Early Venetian Instrument Maker Matteo Goffriller Had a Near Brush with Total Obscurity

Goffriller was a prominent member of the musical instrument makers’ guild in Venice, at least until around 1710

By Philip J. Kass | From the July-August 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

One of the early additions to my violin library was a book with the amusing title The Violin Manufacture in Italy and Its German Origins. This seemed riotously funny to those of us schooled in the origin story that started in Cremona and, more or less, ended there as well. It seemed a classic example of a type of nationalistic myopia. Except, as time and experience taught us, it was fundamentally true. The violin as we know it today might have started in Cremona, but had it not been for the plague in the 1630s and the Amati family’s need to take in outworkers to meet pan-European demand, that particular style of work might well have stayed there, and what we use today might have evolved into something very different. And we owe that transformation in large measure to the lute builders of the Austrian Tyrol.

Browse through any of the standard dictionaries that have a city-by-city index and in the listings of every major Italian town you will see many German names, mostly dating from the late 1500s and 1600s. These makers were mostly part of the Tyrol diaspora that traveled around Europe as part of their apprenticeship and master’s examination requirements. Quite a few chose not to return home. They found nice weather and good food, and after 1618, peace, since, for a welcome change, Italy was not a part of the festering chaos that was the Thirty Years’ War.

Interestingly, the two names we think of most often when we think of Germans in Italy both specialized in cellos, and, in both cases, their cellos have far outpaced the rest of their work with regard to modern commercial values. That both seemed to have entered Italy via Venice, one of the richest states in the world in those days, should not surprise us, since it not only had money but also extensive trade routes to wherever one might wish to go and, not surprisingly, was also the destination for many of the roads leading from the north. While David Tecchler continued on to Rome, Matteo Goffriller, the subject of our discussion today, chose to stay in Venice and build his career.

Ironically, we almost didn’t know anything of Goffriller. His work seems to have been forgotten for many years, but his life story, and the story of how his work seemingly vanished and then, over a century later, reappeared, makes for an interesting read.


Goffriller came from the town of Brixen in the Tyrol, now called Bressanone since its incorporation into Italy in 1919. He was born there around 1659, and in 1685 traveled to Venice to begin an apprenticeship with Martin Kaiser. Kaiser was another of those Tyrol craftsmen who left for the richer and more promising environment of Venice, and he had built a good reputation for fine stringed instruments. The next year, Goffriller did what so many apprentices did: he married his master’s daughter, and thus became an integral part of the business, to the head of which he succeeded in 1690. For the next 20 years, he had almost no competition in the making of bowed stringed instruments, and as a result he is the earliest documented Venetian maker to concentrate almost exclusively on the making of violins and cellos.

  • l47453top-1-Matteo Goffriller, Venice 1727 Foeldesy, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • l47453fb-1-Matteo Goffriller, Venice 1727 Foeldesy, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • l47453tside-1-Matteo Goffriller, Venice 1727 Foeldesy, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • l47453bside-1-Matteo Goffriller, Venice 1727 Foeldesy, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • l47453back-1-Matteo Goffriller, Venice 1727 Foeldesy, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • l47453bb-1-Matteo Goffriller, Venice 1727 Foeldesy, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • l47453treb-1-Matteo Goffriller, Venice 1727 Foeldesy, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • l47453rear-1-Matteo Goffriller, Venice 1727 Foeldesy, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • l47453head-1-Matteo Goffriller, Venice 1727 Foeldesy, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • l47453front-1-Matteo Goffriller, Venice 1727 Foeldesy, Courtesy of Tarisio

The cello in those days was a large and cumbersome instrument, intended for very different use than was its ultimate destiny. Goffriller’s cellos followed the conventions of his day but did so in grand style, with strong individuality and a very distinctive character. His point of departure in design was the great Amati cello (while Stainer was all the rage at that time, his approach was really just his own interpretation of Amati but with variations in arching). Goffriller’s outlines followed the master, but with very round and symmetrical C-bout curves, and his F-hole models closely adhered to the Amati form but were boldly styled, open, and large. Some might say that his very personal scroll models—smaller, narrower, and with a decided projection of the volutes ahead of the pegbox—perhaps betrayed some sort of German style, but even this is questionable, for few of his colleagues followed a similar approach, and anyway the question of where “national” leaves off and “personal” picks up is rather fuzzy with all violin makers in that age, when, other than a general adherence to a standard, there were no rules as to what you could and could not do in your own personal woodworking.

