G.B.Guadagnini 1774 “Salabue” Berta” violin

The Great Survivor

© Alberto Giordano, The Strad magazine, June 2014 issue.

Giovanni Battista Guadagnini’s 1774 ‘Salabue’, Berta’ violin is an instrument of stark contrasts. Made near the start of the maker’s Turin period (1771–86), it shows the influence of his Cremonese predecessors while retaining many of the points of individual style for which he is known. Since its creation, this fine violin has spent the 240 years of its existence in the sunny hills of Piedmont – in contrast to some great instruments, which pass through the hands of innumerable owners and players across the globe, and indeed, unlike the well-travelled maker himself.

By 1774 the 63-year-old Guadagnini had lived in five, possibly six, northern Italian towns and cities. Born in the village of Bilegno, he moved to the nearest city, Piacenza, aged 27. After 11 years there he moved to Milan, where he spent another 11. He may have resided in Cremona for a short time before relocating to Parma, the state capital, where he enjoyed some success and taught the craft of violin making to his children. It appears he was forced to relocate once again in 1771: when new taxes imposed by Parma’s ruling elite threatened his livelihood aged 60 he moved his family and business one final time to Turin – 150 miles away and in another state.

Undoubtedly a risky move, Guadagnini was nevertheless entering a city with a good theatrical tradition and a musical life centered around the Regio Theatre and Cappella Reale, and their resident orchestras: it must be remembered that in those years Gaetano Pugnani (1731-1798) was the most renowned violin player in Torino, he was a teacher and a violin dealer himself and it sounds likely that Guadagnini had tried to approach him. However, just two years later Piedmont’s ruler Charles Emmanuel III of Sardinia died in Turin: the city entered a period of mourning during which all performances were cancelled. It must have been a bitter blow for Guadagnini, although the circumstances may have provided an opportunity for him to secure a new patron: Count Alessandro Ignazio Cozio di Salabue.

Cozio was born in Casale Monferrato, about 40 miles east of Turin. Aged just 18 when he met Guadagnini, he had already cultivated an interest in stringed instruments. As an aristocrat he was unable to engage in buying and selling, so most of his business with the luthier was conducted through intermediaries. At the end of 1773, according to letters sent via his primary agent Guido Anselmi, Cozio bound Guadagnini into a contractual agreement – the luthier would receive 30 lira for each violin. It would appear that the ‘Salabue’, ‘Berta’ was one of the first products of this arrangement.

In addition, during those years Guadagnini helped Cozio secure the remaining instruments still owned by the Stradivari family in Cremona, using the connections gained during his time there. But the fruitful working relationship with Cozio was not to last: although the exact circumstances can never be known for sure, it seems that business dealings were fractious and the contract was terminated in 1777. During this period and after, Guadagnini was in the habit of implying he was a native of Cremona; he put the city as his place of birth in a 1782 census, and towards the end of his life he even called himself a pupil of Stradivari on his labels. He died in Turin on 18 September 1786.

As for the ‘Salabue’, ‘Berta’ violin, it remained in Cozio’s collection for quite a long time, probably due to the count’s appreciation for Guadagnini’s work and this violin in particular. Although the date of the violin’s sale is in question, it is known that the buyer was from a noble Piedmontese family: Count Radicati di Marmorito of Saluzzo. The name ‘Radicati’ appears three times in Cozio’s correspondence, in 1816, 1818 and in 1820, preceded by the word ‘Prof’ (professor) in each instance. Evidence in Cozio’s third notebook, recently uncovered by Duane Rosengard, shows that this professor was Felice Alessandro Radicati (1775–1820), quite a famous musician of his day. A former pupil of Gaetano Pugnani, Radicati was a solo violinist, composer, conductor and leader of the Cappella Musicale in San Petronio, Bologna. According to Rosengard he was in Milan in 1816 and is described as ‘first violin in Bologna’ in the notes for 1818. In this sense it seems more than likely that he could have been the violin’s buyer. Unfortunately no mention of the violin itself can be found.

The Radicatis were an important, wealthy family in the 19th century, known both for their luxurious country mansions and for their interest in music and the arts. In the 19th century the violin passed to their heirs, the De Rege–Provana family, who sold it in the 1950s to Giuseppe Berta of Saluzzo, an amateur violinist and a violin making enthusiast. Now it is part of a collection based at Casale Monferrato, Cozio’s original stamping-ground – a short trip home indeed.

The belly of the ‘Salabue’, ‘Berta’ was made with two pieces of spruce that do not match properly. Dendrochronology shows that the latest growth ring of the belly’s treble side is from 1755 but no result was achieved on the bass side. The violin has also undergone investigation at the Elettra Sicrotrone Trieste by scientists Franco Zanini, Diego Dreossi and Nicola Sodini, who used synchrotron radiation microtomography (SRM) equipment to obtain the most accurate images of the cross-section. The images shown here are at a resolution of 53.27 microns and clearly reveal the micro-structure of the wood, the cracks and other interventions undertaken on the violin.

