Luthiers create musical instruments and it’s thanks to them if we can hear that sound which is “a pleasure for the ears, a joy for the soul and a true delight for the eyes”. So Baldassarre Castiglione wrote in his “Book for the Courtier” printed in Venice in 1528. And it could not be but in Venice that such words would originate. At that time Venice in fact was the capital of the art of lute making. And a laboratory for music in all senses and geographically very wide spread. Musical instruments were exported all over and the Venetians, as Stefano Pio writes, imposed their “patterns, constructions techniques and cultural reference points onto all the other European schools of instrument making.”
Music as a pleasure for the ears: luthiers and materials and innovations
Luthiers were mentioned as part of the oldest guild ever founded in Venice, the “Marzeri”. Initially this profession only included bow and string instruments, while in the late 18th century wind and keyboard instruments were considered, too. Voyagers’ chronicles, documents about luthiers’ workshops and instruments of the past surviving to nowadays tell us the art was extraordinarily alive. And you would start your career as a luthier as early as 12 years of age.
Germany and Lombardy
Luthiers worked in Venice, but originally came from somewhere else. Starting in the 16th century, excellent luthiers migrating from Füssen in Bavaria turned Venice into a capital of music in the Renaissance. It seems over 130 luthiers were working in Venice!
Once they received local citizenship, they opened their workshops and got more Germans or young Venetians to work for them. Along with Venetian names therefore you learn about Christoph Koch, Michael Hartung, Johannes Hieber and of course, the best known ones, the Seelos and the Tieffenbruckers.
Luthiers from Lombardy came later, too and they proved to be essential for the development of violins, cellos and contrabasses.
Surely, they came to Venice because here you could find the finest wooden essences and varnishes. But not just. Cultural life in Venice was certainly vital and dynamic. New instruments were also recorded and inventors would make sure they held privileges to produce their new inventions. And the question arises, would the instrument change because music was changing or was it because of luthiers’ new inventions that music changed?
Music as a joy of the soul: musical instruments in literature and art
The very first music book ever printed in the history was Harmonice musices Odhecaton in 1501 and was published by Ottaviano Petrucci, right in Venice. Many treaties followed explaining musical instruments and their different executive techniques, such as the ones by Silvestro Ganassi who wrote about the viola da gamba and the flute. Something indeed revolutionary as these publishers set the emancipation of instrumental music from vocal music.
Many Venetian instruments feature in museums outside Venice, today, such as Vienna, Brussels, London, Berlin, Milan, Rome… However, a constant presence of these wonders raising the spirits and soothing the soul can be found in figurative art. Especially in the so-called sacred conversations. In the middle of these silent conversations, saints seem to be hypnotised by beautiful angels playing music. Giovanni Bellini, Vittore Carpaccio among the best known ones don’t seem to be too knowledgeable about how to play. Often angels are gracefully portrayed while moving their fingers on strings or flutes without much realism. But they all know that music belongs to a different space, that of the meeting between God and human beings.
Gentile Bellini’s Procession in St. Mark’s square instead recalls the use of music in public events. Here musicians play the fiddle, the harp and the lute. Singers are also present and the six fife players accompany the Doge.
Not to mention the Marciana National Library. In the vestibule we can see a painting of a woman playing the “timpani” and the other one is playing the viola, surrounded by more female figures playing the trumpet. And Paolo Veronese in the main room left a painting representing music, the art that mirrors cosmic harmony.
Music as a delight for the eyes: aesthetics works
Luthiers of course cared for the aesthetical appeal of their creations. How can one forget the beautiful still life paintings by Evaristo Baschenis? So realistic that one can read the names of the active luthiers in Venice.
In the benedictine monastery of the island of San Giorgio Maggiore there were eight paintings by Baschenis. One only survived and happens to be at the Accademia Gallery in Venice. Almost a metaphysical painting as the instruments are not producing any music. Instead, they are turned into silent objects to meditate upon or that stir meditation upon life and its frailty.
Since 1991 a school of ancient music has been active in Venice: you can attend courses, both individually and in a class. The Scuola di Musica Antica di Venezia is indeed offering a great opportunity to get closer to the past music, using perfect replicas of the ancient instruments and arranging concerts of high quality in the Renaissance palace of the Grimani family.
But not just.
A school and a luthier
I met the luthier Riccardo Guaraldi in his Venetian studio one afternoon and while carefully cleaning the rooms where he works, he talked about his profession.
He introduced me to the history of luthiers and told a little about himself. After studying at the Luthiers’ School in Milan and getting in contact with other luthier masters for further specialisation, he now builds his own violins and violas as well as restores old instruments. Here in Venice. But his instruments are then all over the world. “It would be nice they were not so far away, so I could check how they do after several years…”.
Learning to become a luthier
Learning about materials, acoustics, chemistry. Cleaning and restoring ancient instruments. Understanding the trade of ancient instruments. Luthiers have indeed a wide range of action, today.
However, the chore focuses in understanding where the beauty of a musical instrument lies, especially when getting in contact with ancient masterpieces. In other words, when it comes to building your own violins, how much room is left to creativity and how much respect is due to the past geniuses?
Does it make sense to make perfect replicas of the ancient instruments? And yet, only ignorance of the past would make it easy to develop an original version. “After restoring that ancient violin, I realised I could not resist its beauty… so I started making my violin also with a bellied form, as I understood why in the past somebody had done so…, and yet, a replica is not my final goal…”.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy
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