By Philip J. Kass
All Images Courtesy of Tarisio
Writing about workmanship is fraught with difficulties, not least because of the chances that language does not always adequately depict the visual, and as a result it is possible to draw all of the wrong conclusions. Those who have closely examined many instruments create a visual memory of an object and thus tend to spot the important traits instantly through a process of subconscious recollection. Putting words to these recollections, however, is contrary to the process by which they were formed, and descriptions alone, without the visual aid, fail to make clear the observation. That said, I will attempt to put words to the images and at least give the reader a sense of what to look for in a Panormo violin.
I should also stress that such analyses are essentially generalizing, drawing from an average of examples seen; workmanship is never a fixed process, and humans rarely create objects with machine-like regularity. Not all Panormos will have all the characteristics cited here, but a preponderance of such traits, as well as original and unaltered labels and clear traceable provenances, help to secure generally accepted identities. In the case of the Panormos, one is limited by exposure to their instruments, and so for this discussion I have compared notes with Andrew Fairfax, the organizer of the 2016 Panormo exhibition and a leading scholar on Panormo and his work. His observations are included in this essay. And so, with no further ado, here we go.
Vincenzo Panormo (1734–1813)
Starting on the back, there are several traits that immediately converge. The model is quite symmetrical and is usually based on Amati in the earlier years; the Stradivari model became his preferred pattern starting already in the first London period. The edges are usually wide but delicate, with maple purfling on which the blacks are very darkly stained and visually prominent. The purfling points tend to be long but still terminate in a fairly blunt point.
Corners on the earlier work tend to be small and delicate, but are longer in the later work. The backs were affixed to the ribs with the aid of locating pins which, in Panormo’s case, tend to be oval in shape and set fairly far off the purfling. He was not always concerned with their alignment, and in later years does tend to move them closer to the purfling, in the manner of Stradivari, but rarely beneath in the way the Cremonese master did. After Panormo’s arrival in London, this use of locating pins was quite unusual, for they had not been a part of English violin making since the 1740s.
In terms of the finish of the wood surfaces, this does not always seem to have held high importance to Vincenzo, as it did not for many Italian makers of the period, and one often sees the marks left by scrapers and other tools on the surfaces beneath the varnish.
In the way the plates are arched, the influence of Stradivari is also very clear, and this is a key factor in the power and brilliance of sound that his instruments achieve. Rather than the usual Amati or Stainer type of rounded arch, Vincenzo Panormo instruments have an arching that more or less follows the lessons of Stradivari. This too was an unusual arrival in London, for while Stradivaris had been copied by Daniel Parker in the 1700s, they were “Long Period” instruments, whose arching method was fundamentally different from that of the “Golden Period” examples used by Panormo.
The wood selections, as one might expect of makers traveling to distant venues, often reflect what was locally available, but this is less clear in Panormo’s work in the earlier years than in the years after his final departure from Paris, something reinforced by the blockades that began after the Revolution. Especially eye-catching is the use of English Sycamore, a maple-like wood with strong contrasts between light and dark in the flames (much like American woods in this respect), and the unusual rooty woods used in the Dublin period, when by tradition he is thought to have salvaged his hardwoods from a billiards table. The tables, more often than not, are not book-matched, that is, formed from two halves of the same block, and very often are quite broad grained, so that they defy current methods of dendrochronology in dating.
Turning to the table, you find the same outline being continued, but with the addition of the f-holes, always one of the most personal features of any violin. Panormo’s tend to be cleanly cut, with rather narrow, vertical stems, small notches, and overcut eyes, so that the holes seem to be redirected toward the stems, outward on the upper holes and inward on the lower holes. The wings are narrow and were cut with the tips rather pointed, so that if measured with a protractor would be clearly closer to 45 degrees than to 90. In the early years, the wings are only lightly fluted, and as the years passed and the Stradivari influence on his work grew, the wings gradually grew broader and more deeply fluted.
Looking at the interiors, his early work tends to use spruce for the blocks and linings, with the central bout linings appearing to butt up against the corner blocks. As time progressed, this too changed, and eventually he used willow, the wood used by Stradivari, with central linings that appear to be slightly inset within the blocks. It should also be noted that Panormo used locating pins on the tables as well, something many imitators miss.
Panormo’s scrolls are distinct in that the model, while based on Stradivari, takes a strikingly personal direction in the details. The channels running the length of the pegbox are usually deeply carved, more so at the tail, and the carving of the volutes shows the careful and consistent use of a small gouge. Viewed from the back, the pegboxes tend to be fairly straight, not tapered as in Stradivari. Seen from the front, the volutes are fairly broad and straight up-and-down. The pegbox mortise is often similarly broad. As to the finish of the volutes, in some earlier works we see the final turns running almost full to midnight (using the analogy of a clock face), but usually they are more in the manner of Stradivari except for a distinctive straight final cut. By the time he returned to London for the final time, again in imitation of Stradivari, he had also adopted the habit of blackening his fairly narrow chamfers.
Lastly, regarding varnish, this too tends to be influenced by locally available sources. In Panormo’s earlier work, this tends to be a light gold to orange in color, very Italianate in quality, and fairly firm in texture, but in later years, and especially after the move to London, these become much deeper red in color and thinner in texture.
Joseph Panormo (1767/8–1837)
Much of what has been said about Vincenzo’s work can be said about Joseph’s, the primary differences being his f-holes, in which the wings are more exaggerated, broader, more deeply fluted, and with a sharper point; the scrolls, in which the final turn generally runs to midnight and the tails tend to be more protruding than on the father’s instruments; and broader corners with longer purfling points, although again without the “bee-sting” one sees in Cremonese work. One will also see that the transition of hollowing the pegbox walls leading into the volutes begins more abruptly and with deeper carving. Joseph more often turned to spruce for his interior work than his father, although also with the central linings inset into the corner blocks. According to Andrew Fairfax, he also occasionally copied Guarneri del Gesù, making him the first one in the family to follow that model, as few of these are known. A major difficulty in dating Joseph’s work, also pointed out by Fairfax, is that he did not use a label; on the rare instruments that do have his identification it is either his signature or initials inside the body.
George Panormo (1777–1845)
George’s work is very rare, and so speaking of its typical characteristics is almost impossible. From the handful of instruments I’ve seen, it appears that his style is most like that of his father’s last years, and indeed he probably had a hand in making those instruments. His workmanship is very refined, his preference for models being Stradivari and Amati. The wings do tend to have less fluting, the corners are a bit longer and broader, and the internal structural woods vary, with both spruce and willow being used. Unlike his brother, he did occasionally use a printed label.