Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Violin Makers of Milan- Elite Artisans or Cheapjacks?

By Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins
and Kevin Berdine

On a recent visit to the National Music Museum, in Vermillion, South Dakota,  I was overwhelmed with the beauty of some of the oldest instruments in the violin family. Most notably those of Andrea Amati, his descendants, and their students. Towards the back of the room housing the Amatis, Guarneris, and Stradivaris, there is a beautiful five string violin. The shape of this five string violin is unusual as its contours are deeply influenced by viol family instruments. This violin was made in Milan by Giovanni Grancino circa 1685. As you can see from the picture below, this was an elaborately made violin by a very skilled maker. Yet the great violin experts at W.E. Hill & Sons, many years ago, used the term "cheapjacks" to refer to many of the Milanese makers. What was happening with the art of violin making in Milan for its luthiers to deserve such an appellation?

Image may contain: indoor
Grancino 5-string Violin

Grancino 5-string Viola, c. 1662

The term "cheapjacks" was, quite possibly, meant to discourage customers from purchasing wonderful sounding instruments made of less-than-perfect materials. I contend, however, that the Grancinos, and later Milanese luthiers, created fabulous instruments with what was considered inferior material (poplar, willow, beech backs and such). In essence, they used "rags" to create "riches." Perhaps this, in itself, helps to define their greatness in making string instruments. The Hills' use of this term was, perhaps, meant as a slight towards their contemporary competitors in Milan, the Bisiachs. If the Hills could discourage musicians from purchasing Milanese instruments, then their competitors would suffer. In essence, the Hills were "creating a market." The Cremonese were at the top of the heap and everyone else was inferior. The Milanese were chosen, by the Hills, to be at the bottom.

Grancino Violin, c. 1698
The Grancino family was not isolated in Milan either. Such great makers as Landolphi, and even Guadagnini spent some time in Milan. Guadagnini spent the years 1749-1758 in Milan. In fact a great maker named Testore worked at and later took over the Grancino shop.

C.F. Landolfi Violin, c. 1745
C.A. Testore Cello, c. 1720
J.B. Guadagnini Violin, c. 1757, Milan

Andrea Amati Viola, c. 1600

The Grancino family had a tremendous influence on many phenomenal instrument makers. Paolo Grancino probably studied with and worked for Nicolo Amati. Interestingly enough, Antonio Stradivari was also apprenticed to Amati at the same time. Paolo taught his son, Giovanni Grancino, the art and craft of violin making. Giovanni then went on to teach Carlo Giusseppi Testore. In fact, Carlo Giusseppi worked in the Grancino shop. Carlo Giusseppi taught his eldest son, Carlo Antonio, and his youngest son, Paolo Antonio who branched out of the Grancino shop and became direct competitors. As the Grancino shop boosted productivity, the Testores were forced to keep up and their workmanship diminished as they began to cut corners with lesser quality wood. Paolo Antonio then taught his son, Pietro Testore. Pietro has the dubious distinction of bringing the Testore luthier line to an end. Although his work sounded strong and robust, Groves Musical Dictionary describes him thus: "possibly the clumsiest hands that ever made a violin." An unfortunate attribute, indeed!

1703 Grancino Cello; Jaap ter Linden II performing J.S. Bach Prelude from the 5th Suite

1737 Testore Violin; Sean Avram performing Gershwin's Bess, You is My Woman

The Landolphis or Landolfis, contemporary Milanese makers to Grancino and Testore, also made wonderful sounding instruments with poor wood quality and unorthodox techniques. According to Henley, Carlo Ferdinando Landolphi's (1734-1787) work befuddled experts in "reconciling the variableness between degeneracy and perfection." His violins varnished with a "brilliantly transparent but thickly spread orange red" are valued both for beauty of tone and workmanship, while his instruments varnished with a thin hard yellow varnish sound like they have been "muffled by a piece of muslin." The variation between quality and craft is so great that some experts posit that there are, indeed, two makers with the same name. That being said, one has to make a living, so material and workmanship suffered when quality wood supplies ran low and competition was high. Many of his instruments use pine for the top plate and plain un-figured maple for the backs. Oftentimes his scrollwork looks inferior to his contemporaries, and purfling became an unessential attribute on many of his instruments to cut corners. Furthermore many of his instruments went out of his shop with only one meager coat of varnish. Even with all of these deficiencies in quality materials and workmanship, his instruments left the shop sounding fabulous. 
Carlo Ferdinando Landolphi's son, Pietro Antonio took over the shop from his father  and ran the shop from 1775-1801. His instruments, unlike his father's, are often labelled "Landolfi." This may have been a way for him to distinguish himself from his father. Many praise his instruments for their superior sound, which Henley disputes "as a purely fatuous doctrine that connoisseurs sometimes conceive towards anything coming from Italy."

           1737 Landolphi Violin; Massenet's Meditation from Thais

Although there is ample evidence to believe that the Milanese makers produced some less-than-stellar instruments, one should not dismiss all of their output as junk. The finest examples of workmanship, craft, and tone rival the great cremonese makers. Listen to the examples and decide for yourself! With the exception of Landolphi's "muffled by muslin" instruments-all of the Milanese makers were and continue to be highly praised for the power and beauty of sound their instruments produce. After all, isn't sound the reason we all have decided to play a stringed instrument?

NOT SO CHEAP JACKS! Recent values for some Milanese violins:
Giovanni Baptista Grancino-$170,000-250,000
Pietro Antonio Landolfi-$120,000-175,00
Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi-$180,000-250,000
Carlo Antonio Testore-$100,000-200,00
Carlo Giusseppe Testore-$100,000-200,000
Paolo Antonio Testore-$80,000-150,000

For more information, and an interesting Blog about a Grancino Violin, please checkout:

Good sources for learning more about Milanese violins are Henley's Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers, Eric Blot's Liuteria Italiana II, and  Walter Hamma's Master Italian Violin Makers.

Are you a violinist or interested in becoming one? Check out our Fine Violins


  1. Interesting read.. My Landolfi (Carlo Ferdinando) from 1771 is definitely more yellow than red but no one would ever call it muffled by muslin-sounding. It has a HUGE tone and every time I play it in a concert hall people are dying to know what it is because of it's power and clarity. Actually it's been my experience that the more reddish ones I come across aren't so great sounding! :) :) it was nice to read about the Landolfis! I feel like I dont come across a lot about them :)

    1. Wonderful to find this comment. I have just "discovered" your enormous talent and your recorded treasures over the last few hours and was literally dying to learn more about your instrument which is mentioned at the end of your biography on your site.

      I fully agree with the richness of sound of your instrument, which comes across well over speakers and/or headphones.