Ansaldo Poggi, part 2

Far from being in awe of Stradivari and Guarneri, Poggi imposed his own aesthetic on to the classical Cremonese makers, producing instruments with a strong personality and a flawless technique

By Dmitry Gindin with the collaboration of Roberto Regazzi May 22, 2019

Ansaldo Poggi was one of the most productive Italian violin makers, despite working entirely unaided for much of his career. It seems that he made his first violins, probably with his father, some years before World War I. However, his work from before 1922, along with that of his father, is virtually unknown, in part because he seems to have destroyed many of his own early violins, regarding them as ‘amateurish’ (see part 1).

By 1920 Poggi, having dedicated himself fully to the craft, was making violins in some quantity and two years later he arrived in Zurich for a month-long apprenticeship with Giuseppe Fiorini. The 61-year-old, who had been meticulously deciphering Stradivari’s method since the late 1880s and who had also been possession of the Stradivari workshop relics for the past few years, was ready to pass on his knowledge and taste to a very capable pupil. On his side Poggi was mentally and manually ready to receive Fiorini’s teachings and so learned with great speed. Thereafter, Fiorini’s model was so perfectly ingrained in Poggi’s mind that the instruments he began making following his return to Bologna are barely distinguishable from those of his master, and are of very similar quality.

Violin by Ansaldo Poggi, Bologna, 1924. Photos: courtesy Roberto Regazzi

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Poggi himself referred to the period of his production between 1922–27 as that of ‘pupil and scholar’, during which time he was artfully emulating his master’s Stradivari model to perfection. By 1924 the level of his woodworking and varnish together with the sophistication of his concept could arguably be matched by fewer than a handful of Italian makers, including Fiorini himself.

Like Fiorini, Poggi never felt entirely comfortable with the Guarneri model and therefore used it only in a fraction of his overall production. For violins (and cellos) he preferred a Stradivari model. His violin model was derived from Stradivari’s MS44 form, probably passed on to him by Fiorini, which became more personal over time. Later he developed a smaller model he called the ‘Poggi piccolo’. However, most of his violins have a standard back length of about 355.5mm.

The instruments from this early professional period are elegant, graceful and free of eccentricity. They boast the same exceptional materials used by Fiorini: highly flamed, quarter-cut tiger maple and well-chosen, even-grained spruce. Most of the backs are made of two pieces, with roughly 15% in one piece. The beautifully carved scrolls often have a pronounced black chamfer, a trait that he largely abandoned during the 1930s and the 40s, then returned to after about 1950. The back buttons are a touch wider than those of Fiorini and the small locating half- or full pins can be either in the Amati–Stradivari–Fiorini style (touching the inner purfling) or positioned slightly further away, particularly in his later works.

Violin by Ansaldo Poggi, Bologna, 1929. Photos: Tarisio

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The shortened corners are somewhat ‘slouched’, emulating that Stradivarian trait, and the C-bouts flare slightly outwards towards the lower bouts. The purfling is thin, featuring long, skilfully executed ‘bee stings’. The arching is relatively full with a fairly pronounced fluting around the edges. The varnish is rich in color and texture with shades of reddish orange–brown, again very similar to that of Fiorini; Fiorini had most likely not only passed on his recipe to Poggi, but also the actual varnish itself. Unsurprisingly, Poggi himself was quite attached to some of his instruments from this period, refusing to sell some of his favorite examples through the years.

Though Fiorini lived until 1934, his increasing blindness prevented him from making violins after around 1925 and it was Poggi who in a sense took over where his master left off. There were initially only minor differences between Poggi’s and Fiorini’s work, but after 1927 Poggi began to diverge further from Fiorini’s aesthetic. He referred to this next, long period up to 1975 as that of ‘professional maturity’. During these 48 years we observe a gradual simplification of the Fiorini approach (described below). Overall, Poggi’s work from here on varies relatively little, though there are subtle stylistic changes.

[Poggi made] a conscious effort to streamline his models to their most essential form… while always exercising total control over his technique

From the late 1920s Poggi’s corners widen, while the C-bouts become straighter without the flare at the bottom. At this point the proportions of his instruments seem to have reached their ideal. His initial tendency to flute the lower wings, edges and even the scrolls at the turns becomes slowly substituted by a conscious effort to streamline his models to their most essential form, at times leaving only a hint of fluting, while always exercising total control over his technique; every move of the knife or file had its exact purpose with no room for error. This mix of simplicity and control is probably what makes Poggi’s work so appealing.

During the mid- to later 1930s Poggi’s f-holes change slightly. The palettes begin to widen and continue doing so through the decades, both on his Stradivari and the Guarneri models. Later on Poggi sometimes also gives the palettes a stronger bend; however, he resists ever slanting the f-holes, thus avoiding the ‘Messiah’ Stradivari concept, derived from that maker’s PG form. The perfectly inlaid, signature purfling widens a notch and the white part lightens. The ‘bee stings’ appear to be a mere continuation of the outside black part of the purfling.

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Ansaldo Poggi violin, 1933. Photos: courtesy Florenus Edizioni

No maker, including the greatest of the Cremonese masters, was able to cut and place their f-holes as precisely and in such balance with the rest of the instrument’s features. Poggi’s aesthetic draws the attention immediately to the perfectly symmetrical, widely spaced, sharp and clear-cut f-holes, surrounded by the softer-shaped corners; compared with those of Stradivari the f-hole stems tend to flare more in the middle, quickly thinning out towards the extremities. The relatively slim waists further help to focus on the central part of the instrument, especially when the wings of the f’s are on the woodier side – something common to his later examples. One gets the feeling that Poggi adhered to some strict mathematical formulas in designing the proportions of his models; few, if any, Italian makers were as meticulous. The internal work is equally flawless.

