Art and the Violin
“The soft waves, once all musical to song,
That heaved beneath the moonlight with the throng
Of gondolas,—and to the busy hum
Of cheerful creatures, whose most sinful deeds
Were but the overbeating of the heart,
And flow of too much happiness”
It is easy to imagine. The Grand Canal with its attendant traffic, St Mark’s Basilica, the opulence of the Doge’s Palace – inhabited, now by the Prince himself – the prostitutes and the merchants. Venice in the mid eighteenth century was a bustling, busy place; it’s very decadence a thing to behold. Byron knew it, and he knew also that the Venice he wrote of in 1818, had its roots in a much older past. A past of creativity; free and unfettered, the product of many ‘overbeating hearts’.
Situated as it is on the Adriatic Sea, Venice had long had it good. So good, in fact that it had been the wealthiest city in Europe, its sailors and merchants travelling far and wide. Ruled by a noble elite in a kind of governance that had its roots in the republic of ancient Rome, these families built palaces and competed with each other to support the best painters, musicians and craftsmen. Titian (1488 – 1576), Veronese (1528 –1588), Bellini (1430 – 1516), Tintoretto (1518 – 1594) all had their part to play in the extraordinary story of Venice. Violin makers too made their home there – Montagnana, Serafin, Gofriller and the great Peter Guarneri who took the name of the city as his own in the history books.
Peter Guarneri of Venice cello – copy
The painters and makers I have mentioned span more than two hundred years – the end of the formal Renaissance period through to the decadent world of the 17th and 18th centuries. And throughout those centuries, I want to suggest that there was something special in Venice. A freedom, a boldness, a willingness to break the rules. It is possible to trace something of what was happening in the world of painting in what was happening in the world of violin making to, and it is also possible to make a case how this particular spirit – straddling the various disciplines – could have only come about in the humanistic air of tolerant Venice.
But the freedom I am talking of was not an easy thing. It was a hard one – a product of discipline relaxing rather than something superficial or shallow. And it had its roots in a master whose work characterises the spirit of the Renaissance – and of its place in Venice. If Titian is a byword for the Renaissance then restraint is what set him apart. The Master of the Venetian School is noted for his restraint. Offering a more human face than predecessors such as Giorgione (1477/8–1510); Titian is entirely in control. There is no wanton flashiness, not a bit of excess. His colours – deep luscious blues and gorgeous reds are applied direct to the canvas in a masterly tour de force. Very few drawings by Titian survive; perhaps he didn’t make any, relying instead on the sketches he made straight onto the canvas to reveal the alterations he should make.
Titian had a long life and he was painting well into his eighties with the flair and vigour of a much younger man. By the time of his death his muscular vivacity – inventiveness coupled with restraint – had set down a benchmark in Venetian art that was to set the tone for generations to come. It may seem odd that Tintoretto, whose boyhood had seen him spend ten days in the studio of Titian, was the exact opposite of the Master. With Tintoretto, restraint was gone out of the window – but the boldness, the sheer facility, is what links him to the past. In the soaring confidence of his masterpiece Paradiso, we see monumental genius at work. It shows – as the Italians would say – sprezzatura. Dashed off, making it look easy, a studied carelessness that conceals incredible mastery. Tiepolo (1696 – 1770) came later `all spirit and fire’ was how one commentator remembered it, but the characteristic sprezzatura was still there in his vast ceilings where angels dash around swathed in gorgeous turquoise and the richest of reds.
So, what if anything, was happening in the world of the luthiers at the same time? Was the ‘spirit of sprezzatura’ also to be found in the workshops of the instrument makers of Venice? When Peter Guarneri arrived in Venice, Canaletto (1697 – 1768) and Tiepolo were in full flight. Tiepolo was par excellence the painter of the Venetian good life. He paints Venetians enjoying themselves – which they did very successfully in a world where it was expected that every woman would have a cavalier who would escort them openly on the gondolas and at the many masked balls. Tiepolo recorded it all, with an overflowing joie de vivre that cannot help to have translated itself to other creative artists, if only in establishing the spirit in which those others worked. This was a world of endeavour and visible creativity. It was acceptable to be different, and to flaunt your creativity as if you hadn’t a care in the world, hiding – in your insouciance – absolute security and verve.
If Titian was the father of the many subsequent painters, then Martinus Kaiser was the father of the luthiers. Echoing the consummate craftsmanship of Titian, Kaiser’s bold designs hark back to earlier noble forms in instrument making and painting to. But, just like Tintoretto and subsequent painters, it took later luthiers to take the established genius and move it in different directions. What we have in the Venetian makers is a freedom of invention that mirrors exactly what was happening over in the artist’s studios. Peter of Venice broke the mould. His brother Del Gesù did the same – breaking with the Cremonese norms of perfection and design in an effort to escape the perfection of his renowned neighbour Stradivari. But whereas Del Gesù remained in Cremona, Peter moved to Venice where he was not only free of the constraints of the Cremonese school, but infected and lifted up by the brilliance of Venetian life. The tremendous variety that we see in Peter of Venice speaks of a fluid technique and visual sense to make every point and curve a different experience. He doesn’t get bogged down – he doesn’t need to. Outside his window the sounds of voices laughing from the water barges and the easy, brilliance of Venetian life – art in life – lifts him away from caution. It is this boldness, this ease that characterises the work of the Venetian school. Even in the work of Sanctus Seraphin which is refined and perfect there is still something of the panache of Titian. And in Gofriller – who married Martinus Kaiser’s daughter and whose workshop he later took over – we see one of the many glittering peaks of Venetian luthiery. During his life he had almost all of the musical trade of the city.
It is my belief that the luthiers of Venice, far from being removed from the artists working at the time, they were intimately known and acquainted with them. They breathed the same air. In different forms, with different materials but ultimately similar aspirations and sensuality, they created masterpieces that were deeply imbued with the spirit of “too much happiness”.