Serious question about Del Gesu


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Some years back I raised the question on Maestronet of why the survival rate for del Gesus would be fairly high given that del Gesu's customers weren't among the wealthy aristocrats which Strad had.  One reply -- I believe it was from Michael Darnton -- was that del Gesu plates were originally considerably thicker than Strad's (witness the Cannon), and thus weren't as fragile.  The thicker plates compensated for any reduction in care.

Perfectly plausible, but that doesn't change the fact that in a relatively short working life, he had enough customers to justify cranking out 140 or more violins, most with high quality imported wood. Bergonzi didn't seem to come close to that.

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Is it generally thought that his plates were originally thicker, or was the Canon an exception?

The Abbé Sibire did write (under Lupot's direction) back in 1806 or so that Del Gesu's were too thick and sounded "dry" but could be improved by thinning the plates. I wish i could have been around then to take a hacklinger to all the Del Gesu's in Lupot's shop...

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Is it generally thought that his plates were originally thicker, or was the Canon an exception?

I recently was very lucky to spend a few days measuring up one of similar thickness that just so happened to be Kreisler's main fiddle. ( not the one in the Met)  It is pretty much the same as il Cannone.  After 3 days of measuring and cutting arch templets I summoned the courage to play the violin. Looking at the thickness. I guessed that I would need a strong bow arm....BUT not at all...Literally it was supernaturally responsive. a normal player would need to cultivate the lightest of bow touches to play the thing or it would be too loud.....I am still recovering from the experience

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Doing some math, from 1727-1745, is only 18 years divided by 140 = about 8 violins a year average.  Not shabby working without a bunch of apprentices.  And if we assume a substantial number have disappeared, it seems he was doing his share.

 

It's only an opinion, but even though the Strad shop ended up with over 90 instruments, I can't see that dG would have been making unless he was selling.

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Will, I don't think that there are any more than 18 Strads surviving from any particular year. So year on year your average is pretty impressive by Stradivari's standard. In fact as you go into the golden period there seems to be an oscillation between numbers in their high-teens, followed by low numbers, it forms a pattern and even suggests he took every second year easy... at least, the pattern is more likely to be evidence of actual workshop practice, than a random pattern of survival. 

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Will, I don't think that there are any more than 18 Strads surviving from any particular year. So year on year your average is pretty impressive by Stradivari's standard. In fact as you go into the golden period there seems to be an oscillation between numbers in their high-teens, followed by low numbers, it forms a pattern and even suggests he took every second year easy... at least, the pattern is more likely to be evidence of actual workshop practice, than a random pattern of survival. 

I didn't intend my point to refer to the number of Strads in a year, but simply that he could afford to make more violins than he sold.  I don't think dG was well off enough to do that.  And, of course, I was only speaking in averages.  If I understand, you are suggesting that dG was quite prolific in some years?

 

But as I think about it, we know That the "Messiah" had been sitting around for about 19 years before Strad's death; does anyone know what the earliest violin in that collection of unsold violins was?

 

I think Roger pointed out a while back that many (or some) shops of the period made more than they sold.  But could dG pull that off, being seemingly as poor as the proverbial church mouse?

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Indeed you didn't :) but that doesn't prevent the comparison from having validity. Of course the most interesting thing would be to start gathering survival rates by year into a graph. I did this years ago for Stradivari my graph appears (uncredited) in Stuart Pollens' book on Stradivari.. it would only ever be a rough guide stick, but on that level however the numbers end up, it simply seems to demonstrate an impressive output by the standards of Stradivari... and as others have said - put Carlo Bergonzi to shame. It would be interesting to sit down and create a comparative dataset for all makers at that time. 

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I recently was very lucky to spend a few days measuring up one of similar thickness that just so happened to be Kreisler's main fiddle. ( not the one in the Met)  It is pretty much the same as il Cannone.  After 3 days of measuring and cutting arch templets I summoned the courage to play the violin. Looking at the thickness. I guessed that I would need a strong bow arm....BUT not at all...Literally it was supernaturally responsive. a normal player would need to cultivate the lightest of bow touches to play the thing or it would be too loud.....I am still recovering from the experience

Melvin

Did you get a chance to weigh the instrument?

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 I did this years ago for Stradivari my graph appears (uncredited) in Stuart Pollens' book on Stradivari.

That IS a very interesting graph.  Thanks for pointing it out.  It's most interesting in how the peaks and valleys, sometimes are literally from year to year;  other times going up or down for 2 or 3 years.  (If I'm reading it right)

 

You would be horrified to do a graph of my output.   :)   Only suitable for a psychologist's textbook.  

