Like much of Italy in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the economy of Emilia-Romagna was based on agriculture. Yet the region also enjoyed a long cultural and artistic tradition. Every small city there had a theater and a real passion for music, whether folk or classical. Practically every family, rich or poor, had at least one member who played a musical instrument. This was the environment in which the young Ansaldo Poggi grew up in the small village of Villa Fontana di Medicina, about 25 km to the east of Bologna.
The fourth of seven children of a successful blacksmith, Ugo, and a primary school teacher, Maria Ubaldini, Ansaldo was born on June 9, 1893, and from early in life was taught to appreciate music and fine craftsmanship. Ugo was himself an amateur violin maker and had a long-standing friendship and probable business relationship with Giuseppe Fiorini, who was then living in Munich but made frequent trips to Bologna for family and business matters. Ugo is thought to have helped Fiorini in sourcing old instruments in the area.
Ugo cultivated young Ansaldo’s passion for music and woodworking. Ansaldo was manually gifted, so from early on his father taught him the rudiments of violin making, while another son was trained in the family’s main occupation as blacksmiths. Since Ansaldo also had a good ear for music, he was then sent to a violin teacher in the nearby village of Budrio and later to Bologna to study for his diploma at the Accademia Filarmonica. His studies were interrupted by a period of military service in World War I (in which he served as a messenger and ‘chauffeur’ on a motorcycle), but in 1920 at the age of 27 he finally gained a diploma in violin playing from the Accademia. That same year he married Angela Ceroni, who was a primary school teacher like his mother.
At this point Poggi made the decision not to become a professional violinist; instead, now aged 28, with the help of his father, he dedicated himself fully to the craft for which he had both passion and talent – violin making. He took his new profession seriously, completing a number of instruments, but later he chose to disregard this early production entirely, judging it to be ‘amateurish’ and unworthy of his increasing reputation in the profession.
Later Poggi chose to disregard his early production entirely, judging it to be ‘amateurish’ and unworthy of his increasing reputation in the profession
In 1922, again at the encouragement of his father, he went to Zurich for a one-month apprenticeship with Fiorini, heralding the start of a promising career as a fine violin maker, now with a solid foundation. Fiorini had completed his purchase of the famed collection of Stradivari’s tools and forms two years previously, and was no doubt keen to pass his long-acquired knowledge to a talented pupil.
Poggi learned quickly and by the time Fiorini moved from Zurich to Rome in 1923, his official violin making career had already begun, based at 160 via Saragozza in Bologna. Poggi continued his rapport with his ageing master, whose eyesight was deteriorating and who by around 1925 had ceased to make instruments altogether. According to Poggi himself, during these years as a gesture of gratitude to his master, he had presented Fiorini with no fewer than 12 of his violins, perhaps unvarnished, which Fiorini finished and sold with his own label and brands.
It is likely that at some point, probably during the mid-1920s, Poggi also met Simone Sacconi, an equally talented maker two years younger than himself, but who had already been obsessed with Stradivari’s methods for about a decade. Sacconi also assisted Fiorini during his last years in Rome (see our previous feature on Sacconi). While each of these three formidable makers followed their separate career paths in Rome, Bologna and beyond, they shared the common goal of reinfusing modern Italian violin making with the somewhat lost methods of classical Cremona, in particular that of Stradivari.
In Bologna during the mid-1920s it was not easy for the now 30-something Poggi to launch an independent career: his seniors in town, the Pollastri brothers and Armando Monterumici, had been established there for the previous 25 years. However, his exquisite violin making spoke for itself, and the gold medals he received at the Santa Cecilia competitions in Rome in 1925, 1927 and 1929 greatly enhanced his reputation. After Augusto Pollastri’s sudden death in 1927, Poggi was left with only Gaetano Pollastri as a true competitor in Bologna. Both Poggi and Gaetano Pollastri were trained violinists and the sound of their instruments was central to their making. They therefore always enjoyed a clientele of loyal musicians and, in Poggi’s case, very few dealers.
