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Ercole Foderà is still a relatively unknown maker. Although his production of bowed instruments is of the highest quality, little is known about his life.

The research I have recently conducted on Foderà provides useful information to contextualise his production. His instruments, mainly violins, show the influence of several makers he met, all of whom strongly impacted the formation of his style. The reconstruction of a few essential events of his life and of his genesis as a violinmaker is based on the consultation of documents kept in a private archive and in state archives of the many Italian cities where Foderà lived.

Figure 1.

Ercole Foderà in his workshop

(Private Archive)

A brief biographical note

Ercole Foderà was born in Palermo in 1895 and spent most of his youth in his native city. In Palermo he married Maria Berretta, who bore him two children. No certain information is available about how Ercole was introduced to violinmaking. He may have been brought into the craft at home under his father’s guidance or at one of Palermo’s workshops. One of these was run by Antonio Sgarbi (1866 -1938), with whom Foderà had a strong friendship as an adult. The archival research carried out reveals that Ercole was divided between violinmaking and a second profession, that of Captain of the Guardia di Finanza (Italian finance police). The latter was his main job as well as the reason why he often relocated to different cities, which also allowed him to evolve in his violinmaking style.

Before the latest research work, it was incorrectly assumed that Ercole was born in Catania, where he actually lived for a few years in the early 1920s.1 Several luthiers were active there between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, constructing plucked instruments, mainly guitars and mandolins. At the moment, there is no confirmation that Foderà was in contact with any of Catania’s most important makers, who owned proper musical instrument factories. What we do know is that his first daughter Sara was born in Catania in 1923, and that Ercole kept correspondence from Catania with makers Antonio Sgarbi and Giuseppe Rossi (1868-1954).

In his dictionary, René Vannes describes Foderà as a good luthier and traces some of his displacements to such cities as Caltanissetta and Ragusa.2 Ercole lived in Caltanissetta in the late 1920s, probably after a short period spent in Rome. In Caltanissetta, he may have had contacts with a member of the Averna family, among the few Sicilian violinmakers to have participated in the National Exhibition Competition of Contemporary Violin Making that took place in Cremona in 1937.3

After a short stay in Siracusa, from 1935 until 1937, Foderà and his family lived in northern Italy, in the small town of Olgiate Comasco in the province of Como.4 As with his earlier transfers, Foderà relocated here due to his primary job at the Guardia di Finanza. In 1937 Foderà was invited to participate in the Cremona National Violinmaking Competition as a member of the National Fascist Federation of artisans, but he did not present any instruments. No specific evidence of his later production survives, although he did stay in contact with makers such as Simone Ferdinando Sacconi (1895 – 1974), and made instruments to be sold abroad. After 1937 he moved to Ragusa, where he died in 1976.5

The relationship with Giuseppe Rossi

The connection between the maker Giuseppe Rossi and Foderà was unknown until the latest investigations. Indeed, the research has brought to light the unique role played by Rossi in the Sicilian maker’s initial formation. Giuseppe Rossi was born in Florence in 1868 and worked mainly in Rome, where one of his most famous apprentices, Simone Ferdinando Sacconi, also operated.6 The two certainly had been in contact since 1919, which was the date of a letter sent by Rossi to Foderà. Furthermore, Rossi received from Foderà some instruments through an intermediary, to which he made several adjustments until at least 1929. Rossi also sent Foderà many drawings representing forms for the construction of stringed instruments and notes on violinmaking.7 These testimonies allow us to state that Rossi played a crucial role in Foderà’s stylistic formation and, together with Antonio Sgarbi, can be considered one of his masters.

Antonio Sgarbi's influence

Another key figure in Foderà’s development as a maker was the luthier Antonio Sgarbi. Karel Jalovec was the first to point out that Foderà was a pupil of Sgarbi’s,8 which was confirmed also in William Henley’s dictionary.9 Sgarbi lived between Palermo and Rome, where he worked in his father Giuseppe’s workshop until 1905. He then moved back to Palermo, where he became the violinmaker of the Conservatory Vincenzo Bellini.10 Until 1926, Foderà was probably a regular visitor of Sgarbi’s workshop in Palermo. His style influenced Ercole, as evidenced by the violins made by Foderà based on the Sgarbi model. Moreover, around twenty letters written by Sgarbi to Foderà between 1925 and 1926 have been preserved.11 In them, reference is made to construction methods and techniques of the art of violinmaking. Furthermore, as he had already done with the maker Rossi in the 1920s, Foderà sent blank violins to Sgarbi, who made some modifications. From the letters we also learn that there was a sincere friendship between the two, like between Ercole and Ferdinando Sacconi.

