Famous Early Italian Makers of Cellos

Cello Heaven Book Review: Every cellist will enjoy reading The Cambridge Companion to the Cello. It contains 269 pages brimming over with interesting information about the construction, history and repertoire of the cello, as well as substantial articles concerning famous cellists of the various eras. There are nine contributers, and thirteen chapters. Highly recommended by Cello Heaven. The book may easily be purchased at Amazon.Com, or ordered by your local book store. The paragraphs below are excerpted for purposes of review, and and illustrate the wealth of information available in the entire volume...

Cremona and Brescia

Andrea Amati (pre- 1505-1577) was the first recorded maker in Cremona, the greatest centre of violin and cello making, and the first of four generations of luthiers who spanned the entire period of Cremona's dominance. His work is marked by elegance and an awareness of geometrical principles in design. His modelling is of great delicacy, from the regular winds of the scroll to the tips of the f-holes. The instruments made for Charles IX of France were also decorated in polychrome with the Royal arms and are particularly striking. The oldest surviving example, dated .1572, is the earliest cello in existence . Unfortunately, the Philistine efforts of past repairers have reduced the large dimensions of these instruments to the smaller modern size, thereby destroying their harmony and integrity. Significantly, the peg boxes were originally made to contain only three strings, like the instrument depicted by Ferrari (in a painting) in 1535. The addition of a fourth string to the cello was probably an innovation of Andrea's own lifetime, since later instruments made by him were clearly originally designed to accommodate four tuning pegs. Andrea and his family were consummate craftsmen: his two sons, Antonius; (1540-?) and Hieronymus (1561-1630) continued to use their father's glorious golden brown varnish, which was perhaps the greatest possession of the Cremonese makers, but modified the patterns, most noticeably the f holes, whose circular finials are smaller, and tips, or 'wings', are wider.

Nicolo Amati (1596-1684) was the son of Hieronymus and perhaps the greatest maker of the dynasty, although surviving cellos are rare compared to those of his father and uncle. However, his son, Hieronymus II (1649-1740), contributed some wonderful cellos of the large size.

Equally important in the history of the cello is Francesco Rugeri (1620-c. 1695). When plague decimated Cremona in 1630, Nicolo Amati had no immediate heirs and took on apprentices from outside the family. Of these, Rugeri proved a most prolific and innovatory cello maker. His fully arched designs borrow much from Amati, but have a distinctive style of their own. Often made from modest slabs of poplar wood, yet sometimes from spectacular pieces of flamed maple, they are brought to life by a luscious and richly pigmented varnish. More importantly, Rugeri pioneered the reduced c. 75 cm model which, after a century of variation, became the accepted standard for the next fifty years.

Another pupil of Nicolo Amati, Andrea Guarneri (1626-98), began to make cellos of similar size towards the end of his career, but with an original pattern: broad across the lower bouts and with fully rounded upper bouts. Generally high in the arching, they are magnificently modelled, with impulsive workmanship. Much of the work on his later instruments was probably carried out by his son, Giuseppe Guarneri (1666-1739), who continued to produce fine cellos on the smaller pattern, introducing a more slender form of f-hole but using inferior varieties of wood: beech appears as often as poplar, and sometimes a poorer quality of dark-brown varnish is used.

Guarneri was overshadowed throughout his career by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), who was probably also a pupil of Nicolo Amati and was by far the most gifted and successful luthier of all. His earliest cello dates from 1667 and already shows great originality. His craftsmanship was impeccable and hardly faltered throughout his seventy-year career, allowing him to concentrate all his energies on a steady refinement of design. Taking as a starting-point the work of Nicolo Arnati, Stradivari gradually imbued the already graceful style with a noble aspect,'a majestic quality to match the resulting profound sonority. His most important early innovations to the large- cello were his.flatter and more powerful archings; and a new system of graduating the thickness of the plates. His f-holes are longer and less curved and his scrolls are more substantial than those of his predecessors. Stradivari also introduced a stronger red pigment to his varnish, which gives his best-preserved instruments a seemingly bottomless depth of colour. Although many of his earlier instruments, like those of the Amatis, have subsequently been reduced in size, some magnificent specimens survive, such as the'Medici' (1690), the 'Castelbarco'(1697) and the'Servais'(1701).

During the first decade of the eighteenth century Stradivari experimented with the cello. These experiments resulted in his greatest achievement, the 'B' form - a designation appearing on some of the original paper patterns housed in the Stradivari Museum in Cremona. This completely original design made to the smaller c. 75'.Cm back-length spawns a succession of superb instruments such as the'Gore-Booth (1710), the 'Duport'(1711),the'Davidoff' (1712) and the'Batta' (1714), representing sustained work of a genius unsurpassed in cello making. These cellos have a remarkable clarity of focus and potential for tonal projection, and they have been owned and played by the greatest artists - from Servais and Piatti to Du Pre, Rostropovich and Yo-Yo Ma.

