Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Guarnerius Family of Violin Makers. Scions of Cremona

By Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins

We think of Cremona as the center of the world for violin making. After all, the greatest names in violin making worked there. Stradivarius, Guarnerius, Amati, Gudagnini, Bergonzi, and a few others. One of the earliest violin makers in Cremona was Andreas Guarnerius. A great violin maker and founder of a dynasty that would reach its apex in just two generations.

The scroll of the 'Primrose' Andreas Guarnerius viola of 1697

The 'Primrose viola by Andreas Guarnerius, Cremona, 1697

The back of the 'Primrose'  Andreas Guarnerius viola of 1697
 The story of the Guarnerius family of violin makers starts with Andreas Guarnerius in Cremona, Italy in 1626. There were great Guarnerius violin makers working until 1762.

This blog can only give you a small taste of their work. I, and every other violin maker, dealer, and lover of violins owes a huge debt to William Henry Hill, Arthur F. Hill, and Alfred Ebsworth Hill for the definitive book on the Guarneri family The Violin Makers of the Guarneri Family. If you get this book in your hands, read it. It gives a phenomenal amount of information on the Guarnerius family. I am lucky enough to own an original edition from 1931.

Born in 1626, Andreas Guarnerius' first instrument is labeled from 1638. When he was twelve years old! At that time, he was apprenticing with and working for  Nicolaus Amati. Andreas Guarnerius worked with Nicolaus Amati up until the year 1654. He then opened his own 'Guarnerius' workshop in Cremona. The next year, 1655, his son Pietro was born.

Fine Israeli cellist Amit Peled plays a fantastic Andreas Guarnerius cello made circa 1689

Pietro worked with his father in Cremona until about 1680 and then moved to Mantua. He is known as Pietro, or Petrus, of Mantua, to distinguish him from another fine Petrus Guarnerius, his nephew. He must have worked intensely in his father's workshop. The Hills say that they never saw a violin with Petrus' own label from Cremona. He was a very talented maker. I'm sure his father kept him busy. So busy, it seems, that Petrus felt the need to escape to Mantua. About the year 1680, he set up his own workshop in Mantua and worked there until his death in 1720.
Violin made by Petrus Guarnerius in Mantua circa 1695

A second son, Giuseppe, was born to Andreas in 1666. Known as Giuseppe filius Andreas to distinguish him from his very talented son, Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneius 'del Gesu'. Andreas' Giuseppe was an extremely talented maker in his own right. His instruments show an incredible dedication to detail. He worked with his father until Andreas' death in 1698 and then continued the Guarnerius workshop in Cremona until his death in 1739.

Giuseppe filius Andreas fathered two great violin makers, Petrus of Venice and Giuseppe del Gesu. Certainly both sons learned their craft from their father. Petrus was born in 1695 and Giuseppe del Gesu in 1698. 

By 1725, Petrus (the son of Giuseppe) had moved to Venice. 
The scroll of a Petrus Guarnerius of Venice violin,  1732

A violin made in 1732 by Petrus Guarnerius of Venice
 One of my favorite violinists (& a fellow Cherry Hill, NJ kid), Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, plays a beautiful Petrus Guarnerius of Venice that was made in 1721. Unfortunately, the name "Petrus of Venice" is a bit confusing at this point. He was probably still working in Cremona in 1721. Nadja also has one of the best reasons for picking her violin. It looked a bit "naughty" to her. That was its initial attraction to Nadja. It's a beautiful partnership. 

        Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg playing Vocalise on her 1721 Petrus Guarnerius of Venice violin

If you have read our blog on Paganini, you know that he played on a wonderful violin made by Giuseppe Guarnerius 'del Gesu'. This Giuseppe was known as del Gesu because he put the letters "J.H.S." (a Latin abbreviation of Jesus' name) and a Christian cross on his labels.

An example of one of del Gesu's labels.
Almost all violin experts and enthusiasts would agree that del Gesu is the equal to, if not superior to, Antonius Stradivarius. Yes, you read that right - equal to or greater. This man had an incredible innate understanding of what makes a violin sound good. Not just good. Fantastic!

The 'Wieniawski' Guanerius del Gesu violin, made in Cremona in 1742
 Guarnerius del Gesu's life and work will encompass an entire blog that will be coming soon. In the meantime, here is a sample of the beauty of his violins.

Shlomo Mintz playing the Paganini Violin concerto on Paganini's 'Il Cannone' violin

Besides the previously mentioned Hill book, Peter Biddulph's book The Violin Masterpieces of Guarneri del Gesu, William Henley's Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers, and Walter Hamma's Master Italian Violin Makers are wonderful sources of information to me and excellent sources for further reading.

Are you a violinist or interested in becoming one? Take a look at our Fine Violins!

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