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Is there any basis for the sometimes stated notion that he was hard up or economically challenged?  I understand it provides a romantic explanation for his free style, but is there evidence beyond that?   Considering that his extended family worked in the business continuously for generations before and after him, I would have thought that would have provided at least a basic selling path and some initial foundation to work from?

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The Biography written by Chiesa and Rosengard in vol II of the Biddulph, says that he inherited some money when his father died, and it was "modest but not insignificant."  But there were "various debts and obligations to discharge."

 

But they also write that the last asset of the family was a house sold in 1740.  So maybe he wasn't "poor as a church mouse" as I thought, but it doesn't sound like he was well off.  He died at 46, and was in a rental house, had no children and few possessions, and left no testament or inventory.

 

It makes me hope that there are clouds in heaven from which he can look down to see how revered his work is.  My opinion.

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From the beginning of the 18th century a series of conflicts, known as the ‘Wars of the Spanish Succession’, kept Italy and much of Europe in turmoil. The floodplain of the Po river, became a favoured place for military campaigning, a situation aggravated by a series of devastating floods and an outbreak of cattle disease in 1713. In previous centuries, officers of garrisons that occupied Cremona purchased instruments from time to time, but in the 18th century the malaise caused by the military far outweighed any small gains engendered by their presence. In 1703 a letter to the historian Muratori described the situation in Cremona.

“Here we are seething with Spanish soldiers, and at the beginning of next May we shall have 5000 Savoyards, 4 French cavalry battalions and five infantry regiments.”

Following these conflicts, Milan and consequently Cremona were freed from almost two centuries of Spanish rule. From 1707 onwards Austrian soldiers were garrisoned in Cremona. Apart from the fact that Del Gesu found an Austrian wife, domination by the Austrian empire was not a positive development for northern Italy generally, and for Cremonese violinmakers in particular, although Jacob might argue otherwise.

Already by the end of the 17th century, virtually all of the Italian peninsula’s diverse territories had reached an advanced state of decay, and the process was irreversible. The renaissance had moved on, initially to France and then to England.

Stradivari’s name still had some clout, but by this time almost every town in Europe had at least one violin maker and the Cremonese monopoly was gone. It can even be contended that all of Cremona’s 18th century makers, including Stradivari, were being gradually left behind by a number of important developments in violin technology. This was especially true of developments north of the Alps, where playing techniques were also advancing more rapidly.

The classical Cremonese school lasted more than 200 years, during which time an enormous number of cultural economic and technological changes had occurred. In spite of this Cremona’s early violinmakers were better educated, better remunerated, socially superior, and altogether far more sophisticated than their descendants. In fact given the circumstances, it is astonishing that Cremona still managed to produce the most venerated musical instruments of all time in the first half of the 18th century.

Whatever else happened to Del Gesu, his life in these troubled times cannot have been easy.

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In spite of Ben’s very valid reference to Goya, and the onset of impressionism, the idea that Dell Gesu was somehow a brooding, artistic, genius, is largely an invention of the 19th and 20th century. However, if any of the classical Cremonese violinmakers fit this image of the impoverished bohemian artist, it would be him. And in truth, this probably has as much to do with his appeal, as it does with an artist like Van Gough.

In spite of this the latest available information about Joseph Guarneri del Gesu reveals that he was not the drunken wastrel portrayed in so many early texts. In fact even as a young man, his contemporaries perceived him as an upstanding citizen. Stories of so-called prison violins are unsubstantiated, and are probably folk tales created to explain the wild appearance of his late instruments.

Del Gesu's life and works have been described in almost as much detail as that of his Cremonese contemporary Antonio Stradivari, however, like many great artists, in his own time he was scarcely recognized.

It has been suggested that Del Gesu made about 150 violins. No violas are known, but it is now believed that in 1731 he made one of the two cellos that bare his father’s final labels, and that he completed the belly and the purfling of the other cello dated 1729. This assessment neatly conforms to the Cremonese method of construction which required the belly and purfling to be finished after the head ribs and back.

Remarkably, in spite of the harsh economic climate, contrary to popular belief, Del Gesu's instruments were almost always made from the finest materials. In fact, in the 1730's when he was far from affluent, and when even the wealthy Stradivari family were short of good violin backs, Del Gesu had a seemingly endless supply. It has been suggested that his brother Pietro Guarneri, working in Venice, (a different state) was his source, and there are strong similarities to be found in their respective materials.

