Santo Serafin cello, Venice, 1740

Featuring extravagant materials and meticulous workmanship, this cello is a typically fine example of Serafin’s mature work

By Stefan Hersh March 22, 2017

Among the great 18th-century Venetian instrument makers, Santo Serafin (1699–1776) was the most refined craftsman. Serafin consistently produced distinctive instruments with first-class wood and superb varnish that are highly sought after today.

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Santo Serafin cello, 1740. Photo: Darnton & Hersh Fine Violins

Serafin emigrated to Venice from his native Udine in 1721. Although it remains unconfirmed, Serafin may have received his initial training from Francesco Goffriller, with whose work he shares stylistic similarities. Prior to joining the Arte dei Marzeri (the Venetian Instrument Makers’ Guild) as a merchant in 1733, Serafin might have worked for other established shops in Venice, but little documentary evidence of his early time in Venice has so far come to light. The Marzeri journals record a high sales volume for Serafin from the opening of his business in 1733 through the 1730s – greater than that of his contemporaries Pietro Guarneri or Domenico Montagnana, for instance.

The lavish materials and high level of finish consistently found in Serafin’s work reinforce the impression of a highly successful maker serving a discerning clientele. Success notwithstanding, the burden of the taxes imposed by the Marzeri Guild was probably a major factor in Serafin’s decision to close his business and resign from the guild in 1744. [1] Subsequently he remained in the guild as an artisan, which allowed him to work in the city under a more modest tax burden until his death in 1776.

Serafin’s cello models are all of smaller dimensions than those found in earlier Venetian cellos, reflecting the evolving role of the cello in the music of the early to middle 18th century. The smaller size would have facilitated the agility required by the increasingly florid and high cello parts written during this period. The range of sizes found in Venetian cellos from well into the middle of the 18th century bears witness to a time of experimentation when bass instruments likely served different roles in a range of ensemble situations (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Venetian cellos 1723–1750 (dimensions in mm)

Cello Cozio ID LOB UB MB LB
Montagnana, 1742 42639 745 375 253 458
Busan, c. 1750 78016 679 313 228 393
Goffriller 1723, ‘Lutyens’ 42875 760 352 236 459
Deconet 1764 44531 714 338 418
Serafin 1740 22625 715 331 234 411
Serafin 1732, ‘Reiffenberg, Hoelscher’ 44081 730 351 236 429

 

By the end of the 18th century the Republic of Venice had broken up and economic conditions no longer favored high-end instrument making. The string section as it would survive had taken shape throughout Europe and smaller form cellos had won favor. Small cellos are all that can be found among the limited output of the remaining Venetian makers and of other Italian artisans including G.B. Guadagnini from the mid 18th century onwards:

Figure 2: Guadagnini cellos 1752–1783 (dimensions in mm)

Cello Cozio ID LOB UB MB LB
Guadagnini, 1752 64418 714 332 232 420
Guadagnini, 1754, ‘Gerardy’ 40959 714 334 233 419
Guadagnini, 1762, ‘Chi Mei’ 71104 710 330 240 418
Guadagnini, 1777, ‘Simpson’ 40870 715 334 246 421
Guadagnini, 1783, ‘Huxham’ 24696 710 333 244 422

 

Figure 3: Venetian cellos c. 1795–c. 1800 (dimensions in mm)

Cello Cozio ID LOB UB MB LB
Bellosio c. 1795 47399 718 350 241 435
Cerin c. 1800 49442 725 340 233 423

 

It is worth noting that the majority of 17th and early 18th century Italian cellos in use today have been reduced in size to conform to usage in the traditional symphonic and chamber music canons.

The instrument

The cello illustrated is typical of Serafin at his best. Extravagant materials and meticulous details of finish are brought together by the confident hand of a mature master. Brilliantly flamed maple formed into a two-piece back is matched in the sides and the head. Narrow, even-grained spruce in the two-piece top shows a trace of ‘hazel fichte’ figure observable in tone wood of the highest quality. With short corners and open C-bouts, the narrow model gives the player ample access in high positions, while the low, graceful arching simultaneously provides power and color. The f-holes are based on a Brothers Amati template, but with shorter wings that angle gently.

Santo Serafin cello, 1740. Photos: Tarisio

A precise bevel gives a sense of solidity to the deeply carved turns of the scroll, creating an organic balance unsurpassed by any maker before or since. With its paper-thin blacks, the purfling forms an elegant and meticulous margin with the edge, although the miters fail to meet evenly in the corners, betraying the only evident gap in technical skill. The whole is covered with a beautiful transparent varnish of a light orange hue on a yellow ground. The effect is one of opulence and the instrument glitters like a jewel.

Antonio Vivaldi wrote many of his 28 surviving cello concertos for performance at the Ospedale de la Pieta, the esteemed Venetian girls’ orphanage where he served until 1740, the year this cello was made. While the early history of this instrument is unknown, its dimensions, finish and materials would have made it an excellent choice for the highly skilled women musicians at the Pieta or one of the three other ospedales in Venice in 1740.

Stefan Hersh is a violinist, appraiser and expert, and a partner at Darnton & Hersh Fine Violins, Chicago.

Notes

[1] Being a merchant allowed one to sell under one’s own name or under the name of a company with merchant status in the guild, whereas being an artisan only allowed one to work in the trade. The tax burden for a merchant was based on sales receipts, whereas the membership as a tradesman was probably akin to paying union dues. For more information see Stefano Pio, Violin and Lute Makers of Venice 1640–1760, p. 340.

Sources

[1] Stephen Bonta, From Violone to Violoncello, The American Musical Instrument Society, 1977.
[2] Stefano Pio, Violin and Lute Makers of Venice 1640–1760, Venice Research, 2004.

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