Stradivari did not rest there, however By 1730, at the age of eighty-six, he had produced other designs, first reduced in length by 2-3 cm or so, and subsequently reduced in width, as exemplified by the 'De Munck' cello, ascribed to 1730. Judging from the workmanship of these late instruments, however, it is probable that the old man delegated much of the construction to his son Francesco (1671-1743).

After Stradivari's death, no cellos appeared from the workshops of Cremona until the inferior instruments of Lorenzo Storioni (1751-c. 1800), but the city remains an influential centre. Its international School of Violin Making has trained many of today's' leading makers, and Cremonese luthiers have never failed to find a market for their work, despite a certain inconsistency during the present century.

The first rival to Cremona as a centre for cello making was Brescia. Only a short distance from Cremona, Brescia nevertheless had a distinctive style of work in the sixteenth century. Gasparo da Salo (1540-1609) was its first known maker of cellos; his instruments, though very rare, have a rugged finish and a charm quite different from his Cremonese contemporaries, the brothers Amati (see Fig. 1. 11). They were made in both the large size (over 76 cm), and in a small 71 cm length which is more suited to modern performance than the monstrous bassetti of the early Cremonese makers. Their flat arching, with no discernible modelling around the edge, yields a strong tone. Da Salo's purfling, though crudely laid in, is sometimes doubled or led into decorative traceries on the back. Significantly, few (if any) of his cellos have survived with their original scrolls; it may be too late to speculate what eccentricity of their design led to their replacement, but it is possible that they were made to carry only three strings.

Da Salo was succeeded in Brescia by his pupil Giovanni Paolo Maggini (1581-1632), whose early work is almost indistinguishable from that of his master. However, Maggini seems to have been aware of the high level of craftsmanship in Cremona, and aimed to emulate it, though with only limited success. The plague, which claimed the life of Maggini, seems to have closed the workshops of Brescia until the arrival c. 1675 of Giovanni Baptista Rogeri (active 1670-1705). A pupil of Nicolo Amati, Rogeri at last brought to Brescia the level of finesse which had escaped Maggini. One of the most elegant craftsmen to benefit from Amati's teaching, he nevertheless adopted important aspects of the Brescian tradition in his work. He made some of his cellos on the small Brescian size of 71 cm, but with a characteristic width and with very flat, stiff archings recalling those of da Sal6. Thus they anticipated the cellos of Rugeri and even Stradivari in Cremona, combining the tonal quality of Cremona with the throaty power of Brescian work. Nevertheless, Rogeri was sometimes tempted to take short cuts: although he used fine wood, he frequently omitted the purfling on the back, merely scratching two black lines around the edge.


More important than Brescia in the later development of the cello is Venice. Matteo Goffiller (1659-1742) was a cello builder of the first rank, founding a tradition which has challenged Cremona as the home of the finest instruments. Instructed by the Tyrolean maker Martin Kaiser, Gofriller established the Venetian style, distinguished largely by a deep red varnish which now characteristically shows a crackled and wrinkled finish. The standard of his workmanship falls between that of Brescian and Cremonese makers, but it is marked by great character, revealed expecially in his diminutive and casually carved scrolls. He sadopted several patterns of quite voluptuous form, ranging from the smalles 71 cm model to the largest bassetto size, most of which have bene cut down to modern proportions. His arching is generally quite low, and the noble sound has substantial carrying power. His son, Francesco (1692-c. 1740), though by no means his equal in terms of his craftsmanship, also produced successful instruments, one of which served Pablo Casals as his concert instrument.

Matteo Gofriller's pupil, Domenico Montagnana (1687-1750), was to have the greatest impact as a cello builder. Known as the'Mighty Venetian' because of the dramatic appearance and equally dramatic tone of his cellos, his name is the only one to merit serious comparison with Stradivari. Very different in style to those of Stradivari, his cellos are broad, uncompromising and sometimes difficult to play, but in the hands of the best virtuosos they are capable of the most expressive and passionate tone. (See the website of Stephen Drake for photos of his Montagnana copies, and a Rocca.) The curves of the outline are barely controlled, the back seeming ill-matched to the front on occasion, and the arching is low but strongly modelled with a deep hollow around the edges. The scrolls are profoundly ripped from the wood, but retaina 4ecent regularity, and the whole is set off by an extravagant covering of curdled ruby-red varnish.

