No other family in modern Italian violinmaking is as intriguing as the Bisiachs, allowing us to narrate the history of Italy from the post-unification decades to almost the entire twentieth century through the events of their lives.
The workshop founded by Leandro Bisiach (1864-1945) lived its golden age between the late nineteenth century and the end of the Second World War, playing a unique role in the city of Milan for the provision of new and antique stringed instruments, as well as for restoration and repair services. Leandro was one of the wealthiest and most accomplished violin makers of his generation. Although he came from humble beginnings, he managed to create a solid and prolific business in Milan within a mere few decades. His four sons would later inherit an empire they would not be able to manage fully, but from which they would continue to benefit for much of the twentieth century. Valuable documents kept at the Bisiach family’s private archive detail how this enterprise was born and subsequently flourished. This article outlines one of my latest research projects specifically dedicated to this extraordinary family.1
Leandro Bisiach in 1904
Over the past two years, with the help of organologist Maria da Gloria Leitao Venceslau, I have analysed this unique private archive.
Thanks to this study, I am now completing a book dedicated to the Bisiach family and its unique role in modern violinmaking.2 The analysis of a substantial body of correspondence, together with postcards, musicians’ notes, notebooks and accounting records of rare importance, has brought to life many unknown aspects about this family. Moreover, the study of the archives, and Leandro’s correspondence in particular, allowed us to outline his life and work more clearly, leading to a richer understanding of the relationships he had with his sons, collaborators, pupils, colleagues, clients and friends. What emerges is the figure of a man who diversified his career by innovatively combining his expertise as a luthier in Italy with life as a musician and businessman.
Detail of Leandro Bisiach's passport from 1918
By 1918 Leandro was already a famous violinmaker, owning a stable business despite the challenges presented by life after the First World War.
In the preceding years, he had begun his renowned collaboration with Count Guido Chigi Saracini, which led him to Siena to restore the count’s collection. Most importantly, this partnership put him in contact with Igino Sderci (1884-1983), who became one of his most significant collaborators. A large number of luthiers on the scene had already worked for Leandro, among them the most famous being Gaetano Sgarabotto (1878-1959), Giuseppe Ornati (1887-1965), and Ferdinando Galimberti (1894-1982), and for several years, his sons—especially the eldest Andrea and Carlo—had also been involved in various roles within the family business.3 However, in his passport issued that year, Leandro describes himself as a ‘violin professor’ and not a master luthier. I wanted to point out this document because as a musician, Leandro was able to integrate easily into the rich musical context of Milan at the end of the nineteenth century, establishing essential networks, and above all, creating a solid clientele for his violinmaking workshop.
Detail of late-nineteenth-century photograph showing Leandro Bisiach with his string quartet.
Giuseppe Leandro Bisiach was born in the Piedmontese town of Casale Monferrato in 1864.
Here he received his violin training and, supported by his father, he approached violinmaking. He subsequently trained as a luthier with the Antoniazzi family in Milan in the late 1880s. With them, he established a unique professional association, particularly with Riccardo Antoniazzi (1853-1912) who became his main collaborator at his first workshop.4 The late 1880s and 1890s were critical years for stabilising Leandro’s activity in Milan. He initially continued to work as a musician and became a member of various musical institutions, including the famous Società del Quartetto.
Painting of Leandro Bisiach in his first workshop in Milan, by his friend Elio Ximenes
An analysis of the archive records shows that Leandro's circle of friends, clients, and admirers in those years included many famous names from the international music scene of the time, including violin virtuosos of the calibre of Pablo de Sarasate and the celebrated Joseph Joachim.
Further, during these years, Leandro established unique relationships with musicians of fundamental importance to the history of Italian music, such as cellist, composer and teacher Alfredo Piatti and the composer Arrigo Boito. He would later work as a luthier for figures such as the composer Giacomo Puccini, the publisher Tito II Ricordi, and well-known instrumentalists of the time.
Joseph Joachim's photo from 1897, when he had the opportunity to view two violins made by Leandro Bisiach.
From analysis of records in the private archive, it emerges that the last decades of the nineteenth century were marked by various entrepreneurial activities of Leandro, which saw him continuously travelling around Italy and abroad, being involved in the purchase and sale of instruments.
The literature on the subject often focuses on Leandro Bisiach as a violin dealer, describing him as a man with excellent business acumen. However, no in-depth study in the sector yet reveals how their bowed instruments trade worked and was structured. For this reason, the volume I am about to publish examines at length how Leandro and his close associates managed their trade in stringed instruments and how this had a significant impact on the violinmaking context of the time.
Business card of Leandro Bisiach's workshop in Via Cappellari 9-11 in Milan, where the violin presented here was made.
During these years, Leandro was beginning to present his instruments at national and international exhibitions.
He also became the official supplier and repairer of stringed instruments for the Reale Conservatorio di Musica in Milan and other institutions such as the Pio Istituto Musicale Donizetti in Bergamo.5 In addition to all this, Leandro was involved in the training of apprentices in his workshop during these years, along with collaborating with other luthiers in the area who worked for him with different specialisations. The last decades of the nineteenth century are also crucial for his work; in fact, his instruments made in this time frame show his best work. In this short article, I have focused on the first decades of Leandro’s activity, those fundamental to creating his family business, to which my next book dedicates an in-depth study.
This early example of Leandro Bisiach’s output showcases the strong foundations of the Antoniazzi family influence upon Leandro’s style.
There is a beautiful boldness and quiet confidence about the design of the edges, chamfers, channel and volute, thus displaying craftsmanship of strong conviction.
The choice of wood, for example, is a beautiful, deeply curled maple very often used in this period, and bears particular resemblance to that chosen by the Antoniazzi family. The table is also of high-quality wood, with very even and wide grain. Also, of particular note are the f holes, which are carefully yet deliberately carved with confidence. Their lower wings have not been fully smoothed with a scraper, leaving clear gouge marks visible today filled with patina. Looking at it from a side profile, the elegant arching allows the f holes to merge seamlessly into the arching in a way that doesn’t disrupt its flow.
One can clearly see the influence that Riccardo Antoniazzi had upon Leandro’s work. Such influences can be seen clearly in the violin’s corners, edgework, and the side of the volute, in which one can nearly deduce Antoniazzi’s guiding hand. The particularly deep and sharply gouged volute is very well defined through retaining its steep angle of carving-out particularly as it tightens up the turn into the eye. This creates a very sharp inner chamfer resulting in one of the many distinctive features of this school.
The varnish, which is in an unpolished condition, shows a soft texture on its surface, where light nicks and dents have chipped in a delicate and soft way much like the pitting of an orange peel. It has aged gracefully with the way it faded into a warm orange colour pointing into the direction of the classic Italian makers, a rarity for makers after 1800, which classifies the Antoniazzi / Bisiach schools as modern-classics. The recipe and application process of the varnish Bisiach had managed to produce here is masterful and points into the direction as to how the varnish might have looked at the time of the great old masters like Stradivari, Guarneri and Guadagnini when their instruments were of a similar age. The ground is carefully stained to a beautiful glowing, golden-brown colour that doesn’t overstain the flames, but rather enhances and compliments the maple, still allowing the movement of the flames when rotating through the light.