There’s a famous tale that everyone in the world of violins eventually learns. This tale involves the competition for the design of the violin. Cremona and Brescia were in hot competition, until warfare in the late 1620s spread plague around the Po Valley. In Brescia, the plague killed every violin maker, while in Cremona it killed all but one: Nicolo Amati. And of this was borne the ultimate triumph of the Cremona violin as the world standard. Or so one would believe.
The truth is of course far more complicated. Not every liutaio in either town perished, but the Amatis had been singularly successful in their craft and design, and Nicolo’s ascendancy sealed the Amati concept as the dominant one—and with it the supremacy of Cremona—for years to come. But this did not mean that Cremona was oblivious to what had been done just 50 kilometers away on the other side of the Oglio River, nor would Cremona be perpetually resistant to the Brescian idea.
For indeed the Brescian concept was elemental, efficient, and almost intuitive—yang to Cremona’s yin—and remains as such to this day. And in the work of no maker does this concept manifest itself more forcefully than in Brescia’s great master Gasparo Bertolotti, known to all by the name of his birthplace, Salò.
I admit that I have never been a huge fan of the Brescian makers, but I understand what people love about Gasparo’s instruments. His violas especially have been hugely successful, even though their oversized proportions represent a significant physical challenge. Their popularity endures because they tend to have a very dark but clear sound that verges on perfection. They also lack nothing where power is concerned. There is every indication that his instruments had a strong fan base around Europe at the time (there are documents indicating that the Brescians had significant export trade to France and Flanders). This can even be observed in some of the early works of these schools, works that echo Gasparo in their proportions and especially F and scroll models, as well as some of the more decorative purfling displayed by these schools and the English of the 17th century.
The violins have similar qualities, although their large proportions are more problematic for violinists in this modern era of standardized measurements. Whereas the Cremonese (such as Stradivari and Guarneri) have tended to stick to a body size of roughly 14″ give or take, Brescian violins are often as large as 14½”, making an easy transfer of technique from one instrument to another a far less intuitive process.
This has meant that violinists have more proscribed ideas about what a violin should be than do violists. Violinists prize brilliance, which is hardly the word that comes to mind when describing Brescian violins. However, violists, whose mission statement has changed dramatically over the centuries, have been faced with violas ranging in body length from 14 ¾” to 18″, and the scarcity of old classic violas in general has meant that they have learned to deal with the discomforts of “wrong” sizes. And they love dark sound color, at which Gasparos excel.
There are specific ways in which Gasparo’s instruments achieved their power and clarity. First and foremost comes the arching shape. Contrary to the hills and valleys of the classic Amati arching, Gasparo’s archings tend to rise straight up from the edges, forming a long barrel vault from end to end in all directions. Observant makers the world over, and more than a few amateurs, have followed this prescription because, besides being highly effective tonally, it is the simplest way to carve out an arching. When it comes to violas, this also serves as an advantage, because this shape of arching is much easier to work around in both reducing and enlarging old instruments to bring them to whatever are the most popular sizes of the moment.
Secondly, he tended to leave his thicknesses moderately full. By not thinning them around the flanks, the plates remain firmer and more resistant, which for us today translates as a more assertive sound. It is a truism that it is easier to remove wood than to add it back, but these instruments often suffered less from the harebrained theories of later restorers to “improve” the sound by thinning the plates. Had his methods not worked as well as they did, his works might not have been spared.
Visually, the differences between Gasparo and his neighbors in Cremona could not be more apparent. The layman can easily distinguish the dusky hues of Brescian varnishes from the golds (and later reds) of the Cremonese. Look closer, though, and more evidence meets the eye. The Cremonese, for the most part, follow a method that seems highly refined—almost engineered. The degree of finish is striking: the surfaces are carefully smoothed, the purfling neatly inserted, the scrolls crafted according to a sophisticated pattern based on classical geometry. If they were an auto, they’d be a Mercedes.
Gasparo, by contrast, simply couldn’t be bothered to use two bolts when one will do well enough. His instruments have a rough-and-ready, spontaneous style of making, which probably helped him in quickly fulfilling orders. Scars from scrapers and gouges, imperfections in purfling, and random saw cuts were often left in place, particularly in the channels along the volutes. These were mostly to be hidden under their lush dark-brown varnishes. If his instruments were an auto, they’d be more like the classic three-wheel Morgan sports car: popular and famously efficient.
Gasparo simply couldn’t be bothered to use two bolts when one will do well enough.
His instruments also have a distinctive personality of style that is the mark of a maker freed from the burden of meeting our modern expectations. I may have written about this here before, but the 19th-century makers were as burdened with living up to their predecessors as Brahms was in living up to Beethoven. The more pressure, the less spontaneity, and what we remember about the older makers is exactly their spontaneity, making something personal and free.
And the Cremonese, triumphant in their own method, never following the Brescians? Yeah, right. When G.B. Rogeri left Amati’s workshop for Brescia, he soon adopted the look of the Brescians in a body of work that draws from both traditions. Girolamo Amati II and the later Cremonese gravitated toward an arching that had much more in common with the Brescians. Even Stradivari, in the 1690s, seems to have created something that was a refined, Cremonese interpretation of the Brescians in his “Long Pattern,” a large body with arching that reflects the barrel-vault shape from up north. With Strad, this was a transitional approach, which he gave up at the end of the decade in favor of something that took the best tonal qualities of the Brescians and merged them with his own ideas about what should constitute a classic violin. And in later generations, well, the flatness of the arching shape in the flanks of most works of Guarneri “del Gesù” owes more than a bit to the Brescian tradition.
It is in violas, though, that Gasparo and his colleagues have never left us. In the centuries since his death in 1609, the rich tone of his violas has spoken to generations of violists. Violists rarely were expected to display the type of virtuosity that violinists show off all the time, and so were far less burdened by their large size. Plus, when cut down to smaller proportions, they still worked.
Modern players and craftsmen alike have seen the value in creating violas based on these models. Throughout the 20th century, luthiers have repeatedly been drawn to his model, seeking a way of bringing harmony to the Brescian-Cremonese split. And, to a great extent, they have succeeded. Modern makers who follow Guarneri and Strad for violin forms frequently turn to Gasparo for their viola forms, but using proportions that suit the modern age of virtuoso solo playing. Such instruments can be found in ensembles everywhere. Sacconi created his own 16 ½” variant, patterns for which he presented to the school in Cremona. These have informed several generations of luthiers over there, including a generation of modern Brescian makers who have embraced their city’s violin-making heritage.
So, perhaps that old rivalry isn’t over after all.