Pistucci and Bellarosa

Examining the work of two leading 20th-century Neapolitan violin makers

By Dmitry Gindin January 15, 2020

Giovanni Pistucci and Vittorio Bellarosa were both fine exponents of the modern Neapolitan school and, thanks to their close association towards the end of Pistucci’s career, some of their work is extremely similar. Both highly prolific, they produced hundreds of excellent examples of traditional Neapolitan making.

Giovanni Pistucci

As is common with Neapolitan violin makers, much of Giovanni Pistucci’s life is still a mystery. We know that he was born in Naples in February 1864 and he is believed to have begun his career assisting Vincenzo Gagliano, the last and little-known member of that illustrious family. Thereafter, he was apprenticed to Vincenzo Postiglione, with whom he worked during much of the early part of his career. His early labels confirm this, although his initial connection with Gagliano is less clear.

An early Pistucci from c. 1895, showing the strong influence of Postiglione. Photos: Tarisio

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It is not known when exactly Pistucci began working on his own. According to some sources, his dated labels first appear in 1885, while others believe they appear about a decade later. We know that in 1902 the young Alfredo Contino became Postiglione’s new main apprentice. By then Pistucci had almost certainly worked alone for some years and in 1904 he formally established his own workshop.

Pistucci won a silver medal at an exhibition in Brussels. After his death in Naples in 1955, aged 72, Vittorio Bellarosa purchased the contents of his workshop.

Vittorio Bellarosa

Son of Riccardo Bellarosa, a dealer and restorer of instruments, Vittorio was born in Naples in 1907. Following a brief apprenticeship in Mittenwald in around 1925, he moved to Rome to work with Rodolfo Fredi, whom he considered to be his true teacher. Some of his labels describe him as Fredi’s sole pupil. It seems that he stayed in Rome until about 1930, when he returned to Naples, eventually starting a close working relationship with Pistucci that lasted until the latter’s death. Bellarosa initially worked in Via Aniello Falcone, then in his father’s old workshop at Via Michele Cammarano no. 10, but by the late 1950s he had moved to the center of Naples, at Via San Sebastiano no. 26.

A Bellarosa child-size violin, from c. 1922. Photos: Tarisio

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By the mid 1950s, with Pistucci dead in Naples and Vincenzo Sannino winding up his activity in Rome, Bellarosa was left at the helm of traditional Neapolitan violin making until his own death in 1979; like Pistucci he was 72.

Pistucci’s instruments

By at least the 1880s, Neapolitan violin making was dominated by the Postiglione workshop, although several other good Neapolitan makers worked in its shadow. Among them, the young Pistucci was the most talented and proficient. Having absorbed whatever Postiglione had to teach him during the 1880s, during the following decade he embarked on an independent career which rivaled that of his master in quality and may have surpassed it in quantity.

Pistucci violin, Naples, 1922, bearing Pistucci’s own label. Photos: Tarisio

Before opening his own workshop in 1904, Pistucci was perfecting his technique and beginning to copy or fake the earlier Neapolitan makers – mainly the later Gaglianos, Alfonso Della Corte and Vincenzo Jorio. Some of these instruments soon came to be marketed in Germany and the UK as original and they are still sometimes misattributed to the older Neapolitan names. Dating these copies is challenging, but luckily Pistucci also made a good number of instruments bearing his personal label that are strikingly similar in model and wood choice to the fakes, facilitating proper attribution. Most of these were probably initially destined for the local market, while the antiqued copies were exported by dealers.

Pistucci nearly always used beautifully figured maple and carefully chosen spruce. His generally upright f-holes are probably derived from Giuseppe Gagliano’s model and are cleanly cut; at times they even show a hint of fluting – something not generally seen in Neapolitan work since the best examples by the mid-18th-century Gaglianos. His purfling ranges from rather wide to rather thin and generally retains the classical Neapolitan ‘paper’ look; its black parts are often considerably thinner than the lighter strip between them.

The distinctive Gagliano-like scrolls are well-rounded and fairly deeply carved; the throats are consistently set away from the chins of the volutes and are often made to protrude even further through an additional feature extending horizontally from the end of the pegboxes into the lower volutes – something often seen on 18th-century Gaglianos, but rarely on the work of their descendants.

Pistucci scrolls cross feature

The distinctive cross carved on the back of a Pistucci cello (left) and viola

Pistucci generally embellished the bottom rear of his viola and cello scrolls with a carved cross, a feature not found on the work of any of his predecessors.

