Violins of Italy: The Testore Family and the Great Violin Making Traditions

By | April 23, 2017

Carlo Antonio and his younger brother Paolo Antonio were the two violin making sons of Carlo Giuseppe Testore, the first of the family to make violins. Carlo senior was a student of Giovanni Grancino, a renowned violin maker in Milan where Carlo Giuseppe also lived and established his workshop. Carlo’s teacher had himself learnt his trade from his father, Paolo, who was a studied the craft in Cremona under Nicolo Amati. Notably “…that genius considered him (Paolo Grancino) to be one of the most gifted in his workshop” (Henley’s Universal Dictionary). Giovani’s early instruments closely followed the Amati pattern, although he later departed to some extent from this. In what has become known as ‘his mature period’ (1709 onwards) he refined the design to form his own personal style which became the foundation for the typical Milanese style. Giovanni’s excellence is well recognised and some of his instruments are regarded as surpassing his father’s finest work. Carlo Giuseppe’s violins very closely followed his teacher’s work and many regard them as difficult to distinguish. The strong Amati influence remains. However the arching is lower and has a subtlety to its shape. The sound-holes are of Stradivarian style, being more fully developed. These early products of the developing Milan school were elegant, had a unique gracefulness and charm which makes them highly prized and much sort after in today’s market.

Carlo Giuseppe died in 1716, but by then his 23-year-old son Carlo Antonia Testore was a well established maker of violins in his own right and took over the running of the workshop, known as ‘the sign of the Eagle’ after the address of the shop. The violins of Carlo Antonio sometimes do not get the credit of his father’s work as they lacked some of the finesse that Carlo senior had at his best. On closer observation though the eldest son’s craftsmanship is considerable and all the more so in the light of the inferior materials that he was having to work with. Whether this was because he was making instruments to order and the lower price that clients were offering meant that he had to use less expensive woods or because of the economy of the time. It was at this point that the Grancini workshop was increasing its production and this increased competition would no doubt have impacted on ‘the sign of the Eagle’. Whilst the top Cremonese makers could still demand higher prices and the likes of Stradivarius would never have contemplated using anything but wood specifically nominated as ‘tone wood’, even if they did at times use locally grown maple known as ‘oppio’, as opposed to the very highest quality clear white maple imported from the Balkans. However, Carlo Antonio is found using woods, including spruce as well as locally sourced maple, designed for other uses and in some examples has disfiguring knots. These woods are hard and closely grained making them difficult to work with. Despite these handicaps of impoverished materials Carlo junior proved himself more than a match for the challenge and such were his skills that he could rise above these difficulties to produce some fine violins that came close to matching the fineness of appearance of his father’s and many would argue are far from being inferior in tonal qualities.

Carlo Antonio’s violins typically show soundholes that are gracefully shaped and open, whilst the scrolls have the concentric spirals of a master craftsman at work. Trademark touches of his were the flaring front view of the scroll and the corners of the plates being slightly pointed. The conformity of the overall pattern of Carlo Antonio’s violins has given him wide respect and appreciation of his instruments for fine tonal qualities. There is always the consistency of outline and arching required to ensure this. Some of his violins may have made use of poplar wood for the purfling (purfling is a trim around the border of the top and back of the violin, usually dark in colour, which beyond its decorative purpose is also functional. This thin band of wood set inside a channel cut just in from the rim of the violin prevents any small cracks starting at the edge from spreading and developing into major body cracks that would affect the sound of the violin). Poplar wood is soft allowing it to crack and distort in shape quite readily which then highlights any imperfections in the channel cut for it to sit in. Furthermore if it is not really thoroughly dyed its colour can also fade to a pale grey shade. Pear wood is the material of choice for the purfling. Its’ tougher, more elastic properties produce more flowing purfling that even out any shortcomings in the channel cut for it. Despite the use of cheaper materials at times, Carlo Antonio always remained above the heresy of replacing the purfling with scratched lines which was a shortcut to which later generations resorted to save time.

Carlo Antonio’s younger brother, Paolo Antonio, on the other hand was much less fussy about appearance and many would say let the standards drop. Many of his customers were no doubt insisting that he worked to a price and to achieve this Paolo Antonio saved time in production where he could. As well as the absence of true purfling, the back of the pegbox was not carved with the usual fluting and the varnish (usually pale yellow in colour) applied thinly and with little aesthetic concern. Paolo Antonio’s son, Pietro, seemed to degrade the standards still further, to the extent that he attracted the somewhat dubious accolade of having “possibly the clumsiest pair of hands that ever made a violin” from the authors of the Grove Dictionary of Music.

For all that even Pietro’s violins are ones that are very fine to play – so long as you do not have to look at them whilst doing so, some would add. The undoubted resonance and power is highly gratifying. Those of Carlo Antonio and his father, being tonally better still, often being full, colourful and remarkably resonant if not reaching depth of richness and outright power of a Stradivarius. These qualities have made them much sought after by soloists and orchestral musicians alike and has established them as a name of considerable repute in today’s market. Indeed to obtain one of these violins you can expect to pay in the region of $100k – $200k in the dealer shops or auction houses of London and New York – if you can find one for anything less it is likely be a very good investment; first and foremost in terms of the reward it will give you from its wonderful tonal presence, and secondly in terms of a violin that will give you long-term financial returns.

In the history of the Testore family we have depicted the history of the decline through the 18th Century of violin making in Italy, from the luthier who combined the skills of a master craftsman with the eye of an artist and who worked to the most demanding of standards to the hurried productions of the late 1700’s that has led to it being termed ‘a corrupted trade’. This undoubtedly was in response to the influx of mass production instruments being turned out of the workshops of Southern Germany that spread across Europe at this time and eventually even undermined the great violin making traditions of Cremona.

Source by Nick Bourne Hulme

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