Friday, January 6, 2012

Goffriller, Montagnana, and the Golden Age of Venetian Violin Makers

By Stefan Aune

In recent blogs we have focused on the city of Cremona, Italy, the renowned violin-making hub that gave us the names Amati, Stradivarius, and Guarnerius. While Cremona is certainly the nexus from which much of violin making history resonates, attention must also be paid to the city of Venice, renowned for its rich musical culture as well as its violin makers.

A Painting of the Venetian Canals by Joseph Turner
The political and economic context of Venice played a significant role in the development of its violin making culture. Venice was a "cultural crossroads" for commerce and art, with Saracens, Arabs, and Greeks rubbing shoulders with Europeans. The city was always staunchly independent from its European neighbors, hesitant to enter into long term alliances and agreements. The focus of Venetian politics was on propagating its trading culture, which flourished and made the city one of the mercantile centers of the world. Venice also maintained its independence from the Roman Catholic Church to such a degree that one of the popes excommunicated the entire city.  This was later reversed.

This independence resulted in two fundamental differences between the violin making cultures of Cremona and Venice. Whereas Cremona's fame derived from its provision of instruments to the courts of European royalty, Venetian makers made instruments for all classes of people, rich and poor alike. Additionally, the lack of church connections meant that Venice didn't benefit from the influences that spurred the development of the Cremonese violin designs. Consequently, the famous Venetian makers appear slightly after the rise of the Cremonese makers.

The probable origin of violin making in Venice is found in lute maker Martinus Kaiser, who began making violins somewhere between 1675 and 1680. Due to the cutting edge compositions of Venetian composers such as Vivaldi, there was a market for instruments that could be played with a bow. Cremona had dominated the stringed instrument trade in years previous, but during the late 17th century that region was ravaged by wars and a plague. Venice was spared these disasters, and consequently its economy continued to flourish.

Through Kaiser, one of the greatest Venetian makers emerged, Matteo Goffriller. Goffriller married Kaiser's daughter, although it is unclear whether he learned the trade from Kaiser or whether he arrived in Venice already trained. Goffriller made violins to order - if the customer was rich he used high quality wood and varnish, and if they were poor he used lower quality materials. He also made his instruments to order in terms of size. Goffriller's business was very successful, and his instruments are prized by professionals and soloists.

Goffriller Cello
Goffriller was the only violin maker in Venice for about 25 years until the arrival of Domenico Montagnana and Francesco Gobetti. Both Gobetti and Montagnana were shoe makers before learning the violin trade. Luckily, their skill in shoe-making translated into genius in instrument making. The cellos of Goffriller and Montagnana are particularly famous for being world class soloist instruments. There is a certain "Venetian" element to these instruments that is exemplified by superbly rich bass tones and full, projecting sounds. We have a picture of the famous Montagnana "Sleeping Beauty" cello hanging in the entryway to our shop, and many customers comment on how beautiful the instrument is. Like many Venetian instruments it features the characteristic reddish varnish that looks a bit cracked, which was a result of the humidity in Venice. Another common element of Venetian violin  making is the reluctance many makers had to adorn instruments with their personal label, as there was a tax on instruments. This has made the identification of instruments from Venice difficult in many cases.

Montagnana's "Sleeping Beauty" Cello is the first thing customers see in our shop
Renown cellist Yo Yo Ma's primary performance instrument is a Montagnana cello valued at 2.5$ million that one of his students nicknamed "Petunia." In 1999 Ma accidentally left "Petnunia" in a New York taxi cab. Multiple police precincts scoured the city looking for the cello, and thankfully it was recovered without any damage.

Yo Yo Ma with his Montagnana Cello
There arose around Goffriller and Montagnana a healthy community of violin makers that made the city a center for the instrument trade in Europe. Petrus Guarnerius moved from Cremona to Venice in the early 1700's and was one of the cities most respected makers, along with Carlo Tononi and Sanctus Serafin. Venice's position as a commercial center, and its vibrant artistic community, created the ideal context for these craftsmen to flourish. They established a violin making tradition in Venice that would continue into the 19th century.

Goffriller poster hanging in our entryway
Petrus Guarnerius poster hanging in our entryway

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