than up to the challenge.

This is how his method arose: Guadagnini used an internal form, which aligns the ribs in a completely reproducible way, except that he never took the time to align the ribs properly, so that usually the lower treble corner joint leans inward from the back. He worked out a method of linings and block that was similar to the Cremonese, except that he always trimmed the blocks back so much that the linings, hidden inside the block, ended up being exposed. He always traced a clean model for his f-holes, except that the stems deviated so much from the holes that the wings by the holes were exceedingly wide. This he addressed by trimming away the inside edges, and thus created his distinctive oval sound holes.

Then there are characteristics of his style that are specific to the towns in which he worked. His wood selections were always of local wood, except the brief period in Turin where Count Cozio supplied him with imported woods. Similarly, his varnishes are also local: Chemical examinations have revealed that the ingredients are of local origin but the application is consistent.

Most fascinating of all, his work reveals a slow but methodical working out of his ideas of violin making, even in odd choices that he later renounced. For example, the f-holes slowly rise on his instruments from Parma, so that by 1765–66 the notches, marking out the mensure, have to be well below the mid-point. It was only in the 1770s that he changed this behavior. Similarly, between his years in Milan and Parma, he seems to have discovered a gouge that allowed him to hollow surfaces much more than his older tools: We see this in the deeply scooped scroll volutes, fluted f-wings, and hollowed edging in the instruments from Parma and Turin.

As far as finish goes, well, that’s another story. Guadagnini lived in an age that didn’t value the precision of past masters: It cost too much, and not many people were capable of achieving it anyway. However, it was also an age that didn’t value it: Think of the precision of David and Ingres versus the impressionist spirit of Manet, Monet, and Renoir. Myriad tool marks hid beneath thick layers of varnish. Purfling joints, edge thicknesses, symmetry—well, close enough was close enough. What did stay consistent was arching shape, because this affected the sound and thus the salability to the demanding and parsimonious clientele of the day.

If Guadagnini had a golden period, it is perhaps his later years in Turin. His post-1776 instruments, consciously based on Stradivari, are consistently excellent. This is not to demean the earlier works, which can be equally successful tonally. It has more to do with us than with him. Turin Guadagninis on the Strad model became the fall-back position for cash-strapped musicians in search of the Stradivari sound. As recently as the 1980s, teachers such as Ivan Galamian would recommend that a student buy a Turin Guad if he couldn’t afford a Strad or Guarneri.  We still see this with musicians who struggle to buy the old Cremonese: A good Guad can carry you through until your fees can cover the cost of that Strad you’ve always craved.

This last story, which I heard early on in my days in the fiddle trade, goes to the heart of the matter.

By the late 18th century, musicians increasingly associated Stradivari with quality concert violins. Since Guadagnini was a clever craftsman, he understood what they wanted and gave it to them. As a result of having done so, by the later 19th century, his work was increasingly seen as a reasonable substitute. This same process has been going on over the generations, which is why today there are thousands of violins by hundreds of makers, each of whom has developed a lasting and worthy reputation.

Guadagnini made clever, idiosyncratic, and highly effective instruments. He had a colorful and eventful life that endlessly fascinates us. But for the makers who followed the Great Age of Cremona—those faced with following in the footsteps of the makers who established what players to this day most treasure—Guadagnini, more than any of his contemporaries, set the standard for the future. And for this, we treasure his work to this day. 

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