The violin making legacy in Tuscany is grounded in a deeply rooted tradition that has attracted the attention of violin making enthusiasts since the late nineteenth century.
My latest book, The Makers of Tuscany, continues this research practice by analysing Tuscan makers’ activity of bowed and plucked instruments from the sixteenth to the first half of the nineteenth century. As well as completing a lengthy research project, I carried out new analyses of the output of this school’s essential artisans, such as the members of the Carcassi, Piattellini, Bimbi, and Castellani families. Together with those of Giovanni Battista Gabbrielli, their instruments represent the golden age of Tuscan violin making. As widely investigated in The Makers of Tuscany, several members of these families of makers were also restorers and involved in maintaining a particular collection of musical instruments, that of the Grand Ducal Court. It was firstly the Medici’s property and then the house of Lorraine, who ruled the Grand Duchy of Tuscany from 1737. Stringed instruments of considerable value were part of the collection, and a small surviving nucleus is now on display in the department of Musical Instruments in the Accademia Gallery in Florence. This article summarises news on Florentine luthiers’ restorers reported in my recent publication.
The second half of the eighteenth century, and in particular the years coinciding with the government of the Grand Duke Peter Leopold, from 1765 to 1790, provide us with a significant number of archival records concerning the day to day and extraordinary maintenance carried out on the courtly collection of stringed instruments. The occasional interventions are documented by various bills that mainly mention the Carcassi and Piattellini families, and Bartolomeo Bimbi. These documents, identified for the first time by Giuliana Montanari, show the restoration of instruments made by members of the Amati family, Antonio Stradivari and Jacob Stainer, among others.1 It is precisely these makers who influenced the Tuscan masters in matters of style and construction. This testimony leads us to argue that the role of restorers allowed makers such as Tommaso and Lorenzo Carcassi to refine and experiment with their styles of construction, inspired by the instruments in the collection. In the following pages, I will focus on them and their role as restorers, together with another less publicised maker, Bartolomeo Bimbi, who in the second half of the eighteenth century held a unique position as a luthier in relation to the Lorraine court.
The Carcassi brothers
We do not know precisely when members of the Carcassi family began to be employed as occasional restorers of the court’s stringed instruments. However, the earliest evidence concerning them dates from 1765 when Grand Duke Peter Leopold assigned to the brothers Tommaso and Lorenzo the restoration of all the stringed instruments – at least of those in the collections which were still playable. The brothers worked on 35 stringed instruments, including violins, violas, viols, cellos and double basses by makers such as Antonio Stradivari, Andrea, Nicolò and Girolamo Amati, Jacob Stainer, and many others. The repairs on the instruments carried out by the Carcassi aimed to return instruments to a playable condition. Thus, the bills for their work offer rich information on the restoration criteria adopted in the second half of the eighteenth century. The Carcassi role as restorers of court instruments continued into the following decades, Tommaso in 1780 and his son Giuseppe in 1791 were still involved in the maintenance of the court collection.2
The work carried out by the Carcassi brothers sometimes involved simple maintenance and other times more invasive interventions such as resetting the neck, which required opening the instrument and changing the bridge. Internally too, the instruments were sometimes modified, including the replacement of the bass-bar, reinforcing the belly, and other such work3. Therefore, in their capacity as restorers, the brothers could deepen their knowledge of the very varied construction techniques and styles of bowed instruments present in the collection.
The main figures in the Carcassi family’s production of musical instruments are Lorenzo and Tommaso. Analysing their various bowed instruments, we discover that they were artisans competent in making in all kinds of styles to a high level of craftsmanship. Moreover, in the years coinciding with the brothers’ involvement as restorers at the court, their instruments display different influences, and we perceive how often their moulds changed. However, their production draws stylistic influences mainly from Jacob Stanier, whose instruments the brothers indeed restored. The influence of Stainer can be observed on the violins, in particular in their outline and the f’s.
The case of Bartolomeo Bimbi
Among the makers who shared the Florentine stringed instrument market with the Carcassi family, was Bartolomeo Bimbi, who was born in Siena but whose activity as a craftsman was mainly linked to the city of Florence. Bartolomeo must have been exceptionally well known as a luthier in his time, so much so that he was chosen as the only advisor to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany on matters regarding musical instruments within the general customs reform. In particular, information comes from a census carried out in the 1770s during the reorganisation of the Customs system.4 This census included a specific volume compiled by Bartolomeo Bimbi concerning musical instruments made and sold in Tuscany. In addition to his involvement in the reforms, we have confirmation that Bimbi was among the occasional restorers of instruments in the Grand Ducal collection.
For the period following the death of Grand Duke Peter Leopold, we have evidence mainly concerning Gaspero and Luigi Piattellini. During these years, the Piattellini family made profound changes to the collection’s cello section. Bartolomeo Bimbi was also involved at the same time. For him, there is a bill made out in 1793 for the total remake of a cello with reduction in the instrument size and probably also of the neck angle.5 We do not know which cello was modified by Bimbi, and whether he was involved in other restorations, but as in the case of the Carcassis, the exposure of such a collection might have had an influence on his style.
Bimbi is one of the most refined Tuscan luthiers as can be seen in the picture illustrated below, where the influence of Stainer and Amati models can be observed. In particular, the outline of his cellos is reminiscent of those of Amati, constructed using Renaissance methods with very clearly rounded and harmonious curves. In the violin pictured here, made in 1766, a nice blend of influences of Stainer and Amati are evident, in particular the arching, and the delicate rounded outline.
While the evidence for the restoration of the collection involves nearly all the most known Florentine luthiers of the second half of the eighteenth century, we cannot identify the presence of their instruments in the collection apart from a few exceptions. At the end of the eighteenth century, Bartolomeo Castellani’s double bass, made in 1792, was added to the collection, additionally, between 1815 and 1819, only two Tuscan instruments were bought by the Dukes of Lorraine and became part of the collection: a violin attributed to Antonio Gragnani – made before 1770, and a cello by Gaspero Piattellini, from about 1780. Both instruments originally carried fake labels: the violin had a label by Nicolò Amati and the cello one by Antonio Stradivari. It has been suggested that these two instruments were produced as copies of existing instruments in the collection.6 As a result, leading Tuscan violin makers learned vital lessons as restorers from the collection. Several of them were able to analyse the work of the Cremonese masters and, in particular, that of Jacob Stainer who seemed to have been the preferred influence.