By James N. McKean
It might sound odd that one of the leading dealers in rare antique violins would also be an ardent supporter of contemporary makers, but it was true. I experienced it firsthand, as did many of my colleagues. Either as students, apprentices, or young makers, we would ride the elevator up to the eleventh floor on W. 57th St. in New York City. The elevator man—that’s how long ago this was—would slide the iron gate open, and we would walk into the showroom of Jacques Francais.
Usually he would be sitting behind his Louis Quatorze desk in the two-story room with floor-to-ceiling windows. Upon seeing his guests, Jacques (always in an immaculate suit) would stand, come around his desk, and shake hands. Then, getting right down to business, he would ask, “Would you like to see some nice instruments?” in his elegant Parisian accent.
We’d follow him up the bend in the narrow staircase to a room dominated by an old iron safe. And then—doubtless enjoying the effect—he would sweep both doors open and stand aside. “Enjoy,” he would say with a smile, and leave us there, awed.
Until Jacques retired I always took my latest instrument to his showroom for him to see. Once he moved from W. 57th, it became a shorter trip—we were in the same building on 54th St. Looking at the cello I’d brought—perhaps the scroll, the f-holes, a corner—his face would crinkle into that smile, the sure sign that I had hit the mark. Then he would say, “Oh, Jimmy, this is nice.” And he’d hand me something to look at—the “Lord Falmouth” Bergonzi once—while he was looking at my instrument. People outside the glass wall would wait while the two of us sat at his desk, side by side, looking at violins.
I once asked him why he was so supportive of young makers; after all, we were sort of his competition. This was back in the days when musicians still drew a distinct line between contemporary and antique. “I need you to make instruments so my grandchildren have something to sell,” he replied. I had forgotten how many generations his family had been in the trade. They traced their roots back to François Lupot, the early 19th-century Parisian maker.
One time, back when he was still on 57th St., I decided, being young and eager, that I would enter a violin-making competition. I rode the elevator up and told Jacques of my intention, and asked if I could see some Strads. He laughed and laughed. “No, Jimmy,” he said. “If you want to win a competition, you don’t look at Stradivari. You copy Vuillaume.”
I followed him upstairs and he took out several Vuillaumes. I tried to mask my disappointment. While perhaps the most successful dealer who ever lived, Vuillaume wasn’t a real maker—he made antiqued copies. It was Jacques himself who made this distinction, by the way; when a client of mine was looking at a rare attempt at an original violin by one of the most noted of the contemporary copyists, Jacques just shrugged and handed the violin back, saying “He’s an OK copyist, but he’s not a violin maker.”
Curious as to why he suggested I study Vuillaume, I took a Golden-Period Strad out of the safe and laid it next to the Vuillaume copies. I understood immediately—in fact, I wondered how I could never have noticed it before.
The Vuillaume was perfect. Everything exactly right. The f-holes were mirrors of each other, the outline symmetrical, the corners identical—even the mitre joints of the purfling (a big deal with judges) exactly the same. The Strad, by comparison, was all over the map. The corners were all different lengths, with one upper one drooping sharply while its opposite angled up and off. The mitre joints gave the initial appearance of uniformity, but on second look, were just as diverse. At first glance the f-holes also looked the same, but closer inspection revealed that they were completely different—the treble one leaned back, while the other made a pronounced swoop at the lower turn. The left upper eye was slightly—yet noticeably—lower than the right.
Jacques was right: All the details on the checklists used by the judges were exactly right on the Vuillaume. It was like a perfect synthesized Strad—more Strad than the actual Strad itself. But there was something terribly amiss. The resemblance was uncanny, but the copy was missing the most essential aspect of the original: the spark of life. While the Strad had vitality, a life of its own, the Vuillaume, in all its perfection, looked curiously dead. It was like seeing a waxwork of Lincoln compared to the living man.
The key to the difference was the very thing that the judges would see as flaws: the asymmetry of the original. But once Jacques opened my eyes, I began to see, as surprising as it sounds, that asymmetry is a fundamental characteristic of the vast majority of instruments made before the late-18th century, especially those of the Italian school.
The “Batta” cello, made by Stradivari in 1714 and played by Gregor Piatagorsky, is considered to be the finest of the B-form cellos to come from his shop—and thus one of the finest cellos in existence. I was amazed, after I had traced the outline, to fold it over and see just how unsymmetrical it is. And not just the outline—the f-holes, too. And this is not unique. I’ve found it to be the case, to a greater or lesser extent, with every single Italian cello I’ve ever traced.
“It was like a perfect synthesized Strad—more Strad than the actual Strad itself. But there was something terribly amiss.”
So what’s going on here? These were some of the finest craftsmen who ever lived. Just a quick glance at Stradivari’s inlaid instruments is enough to convince you that if he cared about symmetry, he could have done it, no problem. In fact, even on the instruments with the most lopsided bodies, crafted by such great makers as the Venetian masters Montagnana or Goffriller, when you look at the scrolls from head on, the ears usually match up. But when it comes to corners, f-holes, the curves of the bouts, they can be wildly divergent.
It really does seem like a flaw: After all, we equate symmetry with beauty. Studies have shown that the more symmetrical the face, the more we think it beautiful. But—and here’s the crucial thing—that’s only up to a point. After that, too much symmetry can look unnatural. If you happened to see the chilling science-fiction movie about robots, Ex Machina, you know that when it comes to humans, perfect symmetry is not just odd, it can be terrifying. Try taking a photo portrait, cutting it in half, and flipping one side to make a whole. It will look very strange. Even more so when you compare it to the original.
In real life, the asymmetry is, for the most part, unnoticeable because you never really see a face straight-on. And, on top of that, the eye tends to fill in and correct inconsistencies. As a noted art historian once said, “The eye sleeps until something awakens it.” Only a dealer looks at a violin straight on, and then only briefly. An instrument is in constant motion. You never really have the opportunity to compare one side to the other. What you see is the beauty of the curves as they move and change: They are in no way identical, but they blend into a harmonious whole.
The truth is, it isn’t that the great makers couldn’t make their instruments symmetrical. They didn’t because they just didn’t care. Looking back, we project an image of a master painstakingly crafting masterpieces. They weren’t—not even the greatest. They were just making fiddles. Actually, they were making money. And the faster they made instruments, the more money they made.
Their methods were diverse, but most used an interior mold, which meant that instruments grew organically, from the center out. What strikes you most when seeing a great violin is exactly what catches your eye in a great work of art, like a drawing by Rembrandt: the evident speed with which it was done. Such art has an effortless, throwaway beauty that reveals the artist’s consummate ability with the tools to reveal his or her vision. And what the old masters saw was exactly what we see when we look at a person or a violin: beauty in motion, ever-changing.
And that’s why Vuillaume was, as Jacques said, not really a maker. He was trying to trace lightning, to capture and reproduce an original. But in doing so, he lost the element that unites the violin with its player: that spark of true life. It can be created, but not copied. Its very looseness is its heart and soul. What’s missing in Vuillaume’s perfect symmetry is the real thing.