By Cliff Hall | From the November-December 2022 issue of Strings magazine
French poet and essayist Paul Valéry once said, “Books have the same enemies as people: fire, humidity, animals, weather, and their own content.” So it is true for violins. For centuries, countless instruments (of various quality) have been lost to the ravages of the environment.
Exposing a violin to just the right amount of humidity and heat can be the crucial difference between a healthy instrument and a harrowed one.
Take, for example, the cautionary tale of Niccolò Paganini’s prized instrument, which he left to his hometown of Genoa when he died—a Guarneri del Gesù violin from 1743 that Paganini called “Il Cannone.” In 2019, the master’s instrument left its Italian home for Columbus, Ohio, to celebrate the bond between the international sister cities (Christopher Columbus was from Genoa). “It has to sit and climatize for 12 hours in our storage area,” said Rod Bouc, the Columbus Museum of Art’s chief registrar at the time in an interview with the Columbus Dispatch. “Temperature and humidity are so important. You want that change to be as gradual as it can be, so there isn’t any cracking or pulling apart.”
But the storied fiddle didn’t always have it so good.
Though Bouc had to keep it at a room temperature between 66.2 and 75 degrees and between 50 and 60 percent humidity, conditions at the Palazzo Doria Tursi (its home since 1851) in Genoa used to be quite different. Paul Stoeving, in his 1904 book, The Story of the Violin, observed that “the precious keepsake is preserved in the upper floor of the Municipio. In a room, near the window—so that the sun can watch his opportunity to get a peep at his old friend with you—a door, indistinguishable from the white and gold embossed wallpaper, opens upon a small, blue, satin-lined recess in the wall, and lo and behold! In a cylindrical glass case hangs suspended that silent miracle: the fiddle of Paganini!”
Though an idyllic scene, the bell jar did little to ensure the violin’s protection from the cracks and seam separations that frequently accompany poor environmental management.
“The Paganini violin, which is buried in the Genoa museum, is now utterly ruined,” wrote Arturo Toscanini in 1921. The prominent conductor was part of a chorus of famous voices that observed that the violin had fallen into a profound state of disrepair.
“If we consider the violinists’ point of view, this may sound correct, since after 70 years passed in the glass dome, the violin was not properly playable. On the other side, as for the conservation of the violin, this inactivity preserved the Cannone’s pureness: when the Hills came to Genoa in 1925 they found the violin admirable and as one of Guarneri del Gesù’s best preserved ones,” says Alberto Giordano, assistant curator of the instrument. “The bell jar was sealed with sealing wax and very seldom opened.”
The problem was the bell jar, which had a wooden base, was poorly sealed.
“From the photo of the violin and bell jar, it does not appear well sealed enough to maintain humidity. The humidity in the jar would change to whatever is in the ambient air within a few days,” says Darrell Jennings, owner of American Music Furniture, a Pennsylvania design and manufacturing company producing handcrafted high-end humidity-controlled instrument displays. “We think of wood as being solid, but it’s a natural material and acts more like a dense sponge.”
It wasn’t until 1937 that the Italian luthier Cesare Candi, who was charged with restoring the violin, discovered just how dire the situation was.
“The violin, when it was taken out of its container, still held its integral form, but was not fit to be used: the first stroke of a bow would have shattered it,” said Candi, quoted in Nardi Carlo’s 1948 book The Violinmaker Cesare Candi and Paganini’s Violin. “Now the problem of repairing it had become urgent. I decided that it was up to me to repair it but not without some misgivings and the prayer trembling on my lips that God Almighty might come to my aid. As if this were not enough, when I tried to detach some parts (ribs and rib linings), every piece fell off as soon as I touched it.” Though it looked fine to the casual observer, inside the violin was a wreck. Candi likely had to replace the bass bar, stabilize the linings, strengthen the neck, and perform other structural repairs.
“The triumphant showcase in which the Cannone was displayed was made in order to preserve the historical memories of the city: Below the violin one can see the saber of Nino Bixio, the general of Giuseppe Garibaldi. That was the 19th-century mentality: a relic, a witness of a glorious past wasn’t meant for use,” says Giordano. “Today we have a different attitude in conservation, and we consider placing a violin in a poor environmental condition as a risk for the sake of the violin. Luckily, apart from ungluings, this situation didn’t cause any harm to the Cannone.”
This kind of situation has gotten worse in modern times, however, as central heating raises the temperature but, in so doing, lowers the humidity, oftentimes creating a too-dry interior climate. During the last half of the 19th century, European textile mills were among the first to use steam to artificially humidify the atmosphere to optimize the process of manufacturing cotton. The drosophore, a device for spraying cold vapor into air to increase its humidity, was invented in the beginning of the 20th century and revolutionized environmental management. According to John E. Simmons’ 2016 book Museums: A History, “by 1908, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts installed a system to maintain a relative humidity of 55 to 60 percent… beginning in the 1970s, new museum construction typically featured far more sophisticated climate systems than it had been possible to build before, although the set points were still often unachievable and idealistic.”
It would take some time until this method could be adapted for home use.
When American virtuoso violinist Ralph Hollander awoke one morning in the early 1960s, he discovered his valuable old Italian violin had cracked. After paying a hefty repair bill, Hollander started to look for ways to properly humidify his violin, including by hanging it over a full bathtub, placing pans of water on radiators, and encircling it with soaked plants. None of these methods worked for him as he realized he was not able to protect the most vulnerable part of his instrument—the unvarnished inside. It was this discovery that led Hollander to invent the Dampit, which Hollander described as “a sponge enclosed in a perforated tube. The tube fits into the f-hole of the instrument where it slowly releases moisture. Humidity indicator paper indicates when to use.”
While very popular since its debut in 1966 (though some detractors have negatively referred to the Dampit as a “green worm” that can leave puddles of water inside the instrument if used improperly), not everyone sees it as a viable long-term solution.
“Dampits and Humidipacks are great for travel but have a fairly short effective period and don’t warn you when they’re dry. A humidity-controlled cabinet has a low-water light and only needs to be filled a few times each winter. When it stops humidifying, it lets you know so you can take action,” says Jennings. “There have also been reports of damage to metal parts on instruments from the chemical-based humidity control solutions. You don’t have that issue when you’re simply adding a bit of water to the air.”
Another possibility for error is having an inaccurate measurement of the humidity. Even when measured with a hygrometer, readings are not always accurate.
“Most of the hygrometers are in the ballpark, but I had about a dozen of them at one point and from low to high they varied by about 15 percent when sitting next to each other in the same room,” says Jennings. “You can buy calibrated hygrometers, but they start at about $500 and still need to be recalibrated periodically.”
The trick then is keeping instruments in the Goldilocks zone of humidity and temperature. Another option is to use whole-room humidifiers, but that solution requires more water and attention. “A cabinet can be constructed to expand and contract with the humidity, and sealed well enough to use a fraction of the water needed for a room. I now go through about three gallons of water a year vs. three gallons a day,” says Jennings, also noting the potential harm of 20-plus gallons of water a week going into insulation and other materials in the walls. To aid this solution, American Music Furniture manufactures the Violin Habitat, which provides an effective seal and internal humidifier to keep environmental conditions stable.
Though Paganini’s instrument fell apart, violins today need not suffer the same fate. As modern technology has afforded the luxury of multiple solutions, performers can use their dramatic energy playing their violins instead of rescuing them from permanent harm.
The complete edition of the Care & Repair of Violin or Viola series from Strings magazine gives you a library of video and written instruction that will provide you with extensive knowledge that will help you understand your instrument and, in turn, be a more informed owner and user of stringed instruments and bows.