A while back I did a little blog piece on the life and work Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737). It is appropriate that I began with him because he is not only the world’s most famous maker of violins and cellos but he probably the most famous instrument maker of all time – with apologies to Henry Steinway, Leo Fender and a few other notables. Stradivari or Stradivarius was the single most important figure in the development of the modern violin family of instruments. That being said, there are a few other master builders, mostly from Cremona, Italy, who were instrumental (sorry) in making the violin, viola and violoncello what they are today. Also, you probably already know that makers of wooden stringed instruments, be they violins, guitars or whatever, are called luthiers.
We all stand on the shoulders of giants. Even giants usually stand on the shoulders of other giants. Even the most creative people rarely create something without precedent. So, although no solitary person could take credit for the invention of the violin, without the Amati family and most specifically Nicolò Amati there probably would have been no modern violin for Stradivari to take to the next level. Andrea Amati (ca. 1511–1580), a fine luthier from Cremona, was the patriarch of the family and probably the first to standardize the size and shapes of the modern violin, viola and cello. The few surviving examples of his instruments show him to be a great craftsman with a keen eye towards materials and finishes. His progeny were the brothers Antonio Amati (ca.1537–1607) and Girolamo Amati (ca. 1551–1630). They were also great innovators and continued to perfect the design of their violins. The most lionized member of this esteemed family was Girolamo’s son Nicolò (1596 –1684). Not only was he able to greatly increase the power and tone of the family’s design but he was a mentor to the Guarneri family and was at least an influence if not an actual mentor to Stradivari himself. One of Stradivari’s violin tags mentions Nicolò so it is a hot-button controversy in the halls of music academia whether Stradivari apprenticed under him or just admired and studied his work. Either way, no one disputes Nicolò’s impact on the Cremonan aristocracy of great luthiers.
Andrea Guarneri (1626 – 1698) was the patriarch of the Guarneri family of luthiers and apprenticed directly under Nicolò Amati himself. He actually lived with Nicolò for a while until he married Anna Maria Orcelli and moved to his father-in-laws home to hang up his own shingle. He and Anna had three sons and a daughter. Along with his father-in-laws family I’m sure that made for a busy household. The eldest and youngest sons, Pietro (1655–1720) and Giuseppe (1666-1739/40) went into the family business. Pietro, the eldest son of Andrea, was an innovator in his own right and it appears that for a while he was the primary luthier in the household even overshadowing his father. When he was twenty-four he left the family business and moved to Mantua to start his own shop, generating not a little bad blood and bitterness between his father and himself. Although both sons became great luthiers, it was and Giuseppe’s youngest son and Andrea’s grandson Bartolomeo that would eventually far eclipse the entire Guarneri clan in skill and notoriety.
Bartolomeo Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri, del Gesù is considered one of the greatest violin makers of all time and the equal of Antonio Stradavari, though he gets far less press. The suffix “del Gesu” is given to Bartolomeo because he signed the tags of his violins “del Gesu” or “of Jesus”. They do sound heavenly if you will excuse the pun. The latest Guarneri del Gesù violin sale that I am aware of reportedly went for over 10 million. Maestros Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin, Itzhak Perlman, Sarah Chang, Jascha Heifetz and Paganini all owned or played del Gesùs. The ones owned by Heifetz and Paganini were their favorite violins. Some say that the Bartolomeo Guarneri violins are slightly more robust or sonorous sounding than the Strads.
I find it fascinating that despite the fabulous prices that these instruments bring today, most of the luthiers that I’ve mentioned, with the possible exception of Stradavari, struggled to put food on their tables. Aficionados of the violin note that many of the Guarneri violins looked a little rough and rushed compared to the finely crafted and finished Strads. Ironically, this is especially true of some of del Gesù’s best sounding and most treasured instruments. Historians now believe that he worked quickly out of economic necessity rather than impatience and mercurial temperament. Stradivari was a great salesman and promoter in addition to being a genius craftsman and at least in Cremona he tended to “suck the oxygen out of the room” with his great instruments. The master luthiers of the golden age of violin building probably never dreamed that their instruments would be played by future generations of the finest musicians in the world. If I can be permitted a bit of free philosophy, we may not know the impact of the things we do in this life until the next. Things that we do today that seem to us to have little significance can cause an avalanche for good or ill down the road. This may be in the tasks we perform or in the way that we touch the lives around us. Guttenberg died a fairly poor man but his printing press revolutionized the world. The great science works of Copernicus were not published until after his death. Even if we are not great inventors or innovators the investment of our time, attention and wisdom in others can have an effect for many generations down-the-road. Since our legacy is hidden from us lets do what we do best in this life with devotion and gusto. You never know if you might be creating a metaphorical Strad or de Gesù for future generations.