Capicchioni and Fracassi, part 2

The instruments of Capicchioni and Fracassi, alongside other less well-known makers from their area, reveal the wide range of styles that existed in 20th-century Romagna

By Dmitry Gindin September 18, 2019

Much of Marino Capicchioni’s career ran parallel to those of his close contemporaries, Simone Sacconi and Ansaldo Poggi, two giants of late-modern Italian violin making. Along with Sacconi and Poggi, his mature work represents the penultimate chapter in traditional modern Italian lutherie. This chapter included a few other fine makers in Milan, Genoa and Mantua, such as Ferdinando Garimberti and Giuseppe Lecchi, who were both very close in age to Capicchioni, as well as the slightly older Gaetano Gadda. After them, only a handful of Italian makers remained working in a way that could be considered ‘traditional’, or at least loosely based on the style of their regional predecessors.

However, even within this category the work of the various makers scattered around Romagna in the 20th century shows quite wide stylistic divergencies. Even Capicchioni and Fracassi, despite being colleagues and friends in Rimini, worked along quite different lines.

Marino Capicchioni

Capicchioni’s career was an epic success story of a self-made man. As we saw in part 1, he started out as a carpenter in San Marino and through hard work and perseverance reached the top of his profession.

His very first instruments, however, are typical products of a self-taught amateur violin maker working in an isolated, rural environment. At that time the center of traditional Romagna violin making was closer to Bologna, while the province of Ravenna was home to somewhat older makers such as Custode Marcucci (1864–1951), Nicola Utili (1888–1948) and Pietro Borghi (1892–1957). In the region’s south-east, however, very few woodworkers’ talents turned to violin making and the mountainous San Marino was quite an unlikely place for the emergence of a successful luthier.

Early Marino Capicchioni violin dated 1926. Photos: Tarisio

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Capicchioni’s instruments from the 1920s bear all the hallmarks of the provincial Italian violin making practised by a myriad of other makers across the peninsula – their main attributes being their nationality and individuality. In Bologna, by contrast, Poggi was already making instruments that could rival the top work of any of his legendary predecessors.

Common characteristics of Capicchioni’s early instruments include his use of local, plain maple and the continuous, spruce linings that pass over the blocks – a trait of guitar makers and also the Cesare Candi school in Liguria. However, his choice of spruce is already high quality with an even grain, a standard he maintained throughout his career. From his labels of the mid- to late-1920s, it appears that his output was about ten instruments per year. This level of production was to increase substantially over the years.

Fifteen years after his first attempts at fine violin making, Capicchioni managed to achieve a remarkable transformation in his craft (he is presumed to have followed the advice of various local makers), producing instruments whose high level was worthy of national attention. Though still in Poggi’s shadow, he was turning into the best maker east of Bologna. Capicchioni had long abandoned the guitar-like stiffnesses of his earlier work and began perfecting his craft, while devising a consistent production method.

Marino Capicchioni violin, 1942. Photos: courtesy Dmitry Gindin

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By this time he had developed a distinctive take on the Stradivari model, basing the majority of his work on it during the 1930s. This was the precursor of the final model that Capicchioni used during his mature period from the 1940s, which was to earn him an international reputation, in some cases rivaling that of Poggi. Poggi, whose own violin making was a synopsis of Giuseppe Fiorini’s take on classical Cremonese work, had little respect for the work of his contemporaries, and seems to have believed that Capicchioni lacked true understanding of the fundamentals of the Cremonese art.

However, while it was different from that of Poggi, Capicchioni’s simplified Stradivari model, with its slightly narrower lower bout, shows a personal, intelligent interpretation and a soft, free-flowing outline. The proportions and moderate arching heights are carefully considered with tone projection in mind. The f-holes are quite upright during the 1930s but acquire a bit of a slant over time; their lower fluted wings are quite heavy, complementing the equally strong back buttons; the channeling and the edges are pronounced without being abrupt; the rather wide, salient purfling lies close to the edge and generally lacks a bee-sting, though some instruments do show a tentative one; the highly personal, thoughtfully designed scrolls are symmetrical, large and rounded; they are beautifully carved, showing heavy, yet soft chamfers.

Marino Capicchioni violin, 1952

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Wood choice was always important to Capicchioni and he spared no expense when sourcing his materials: the backs, sides and scrolls are of mostly tightly flamed, quarter-cut maple, interspersed with some equally pretty one-piece backs; most of the backs are pinned. The tops are of spruce with medium to wide, even grain; the grain normally appears very pronounced due to Capicchioni’s subtle artificial staining of the wood to give it a slightly older appearance. Similarly, there is often a slight shading of the backs. He preferred this method of mild antiquing to the more drastic artificial ageing techniques of Sacconi. Some instruments, however, show no artificial treatment. Capicchioni’s lustrous varnish is alcohol-based, and orange-brown shades prevail, while other instruments are golden-orange to reddish-orange, the latter generally associated with his late works.

Though the 1930s yielded some excellent instruments, Capicchioni’s best and most recognisable instruments date from the early 1940s to the mid-1960s, with the largest number of top examples produced between 1946–65.

Marino’s teenage son, Mario, began assisting him in 1943 and together they produced hundreds of instruments that left the workshop under Marino’s well-established brand. During this period some violins are vaguely modeled after Guarneri ‘del Gesù’. In fact it is only the elongated f-holes and slightly lower arching of these instruments that are based on the Guarneri model; otherwise there is little to distinguish it from his Stradivarian model. However, even in his Strad models, Capicchioni sometimes points the extremities of the f-holes in a somewhat Guarnerian way.