Poggi seems to have questioned whether Cremona’s greatest pair were the last word in violin making, introducing the idea that perhaps some new instruments may yet equal or surpass them tonally

It is unlikely that Poggi needed original Stradivari or Guarneri instruments to work from as he never copied particular instruments; nor did he antique his work. He appreciated the workmanship of the greatest Cremonese makers, but was not in awe of them. Unlike Fiorini and Sacconi, Poggi seems to have questioned whether Cremona’s greatest pair were the last word in violin making, introducing the idea that perhaps some new instruments may yet equal or surpass them tonally. Contrary to the Hills’ suggestion that it took about half a century for Guarneri ‘del Gesu’ violins to reach their tonal peak, Poggi believed that a year after production was sufficient for his instruments.

Rather than attempting to emulate the classical Cremonese models slavishly, Poggi was making his own strong statement. In this he was perhaps the most successful of all his contemporaries, although he was certainly not the only modern Italian maker to impose his own personality on to the classical Cremonese models. His making from the 1940s on has most in common with his two great contemporaries G. Ornati and F. Garimberti, apparently without any serious professional or personal interaction with them. That trio seem to have been on a similar path, one stemming from Fiorini and the other from Bisiach.

While Ornati and Garimberti avoided the Guarneri model altogether, Poggi perhaps aimed to achieve a slightly different sound with his Guarneri model from the usual Stradivarian one. The only substantial difference between these models, however, was the elongation of the f-holes, the widening of the waists and the shortening of corners in the Guarnerian one. As was the case with many of his colleagues, Poggi scrolls remain nearly identical regardless of the model used; they generally keep the flatness of the pegbox for as long as possible going into the turns of the volute, where they are minimally scooped. There is usually a pronounced scribe line along the middle of the scrolls.

The label, brands and inscription from a Poggi violin dated 1962. Photos: Tarisio

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Poggi’s varnish starts out with quite a lot of reddish pigment, later turning to a light orange–yellow, and becoming even paler from the later 1960s, appearing almost washed out in some cases. He, like Fiorini, seems to have concluded that Stradivari’s varnish – being alcohol soluble – was in fact alcohol- rather than oil-based and therefore the texture of his varnishes is often slightly hard. Apart from some early examples, however, Poggi’s varnish is rarely as beautiful as that found on the works of some of his contemporaries, including the Pollastris.

Letter from Poggi referring to the delivery of the 1962 violin above. Image courtesy Roberto Regazzi

Poggi’s most attractive instruments date up to the mid 1960s, though some superb works exist from later years. By the 1970s Poggi’s plates flatten further, as do the edges over time, giving the instruments that simplified feel that is so characteristic of the later Poggi aesthetic.

Poggi officially retired in 1972, but though he was nearing 80, he showed little signs of slowing down. This late period continued until about 1980 though he still occasionally produced excellent violins practically until his death. In the later works he often indicated his age on the labels of these violins. We know that, when deemed necessary, Poggi would open his instruments in order to improve them acoustically and apparently during the later years he also backdated some of them.

Late-period Poggi violin, Bologna, 1980. Photos: courtesy Roberto Regazzi

Whereas many other great Italian violin makers, especially the classical ones, were less worried about symmetry, Poggi believed in total symmetry and his instruments remained true to this belief, even when his technique faltered a little during the later years. Interestingly, Poggi never wore spectacles, which suggests that his eyesight remained flawless, allowing him to work very cleanly into his old age.

There has been speculation regarding the degree of Poggi’s post-1970 collaboration with some of his pupils. We know that Giancarlo Guicciardi in particular assisted him in the detailing of his instruments from 1969–80, but it is unlikely that Guicciardi actually completed entire works for Poggi. From 1980 until his death Poggi produced very few instruments. Those that did leave his workshop with his original labels and brands are still very much characteristic of his own ageing hand, despite being made with the assistance of Gianpaolo Savini and later Neldo Ferrari. During this final period the varnish, often containing dark brush bristles, is generally redder than previously.

For the set-up of his instruments Poggi favored ebony fittings and gut strings; probably today he would be disappointed to see many of his instruments subjected to a completely different taste in setups. Despite his knowledge and precision, he was not much inclined to adjustments: he had clear ideas on how a stringed instrument should work and, according to him, if an instrument was disliked by some customers, it was the musician’s unsuitability rather than anything to do with the instrument itself or the set-up.

Poggi’s signature. Photo: courtesy Roberto Regazzi & Florenus Edizioni

From the late-1920s Poggi started branding his instruments ‘A. Poggi’ internally above the label and externally at the end buttons, and later on sometimes under the fingerboard too. From the 1960s he also began signing the interior of the tables, diagonally in pencil, at times also indicating his age on the upper rib. On his early labels he referred to himself as a pupil of Fiorini but later omitted this reference. He almost always initialed his labels in ink.

In 1936 Poggi asserted that he had produced 108 violins, 10 violas and 20 cellos and worked at a rate of about 12 violins per year. In 1982 he assessed his total production at 322 violins, 41 violas and 25 cellos. From the above we note that after 1936 he made 31 more violas (some over 43cm in length!) but sadly only five cellos. He completed a few additional violins between 1982 and his death in 1984. We can also be certain that his total, genuine output doesn’t exceed 400 pieces, with production noticeably slower between 1943–49 and during his final years.

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’.

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