Thursday, December 29, 2011

Nicolo Amati, Violin Maker Extraordinaire & Teacher of the Greats

By Andy Fein,  Luthier at Fein Violins
and  Stefan Aune, with image research help by Elijah Fein

In The Amati Family of Violin Makers we introduced Andrea Amati and his sons Antonio and Hieronymus. These early makers established the Amati family and the city of Cremona, Italy as preeminate violin making institutions, and Hieronymus' fifth son, Nicolò, would build on this reputation and become the greatest maker of the Amati family, producing amazing instruments and training several of the most famous makers in history.

A violin by Nicolo Amati, Cremona,Itay, 1628

image from the National Music Museum

Nicolò was born on December 3, 1596, and presumably was the only pupil of his father and uncle, who preferred to keep the trade within the family. Nicolò received an excellent education in the arts of the luthier, and developed a skill that surpassed that of his instructors. Sadly, Nicolò's father Hieronymus, as well as his mother and two sisters, died of the plague in 1630. The plague came on the heels of a famine in Cremona, and left the city reeling, with Nicolò the only heir to the Cremonese violin making tradition.  Nicolò was left in sole control of the Amati shop, and he had to contend with the influx of orders resulting from the fame that Cremona and the Amati name were garnering throughout Europe.

The back of a Nicolo Amati violin, 1628

image from the National Music Museum
The Hills write in The Violin Makers of the Guarneri Family that "the skill and industry of the Amati had borne abundant fruit, with the result that an increasing number of orders was flowing to the city from the various Courts of Italy, and from still farther afield." Nicolò found himself with a surplus of orders, and not enough hands with which to complete them, resulting in his fateful decision to take on apprentices, a decision that spread violin-making to the familiar family names of Rugeri, Guarneri, and Stradivari.

Rambouillet. The viola da gamba in Italy
A display by the Orpheon foundation that featured violins by Nicolò Amati, Carlo Testore, and the School of Gofriller

image from

Nicolò's first apprentice was Francesco Ruggieri, born in Cremona in 1620. Francesco was the first of the celebrated Ruggieri makers, who remain some of the most respected Italian makers in history. After Francesco, Nicolò took as apprentice Andrea Guarnerius, whose first violin appears in 1638, which was made, according to the Hills, when he was a precocious 12 years of age. Andrea would remain in the Amati shop until about 1654, leaving to establish his own shop. Andrea would be the father of the famous Guarnerius family of violin makers, which would produce some of the world's most prized instruments, rivaling those of the master Stradivarius. We have a blog comparing Antonius Stradivarius and Giuseppe Guarnerius, and it is amazing that the origins of both makers are found in the shop of Nicolò Amati.

Most famously, Nicolò is often held to be the teacher of Stradivarius. This stems from the existence of a violin label reading "Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Alumnus Nicolaij Amati, Faciebat Anno 1666." The Hill family asserted in their definitive Antonio Stradivari: His Life and Work that the label and violin were authentic, and other violin experts have time and again expressed the opinion that it must be Stradivarius' first violin. If true, Nicolò Amati was responsible for the early training of the greatest violin maker in history. His decision to take on apprentices and spread the craft to other Cremonese families fundamentally altered the trajectory of European music, resulting in innovations in the crafting of stringed instruments that impacted both sacred and secular music, and gave us some of our most treasured instruments.

Stradivarius labels - the famous Amati label is featured on the top
While it would be easy to overemphasize Nicolò's role as a teacher of famous violin makers at the expense of his own skills as a maker, he remains in the upper echelon of great makers, holding his own with his famous pupils. His instruments are highly prized today, both for their aesthetic beauty and quality of sound. William Henley, author of the Universal Dictionary of Violin & Bow Makers, says that to Nicolò Amati "Stradivarius and all the rest owe their great aggregate of knowledge; for as the fire of his genius burnt on, its flame was caught by one and another energetic mind, and obstacles were removed before its irresistible agency. Who is so cold, so insensible to the charms of beauty and variety of elegance in form, as to disregard the diversified attractions of an Amati?"

As for his influence as a teacher, here is a partial list of his probable apprentices and the master makers working in the Nicolo Amati shop: Antonius Stradivarius, Giuseppe Guarnerius, Hieronymus (son of Nicolo) Amati, Carlo Bergonzi, Francesco Rugieri, G.B. Rogeri, and many others. In fact, given the output and scope of the Nicolo Amati workshop0, that just about every violin maker in Cremona during that era spent at least some time working and learning in the Amati workshop.

The National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota has a tremendous amount of pictures and information about Nicolo Amati. Visit them on the web or in person!

The University of Saskatchewan hosts the Amati Quartet, a string quartet of all Amati instruments.

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

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