Marino Capicchioni violin made on a Tertis model, 1957. Photos: Tarisio

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From 1953 Capicchioni began branding his instruments internally, ‘M. CAPPICCHIONI- RIMINI’. At about this time the fine British violist Lionel Tertis offered Capicchioni to construct instruments to his well-known design, which was already used by a number of British makers. Capicchioni accepted and became the only Italian maker to make numerous instruments on the Tertis model. As well as using it for some of his violas and even cellos, he also experimented – although less successfully – with this controversial model for his violins.

Capicchioni used several different forms throughout his career. The violins and violas are made on the external form, while the cellos are generally built on a Stradivari-influenced internal form.

Marino Capicchioni violin, 1961. Photos: Tarisio

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According to the Vannes Dictionnaire Universel des Luthiers, by 1951 Capicchioni had constructed 350 violins, 10 violas and 20 cellos, which shows his immense productivity, especially considering that this estimate covers only about 30 years of production. In total, over 700 instruments may well have left the Capicchioni workshop, making him one of the most productive violin makers of all time. By comparison, Poggi completed less then 400 instruments in around 60 years.

Mario Capicchioni

Mario began to make instruments independently of Marino from the early 1950s and earned prizes for his work in the Florence and Rome competitions in 1951 and 52. His greatest achievement came in 1959 when he won a gold medal for a Tertis model viola.

Violin by Mario Capicchioni, Rimini, 1981. Photos: Tarisio

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Mario’s hand becomes more perceptible during the last few years of Marino’s life and, while many of the collaborative instruments still bore his father’s labels and brands, in 1971 Marino adopted the new ‘Marinus e Filius’ label that was used until Marino’s final year. Mario’s own instruments are good copies of those by his father. Although Mario was only 51 when Marino died, his personal work thereafter is less refined all round. One of its distinguishing features is the widening and less carefully inlaid purfling, while the far more rudimentary scrolls of the 1980s are indicative of Mario’s weakening hand.

Arturo Fracassi

Based in Cesena and later Rimini, Arturo Fracassi was probably Capicchioni’s only local contemporary who could rival his quality of work. During this period modern Italian violin making was undergoing a transformation. The hugely influential work of Giuseppe Fiorini and Sacconi, followed by the two great Cremona exhibitions and competitions of 1937 and 1949, played a great role in redirecting contemporary tastes towards the aesthetic of Stradivari and Guarneri ‘del Gesù’.

Unlike Capicchioni, who endowed his instruments with a Cremonese flavor that was probably responsible for the uncommon rise in his success, Fracassi defied this trend and remained true to his roots. His individualistic violin making style remained quite Romagnol in its essence and he will probably be remembered as the best of the traditional Romagnol makers, whose instruments glorified their regional character.

Arturo Fracassi violin, 1934. Photos: courtesy Alessandro Cervo

Fracassi’s earliest work is not dissimilar in its rough aesthetic to that of Luigi Montevecchi (1868–1957), who worked in Cesena from the early 20th century. However, his later instruments are well made, moderately arched and have a natural appeal with their soft varnish, often of a lovely, deep-orange hue. Their most recognisable characteristic is their long, curvaceous and sharply winged f-holes – an unusual blend of the concepts of Stainer, Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati.

Giuseppe Stefanini

Giuseppe Stefanini (1908–92), of Conselice near Bagnocavallo in the province of Ravenna, was another excellent craftsman who learned violin making locally and initially worked in close proximity to his birthplace, in Lugo. Custode Marcucci, whose work is the epitome of good, genuine early Romagnol making, lived and worked just a few kilometres away, and Stefanini may well have been initially influenced by him. Stefanini later learned from Pietro Borghi, a collaborator of Leandro Bisiach Sr, who lived and worked close to Lugo and Bagnacavallo.

Violin by Giuseppe Stefanini, Brescia, 1969. Photos: Tarisio

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In contrast to Marcucci’s charming style, which is deeply rooted in 19th-century local violin making, and Fracassi’s later, somewhat idiosyncratic models, Stefanini was an extremely skilful maker whose mature work was in the divergent, modern Milanese style. Stefanini replaced Iginio Sderci as the key collaborator of Giacomo and Leandro Bisiach during the 1950s and 60s. His making is very clean, conscientiously symmetrical, and easily recognisable, though also stiff and lacking in imagination – a trait that probably suited the Bisiachs, who preferred a solid product that conformed to the modern Milanese aesthetic. From 1957 Stefanini worked for the Bisiachs, as well as for his own account from Brescia. In 1986 he moved to Florence where he died.

Giuseppe Lucci

Slightly younger than Stefanini, Giuseppe Lucci (1910–99) was a talented violin maker who was originally from Bagnacavallo. He made some exceptional instruments while still in Romagna, but in 1953 he established a workshop in Rome, which is still active today in the hands of his daughter, Rafaella, and her husband, Rodolfo Marchini (Lucci’s pupil and stylistic descendant). As was the case with Stefanini, Lucci’s later work was influenced by the finest Milanese makers of the period, while retaining a hint of the regional Romagnol style. His talent and plentiful production earned Lucci a fine reputation and a good following among local musicians.

Violin by Giuseppe Lucci, Bagnacavallo, 1947. Photos: Tarisio

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Antonino Cavalazzi (1905–86), from the province of Ravenna, and Primo Contavalli (1899–1989), from nearby Imola, were some of the other prolific makers in the area. They are noteworthy for the unique character in their work.

Violin by Antonino Cavalazzi, Ravenna, 1976. Photos: Tarisio

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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.

We currently have a fine c. 1940 Capicchioni cello in our Private Sales department. To enquire, contact info@tarisio.com.

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