By Philip J. Kass | From the July-August 2020 issue of Strings magazine
The Italian city of Mantua today seems like a small town. It’s not on any of the highways, it doesn’t have a direct train line to the big cities, and its population, around 50,000, is hardly bigger than it was 400 years ago. In its day, though, it was a military and artistic center of astonishing importance. The Duke of Mantua hired the finest artists and employed the greatest musicians and architects of the late Renaissance. When the last duke died, his heirs sold his art collection, already considered one of the greatest ever assembled, to the King of England; it was sold on, but the result is that the greatest treasures of practically every major museum include at least a few pieces that were born in Mantua.
So, small in size, great in stature: this is how we can describe Mantua. These same terms could describe its history so far as violin making was concerned. While there were barely a dozen makers between its origins and the beginning of the 20th century, they included four of the most important: Pietro Guarneri, Camillo de Camilli, Tommaso Balestrieri, and Stefano Scarampella.
Given Mantua’s small size, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that much of its talent was imported. Indeed, every one of those makers named above was a native of some other town. The legacy they left to musicians, though, is very much a part of the make-up of their adopted home. While small in number, their impact on the violin world was large, and this is still reflected in both their name recognition and their prices.
The first violin maker of any stature to work in Mantua arrived quite late in the history of the craft. Pietro Guarneri (1655–1720) arrived from his native Cremona around 1680, and by 1682 had put down significant roots. He was by any measure an accomplished human being. Most connoisseurs of classic violins consider him to be one of the greatest masters in the history of the craft, but that wasn’t even his real job. He was taken into the service of the Duchess of Mantua, a highly cultured woman and a great lover of music, as a performer on the violin and viol. He also was canny enough to acquire the monopoly on the sale of music strings, a guaranteed source of steady income. As a result, he was one of only two luthiers in the city’s history able to afford his own house.
Given that he could only be a part-time luthier, the fifty or so instruments that we know form a dazzling legacy. Pietro started from the Amati concept that he would have learned from his father, Andrea Guarneri, a pupil of Nicolò Amati, but then created something unmistakable and unique from it. One could characterize his instruments as boldness combined with elegance. The broad model has a full arching, as was typical for the time, but without the pronounced hollowing following well into the plates. Rather, a crisp and distinctive hollow, combined with well-articulated edges, marks out his form. The scrolls are similarly bold and elegant, and while the model echoes Amati, but with a deeply channeled tail and broad, projecting ears, the F-holes have a breadth and sweep that is far more assertive than the classic Amati form. All of this is crafted with a skill and a spontaneity that is a paradigm of both freedom and precision.
But, ironically, violin making was probably not Guarneri’s primary endeavor, nor his finest talent. Their small numbers speak to that. One can understand his father’s disappointment that his son left for greener pastures; in Cremona there was a chance to gain parity with Nicolò Amati. But this seems far from Pietro’s thinking, and perhaps was of no particular interest to him.
While today we tend to judge tone by arching height before we hear it, Pietro’s violins put the lie to any ideas that full equals soft. Fine concert artists have long been attracted to his works, partly for their beauty and partly for their penetrating sound. Joseph Szigeti and Fritz Kreisler both owned and used violins by Pietro; in more recent years, Earl Carlyss played Kreisler’s violin in the Juilliard Quartet, with no apparent difficulty in making his presence felt. And as for price? Well, as the old saying goes, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. Rarely do the best Pietros come to market, and rarer still in auctions, but prices for the best will run into seven figures.
After Pietro’s death in 1720, there was a gap of several years before a successor arose. In such a small town, perhaps there were more than ample quantities of violins to satisfy any local demand. When a successor did arise, once again he came from elsewhere.
Camillo de Camilli (1703–54) was born in a small mountain village north of Vicenza. His father was a farmer, and the family in due course moved to the border regions between the territories of Verona and Mantua. At some time after his father’s death, Camillo began to try his hand at violin making; we do not know where, but the manner of craftsmanship owes nothing to the methods employed by Pietro Guarneri. Camilli appears to have settled briefly in town in late 1731, to work alongside Antonio Zanotti, the only active maker there at the time, but by 1732 had returned home. After Zanotti’s death in 1734, he returned to Mantua and opened a shop in the center of town, where he worked until a few years before his death.