It is not uncommon for today’s experts upon seeing a particularly well-preserved Gagliano to consider whether they are viewing a Pistucci. Indeed, his best and highly convincing efforts, featuring an orange-brown varnish with a hint of that ‘Neapolitan green’, are remarkably similar to the Gaglianos; a subtle artificial patina adds to the believability of the varnish, and in some cases it is more pleasing to the eye than that of many original Gaglianos.

Pistucci’s splendid technique undermined his intention to imitate the rougher and simpler Neapolitan instruments of the 19th century

Yet Pistucci failed to replicate the older makers perfectly: firstly his modeling does not correspond to that of any of his predecessors; secondly his splendid technique undermined his intention to imitate the rougher and simpler Neapolitan instruments of the 19th century. Furthermore, he did not copy the work of the 18th-century Gaglianos exactly and his straight instruments are not so different from those he attempted to age. In most cases, therefore, experts are able to discern a Pistucci from a fine old Neapolitan instrument. However, at the time of their initial marketing and for many years thereafter, his instruments proved some of the most treacherous to identify.

Pistucci produced a vast number of instruments during his career of over fifty years. It is impossible to determine how many he made in total and estimates vary enormously, with some sources claiming that he produced over 800 violins, 200 cellos and 30 violas, but others attributing a mere 250 instruments to him in total. The true total presumably lies somewhere between the two.

Bellarosa’s instruments

Although he developed as a maker in Rome under Rodolfo Fredi, Bellarosa is widely known as the final exponent of the traditional Neapolitan school. He was perhaps also the best Neapolitan maker of the mid- to late-20th century and a natural heir to the style of his predecessors.

Bellarosa was precocious, having completed 50 violins before the age of 20. He was, however, a late bloomer in developing his own style, as during the 1930s his violin making technique did not yet allow him to make the more inspiring instruments associated with his mature production. His making improved, no doubt through his association with Pistucci, from around 1930. By 1940 he was able to mimic Pistucci so well that much of his known work from the 1940s until 1955 is easily passed off as that of Pistucci. In fact, it is likely that during this period he was making many of Pistucci’s instruments, some of which were backdated.

Bellarosa was a fine varnisher and is said to have varnished many of Pistucci’s instruments. As mentioned above, it has proven difficult to date Pistucci’s instruments; it is therefore unclear whether his best varnish was his own or in fact Bellarosa’s.

Bellarosa violin, Naples, 1935. Photos: Tarisio

After Pistucci’s death in 1955, Bellarosa’s working style began to diverge from that of Pistucci. He continued to work prolifically for nearly a quarter of a century until his own death. His output remained of extremely high calibre until the mid-1960s, slowly declining thereafter.

Bellarosa’s making is the epitome of the free and easy style and some examples may be considered true masterpieces worthy of any collection or professional player. His materials are excellent, showing a preference for prettily figured, one-piece maple backs.

Bellarosa shaped his instruments creatively, improvising on the Gagliano model with a mix of Guarneri ‘del Gesù’, just capturing the flavor of these prototypes without much regard to the finer detail, unlike more assiduous copyists. His delicately rising archings recall the 18th-century Gaglianos. However, overall his instruments are far from delicate, with a hint of the later ‘del Gesù’ in the outline, heavy edgework and f-holes. His typical Neapolitan-style purfling often has even wider white parts, with very thin black parts, than Pistucci’s. Bellarosa’s scrolls, when not replicating Pistucci, abandon the typical Neapolitan forward protrusion of the volute in favor of the more rounded ‘Cremonese’ form. His early work has lighter, spirit-based varnishes; later he developed a beautifully transparent, reddish varnish, generously applied over a yellow ground; his richer and less translucent, red-brown varnishes are associated with later-period work.

Bellarosa seahorse brand

Bellarosa’s brand, featuring two sea-horses, usually appears on either side of the end-pin, as on this 1935 example. Photo: Tarisio

Much of Bellarosa’s work today bears Pistucci or Gagliano labels, though from the mid-1950s he began labeling his instruments with his own name more consistently. His brand, featuring two sea-horses facing each other, is sometimes seen on the bottom ribs. Bellarosa appears to have been about as prolific as Pistucci during his own 50-odd-year career. He concentrated on making violins and seems to have avoided cellos altogether, though he made several double basses and the occasional viola.

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.

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