Del Gesu, life and work was certainly enigmatic. He may or may not have been extremely poor. He may or may not have had a debilitating illness. Some of his works may or may not have received contributions not only from his father, but also from his wife Katarina Rota. However what is indisputable is the fact that he is the only late Cremonese maker with whom there is a direct link to the workshop and therefore the tradition of Andrea Amati and the Amati family.

It is my belief that he also spent some considerable time alongside Carlo Bergonzi in the workshop of Antonio Stradivari and his two sons. Although this is another topic for debate, if true this would link him to another strong Cremonese tradition, allowing him to combine the best of everything the Cremonese school had to offer. Any roughness about his work pales into significance once this is realized.

So now for my last very late breakfast with Joe Thrift before he returns to North Carolina. Gotta go!

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It makes me hope that there are clouds in heaven from which he can look down to see how revered his work is.  My opinion.

 

If he is looking down from heaven, I hope he sends me some insight on how to graduate my top plate over the next few days.  The back is already thicknessed like one of his violins. :D

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I spent quite a while looking at the Cannone with Alberto Giordano just before Christmas - he looks after the violin along with Bruce Carlson. We talked about the back thickness - his opinion is that it will only work with low tension strings and a low neck angle. When he makes a Cannone copy for modern set-up he reduces the back thickness to something more contemporary.

 

post-34919-0-78567000-1420981619_thumb.jpg

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I spent quite a while looking at the Cannone with Alberto Giordano just before Christmas - he looks after the violin along with Bruce Carlson. We talked about the back thickness - his opinion is that it will only work with low tension strings and a low neck angle. When he makes a Cannone copy for modern set-up he reduces the back thickness to something more contemporary.

 

attachicon.gifsignor-cannone.jpg

 

I don't!

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That IS a very interesting graph.  Thanks for pointing it out.  It's most interesting in how the peaks and valleys, sometimes are literally from year to year;  other times going up or down for 2 or 3 years.  (If I'm reading it right)

 

You would be horrified to do a graph of my output.   :)   Only suitable for a psychologist's textbook.  

 

Will, it does look far more patterned than random, and allows for speculation about how Strad and other Cremonese makers divided their time, for instance, between making and marketing... but making sense of it is a completely other ballgame! I fear it's the kind of evidence that only opens the floodgates of speculation... 

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Is there any basis for the sometimes stated notion that he was hard up or economically challenged?  I understand it provides a romantic explanation for his free style, but is there evidence beyond that?   Considering that his extended family worked in the business continuously for generations before and after him, I would have thought that would have provided at least a basic selling path and some initial foundation to work from?

Only, I think, that it is an easy excuse for sloppy work. 

 

I can't see that the time differential between making f-holes at least as beautiful as a German - factory Strad copy, or del Gesu's most erratic ones can really be seen as having an economic rationale. 

 

What I can see potentially, is that he was purposefully making instruments to hit a lower price point than say, Stradivari - (as I think Strad with his wacky wood choices was doing to Amati in the 1670s), but he who makes the most expensive instrument is not necessarily the richest. Del Gesu might, for example have sold twice as many instruments because they were pitched at half the price, so been just as wealthy as a slow and painstaking expensive maker like Strad.. 

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Is there any basis for the sometimes stated notion that he was hard up or economically challenged?  I understand it provides a romantic explanation for his free style, but is there evidence beyond that?   Considering that his extended family worked in the business continuously for generations before and after him, I would have thought that would have provided at least a basic selling path and some initial foundation to work from?

  

I spent quite a while looking at the Cannone with Alberto Giordano just before Christmas - he looks after the violin along with Bruce Carlson. We talked about the back thickness - his opinion is that it will only work with low tension strings and a low neck angle. When he makes a Cannone copy for modern set-up he reduces the back thickness to something more contemporary.

 

attachicon.gifsignor-cannone.jpg

  

I don't!

  

I don't think Michael Darnton does either ...! He says that if you get the arching right the thicknesses are fine.

Perhaps we need a blind shoot-out, with Cannones instead of cannons.  B)

Nothing romantic in poverty. If there was a dissolute character in the Guarneri family that would probably be filius Andrea. He inherited a successful business from his father, Andrea, and by 1730 had run it down completely. Del Gesu would seem to be the dutiful son. He stayed in Cremona and supported his father during the latter's final decade ( filius carved scrolls for del Gesu).

I've made many del Gesu copies with 6+ thick backs. Works fine for me too.

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