The Amati Family

The Amati Family
   Cremona! Who has not heard of this now celebrated Italian city? And yet but for a fiddle maker it is very probable indeed that it would never have been known beyond the circle of its own local interests and its relations with neighbouring cities. Now, however, its name is a spell to conjure with. A Cremona Violin is, to a rich amateur, a loadstone that is sure to attract the shining metal from the depths of his purse. Seven hundred pounds have been given for a Guarnerius Violin! Think of that ye dilettanti who are so proud of your pictures and marbles! Even the poor fiddler has his Mecca far away, and it is called Cremona. Like pictures, the Cremona Violins are real works of art, and like them also, were once to be had for trifling sums. Cuyps and Paul Potters, Stradiuarii and Guarnerii were once to be had for three or four pounds each that are now worth as many hundreds. A Cremona instrument has even been considered a worthy gift to pass between crowned heads, Pope Pius V. having presented a violoncello by Andreas Amati to Charles IX. of France. Fleeting however are the honours of time! Cremona has lost its most famous names from among its citizens, and with them its most distinguished characteristic. For nearly a hundred years no maker of great skill has arisen to dispute the glory of the place with the Amati, Stradiuarius, and Guarnerius, by whom the fame of Cremona will be carried to the latest generations.
   It is now about three centuries since there flourished at Cremona its first great violin maker. Andreas Amati appears to have been born there in 1520, and died in 1580. The family was an ancient one, and is mentioned as early as 1097 in the records of the city. It is a remarkable fact, and shows in a strong light the difference of manners and customs in different countries that both Amati and Stradiuarius seem to have been of ancient and honourable families, and yet notwithstanding their adopting an avocation which would in England be thought to tarnish an old family name, they lived and died respected and honoured by their fellow citizens. There is no account of how or of whom Andrew Amati acquired the art of violin making; but it is clear that by some means he had attained to a considerable amount of skill. Under the head of Gaspar di Salo, we have however hazarded a conjecture that he had been to Brescia for the first principles of the art, but that he had adopted little that he found there except the varnish and the general routine of the workshop. Some of his instruments are described as beautifully made, and to have amber varnish of excellent quality of a deep rich yellow tinted with brown or light red colour. His violins appear to have been chiefly of the small pattern and high model. The backs are mostly cut the reverse way of the grain to the present rule, forming what are now termed "slab" backs. They possess a delicate graceful tone of wonderful sweetness, which has also been more or less the chief characteristic of the other makers of this family. With reference to this peculiarity, an eminent writer observes that in the times in which the Amati lived, the tone was not required to be of that powerful character which modern players demand, and that such an immense tone as many later instruments possess would not then have been tolerated. This is very probable, and may account also for the elevated model which was adopted both by Andrew and some others of the Amati. This model conjoined with their beautiful workmanship and generally small size, combined to produce that elegant delicious sweet tone which of all other makers, the Amatis especially possess. They also, all of them, made a greater number of instruments of the smaller size than what is known as the grand pattern, no doubt because the tone produced by them was found generally sufficient. They were also made to carry a much lower bridge and a lighter bass bar than are now used, and the proportions were arranged accordingly. On this point M. Maugin, author of a Treatise, entitled Manuel du Luthier, makes some remarks which we have translated as pertinent and valuable. Speaking on the subject of repairing old instruments, he says, "There is no violin maker now, who does not put, whether in the instruments he has to repair, or in those which he makes, a much stronger bar than those which were employed by the great makers themselves. They must have felt the necessity of doing this or they would not all act in this way. Now what is the reason of this mode of working? I have seen in the hands of rich amateurs, several instruments which have been preserved with a religious care, absolutely in the form which Amati and Stradiuarius had given to them. The bridges of these violins had only an inch and a fraction of height above the belly, while now-adays bridges have a height of an inch and (say) three-eighths. Now, the belly being put into vibration by strings at a great distance from it, and these strings vibrating by themselves more at the distance of fourteen lines than at twelve, it has been found necessary to strengthen the bar which, without that, being drawn into too great a vibration, would give to the strings sol and re a cottony sound which would have quite spoiled the goodness of the instrument." M. Maugin does not say why higher bridges are now used, but there is no doubt on this point. All judges concur that the pitch having been so greatly raised since the old instruments were built, a stronger bar has been found necessary, to counterbalance the increased tension of the higher bridge.
