What happens when a violin goes to the ‘doctor’? If you have read my blog posts about piano restoration, perhaps you would also be interested in knowing how a violin survives for centuries? The truth is that even a violin needs to go through some maintenance operations once in a while.
In this post, I will tell you about a beautiful violin made in Rome by Francesco de Emiliani in 1734. I will also show you photographs of the inside – something one normally never sees! In fact, it’s the first time even for me, that I have looked closely at inside-photos of a string instrument.
As always, I have to beat around the bush of history and geography and influences before I get to discussing the repair itself. Well, you can always scroll to where your interest is!
An anecdote to begin with
As a pianist, my one and only experience with violin repairs took place many years ago, when my singer friend needed a violin for his performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’ ‘Eight Songs for a Mad King’. If you know that work, you know that the singer – in the role of the mad king – plays the violin for a little bit, but then completely wrecks it on stage!! This is actually written in the score.
To help out my friend, I called the local music school and asked if they had a violin so damaged that they would never use it again. Oh, yes – they had one, they said, so I went to get it. I picked it up in five or six parts!! Unfortunately, this happened at a time before we photographed everything, so I kindly call upon your imagination here. That violin was a factory-built Chinese ¾ size in a severely unplayable state. I spent a few hours gluing it together with super glue!
When my friend had his concert a few days later, he brought this red lacquered fiddle on stage in one piece – only to smash it in front of the audience – just like the score says. The audience gasped! It was dramatic. The violin did definitely not get another chance after this. It’s disturbing to watch instruments being destructed, but don’t be angry with me or the singer – blame the cruel composer!
In this blog post, however, we are naturally discussing a violin of quite another league. Regarding repair methods, I am already quite embarrassed to have mentioned that I actually took it upon myself to ‘repair’ a violin with super glue! So just forget that. It was just for the laugh! The kind of repair we discuss today is world-class and has nothing to do with DIY projects.
Listening to the Emiliani
This particular Emiliani violin is owned by my husband, baroque violinist Anton Steck. For the last years, however, it has been played by Katja Grüttner, the other violinist of Anton’s string quartet, Schuppanzigh-Quartett. In all the Schuppanzigh-recordings with her, she plays the Emiliani.
To hear the Emiliani in a more prominent role, I can recommend this ensemble clip where Katja Grüttner is playing the first violin. Do you recognize the Emiliani in the video?
Visiting Köstler violins in Stuttgart
Together with Anton, I went to visit one of the world’s most distinguished places for violin appraisal and restoration – Hieronymus Köstler violins in Stuttgart, Germany. Here is the amazing house where his workshop is at! …along with a stunning Chinese tree-peony (Paeonia × lemoinei) flowering in the garden at the time of our visit! It was begging to be included even if the post is about violins, even if I’ve just recovered from the opening anecdote. Oh, well – isn’t it pretty?
But we are here, of course, for the violin. This Italian beauty looks great on the surface, and has been playing up until now, but she actually has severe ‘health issues’. Unfortunately, a large number of almost invisible tiny cracks along the grain of her body need to be taken care of. (Most violinists refer to their violin as ‘she’…). For this reason, she must spend the next 8-12 months in the violin hospital!
The purpose of the repair is to ensure a longevity that could not have been hoped for if the damages were to be left uncared for. We can now look forward to enjoying the sound of the Emiliani in the years to come, instead of being scared that she might break some day…
Francesco Emiliani and the Roman school of violin making
If you have not heard of Francesco de Emiliani before, that’s understandable. While not being among the most famous or productive luthiers, his surviving work is praised as some of the greatest examples of the Roman school of violin building in the early 18th century.
In several respectable sources, I read that Francesco de Emiliani lived in Rome, and was strongly inspired by the famous Austrian violin maker Jacobus Stainer (1619–83). At the same time as Emiliani was active in Rome, by the way, Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737) made wonders in Cremona.
My immediate question was: Why was Francesco de Emiliani (c. 1680–1736) more inspired by the Austrian Stainer than by the Italian Amati family? Both Amati and Stainer were great and wonderful and highly influential violin makers, but it seemed illogical to me that an Italian maker would follow in the steps of an Austrian. So I asked my husband, the violin professor.
‘You have to know that Tecchler was already established in Rome’, Anton said. ‘Tecchler came – like Stainer – from Tirol’. Aha! That was a great lead. The violins of Emiliani have much in common with those of David Tecchler (c. 1666–1747), who is regarded as the most important Roman luthier. (Actually, Anton used to play a Tecchler, which he used for his splendid recordings of Schubert with Robert Hill).
My next question was: Why would a Tyrolean move to Rome…?
Why would a Tyrolean move to Rome around year 1700?
Although we might never know all the reasons, but at least, some the geography of the time offers some hints. I looked up a map from 1720. Europe looked nothing like today! The boarders of Austria and Italy, which pertains to our luthier question, are hardly recognizable:
At this time, Charles VI of the Austrian Habsburg monarchy was also Holy Roman Emperor. The pink parts of the map shows the Habsburg areas, the dark orange parts being gained 1714–1720, and the green part is the German part of Empire. Rome itself is half-way up the ‘boot’, outside of the Habsburg part because it was ruled by the pope and his cardinals (I hope I have understood all of this correctly, it is quite complicated!)
