Restoring a Remarkable 1776 Gagliano Violin

Strings magazine recently asked Mark E. Russell of all the violins that have passed through his hands, which one does he most wish he could have kept?

By Mark E. Russell | From the September-October 2021 issue of Strings magazine

Strings magazine recently asked violin maker Mark E. Russell of all the violins that have passed through his hands, which one does he most wish he could have kept?

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Although I have seen some very beautiful—and prestigious—violins, one comes to mind in answer to this question immediately. The violin is a Nicolò Gagliano with a label dated 1776, which stays in my memory well, as it was the year of the American Revolution. (Some have also speculated that it could have been I777, but that is neither here nor there.) 


What fascinates me about this violin is that it seems to be modeled after Stradivari, with a hint of Nicolò Amati, but through and through it is the work of a master violin maker, full of individual expression in every detail. The scroll is of extremely intricate, almost feminine detail (a description that seems to apply though it feels a bit forbidden these days), in contrast to the body, which seems to be of masculine nature. The instrument in its workmanship, arching, and execution reminds me very strongly of Andrea Guarneri, whose work I greatly admire.

I undertook its restoration approximately 15 years ago, which involved arching correction, soundpost patch, button graft, bass bar, crack repairs, and neck resetting. It was a long-term project, as multiple casts had to be prepared. It took three years in all, but I did manage a couple of bow rehairs in that period also…

In any case, at the completion of the work—on the owner’s birthday, coincidentally—it was presented to him. I was overjoyed with the sound. His reception, however, was lackluster. I didn’t hear from him again until almost exactly a year later when he phoned to tell me that the sound had just opened up, and he was ecstatic. It sounded incredible. 


Needless to say, I was relieved, as I had lived through that period thinking my life’s work was in vain. 

After three years, I saw it again when it arrived for maintenance. It had never been adjusted! The sound was astonishing. How was this possible (my lack of interference)? A prominent player came in during that time, played it, and was in agreement with me. He, of course, wanted to know if it was for sale.

This, to me, proves the player’s role in developing the sound of an instrument.

The Gagliano is powerful and projecting, with all of the subtlety that anyone would want, despite a 20 mm top arch, 18 mm back arch, and well over 50 cleats in the top. The story goes on from here, as it accidently fell from its onstage case ten years from the date of the first completed restoration. “Nick” and I renewed our acquaintance, for a slightly shorter period this time, with help from a friend, and he is now back in the safety of the owner’s hands.