   Andrew Amati gave to his instruments a still more decided swell than the later members of his family, his successors no doubt finding a diminution in the rise of the model to produce a fuller if not a sweeter tone. This principle was gradually carried forward till it culminated in Antonius Stradiuarius, who brought it to perfection and demonstrated that the flat model produced the greatest vibration and consequently the most powerful tone. Otto in his celebrated work on the Construction of the Violin, does not mention Andrew Amati, but says that those of Hieronymus were the oldest Cremona Violins. This is one of the mistakes in his original work which renders it comparatively useless. Connoisseurs and collectors have dissipated those errors, and we now know to a certainty that to Andrew Amati of Cremona, and Gaspar di Salo of Brescia, (of whom also Otto was ignorant,) we owe the establishment of these two great schools of violin making. From their great age, the instruments of these two great makers are now very rare. They are most of them about three centuries old, and though they appear to have made a considerable number, they have through the influences of time and accident gradually disappeared. Some of Andrew Amati's instruments are still left however in the hands of dilettanti and collectors, and retain that distinguishing characteristic of delicious and sympathetic quality which has been the chief charm of all the Amati productions. Andrew had a brother called NICHOLAS, of whom little appears to be known.
   After ANDREW, as great makers, come his two sons ANTONIUS and HIERONYMUS, who flourished from 1550 to 1634. ANTONIUS made many small pattern violins, which possess in the highest degree the distinguishing characteristic of the family - a sweet but not powerful tone. He also constructed some of a larger pattern. ANTONIUS and HIERONYMUS conjointly built a number of large pattern violins, which are of high finish and beautiful wood. They are very highly esteemed, and a well preserved example will command a large price. NICHOLAS was the greatest artiste of this deservedly celebrated family, and many instruments still exist to attest the excellence of his workmanship and his knowledge of the proportions requisite to produce a fine tone. He also built many small pattern instruments, but he appears to have almost anticipated Stradiuarius and succeeded in producing some instruments of the grand pattern which possess a very powerful as well as sweet tone, and are considered to rival in every respect the famous instruments of that great master. Some of his violins possess a distinguishing mark in a rather abrupt rise in the centre. Otto describes it as a "sharp ridge." It is not exactly so, but is still very different to the gradual swell on the other Cremona instruments. His best violins, which are known by the title of Grand Amatis, are those which approximate closely to the very best instruments of Stradiuarius and Guarnerius. There can be no doubt therefore, that in these fine specimens of his skill, he had hit upon the same principles which afterwards guided those distinguished artistes in the construction of those most renowned violins which now command the admiration of violinists throughout the world.
   We have said that the chief characteristic of the Amati violins is a sweet but not powerful tone. It is necessary to qualify and explain this remark. From their excellent construction and beautiful wood, which has evidently been selected with the greatest care for its resonant quality - their age and long and careful use, their tone is divested of all extraneous properties, and become fine and pure. Notwithstanding therefore their original small tone, when fitted with the modern appliances of larger bars and higher bridges, some have been found quite competent for all purposes. In 1861 the celebrated instrument by Antonius Amati, which was presented by George IV. to Francois Cramer, was sold by auction, and it was stated in the catalogue that that great performer always led the Ancient and other concerts on that instrument. The fact no doubt is that it is the fine and pure quality of tone that tells, arising from age, constant use, and beautiful woods. They seem to be now divested of all extraneous characteristics and are become refined and ethereal, and are in fact the nightingales of the stringed tribe. That the Stradiuarius and Guarnerius have equal quality combined with more power arising from their flatter model is undoubted, and therefore they are the most valued. It is believed that the finest specimen of the skill of Nicholas Amati is in the possession of Ole Bull. It is of the large pattern, and possesses a magnificent tone, as many of our readers have no doubt heard.