Figure 2.

Example of Letters sent by Antonio Sgarbi in the 1920s to Foderà

Palermo, 1925 (Private Archive)

The role of Ferdinando Sacconi

Ferdinando Sacconi wrote several letters to Ercole Foderà in the early 1930s. In addition to the letters, the archive consulted keeps loose sheets, drawings of instrument shapes and parts, and a notebook in which Ferdinando wrote fundamental lessons to Ercole on construction techniques. From the analysis of all this documentation, we can deduce that the two were very close friends.12 Perhaps they met for the first time in Giuseppe Rossi’s workshop in Rome or through Antonio Sgarbi. Even after he departed for New York in 1931, Sacconi still sent Ercole letters and valuable equipment for making his instruments, asking in exchange for material not readily recoverable in New York, including wood for making antique copies.

Figure 3.

Card written by Ferdinando Sacconi to Ercole Foderà.

Rome, 1930 (Private Archive)

During these years, thanks to his relationship with Sacconi, Foderà acquired new knowledge about violinmaking, which led him to experiment with a new model. His work became more similar to Sacconi’s.

Figure 4A.

Example of letters sent by Ferdinando Sacconi to Ercole Foderà on the treatment of wood and varnish.

Undated loose sheets (Private Archive)

Figure 4B.

Example of letters sent by Ferdinando Sacconi to Ercole Foderà on the treatment of wood and varnish.

Undated loose sheets (Private Archive)

This period of Foderà’s stylistic maturation coincided with his move to Rome, where he made some of his most important instruments, including the violin for Albert Zimmer in 1929.13 The few letters that Zimmer sent to Foderà in 1929 clearly suggest that the violinmaker asked for the musician’s support to sell his instruments in Brussels.14 Zimmer was Eugène Ysaye’s first assistant, taught at the Conservatory of Brussels, and founded the Zimmer Quartet. Among other musicians connected to Foderà, it is noteworthy to mention Agostino Maggiulli, a violin professor at the Conservatory of Palermo, who certainly had come in contact with Foderà regarding the sale of an antique instrument owned by the luthier.


Figure 5A.

Postcard from Albert Zimmer

Brussels, 1925 (Private Archive)

Figure 5B.

Postcard from Albert Zimmer

Brussels, 1925 (Private Archive)

Foderà supported himself and his family thanks to his main job in the Guardia di Finanza, but he was also a violinmaker with an enormous passion and talent for this craft. He established meaningful relationships with three important luthiers, Giuseppe Rossi, Antonio Sgarbi and Ferdinando Sacconi, whose influences coexist in his instruments. On the labels of the violins he made in the late 1920s, Foderà describes himself as a disciple of Sacconi. In these violins, such as the one made in 1928, we find many elements that remind us of Ferdinando’s models, and that confirm that Sacconi was his main inspiration.


[1] The city of Catania is mentioned as Foderà's birthplace in the primary dictionaries in the field, including that of René Vannes.

[2] René Vannes, Dictionnaire universel des luthiers (Bruxelles: Les Amis de la Musique, 1951), 110.

[3] Cremona State Library: Bacchetta 523, c.n.

[4] Municipality of Olgiate Comasco, Civil Status Archive: Situazione Storica di Famiglia di Ercole Foderà (1935-1937).

[5] Municipality of Ragusa, Civil Status Archive: Estratto Atto di Morte di Ercole Foderà, uff.3 vol.M n.12 (30/09/1976).

[6] William Henley, Universal dictionary of violin and bow makers, 988.

[7] Archival sources on the relationship between Rossi and Foderà are kept at the Anania Maritan private archive.

[8] Karel Jalovec, Encyclopaedia of violin – makers (London: Paul Hamlyn, 1968);298.

[9] William Henley, Universal dictionary of violin and bow makers, 398.

[10] René Vannes, Dictionnaire universel des luthiers, 331.

[11] The letters are kept in the private archive of Paolo Virgoletti and Yuzuru Nakabayashi.

[12] All the documents mentioned concerning the relationship between Ercole Foderà and Ferdinando Sacconi are kept in the private archive of Paolo Virgoletti and Yuzuru Nakabayashi.

[13] At least the etiquettes of two violins by Ercole Foderà confirm that he lived in Rome between 1928 and 1929.

[14] The letters are kept in the private archive of Paolo Virgoletti and Yuzuru Nakabayashi.