The Gaglianos Were the First Known Violin Making Dynasty in Naples

By the early 1700s Alessandro Gagliano had settled in Naples and was making distinctive and somewhat quirky instruments

By Philip J. Kass | From the November-December 2023 issue of Strings Magazine

Where violin making was concerned, Naples was a bit of a latecomer. Cremona was in its fourth generation of violin makers before the first began to appear in Naples, and those makers were primarily transplanted lute-builders from the Tyrol. Omobono Stradivari even journeyed there in the early 1700s—presumably on a commercial mission—at a time before there seemed to be violin makers there, but that was already in the process of changing, for it was at around this time that we first discover the presence in town of Alessandro Gagliano.

Alessandro was reputedly from minor nobility and a transplant from up north, but by the early 1700s he had settled in Naples and was making his distinctive and somewhat quirky instruments. He seems to have been particularly active in the years after 1712. By the 1720s, he also had two sons, Gennaro and Nicolò, who presumably worked with him and eventually took over the workshop after his death in 1732. And yet, they do not appear to have worked together afterward. Rather, they seem to have opened separate businesses, coexisting and sharing the local market.

Gennaro and Nicolò represent the high-water mark for violin making in Naples. Their works dominate Neapolitan violin making in the period 1740–90, and their works are consistently of very fine quality. While there may be disagreement among players as to which one is their favorite, there is widespread agreement that the two together represent the pinnacle of the craft.


Whether Gennaro had any sons who chose to follow in his profession is unlikely, for no instruments so labeled exist to provide such evidence. Nicolò, on the other hand, had at least four sons who succeeded him. At least the first two, Ferdinando and Giuseppe, studied under their uncle, to judge from stylistic features of craft in their instruments, whereas this is far from clear in the work of the other sons, Giovanni and Antonio. We can also see the sons’ involvement in their father’s shop—Ferdinando during the 1750s, Giuseppe in the 1760s, and the others in the years following. Ferdinando and probably Giuseppe both had most likely opened their own workshops in the 1770s, allowing the hands of their younger brothers to become more visible in their father’s work.

Alessandro Gagliano violin, Naples, c. 1706
Alessandro Gagliano violin, Naples, c. 1706. Photo: Tarisio.

Indeed, it might well be that they all followed their father’s calling because it was a particularly profitable one at that time. There is a veritable explosion of violin making in Naples starting in the 1750s, the bulk of what we retain today having been made during the next half century. In the 1770s, Naples established a series of orphanages, similar to those that employed Vivaldi as music master in Venice, and so it is no surprise that a significant number of small-sized instruments, mostly made by Nicolò and his sons, emerged during those years.

By the end of the 1780s, both Gennaro and Nicolò had either retired or died, for late in that decade we see the first evidence that the brothers returned to the family workshop—which we can now pinpoint to the piazza Cerriglia—and for a period worked together. The earliest labels list three brothers—Giuseppe, Giovanni, and Antonio—working together at this address. Sometime around 1790, though, Giovanni had married and started raising a family; he moved a few doors away, opening his own workshop, while his brothers continued working together as Giuseppe and Antonio, ostentatiously continuing to use the same label but with Giovanni’s name scratched off. 


Many of the labels we know from the family suggest that they were working quite early, but their death records tell a different story. We know from Giuseppe’s death record that he never married and that he was about 80 when he died in 1820. Antonio, who was 71 when he died in 1835, had four children, although we know neither their names nor their professions. The continuity of the craft in the family, therefore, came from Giovanni’s children.

When Giovanni died in 1825, at about 62 years of age (in house #40, whereas his brothers lived together in #37), he left at least eight children of majority age, four of whom we know from labels or signatures inside instruments: Raffaele, Antonio, Nicolò (who the trade knows at Nicolò II), and Gaetano. Of these, the ones best known were Raffaele and Antonio, who continued working together long after their brothers’ presence in the workshop had ceased. 


By the early 1800s, the trade had also shifted rather more toward plucked strings, as it had in Genoa and Turin as well. In all those towns, the successor instrument was the guitar, but in Naples it was also the Neapolitan-style mandolin, ubiquitous with its eight courses of strings and a tailpiece secured by an end button rather than the guitar-style string holder used elsewhere. The trade was also now full of competitors: the Vinaccias, Ventapane, Jorio, Filano, and Fabricatore, just to name a few.

The Gaglianos are believed to have gotten into string making, but mostly they remained true to violin making, for their bowed strings are what have survived and the reason we remember them. Raffaele died in 1857, and his brother Antonio in 1865. The final generation in the instrument-making trades was Raffaele’s son Vincenzo. He was mostly known as being a dealer in instruments and as a purveyor of strings, and when he died in 1898, so did the family’s involvement in the musical instrument trade.