Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Gagliano Violin Makers:
The Pride of Naples

What if you're a budding superstar violin soloist or concertmaster and you can't come up with a few million dollars for a Stradivarius or a Guarnerius del Gesu to power your playing career onto the world stage?

You could save a few nickels and consider one of the somewhat lesser Cremonese instruments like a Guadagnini or one of the other Guarneris. The best of those instruments are equal or better in tone than some of the lesser Stradivaris and del Gesus. Heresy, I know, but there are soloists that don't use Strads & del Gesus and they are quite happy.

Another alternative is to take a turn to the South and play some of the finest violins from Naples made by members of the Gagliano family.
Violin by Alessandro Gagliano, made in Naples,  circa 1715

The Gagliano dynasty had a less than stellar start if William Henley is to be believed. He writes, in his book "Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers", about Alessandro Gagliano (born in 1640 in Naples), "Son of a marquis. Compelled in his youth to leave the city after fighting a duel which ended fatally for his antagonist." Oops. Oh well, better than the other way around.

Alesandro wandered northward and eventually ended up in Cremona. Along with Stradivarius, Alessandro apprenticed in the Nicola Amati workshop. He and Stradivarius worked in Amati's shop, making instruments that bore Nicola Amati's label. Eventually, Stradivarius moved on to his own workshop. It seems very likely that Alessandro went with him and worked for Stradivarius for a number of years.

Alessandro learned well in Cremona, and his best instruments are on par with some of the greatest Cremonese instruments. Walter Hamma, in his book "Master Italian Violin Makers" describes a beautiful varnish of Alessandro's "which approaches some of the best Cremonese."

By 1695, Alessandro had returned to Naples, armed with a tremendous amount of violin making knowledge and a model very similar to Guarnerius del Gesu's. He was an excellent judge of wood, both for tone and beauty.

Alessandro worked and lived in Naples until 1730. One of his violins was made for Arcangelo Corelli. This violin was bequeathed to Tartini. This was the violin that Tartini played on when he first performed his "Devil's Trill Sonata". The violin has since passed to a number of notable musicians and collectors, including Ole Bull.
Arcangelo Corelli and his Alessandro Gagliano violin
Alessandro had several sons, grandsons and descendants who became violin makers. The Gagliano family of violinmakers stretches all the way into the twentieth century.

By far, Alessandro's son, Niccolo, was the best of these makers. Born in 1675, Niccolo worked in Naples from about 1695 until his death in 1763.  His violins are as fine or finer than his father's. And as close as you can get to a Cremonese sound, varnish, and modeling without the words "fecit Cremonensis" on the label!

A very late violin by Niccolo Gagliano, made in Naples circa  1760

Rachel Barton Pine plays on a wonderful Niccolo Gagliano violin, made in 1770, that has been preserved in its original Baroque set up. She uses this instrument for her Baroque performances.

As with all valuable and well regarded violins, Gagliano violins have been copied and Gagliano labels have been inserted into violins ranging from not quite so great to not even passable. In a strange turn of the label and identity game, Gagliano instruments have had their original labels taken out and have been labeled and sold as some of the finer Cremonese instruments. Confusing!

So, thanks to happenstance and by Alessandro being too good of a shot, a dynasty of violin makers was born. If you get a chance to play a Gagliano violin, take it! They're beautiful to play, feel and hold.

Here are some pictures of a beautiful Raffaele and Antonio Gagliano violin, made in 1841, that one of our clients brought in to us this summer. It is absolutely gorgeous, and it plays wonderfully! Luckily, the owner takes quite good care of it.

R. and A. Gagliano violin, Naples, 1841

Raffaele and Antonio Gagliano violin, Naples, 1841

Label from Raffaele and Antonio Gagliano violin, made in 1841

Side view of a Raffaele and Antonio Gagliano violin, made in Naples, in 1841


  1. Gennaro Gagliano, who is the brother of Nicolo, is generally accepted as the best maker of the family, his instruments are much rarer and they are wonderful concert instruments.

  2. I Have a Alessandro Gagliano 1725 violin that has been in my family for about 250years. The sound it produces is difficult to match! Quite heavenly