Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Gagliano Violin Makers:
The Pride of Naples

By Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins
and Ivana Truong

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. His violins are the most expensive of the Gaglianos. In 2014, a violin made by Alessandro was sold for $344,229. Comparatively, a violin made by one of his grandsons, Giuseppe Gagliano, would be sold for a bit over $175,000.00.

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.

Alessandro had 2 sons that became prominent violinmakers, Gennaro, also referred to as Januarius, and Niccolo. They made violins from 1740-1780. Gennaro's violins have sold for more than $250,000, while Nicolo's have sold for more than $300,000.00. Both became violin makers in Naples, though Niccolo also made violins in Vicenza. Gennero had no children, but Niccolo 4 sons, all violinmakers: Ferdinando, Giuseppe, Antonio I, and Giavanni. Though most of the son's violins resemble their father's instruments, it is thought that Ferninando learned from his uncle Gennero. The 4 violinmakers made instruments in Naples and Belluno from approximately 1770-1815. Ferdinando's violins have sold for $222,000, Giuseppe's have sold for $177,000, Antonio's have sold for $72, 652, and Giavanni's have sold for $127,901. Giovanni had 3 sons that become prominent luthiers: Antonio II, Raffaele, and Nicola II. Fewer sales records are available for these makers, but a cello made by Nicola II sold for $32,681 in 1991, a violin made by Antonio II sold for $58,827 in 2008, and a violin made by both Raffaele and Antonio sold for $114,501 in 2010.
A family tree of the major Gagliano violinmakers 
A violin made by Giuseppe Gagliano in 1760

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! In the family, his violins come closest in value to Alessandro's.
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.

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

Raffaele and Antonio Gagliano, sons of Giovanni, often worked together to make violins. According to the "Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers", their violins have well proportioned scrolls and are made of pine and maple with orange-brown or reddish-brown varnish. Their tone is praised as strong and full. Recently, we've gotten a 1857 Raffaele and Antonio violin that has an incredible rich and warm tone. Later in life, Raffaele and Antonio slowed their violin production and began making catgut strings, becoming very successful.

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. 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

Recently, we were able to get our own Raffaele and Antonio violin. A beautiful 1857 violin made in Naples which is currently for sale.

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Are you looking for a newer (and less pricey) option? Take a look at our other Fine Violins!


  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

  3. How Excitong this story. Thank you for sharing:-)