Goffriller was a prominent member of the musical instrument makers’ guild in Venice, at least until around 1710, at which point he seems to have “retired” or, more likely, resigned to avoid its strictures. We think this was the case because there is a significant quantity of unlabeled work that dates from the following 20 years, and Goffriller did not die until 1742. If this unlabeled work was sold “under the table,” then he seems to have had a successful if illicit career from that time onward. Of course, the lack of original labels plays havoc with a maker’s posthumous recognition (which no doubt was of no concern to them, since putting food on the table is an act for the living), and Goffriller instruments, and especially the cellos, had a very curious story going forward.


  • l69602top-Matteo Goffriller, Venice 1717, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • l69602fb-Matteo Goffriller, Venice 1717, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • l69602back-Matteo Goffriller, Venice 1717, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • l69602bside-Matteo Goffriller, Venice 1717, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • l69602tside-Matteo Goffriller, Venice 1717, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • l69602bb-Matteo Goffriller, Venice 1717, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • l69602treb-Matteo Goffriller, Venice 1717, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • l69602rear-Matteo Goffriller, Venice 1717, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • l69602head-Matteo Goffriller, Venice 1717, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • l69602front-Tarisio_69602_Matteo_Goffriller_Venice_1717

The reason has to do with that comment about the style of his times. When he was making his traditional large and broad instruments, the Cremonese had already adopted a smaller form, and Stradivari’s highly successful “forma B” was becoming the standard. Indeed, the cello came to the fore as a solo instrument during the mid-1700s, and some makers, most notably Guadagnini, seem to have designed their instruments around the demands of their clientele. This was also the age in which the procedure of cutting down older large-form violas and cellos became more accepted, becoming ever more common during the 19th century. And a cello, once cut down, no longer has the outline that made the original maker’s work recognizable. Then add to this the lack of label identification, and the growing popularity of the famous names, and the impulse for some to glue in one of those fancy names becomes irresistible.

More than a few fine makers lost their identities during this period: some remain anonymous to this day. But Goffriller would be an exception. In reference works of the 1870s and 1880s, he was often not even mentioned as a maker, whereas Carlo Bergonzi was credited with numerous cellos, most of which were probably made by Goffriller. This started to change in the 1890s. First, there was a body of work that retained original labels. Second, they were manifestly superior instruments, in many respects the model for what followed in the Venetian School. Last, the skills of expertise were growing throughout the early 20th century, and inquiring minds were making comparisons and drawing conclusions. Of particular importance on this score is the methodical and analytical approach adopted by the Hill brothers, and by Alfred Hill in particular, who by the 1920s was breaking the news to any number of owners convinced of the Cremonese origins of their cellos.


A fair number of Goffrillers were used by great cellists of the past—they just didn’t know that their instruments weren’t Amatis, or Bergonzis, or Strads, or whatever name they bore at that moment. Piatti owned several during his career. A significant moment, perhaps, was when Catalan cellist Pablo Casals became one of the most celebrated concert artists in that era. Casals had played on an interesting cello that had been known as a Bergonzi. This conclusion was drawn from its form, a classic forma B Stradivari model, which was the result of a fairly significant cutting-down operation. However, once Casals learned that his instrument had in fact been made by Goffriller, he went so far as to publicly call it his Bergonzi-Goffriller, mistakenly accepting the old beliefs that Bergonzi studied with Stradivari and that Goffriller studied under Bergonzi. But at the same time, this put Goffriller’s name before the public, and thus applied Casals’ own celebrity to the celebrity of its maker. In due time, Goffriller became one of the most in-demand names for old Italian cellos, below Stradivari and challenged only by the works of his younger contemporary Domenico Montagnana.

Quite a few concert performers of more recent years have played Goffrillers: think of János Starker, Leonard Rose, Raya Garbousova, and Felix Salmond. Their somewhat darker and richer sound, while not always as piercing as the soloistic character of a Strad, made them excellent for ensemble blending. Many quartet cellists have used a Goffriller as the cornerstone of their quartet’s sound, in particular Iwan d’Archambeau of the Flonzaley and Mischa Schneider of the Budapest. And while Goffrillers became quite expensive, they were more affordable than Stradivaris and were thus frequently the preferred cello of orchestral musicians. There was a time when most principal cellists of the major American orchestras played Goffrillers, as did many of their section members. Not many years ago, there were at least three to four of them in the Boston Symphony alone.

And so, from a position of seeming obscurity, his art eventually triumphed—not so very differently, then, than it did for another maker from a prominent Cremonese family, but that is another story…