In the early 1930s Poggi’s career finally took off, and he was able to buy a holiday home in Granaglione, deep in the Apennine mountains, where he used to spend his summers working without distraction. In fact some of the instruments made in that small village bear his calligraphy to that effect. In the 1960s, when his wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and her health began declining, his beloved summer residence was exchanged for a slightly more accessible country house in Cereglio. Of course during the summer months he would often return to his Bolognese premises to receive important clients.
When Sacconi left Italy in around 1930 and then Giuseppe Fiorini died in 1934, Poggi became the only maker in Italy whose work was faithful to Fiorini’s approach. His production remained quite steady in the years preceding World War II, despite strong competition from other first-rate Italian luthiers. Many of his instruments were sold abroad by Italian musicians who were advocates of his work (Poggi himself did not speak any foreign languages proficiently).
During the war years Poggi’s production became relatively scarce, yet remained of very high quality. Then from around 1946–48, due to the difficult post-war economy, he worked in Zurich, collaborating with the Bänziger firm, through whom he was able to sell his instruments locally.
Upon Poggi’s return to his Bolognese home and workshop at 66 via San Vitale, his reputation blossomed and orders began pouring in. By then a good number of Italy’s finest makers, who had been responsible for the rebirth of the craft in their country, had either died or retired. After Gaetano Pollastri’s death in 1960, Poggi became the city’s premier violin maker, with only the best instruments of Otello Bignami able occasionally to compete with his work.
During the post-war decades many legendary musicians, including David Oistrakh, Nathan Milstein and Yehudi Menuhin, acquired instruments from Poggi to use alongside their classical Cremonese instruments. Since then the maker’s name has always been synonymous with a solid investment.
From the 1960s Poggi taught just a few pupils, including Giampaolo Savini, but apart from his best-known pupil, Giancarlo Guicciardi, their work has not made it into the top ranks of modern Italian violin making. Guicciardi enjoyed a very close relationship with his master (see our recent interview with Guicciardi). In 1969 Poggi suffered a serious heart attack following which he required substantial assistance with the finer detailing, such as the purfling, f-holes and scrolls. Guicciardi remained with Poggi until the late 1970s. After this Guicciardi, who during his time with Poggi had also made a good number of his own excellent instruments very much in line with the Fiorini–Poggi tradition, continued working on his own.
Angela, Poggi’s wife of 55 years, died in 1975 and Poggi soon remarried the couple’s long-term caregiver, Tina. Sadly, Tina also died a few years later. Poggi continued working even after his official retirement, almost up until his own death at the age of 91, on September 4, 1984. In 1981 he had donated two fine violins to the Museo Civico of his birth town Villa Fontana di Medicina – a 1918 Fiorini and one of his own dated 1933 – and his workshop tools and other miscellaneous items also made their way to the museum soon after his death.
Poggi is remembered as quite a solitary figure. It is noteworthy that he was absent from Cremona’s most famous show – the 1937 exhibition and violin making competition celebrating the bicentenary of Stradivari’s death, where he stood a high chance of securing an important prize. Likewise, he did not participate in the Cremona exhibition commemorating the tricentenary of Stradivari’s birth in 1949, which represented the entire panorama of contemporary Italian violin making, despite being invited to be part of the ‘hors competition’ section.
Poggi was known for his forthright, strong, yet difficult character, especially as he aged. He tended to see the world in black and white. One of his family members summed him up by saying, ‘Ansaldo’s character was excessive in every way, and he would only find his perfect balance while working at the bench.’ To the question, ‘Which are the fundamental elements that characterise the sound of your instruments?’ he would respond, ‘But do you or don’t you have your own sound?’ He is, however, also remembered by some of his clients as a true gentleman and for his kindness. He was aware of his uncommon ability and was driven by a strong sense of mission, which was often misunderstood by his colleagues. Unlike the restless Fiorini and Sacconi, whose passion drove them to travel widely, Poggi kept to himself, quietly continuing his work.
Part 2 explores the stylistic evolution of Poggi’s work.
Dmitry Gindin is an expert, consultant and author of The Late Cremonese Violin Makers. The articles in this series are adopted from his forthcoming book on a selection of the greatest modern Italian violin makers, featuring high-quality photographs of iconic and interesting examples.
Bolognese violin maker Roberto Regazzi is co-author with Sandro Pasqual of ‘Lutherie in Bologna: Roots & Success’.