The Guarnerius Family

The Guarnerius Family
   This is another glorious name in the annals of Cremona. Many of the first connoisseurs, now hesitate whether to apply the epithet greatest to Guarnerius or to Stradiuarius. The palm is therefore divided between them. Certain it is however that inasmuch as money rules the world, if we resort to that test, Guarnerius is the brightest gem, for it is recorded that he has sold for £700 and Stradiuarius for only £600. Most of the rich connoisseurs therefore desire to possess both. The great players, to whom money is more an object, divide their affections between them, and are satisfied with either one or the other, as chance or opportunity may decide.
   The first of this celebrated family was Andreas, who was born in 1630 and died about 1695. He appears to have been a pupil of Nicholas Amati, and shows much of his teacher's careful finish. His instruments are generally beautifully made, of good and handsome wood, with excellent varnish, principally of amber colour like that of the Amatis. He also occasionally, but much more seldom, used red coloured varnish. This artiste is not famous for producing a great tone in his instruments, and he is therefore not elevated to the first class, but he made very good violins which are well worthy the attention of the amateur. We have seen a very fine specimen in the hands of A. Bright, Esq., of Sheffield, which was purchased of Mr. Hart, and which is decidedly the best instrument we have seen of this master. It is remarkably handsome, of a beautiful yellow colour, the back of one piece with rather small figure, the ribs similar, the head most carefully and accurately formed and the belly of fine wood. The tone is also more powerful than Andrew's violins generally are, and it is altogether a very fine example of his work.
   GUISEPPE GUARNERIUS is considered to be the son of Andrew, and his instruments are generally signed as filius Andræ, very probably to distinguish him from his more celebrated cousin and namesake, who is besides generally known by the name of Joseph del Gesu. Guiseppe's instruments are very similar to his cousin's in quality - but less powerful and probably not so round in tone. They have however, a firm well defined kind of sound, which is always pleasing both to the player and the hearer, the former never feeling that the tone will give way under his bow. There are a great number with "slab" backs. The varnish is of first quality, and his violins are yearly becoming more valuable and of greater importance. We have seen a violoncello by this master, which is very fine. The back, ribs and head of very beautiful small figured wood. The belly of very fine grained wood, the bate looking like fine threads of silk stretched at regular intervals the whole width and length of the instrument, and with an exceedingly rich red varnish. It possesses also a fine quality of tone, and is dated 1713.
   PIETRO, another son of Andreas, dates from 1690 to 1720. In the latter part of his life, he appears to have removed from Cremona to Mantua, his labels bearing date from thence. He was a pupil of his father, but is said not to have equalled him in careful finish. His instruments, however, command considerable respect and fetch a good price, a violoncello of his being recorded to have sold a few years ago for £120.
   JOSEPH, nephew of Andreas, born in 1683, and died in 1745, is the last and best of the race of violin makers of this name. He was distinguished by the title of Joseph del Gesu, through his using on his labels, the monogram I.H.S., with a cross over or through the H. His career appears to have been of a very chequered complexion. From all the accounts that have come down to us, he seems to have been a man of irregular habits and eccentric genius. In consequence of these peculiarities, his instruments differ greatly in their characteristics. Neither the model, the wood, nor the varnish possesses much verisimilitude at different periods of his career. They are all, however, marked by the stamp of genius, and give but little trouble to a well informed connoisseur. Even under the most distressing circumstances, when on some account, he was confined in prison, and was obliged to be indebted to his gaoler's daughter for the materials with which he worked, they still bear the characteristics and originality of a great master. The finish, however, of those which he made at this period was inferior to the others, being rather coarse and slovenly, and the work altogether little indicating externally the signs of that real excellence which they possess. At his best period, however, his instruments are of rare beauty and merit, and equal or perhaps excel those of Stradiuarius. The wood he then used was of fine quality, and the varnish rich and lustrous and very often of similar lovely tints as those of that master. Many of his instruments are of rather small pattern, but in his best period, he produced some of large size and of extraordinary power and grandeur of tone. Among them was the famous favourite violin of Paganini, the renown of which, says M. Vuillaume, "was equal to that