By Emily Wright

The rare violins exhibit at this year’s VSA conference was held in a small, nondescript room down a corridor across from several other nondescript rooms, not too far from an escalator whose laboring machinery churned out a strange music. It would be hard to guess that just around the corner was a stunning collection of historic instruments representing some of the finest work of renowned makers from Cremona, Mantua, and Venice.

Violins, most of them privately owned by players or collectors, dotted a cloth-cushioned table, and were available for visitors to examine under the watchful eye of curator Bruno Price of Rare Violins of New York. “I wanted to have a bit of a journey for the looker,” says Price. We walk to the far end of the exhibit to a cache of Amati and Storioni instruments. “Certainly the style has evolved over time, but you can really see the same hand throughout.”

Makers from all over the world took hours comparing one to the next. Photographs and tape measures were not allowed, so this was mostly visual, with limited tactile engagement permitted.

Next on my tour, a honeyed trio from Pietro Guarneri, who was a musician in the Court of Gonzaga. This was the finest orchestra of the time, and while he was employed by the court, he largely stopped making violins, creating a gap in his catalogue from 1681 to around 1700. When the dust from the War of Spanish Succession settled, patronage of musicians in Mantua was at an end, and Guarneri returned to the bench once more—lucky for us.

Other highlights of the exhibit included a jewel-like 1720s Stainer copy by Montagnana, and another of Montagnana’s instruments that resembled a miniature cello more than anything else. Also notable were two Balestrieri violins, one of which possessed nearly Strad-like proportions, and the fan favorite, a 1656 Amati with deep channeling and an arched back. Price was told not to bring it because the scroll isn’t original, but he couldn’t resist. “It’s a creature from the past. Nobody would dare make this sort of thing today—they’d be scared stiff!”

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