In these images, the difference in wood grain between the two sides of the belly can be more clearly seen. It is not certain whether the two parts come from the same log – they may have been quite distant from one another. On the bass side it is possible to see the wide grain and the beginnings of a knot, which fortunately did not pass through the wood to the outside. On the treble side the fibre is more regular and narrow: on both sides the grain is not perpendicular but rather slanted from the joint, which indicates that the spruce was not properly split.

The arching on both sides is quite high: 18.2mm for the belly and 16.8mm for the back. Unlike many other features of this violin, the carving of the arching was undertaken with great care – at first glance, the front does not seem to be so high. It is also intriguing to note how the curves of the arching are always so well calibrated: they are never too hollow or too deep, especially in the chest area and in the borders, where they remain flat until the channelling. The back, which is higher than the table, looks perfectly carved and connected throughout: there is some warping visible in the lower bout, a result of the slab-cut maple’s natural movement. A number of transverse marks can be seen on the back below the varnish and the ground. A few come from the action of the scrapers, but many others have a different look and they create a kind of weft of short, parallel micro-scratches, which can be attributed to the use of some kind of sanding device.

Although the original top-block and a few linings are missing, the interior looks well preserved and it shows all the typical attributes of Guadagnini’s work. The violin was made on an internal mould that, according to the experts, was around 10mm thick – quite thin if compared to the ones used by Stradivari, and closer to the one used by Carlo Bergonzi, currently housed in Cremona’s Museo del Violino.

The general centering of the violin is off the centre line, causing the corners, the joint of the belly and the f-holes to be slightly off their correct positions. The blocks and linings are made of willow, with the linings deeply mortised in the blocks. The workmanship of the interior looks hasty and careless: the chisel and knife cuts were neither scraped nor smoothed. The linings were bent roughly and appear to be forced into the mortise, showing some evidence of breaking and splitting on the blocks – during the bending process, the inner side of a C-bout was cracked vertically at the joint with the block. The entire bending process was undertaken with both confidence and carelessness, the sides showing some chipping from the planing, some traces of burning and of breaking in the block areas.

The relatively flat curves of the blocks suggest that Guadagnini designed the form in order to speed up the bending of the sides, and avoid sharp bends. On the outside, the lower bass corner tips consistently inside the back: according to Philip Kass this feature can be seen in violins made by Guadagnini in the Turin period, suggesting that the form was probably worn and the slot not perpendicular. The plates were fixed to the sides using hardwood pins. Their thickness is consistent – around 3.7mm – and they were roughly shaped and securely nailed to the structure. The centering of the pins differs in the two plates: in the front, they are set 2mm off the centre line on the right in the bottom-block and on the left on the top-block, whereas on the back they were set nearly on the centre line, as Guadagnini usually preferred when he was using a one-piece back.

The well-preserved condition of this violin allows us to detect a number of details and marks that enhance our understanding of Guadagnini’s making process. A number of these are exhibited in the edge-work, especially on the back. On the back, the inner side of the border looks as if it was chamfered with a knife before the box was closed, at an angle that would be impossible to get without cutting the sides with the point of the knife. The border was rounded after the closing of the soundbox, mostly by cutting. It was then filed and scraped, resulting in an uneven appearance: the point of the file left a number of long scratches all along the sides. From the side view, the thickness of the edges appears particularly uneven, especially on the C-bout where the corners are about 1mm less thick than the central area. The thicknessing of the edges was completed at the same time as the carving of the archings, mainly with a gouge, and only a little planing was done with a file to adjust the discrepancies. Some of these making features, such as the inner chamfer being cut with the knife, and the irregularity of the rounding of the border (particularly regarding the C-bout) are reminiscent of the later work of Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ – they seem very close to the edges of the ‘Cannon’. Although different in style, the edge-work of both violins seems to have been cut using the same technique.

Guadagnini’s purfling was usually made of walnut, with the ‘black’ of an intense brown and the ‘white‘ showing long and brownish rays, quite reflective in appearance. The thickness is consistent and again uneven, varying from 1.3mm to 1.7mm. The contour displays irregularities that are a consequence of the fast, inattentive carving of the edge-work: in the lower bass corner of the back, a piece of the internal ‘brown‘ was missed during gluing, probably by the heat and dampness of the glue. The scoop is quite flat and low, and owing to a certain sharp ridge on the edges and a little chipping along the channelling on both sides of the purfling channel, it seems likely that the scoop was cut before the purfling work, during the sculpture of the archings.

