By Philip J. Kass
In 1772, a young violin maker arrived in London with his family to practice his craft. He was 38 years old and had worked in many cities; his travels had now brought him more than 1,700 miles from his birthplace. He did not stay long, and did not affect the local violin-making customs—yet. When he returned some years later, Vincenzo Panormo would have a profound influence on the craft in Great Britain.
Among the violin makers of his age, he is without doubt the most well-traveled of any: Palermo, Naples, Rome, Milan, Marseilles, Cork, and two separate sojourns in both Paris and London. He was acclaimed as an accomplished maker of violin-family instruments, and a handful of surviving examples indicate that he also made woodwind instruments during his stays in Naples, Marseilles, and Milan. However, his arrival in both Paris and London changed what had gone before, for in both capitals he introduced the Stradivari concept of form and arching into environments then still in rapt awe of Amati and Stainer.
While the Panormo name has been famous among musicians for many years, not a lot of accurate factual information was actually known about his life and activities. In recent years, many independent scholars, most notably Giovanni Paolo di Stefano of Palermo and Andrew Fairfax of London, have made discoveries that shed new light on the family. Recent interest culminated in an exhibition at Tarisio London in October 2016.
Vincenzo, according to the earliest accounts of his life, was born Vincenzo Trusiano on November 30, 1734, in Monreale, near Palermo. The family name was actually Trusiano; the adoption of Panormo (the Latin form of the name of Palermo) came in later years. It is certain that Vincenzo and his family, who were known from very early on as woodworkers and instrument makers, were living in Palermo for much of his early years. Basses were very much a family specialty, and a double bass of his, dated 1752, remains in the collection of the Conservatory in Palermo.
“While there are a few instruments labeled from this first London period, it was the work he produced on his return to Paris that conclusively established his reputation.”
Around 1759, the family chose to seek opportunities in Naples, the capital of the kingdom and a city that had become one of the most glamorous in Europe. During the latter 18th century, it is notable that the lot of a violin maker was not great, and that only two Italian cities, Naples and Venice, supported more than a few violin makers, and perhaps this is why the family settled there. While his brothers concentrated on woodwinds, only a few surviving woodwinds give any indication of his activities in these years.
Since Vincenzo’s older brothers made stringed instruments, it is presumed that Vincenzo received early training from them, but the profusion of violin makers working in Naples, most notably the Gagliano and Vinaccia families, suggests that Naples was also an important training ground for the fledgling maker. Not only were there fine workshops with trusted methods, but there were also more than a few classic Cremonese violins around for study and inspiration.
From this time forward, the turbulent world of late 18th-century Europe created crises that propelled the family ever farther from their origins. Naples suffered severe famines in the 1760s, and perhaps because of this, by around 1770, Vincenzo, his wife, and children moved to Paris. Here there were other issues, for the Parisian guild structure made it almost prohibitive to make a career. So, in 1772, he moved to London, settling in the Soho section of the city. While it was a more open working environment, anti-Catholic sentiments remained high in the city, and this perhaps spurred Vincenzo, after the riots of 1778 and the gradual breaking of the guilds’ power in Paris, to return to the French capital in 1779. While there are a few instruments labeled from this first London period, it was the work he produced on his return to Paris that conclusively established his reputation.
Many fine instruments are known from the Paris years—violins, violas, and cellos certainly—and there are indications that Vincenzo continued his work as a maker of woodwind instruments. Indeed, he might have spent the rest of his career there had it not been for the unfortunate events triggered by the storming of the Bastille in 1789. The full-throated revolution that followed made the life of a successful merchant violin maker uncertain at least and downright dangerous at worst. By 1790, the family had returned to London.
While he was able to transplant a successful business to London, the geopolitical whirlwind still made the lives of Continental refugees insecure. Even Viotti, in spite of having fled Paris due to his association with the nobility, was suspected of ties to the revolutionaries in Paris and was forced to flee once again, this time to Hamburg. Perhaps similar pressures caused Vincenzo to make an unusual detour: a three year sojourn in Ireland.
According to correspondence from the family of the Cork instrument maker Bartholomew Murphy, Vincenzo Panormo worked for him from 1797–1800. Even here, the winds of war were not far off: Perhaps in the wake of a French invasion, martial law, and a full-blown rebellion in southern Ireland, by 1799 he appears to have moved to Dublin, where several of his children put down roots.
Finally, around 1800, the situation on the British Isles calmed, and by 1801 the family was back in London. Here, one of Vincenzo’s sons, Joseph, started his own shop, while his youngest sons George and Louis remained to assist in the parental workshop. Once again settled in Soho, it was here that Vincenzo died on March 19, 1813.
The catalog of the 2016 Tarisio exhibition in London included an essay on the Panormo family by Andrew Fairfax. It is from this essay that Philip J. Kass draws most of his biographical account.