Camillo’s manner was far more delicate than Pietro’s. While his archings also tend to be full but not high, his edging and F-holes tend to be much less bold. His interior work invariably shows an almost fussy care in its execution, at odds in both materials and finish to that of Pietro. His models are almost entirely of a small size, and show a marked affinity to Nicolò Amati, although he did base some of his ideas on Pietro’s legacy of violins in town, so that there remains some sense of a local style to his work. And whereas Pietro favored a deep-red-to-orange varnish, Camillo’s is generally gold to pale orange, and of a harder consistency than that of his predecessor.
He seems to have been fairly successful too. There are at least one hundred violins known, as well as a handful of other instruments, and they have been much admired by both chamber and orchestra musicians. There seems never to have been a time when there weren’t at least two to three in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and this is true of many other ensembles around the world. And for professional orchestral musicians, they remain an affordable option, if only just. Over the course of the past three to four decades, they have kept pace with makers such as Giovanni Grancino and Nicolò and Gennaro Gagliano. Several nice examples have passed through the various auctions over the past few years and sold for prices above $200,000, and in private sales, for more still.
Camillo appears to have closed shop in 1753, as his death record notes that he had been ill for over a year. Once again, there was an opening in Mantua, and once again this was filled by someone from afar.
Tommaso Balestrieri (1713–96) came from a village south of Piacenza, but in his late teens came to Mantua in service to one of the local nobles. His employment was as a valet, in which capacity he served several noble houses. In 1753, though, he appears to have left the livery profession and taken a flier on violin making. After an apprenticeship of several years with a woodworker, he joined the guild as a violin maker in 1758. Within a year, he had dropped his membership: had he studied with a violin maker, he would have known that the woodworkers’ guild had no authority over them.
Balestrieri had several different shops, none very far from where the Guarneri and Camilli shops had been, and he seems to have been active from the late 1750s right up until his death. As a maker, he was much more prolific than any of his predecessors, and also seems to have had a keen understanding of what the musicians of his day sought. In his earlier instruments, we see a model based upon Pietro Guarneri, but by the 1770s we see a hybrid based on Guarneri but with a decided influence from Stradivari, which remained his preferred form for the rest of his career.
Balestrieri’s work bears more than a little similarity in concept to Guadagnini’s work, and it is worth remembering that they both emerged from the same region and from similar antecedents. Both perhaps also started with woodworking training and then reverse-engineered violins from that. What is distinctive about Balestrieri’s work is that his ideas are entirely original to him and involve styles, patterns, and use of materials at odds with those of his predecessors. But from the standpoint of sound, their Stradivari-inspired arching provides ample power, and Balestrieri is considered among the three most significant violin makers of the region, the others being Guadagnini and Storioni.
Historically, Balestrieris were comparably priced to Storionis, and as such were often instruments of choice for orchestral musicians. Today, however, those two makers have far outpaced the others in this class, so that the prospective purchaser would either require assistance in the transaction, or perhaps make the choice between a violin and a home. Neither, though, has kept pace with Guadagnini, who has entered a class all his own.
Balestrieri died on the eve of a siege of Mantua by the French Army, and the town remained in the center of the conflict until after the peace of 1815. Not surprisingly, he really had no true successor, although there were several talented craftsmen who worked during the following decades. The next major maker to settle there came, yet again, from elsewhere, in this case, Brescia.
Stefano Scarampella (1843–1925) also brought his own concept of craft, learned from his father, an amateur maker, and his brother, who had worked in Paris. His arrival may have had more to do with his employment as a rail worker than to violin making, but he nonetheless found a place in a town with a new conservatory and growing interest in playing the violin.
Scarampella appears to have been very successful, after a fashion: contemporary accounts suggest that he perpetually undervalued his work. They are often rough, and very spontaneous, but they too pay homage to the past through his use of Pietro Guarneri– and Tommaso Balestrieri–inspired models. They remain very much in demand to this day. Mischa Mischakoff, already in the 1930s, was recommending them for his students who couldn’t afford a Guadagnini or a Pressenda, and they remain violins of choice for many musicians, young and old, and in various walks of life. They also remain affordable, at least in relative terms. Over the past few years, some nice examples have sold at auction for around $150,000 and up—not pocket change but manageable if you marshal your resources.
Scarampella sold his business to Gaetano Gadda a year before his death, and everything that has followed shows the very strong imprint of Gadda’s interpretation of Scarampella. We thus can see modern Mantuan lutherie as having its true origins in Scarampella’s art. For the player seeking something of this legacy, these modern makers might be their ticket into a fine tonal legacy.