To demonstrate the intricacy of the situation, I will quote Wikipedia (for once), where it is stated that Charles VI, who reigned from 1685 to 1740, was Holy Roman Emperor, ruler of the Habsburg monarchy, King of Germany, King of Bohemia, King of Hungary, King of Croatia, Archduke of Austria, King of Naples, King of Sicily, King of Sardinia, Duke of Luxemburg, Duke of Teschen, Duke of Parma and Piacenza and Count of Flanders – all at the same time!!
This painting of Charles VI next to all of his crowns says it all, doesn’t it?
And, just for the violin sake of it (Stainer), here’s here’s a print of Innsbruck, the capital of Tirol, in the mid-seventeenth century, when it was still the seat of the archduke, and still spelled ‘Inspruck’:
In attempt to make the comparison with today’s geographic reality a little clearer, I put the current google map on top of the historical outline of 1720s Europe – I even made a crude video for you! (The overlap is not very accurate and I apologize especially to all Amsterdammers out there for having put you in the water already…)
The towns of Innsbruck (where Stainer lived) and nearby Füssler (where Tecchler was born), lie south of Munich, within the Habsburger area. As we have now realized, large parts of Italy belonged to the Habsburgs. Naples, south of Rome, was also a part of that, and we clearly see how easily the cultures would have intermingled.
I now realize that Rome could have been an equally natural place to settle, both for the Tirolean Tecchler – who brought with him the Stainer violin tradition – and for Emiliani from Bologna, who just had to walk for a few days to reach Rome… and perhaps even get to hear the great Corelli!
The 1734 Emiliani being checked at Köstler’s
After this historic-geographic excurse, we find ourselves once again in Köstler’s atelier in Stuttgart. Here, Ms. Goller checks on Emiliani for almost invisible traces of damages and cracks:
This violin has been in baroque set-up for many years, which explains why it does neither have chin rest nor shoulder rest, and why it has gut strings instead of modern steel strings.
The strings, the tail piece, the bridge, the sound post and the top have been removed! (The necessity of the top being removed for repairs, is only one of the reasons why super glue would be a really bad idea.) Without the top, we get a proper view inside the naked violin:
You can clearly see that the bottom is made of two pieces of maple, grafted together in a ‘butterfly’ pattern. Both the bottom and the top are planed, shaved and arched into the desired shape.
Along the centre joint of the instrument, and also in a few places near the sides, you can see small patches of wood shavings. I would think that these were put in to secure earlier repairs. Due to humidity changes, the wood may contract or expand, causing old cracks to open again if they are not secured with such patches. I’ve seen cracks in piano soundboards repaired in a similar way, securing the glued cracks with small patches of parchment.
Label and Signatures of the 1734 Emiliani
A most exciting part of the interior of any violin, is the label. But please take care if you have an old violin: Not every label saying ‘Stradivarius’ is actually made by him! Forgery is well-known in the violin business, unfortunately, which is why every serious violin comes with a certificate from an expert – for instance from Mr. Köstler.
When authentic, however, the label can tell us important parts of the violin’s history. The 1734 Emiliani has both a label and two signatures:
The original label says ‘Franciscus de Emilianis fecit Romæ Anno Dñi 1734’. That is, ‘[By] Franciscus of Emiliani, at Rome, in the year of the Lord 1734’. It looks like the label has been printed, but the two last digits filled out by hand. After 289 years, the paper or parchment of the label has almost ‘melted’ into the wood.
The signature above it is almost gone – written directly on the wooden bottom. With some care, we could read everything but the first word:
…. par Mast
rue des balances à Toulouse
The next question, then, is: Who was Mast? It turns out there actually was a luthier in Toulouse at this time called Joseph Laurent Mast, born in Mirecourt in 1757. His working years were from 1780 until his death in 1840, so it matches very well with the signature indeed.
What could the first word be? Maybe something to meaning of ‘repaired’, ‘mended’ or ‘adjusted’? If you have any good suggestions, please let us know below!
The second signature is unreadable (to us), but for the most important piece of information: 1894. And I think it reads ‘Paris’. Do you agree? The name of the luthier is harder. Probably J. ….ton. But what’s in between?? We don’t (yet) know.
A century after what would probably have been the first major repair or maintenance work, the second appointment was due. No wonder that the Emiliani needs to be hospitalized for a while again – it has been 129 years!
Finally, I will show you the spruce top part from the inside. (All inside photos of the violin by Anette Goller/Köstler violins). Ms. Goller actually found no less than 45 cracks that must be mended! Many of them are older cracks, caused by wear and tear and humidity changes. Many of the cracks are old, having been glued before – as you can again see by all the little patches on the inside.
In the coming months, Ms. Goller will be re-repairing all the old cracks and mend any new ones. This means that all the little patches will be removed for the cracks to be sealed anew. The reason for the long repair, is that only one crack in the top and one crack in the bottom can be mended before the glue has to dry completely – and the process can start over again with the next pair of cracks….
We left the Emiliani with Ms. Goller at Köstler violins – feeling both dolorous and hopeful. I am looking forward to learn more about how violin restorations are made, and how these precious instruments may be best preserved for the future. More than anything, I am sure looking forward to seeing her meet Anton again and being made to sing again next year!
Christina Kobb, 23 June 2023
All photos of the disassembled violin: Anette Goller/Köstler violins
Photos of Schuppanzigh-Quartett: Marco Borggreve
Other photos: CK