Luthiers born 600 years ago gave us the first violins. Instrument refinement came about through multiple generations of violin makers devoted to their craft.
One has to imagine that in the earlier years of violin making – in the 1500s when we have the first recorded evidence of the modern violin emerging from the precedent instruments vielle, rebec, and lira da braccio – that it was a time to discover a new sound. Consequently, it was also a time when the courts of kings as well as the streets of peasants began to hear melodies and concertos of exquisite beauty and grace.
Several key violin makers emerged at this time, each setting up a fine violin shop in key cities and offering fine stringed instruments for sale. In fact many were multi-generation families who passed the craft from father to son or nephew (very little is recorded of women participating in the process, with a few exceptions). Those families include the names Micheli, da Salo, and Maggini. A bit later came the Guarneris, Amatis, and Antonio Stradivari (notably, the wealth that Stradivari left to his luthier son, Omobono, led him to quit the business, halting production of any later generations of Stradivariuses).
Which begs a question: Why did crafts of all kinds, including those of fine stringed instrument makers, tend to run in families?
The answer is multifaceted but rooted in the economic and cultural structures of that time. Guilds and apprenticeships were serious business, favoring sons who aspired to their fathers’ trades. Cultural conditions also favored families staying in the same professions. The value of artisanship meant that something like violinmaking was a calling, placed far above simply having a vocation. Surprising to some, the fact that a formal education was a rarity meant that learning for the most part happened within families and their professions. Technological advancements were slow then, further making it likely that the methods devised by fathers and grandfathers were just as meaningful to the sons and grandsons.
And so it worked for the Micheli, da Salo, and Maggini families.
The Michelis are somewhat confusing in that there were two sets of Micheli luthiers who by public records seem not to have been related. Zanetto Micheli (1489-1560) began their dynasty in Brescia, where his violins, viols, and bows were sold to the nobles of that town. His son, Pellegrino Micheli da Montechiaro, also made violas, violones, liras, double basses, and ceteras in addition to violins. The “other Michelis” came 300 years later.
Pellegrino Micheli was a contemporary of Gasparo da Salo (1542-1609), who also worked in Brescia. Surviving instruments show da Salo refined the violin design in shape, size, and overall construction. In fact, his designs became known as the Brescian style, which included ornate craftsmanship and a robust, powerful sound.
Da Salo’s son, Francisco, was one of five students who learned the methods of Gasparo. His work is not celebrated, but Da Salo’s nephew, Giovanni Paolo Maggini (1580-1632) began his own family tradition. Maggini’s instruments are distinguished for their tonal qualities. He incorporated some of the techniques from his uncle, but continued to improvise upon the form in his own ways, including a larger-form violin that could produce richer and more powerful sounds. His son (although there is some question on parentage), Pietro Giovanni Maggini, made violins that are less well known and valued, but they maintained the style of Giovanni Paolo Maggini.
Back to the name Micheli, Ferdinando Micheli (1822-1892) came 350 years later than Zanetto, largely working in Florence and the son of another luthier, Domenico Micheli. They are not believed to be related to Zanetto Micheli, but their instruments are considered fine and made in the style of Stradivari and Guarneri.
The guild-apprentice systems no longer have the influence on professions in Europe and elsewhere today. But craftsmanship and style still matter with fine modern violins – which to be clear are made one at a time by the hands of skilled violinmakers. Violinists understand this such that the makers and how they make their instruments still have a great effect on their value.
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