Monday, July 12, 2010

L'arte della liuteria

L'arte della liuteria = the art of violin-making

One of the cities I hope to visit this fall is Cremona, Italy, famous for its violin-making, including the world-famous Stradivari bottega, or workshop. I find I am being led there by a series of unusual coincidences.

It started several years ago, when I was traveling to a tiny hamlet called Civita di Bagnaregio, in Umbria, and the only other traveler I saw that day was Miwa, a young Japanese woman who had been living in Cremona for three years. She was working at a Stradivari workshop to learn more about rebuilding violins, to use in her family business in Japan. She didn't speak English, and I was just learning Italian at the time, but we managed to converse with each other about our lives. We ended up spending the day together in Civita di Bagnaregio, and her story sparked an interest in me to learn more about Cremona.

Miwa and I with Civita di Bagnaregio behind us, 2008

More recently, I stumbled upon two books that take place in Cremona, and the main character is a liutaio (luthier). The books, written by the British author Paul Adam, are mysteries that focus on the world of violin making and selling. In particular, they deal with violins made by Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu. Many people have never heard of del Gesu, but in the current world of violin selling, his violins have surpassed those of any other violin maker. Just last week, the asking price on one of del Gesu's violins (the Vieuxtemps Guarneri, made in 1741) had reached a record high sum of $18 million.

Adam's novels, Rainaldi's Quartet and Paganini's Ghost, in addition to being suspenseful mysteries, also offer good history lessons about the art of violin-making and insight into the lives of Stradivari and del Gesu. I was immediately drawn into the story, and was left wanting to know more. It's a fascinating story how violins evolved, thanks to three Italian families (several generations of the Amati, Stradivari, and Guarneri families) who developed the style of Classic Italian violin-making that started in 1535 and continues into the present day.

Coincidentally, the next week after reading the novel, I found a mini-course being offered in my town on the Art of Violin-Making, taught by a local luthier through the continuing education office of the university. Struck by the synchronicity of the event, I immediately signed up for the course. I've been enjoying the class, mostly for the history lesson on the evolution of the violin, and the biographies of the Italian violin-makers. The teacher is more scientist than artist, so the element of artistic passion is sadly missing. I understand the need for precision, but without an emotional perspective included, I quickly lose interest. In Adam's books, the luthier's passion is evident, even down to describing the wood and the varnishes used in his craft. I am eager to visit a bottega in Cremona to witness a more passionate approach to this art.

Several other coincidences have turned up on this topic. Several of my Italian friends have told me about a special area of Italy where abete rosso (red spruce) trees are grown that provide the resonant, flexible wood used to make the tops to the violins. It is said that Stradivari used to search the Foresta di Paneveggio in a park near the Dolomiti (Dolomites) of northern Italy for the best trees to build his violins with. One of my friends lives not far from this particular park. Perhaps I'll see it!

From the teacher of the course, I learned of an American who has a bottega in Cremona, one I might be able to visit in the fall. In 2000, Bruce Carlson, now a world-famous luthier, was appointed the conservator of one of the most famous del Gesu violins, il Cannone, the very same violin that served as a focal point in the book, Paganini's Ghost. (Il Cannone was owned by Paganini, and it now resides in Genova, his home town.) I just learned today that Regina Carter plays il Cannone on one of my favorite albums, Paganini: After a Dream. As this odd string of coincidences continue to pile up, fueling me on a sychronistic journey, I'm more eager than ever to visit Cremona and see what happens next.

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