Sunday, December 4, 2011

Guarnerius del Gesu: Outlier Violin Maker

By Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins

In my earlier blog post, The Guarnerius Family of Violin Makers, we look at the history of the Guarnerius family, starting with Andreas Guarnerius. A couple of Pietros and a few Giuseppe's later, we arrive at Bartolomeo "Giuseppe" Guarnerius 'del Gesu'.

The 'del Gesu' was attached to his name, to distinguish him from his father, Giuseppe filius (son of) Andreas, and because 'del Gesu' put the initials "I.H.S." (a Latin abbreviation for Jesus' name) and a Christian Cross on all of his instruments' labels. He used 'Joseph,' the Latinization of 'Giuseppe,' on his labels.

del Gesu violin label
A label from a Joseph Guarnerius 'del Gesu' violin

I think a small explanation of old Italian violin makers' names might help at this point. Makers used and were referred to by both their Italian names and, more formally, by the Latin version of their names. Thus the Italian name of Antonio Stradivari becomes Antonius Stradivarius on his labels, written in formal Latin. So, Giuseppe Guarneri becomes Joseph (note the older f for an s) Guarnerius.

Joseph Guarnerius seems to have had a pretty normal upbringing for a guy growing up in a violin making family in Cremona in the early 1700s. Joseph was born in 1698. He was probably working with his father and his older brother, Pietro, by the age of ten. Pietro left Cremona for Venice in about 1717, leaving Joseph (del Gesu) at age nineteen working with his fifty year old father. It's possible to see the hand of del Gesu in his father's instruments from this period, including some violas and cellos. All were labelled with his father's label. This is notable because once Joseph was independent, he concentrated exclusively on violins. (As a lover of cellos, I find this absolutely unforgivable!)  I personally worked on a beautiful Pietro Guarnerius of Venice cello that certainly had the hallmarks of del Gesu's hand.

By the early 1720s, Joseph was working on his own. I often like to burst the bubble of the myth of a lonely violin maker turing out "one-offs" in a cramped workshop. However, I think with del Gesu, this is almost certainly true. Once he was working on his own, del Gesu was quite independent in his choice of models. I can't imagine how he could communicate to any apprentice how to make his deeply quirky violins.

Violinist YiJia Hou with a del Gesu violin made in 1729

My favorite period of del Gesu's work is from the late 1730s through the 1740s. Joseph must have been in close contact with avid violinists because his instruments take on aspects that wold be anathema to a violin maker but a player would shrug off. Most strangely, his violins become lopsided. One f hole is placed higher than the other, one shoulder is higher than the other, and, just to carry the artistic vision through to it's conclusion, the scroll ears will reflect the lopsidedness as well. In other words, What a crazy dude! Somehow, Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu had eschewed the common sense symmetry that embodies almost all violins in favor of some artistic vision that produces unbelievably great violin tone as well.

Some of the most esteemed (and valuable) del Gesu violins come from this period. It's remarkable how asymmetric, artistic, and acoustically astounding the violins from this period are. And how far outside the bounds of traditional violin making they are. In 1994, there was a great gathering and display of del Gesu instruments in New York City with an accompanying symposium on Guarnerius del Gesu. In a question and answer session, I asked a rather simple question - Would del Gesu win a prize at one of the violin making competitions held around the world today? Not surprisingly, the answer was no. Or at best, "we'd like to think the judges would perceive the incredible artistry of these instruments." Luckily, many great players have perceived the incredible artistry of Joseph del Gesu's violins!

My favorite del Gesu violin is, undoubtedly, Paganini's 'Canon', made in 1742. This violin is preserved, loved, cared for, and loaned out for performances, by the wonderful people of Genoa, Italy. I simply cannot express how much I appreciate the willingness of the Genovese to see this beautiful instrument live and play - exactly as it was intended to, by its maker.

Salvatore Accardo playing Paganini's del Gesu 'Il Canon'

There is an incredible amount of information on the wonderful del Gesu 'Il Canon' violin available, which I highly recommend.

One of my favorite violinists, Pinchas Zukerman, plays on a fantastic Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu violin

Another great violinist, Rachel Barton Pine plays on the wonderful 'ex-Soldat' Guarnerius del Gesu violin, made in 1742.

There is a great deal more written about Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu. I have personally used, and highly recommend the following readings:
  1. The Violin Makers of the Guarneri Family, by the Hills
  2. The Violin Masterpieces of Guarneri del Gesu by Peter Biddulph, with a great introduction by Stewart Pollens
  3. and a book I received from the grandson of American luthier, Erwin Hertel:
  4. Die Geigen Und Lautenmacher, by Von Lutgendorff

By far, my favorite website for information on del Gesu, is the one I linked to above, to Paganini's 'Canon'.

Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu died in 1744, at the age of just 46, creating wonderful violins right up to the very end of his life. In his last year of life, he made a beautiful violin that was the love of Ole Bull and several other outstanding violins.

If you ever get a chance to hear a del Gesu violin, take it! You will never forget the sound. Ever.

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


  1. Sorry to "burst the bubble" folks, but Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarnerius is not, was not and never will be the true Joseph Guarneri del Gesu. (He was in fact born 16 Oct. 1687 and died in the year 1742.) Facsimilies of the official Stat di Anime(geneaological) documents concerning this MAJOR case of mistaken identity can be found in a manscript entitled: "LIUTAIO, ANTICI E MODERNI", written by the notable Italian scholar, Signor DI GIOVANNI DE PICCOLELLIS, published 1885-86, in Firenze, Italy. (The manuscript was scanned by GOOGLE and is a free PDF download.)

    1. Thanks John. I wonder if, in fact, it matters which of the several candidates was the true Joseph Gunarerius del Gesu. We know him far better by his very distinctive work, rather than by any birth certificate, census or baptismal record.

  2. I wonder about the spelling on the label as "Cremone."
    Other labels considered authentic spell it as "Cremonae, the
    latinized version. I have seen others, almost certainly copies,
    using "Cremona." Anyone able to shed light these spellings as indicative
    of authenticity?

  3. No one can say with autonomy which labels are genuine and which are not. Examples taken from original instruments vary, obviously because there existed at least 2 (two) liutaros named "Giuseppe" or Joseph Guarneri.
    Little to nothing is known about the eldest, save three or four violins bearing black letter tickets, reading "Giuseppe Guarnerius fecit Cremona anno 17-- . JHS" -- the one (known to and owned by this writer) being dated 1736. The other, "del Gesu's" (Bartolomeo Giuseppe {1698-1744} mis-appointed by the Hill brothers), labels may or not always read as "Joseph Guarnerius + / fecit Cremone anno 17-- IHS". And finally, the REAL Guarneri del Gesu's labels {1687-1742?} may or not always read as "Joseph Guarnerius + / fecit Cremonae anno 17-- IHS".

    1. Since only Bartolomeo Giuseppe is thought to have lived until 1744; and since according to its curator, Bruce Carlson, "Il Cannone" dates to 1743, it seems, according to what you write, that Il Cannone could not have been the work of the "real" Guarneri del Gesu.

      It seems to me that your argument about who ought to be considered the real "del Gesu" is missing a crucial piece of information: when and by whom was this sobriquet first used? I'm not a close student of this subject, but I have always understood that "del Gesu" derived from the use of the IHS Chrisotgram on the labels. If so, and if it shows up on the labels of three individuals, how are we to say which is the real del Gesu?

  4. Two small corrections:

    According to Bruce Carlson "Il Cannone" is dated 1743, not 1742.

    The Christogram "IHS" represents the first three letters of the Holy Name of Jesus in Greek: IHSOYS (Latin IESUS). It does not stand for three separate words and should not be written with periods, e.g. I.H.S. Typically the second letter is surmounted by a cross on the bar of the second letter, eta (H). This is supplied by the cruciform ornament at the end of the first line of Guarneri's label.

    1. That 'del Gesu' would suddenly deviate from creating well formed numbers, making a "badly formed 2" to be later "identified as a 3" is a preposterous theory. I have high resolution scans of every publicly published 'del Gesu' label; none are confusing, except those published without printed text. The eucharistic symbol is not of any significance towards determining authenticity of a ticket. They frequently vary in position and in certain other ways, though these are relatively minor. At times 'del Gesu' even used ink of a reddish hue to print his labels, even if only one dot: example - a violin of 1732, the "Armigaud", recently re-discovered and put back into public view.

      That nearly every "dealer/expert" refuses to believe that 'del Gesu' could or would change the text of his labels, when in fact nearly ALL other makers did, makes no sense. Three of the finest of the fine bear labels not considered "normal", and there is no good reason at all to believe that they are fakes, or were added later by different hands. These are - "Kriesler", 1733: "Plowden", 1735: "Alard, 1742:

      That nearly every "dealer/expert", from the Hill firm's beginning to this very day) still refuses to believe that Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri IS NOT 'Guarneri del Gesu' is a travesty of justice and dishonors the greatest name to undertake the noble craft of lutherie.