Montagnana found first an assistant, and later a serious rival, in Pietro Guarneri (1695-1762), the son of Andrea Guarneri of Cremona, who arrived in Venice around 1717. He proved as flexible as Rogeri in adapting the traditions of Cremona to his new environment: the example of Montagnana allowed him to incorporate a certain freedom of design into his more formal level of craftsmanship, with the result being clothed in the more vivid Venetian varnish. It is only the comparative rarity of his cellos that keeps his reputation below that of Montagnana.

Several other notable cello makers flourished in Venice - probably more than in any other, Italian city - among them Carlo Tononi (1675-1730), Francesco Gobetti (1675-1723) and , Sanctus Serafin (1699-1758). Venetian makers seem to have developed a particularly appropriate style of work for the cello, and their success was sustained until the end of the eighteenth century.

Other Italian centres of cello making

Of the other Italian centres of stringed-instrument making, Rome is distinguished by the presence of the German David Tecchler (c. 1666-c. 1747), who was a prolific maker of cellos. His style was firmly rooted in the German tradition - with highly vaulted archings deeply hollowed around the edge - but his workmanship gained a certain Italianate flair. His varnish is often pale in colour but deeply crackled, and the wood is of variable quality and often of local growth. He remained faithful to the large bassetto model, and although most of his instruments have now been cut down, they remain imposing in both proportion and tonal resource.

Florence was the home of several distinguished makers, notably Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731),9 Giovanni Gabbrielli (active 1740-70) and the Carcassi brothers, Lorenzo and Tomasso (active 1750-80). Cristofori was a pupil of Nicolo Amati; his work, though rare, is of the large size and very refined in the Cremonese manner. However, his successors Gabbrielli and the Carcassis turned to the increasingly fashionable German style, which most makers of the mid-eighteenth century adopted with varying degrees of success. Gabbrielli managed to keep within the bounds of an exaggerated style, whilst the Carcassis often did not.

Milanese makers produced cellos of mixed quality, The best were from the workshop of Giovanni Grancino (active 1685-1726), whose varnish tends towards a clear yellow or pale brown and is tender and fine textured.

His modelling and design were greatly influenced by Amati and extended to the flatter arching (although not so effectivgly shaped) and slender model of Stradivari. Mostly made to the larger size, Grancino's instruments nevertheless produce a reliable sound - clear, strong and with undeniable Italian quality. Amongst his notable successors were members of the Testore family, the eldest of whom, Carlo Giuseppe (active 1720-60), was a fine craftsman; however, the skill and patience of succeeding generations deteriorated dramatically, despite retaining the ability to produce some instruments of excellent tonal potential.

Almost on a par with Stradivari and Montagnana was Alessandro Gagliano of Naples (active 1700-35), who produced a tantalisingly small number of cellos of superb quality. Finely worked, of large scale yet beautifully proportioned, and with a glorious red varnish, his refined style died with him; his large and prolific family subsequently populated Naples with instruments whose quality ranges from fine to indifferent. Omobono Stradivari spent some time in the city before the death of his father Antonio in 1737, and it is probably his influence which prompted the change of style evident in the work of Alessandro)s sons, Nicolo and Gennaro. Usually Stradivarian in style, their work is let down by an inferior varnish, though the sound can be satisfying and effective; like the energetic makers of Milan, the Gagliano family have provided many discerning players with excellent sounding instruments, although these are not of the very first rank.

Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (c. 1711-86) was probably the last of the truly inspired Italian makers. He adopted a very idiosyncratic cello model: it was of the short 71 cm size, yet broad and deep with a long string-lengih, and offered excellent sound and ease of playing. His varnish varied considerably, doubtless on account of his unsettled career which took him from his birthplace, Piacenza, to Milan, Cremona, Parma and, finally, Turin, where his contact with the dealer and expert Count Cozio di Salabue aided the latter's efforts to piece together for the first time the history of the craft in Italy. Guadagnini's successor in Turin was Giuseppe Rocca (1807-65), a member of the new generation of nineteenth-century makers who abandoned altogether the notion of an independent style and successfully copied Stradivari's patterns to produce a small number of excellent cellos.

The Cambridge Companion to the Cello was published in 1999 by Cambridge University Press, and edited by Robin Stowell. It contains 269 pages brimming over with interesting information about the construction, history and repertoire of the cello, as well as substantial articles concerning famous cellists of the various eras. There are nine contributers, and thirteen chapters. Highly recommended by Cello Heaven. The book may easily be purchased at Amazon.Com, or ordered by your local book store.