   We think we shall please our readers by inserting verbatim the following excellent description of the Amati instruments, furnished to us by an able and experienced connoisseur. He says:
   "NICHOLAS AMATI and the BROTHERS AMATI. The tone is with few exceptions sweet in quality and seldom powerful, but admirably suited to the amateur. The workmanship is of the highest order, which conduces to this result. The wood must have been selected with great judgment. The bellies are nearly always of a fine reedy nature. Sometimes the backs are whole backs (in one piece), at others in two, more often the latter. The varnish of a beautiful amber colour, and there are a few instances of fine red. The sides generally rather shallow, heads of exquisite form and well defined. The care bestowed upon them alone bespeaks the hand of the artist. There are several magnificent tenors and violoncellos, and perhaps three or four double basses. The tenors are sometimes seen of large size. The Amati family made several sets of instruments for foreign courts, which bear their particular arms, mostly beautifully painted on the backs. The violins known as Grand Amatis are the best, and were made by Nicholas Amati. They take their name from their size. He also made many long pattern instruments, and also several three quarter violins, which have conferred a great boon upon juvenile violinists who are able to purchase them, by giving them an opportunity of early becoming familiar with the irreproachable Italian quality of tone."
   In reference to the remark made in the preceding paragraph, it is recorded that a set of instruments, no doubt one of those therein alluded to, was made for Charles 9th of France by Andrew Amati, consisting of twenty-four violins, six violas, and eight basses. These were lost from Versailles in 1790, and have not been recovered, except two which M. Cartier discovered some years since. Notwithstanding that Andrew Amati was the first maker of any note, except Gaspar di Salo of Brescia, it is clear that he had attained an astonishing amount of skill, as there is an account of a violoncello which was offered by auction at the sale of the celebrated Sir Wm. Curtis's instruments by Mr. Musgrave, who in the catalogue stated that "a document was given to the proprietor when he purchased this instrument, stating that it was presented by Pope Pius 5th to Charles 9th of France for his chapel. It has been richly painted, the arms of France being on the back, and the motto 'Pietate et Justitia' on the sides. The tone of this violoncello is of extraordinary power and richness." Mr. Forster supposes this to have been one of the instruments mentioned before, but that would destroy the value of the document given to Sir William, because if Andrew Amati made it for Pope Pius 5th, who presented it to Charles 9th it could not have been one of those made by him expressly for that monarch. It is clear however that the tone was both grand and fine, and therefore the first of the Amatis must have attained great ability in his art. We have before mentioned the celebrated Nicholas Amati violin, dated 1679, formerly the property of the same distinguished collector, Sir W. Curtis, and which has since been sold by Mr. Hart to the great violinist Ole Bull. This is considered the finest specimen of the Amati skill and was thus described in the catalogue of the sale - "This is justly considered as one of the most beautiful and finest instruments in the WHOLE WORLD." The Count de Castelbarco of Milan, possessed a quartett of instruments by Nicholas Amati, which have since been sold in London (see the article on Stradiuarius.) M. Fetis describes these as _admirable_, but as our readers will see, the English connoisseurs do not appear to have coincided generally with the critic on their quality, as only one of them produced any great price. There is a splendid grand Amati in the hands of an amateur in Derbyshire, which formerly belonged to Mr. Hankey the banker, for whom it was purchased with others by Viotti, who dedicated several of his compositions to him. This instrument possesses in an eminent degree the admirable qualities of the Amati tone, with also considerable power. Another of the same set in the same hands is a splendid Stradiuarius of the large pattern with a magnificent tone. There are many fine examples of the different makers of this celebrated name in this country. English connoisseurs suffer those of no other nation to excel them in their collections.

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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