The f-hole model used by Guadagnini in his early work in Turin does not differ much from the one used during his time in Parma, but as a result of his acquaintance with Cozio, who would later steer him towards a more classical violin making style, a few differences can be noted. The lower parts of the f-holes, which in Parma were particularly oval, are rounder and more delicate here. Consequently, the upper side tends to be more mellow, with the upper palettes slightly chamfered. The entire contour was worked with the knife and a few flat lines can be seen, especially in the upper holes. The inner sides of the flanks were undercut and the nicks cut with confidence with the knife. Contrary to Guadagnini’s old habit, the lower palettes were fluted and gently connected to the arching, thus giving a more classical, refined charm to the overall look of the chest area.

The general problems that Guadagnini had in centering this violin are clearly reflected in the f-hole placement. The maker was aware that after pinning the belly on the form, the joint was no longer on the centre line: so Guadagnini marked the new centre with the point of the knife, in order to place the f-holes correctly. The drawing was not fully successful however: the upper holes were centered on the centre line but the two f-holes were offset about two millimeters vertically, and they resulted out of centre horizontally from the outer edges (see diagram).

Guadagnini’s carving of the scroll, made from quarter-cut maple, shows a certain amount of care and attention, giving a more delicate and classical result. Looking at the sides, the ‘famous’ pinpricks that usually characterize his scrolls are hidden away – only a few near the button are remotely visible today. In this instance, the pinpricks were hidden by the maker with the black ink that decorates the chamfer, a feature that was only seldom seen in Guadagnini’s previous works.

The channelling of the scroll was undertaken at an early stage and subsequently the chamfer was cut, causing the central ridge to be slightly higher than the chamfer. The centre line was traced with a sharp point and a few compass pricks, used for drawing the contour, can still be seen. The channelling shows traces of a sanding action in the rear button area, and in the throat on the front side it was quickly finished with firm knife-cuts. On the side view one can see that the chamfer has been cut with a chisel and only slightly smoothed and rounded. The turns were cut with quite a small gouge and many marks were left; the turns were quickly carved, and if one rotates the scroll looking down from the top, the first turns appear undercut and the eyes consistently projecting off. Looking at the scroll from the front, the lower first turn seems overcut: this alternation of empty–full and undercut and overcut areas gives a sensation of great dynamic motion – an impression of a spontaneous sculpture.

The varnish that covers the ‘Salabue’, ‘Berta’ still bears all the traces of its original charm. The beauty that comes from looking at this well-preserved violin stems from a ground that enhances the reflection of the wood: the pores and flames appear extraordinarily bright and the overall look is always sharp, transparent and clean. According to recent analysis the primer laid on the violin could have been a sort of drying oil. Only a little penetration of the coloured varnish has occurred in the pores – the varnish was of quite thin consistency and it has survived in good condition although it has suffered a little from polishing. The golden brown colour was originally deeper and slightly reddish, and it can still be seen in the borders of the back, in the corners of the upper blocks.

Printed on a paper of quite a consistent thickness, the label still looks fresh and well preserved today, although the handwritten date of 1774 appears to be faded. It is interesting to note how Guadagnini changed his labels as he moved from town to town: in those times a label worked as a business card and for this reason Guadagnini took great care to communicate his image as a violin maker. From the early labels of Piacenza and Milan, in which he proudly called himself ‘placentinus’ (of Piacenza), he then claimed he was ‘cremonensis’ (of Cremona) in his later work, in order to be considered the last member of the great school.

A few remarks on the Christian cross that was traditionally added on Guadagnini’s Cremonese and Italian labels: it is difficult to say whether there was any symbolic intention in their use, and due to his poor education it sounds very unlikely that he was aware of any particular hermetic meaning. In Milan and Parma he used a patriarchal cross on his labels (the one with two arms, used in the Middle Ages by the Dukes of Lorraine). It was recently suggested that in this case the cross bears the lower arm below the centre, in the same position of the basic three lines that divide the golden rectangle that generate (according to the rules of the ‘divine proportion’) the violin mould. At any rate, when Guadagnini arrived in Turin he turned to the old Greek lobate cross, the same one that was used by ‘del Gesù’. In this sense the entire new label looks much more ‘Cremonese’, and the changing the cross may simply have depended on Guadagnini’s commercial intuition.

It is a violin of contrasts, then – displaying many of the hallmarks of Guadagnini’s craft, there are parts that display the greatest care and attention, while others appear rushed and even sloppy. Some elements show the influence of Cremona and the work of Stradivari, whereas still others show all the personal style and idiosyncrasies of a luthier whose great creativity can be traced throughout his entire career. It is our good fortune that the violin has been affected so little by the passage of time, without being subject to the stresses of touring or much performance, and clearly displays the craftsmanship of a genius at the top of his craft.

Copyright © 2014 Alberto Giordano – The Strad magazine. All rights reserved

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