of its master." This was the instrument on which, the most celebrated of all violin players the world ever saw, produced those extraordinary effects which astonished the whole musical world, and which will never be forgotten by those who heard them, nor perhaps excelled by any other. These instruments are however unfortunately very rare, and as rich connoisseurs will have them if possible, the value of them has come to be very great. We have elsewhere mentioned the magnificent violin known by the name of the King Joseph Guarnerius, for which Mr. Hart received the enormous sum of £700, which is the largest amount ever obtained for a violin on record. This splendid violin is of large pattern, with beautiful rich orange yellow varnish and splendid wood. It was imported into this country by Mr. Hart, and has been in the hands of those enthusiastic and judicious collectors, Mr. James Goding and Mr. Stewart. Joseph Guarnerius appears to have endeavoured to produce the grandest tone, combining majesty and refinement. Many people think he did so without thought or design, but we think otherwise. In the first place he seems to have fixed on Gaspar di Salo and Magini as his models, for if a comparison be made we shall find there are many points which resemble these instruments, for example, the peculiar shaped sound holes, the manner in which they are placed and the flat model, all of which tend to produce power, while he obtained the quality from the wonderful ingenuity he exercised in leaving the thicknesses of the wood in evidently the correct places, which was the necessary step in advance. He certainly made many rough instruments which are ascribed to his imprisonment, and which are now called the Prison Guarnerii, but the varnish on these even is not surpassed. He made many of a rich yellow colour, and others of red, the latter of which are matchless instruments. His heads are not finely cut, but the character he gave them has never been excelled.
   In the first rank of Joseph Guarnerius instruments we must no doubt place that belonging to Paganini, which would, if it could be obtained, command an extraordinary price, and there are also many other noble productions of his skill extant. The King Joseph Guarnerius we have before mentioned. Mr. Plowden has four very valuable violins by this master. One was formerly the property of Mr. Goding, and was esteemed by him the finest in his collection. Another is quite equal, more highly finished and has his splendid red varnish. The third was formerly the property of Ole Bull, and is considered of the finest model of the master in his more unfinished and larger sized instruments, dated 1714. The fourth, less well known, but perhaps more perfect, certainly in tone, 1742. These four instruments are considered by most of the virtuosi, to be probably the finest examples extant of this great master. Certainly there are few collectors who can boast of having so many fine violins as these four by Guarnerius, and the four by Stradiuarius previously described. Mr. Plowden has always gone on the principle of getting the very best instruments of each master, and his taste and judgment are well evidenced in his collection. The late Earl of Falmouth possessed some very valuable instruments such as the Kiesewetter Guarnerius and the Jarnovick Guarnerius, so named after their owners, and also a fine Magini Tenor, all of which were purchased by Mr. Hart. The late lamented Prince Consort had a very fine tenor by Joseph Guarnerius, which was highly finished and had belonged to Dragonetti. There are many other fine specimens of Guarnerius in this country. English collectors, with that splendid contempt for cost which distinguishes them, allow no fine instruments to leave the country if they know it, and the consequence is that in the present day, and for some time back, England ranks first in the number and value of the Cremona Violins she possesses. Next comes France, who has some able connoisseurs; then Russia and Germany. Italy, strange to say, has suffered them all to leave her, and though the native country of Stradiuarius and Guarnerius, it is doubtful whether other nations have not attracted all the finest instruments out of her own possession. The great rise in the value of these extraordinary instruments is no doubt due to the fact that they were built very strong in wood, the effect of which would be to depreciate the tone when they were built, but which, now time has ameliorated them and the wood has become capable of free vibration, has refined the quality and increased the tone. Fifty years ago, a Guarnerius of the best time might have been bought for £50 that will now command £500. Neither does it appear that they have yet reached their climax, for they are yearly increasing in value as the examples we have mentioned clearly show.

Violins and Violin Makers Biographical Dictionary of the Great Italian Artistes, their Followers and Imitators, to the present time. With Essays on Important Subjects Connected with the Violin. — London, LONGMAN AND CO., PATERNOSTER ROW.. . 1866.

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