The Carletti family

Despite working in the shadow of more famous workshops in Bologna and Ferrara, the Carlettis are among the most interesting makers of the traditional modern Italian school

By Dmitry Gindin November 6, 2019

Carlo Carletti was born in 1873 in Pieve di Cento, a small, charming Emilian town in the province of Bologna. He was the founder of the Carletti family of makers, which included his sons, Natale, Orfeo and Nullo, his nephew, Genuzio, and finally his grandson, Gabriele.

Initially a carpenter, furniture restorer and, it seems, antiques dealer, Carlo Carletti gradually became involved in violin making during the late-19th century, but also continued his earlier activity. Pieve di Cento, located some 30 km north of Bologna, placed the young Carlo within half a day’s journey of the famous Raffaele Fiorini workshop, where he may well have learned the fundamentals of the craft during the mid-1890s; his early work is certainly similar in style to that of Fiorini and is sometimes wrongly attributed to the elusive work of that maker.

Though instruments from this early period are very rare, by the late 1890s he had become a fully fledged violin maker. Carlo, a few years senior to Augusto Pollastri and Ettore Soffritti, who both had an influence on his work, belonged to the generation of Italian violin makers that was responsible for the true renaissance of the craft before the First World War.

Carlo married Emilia Vedrani at the end of the 19th century and his eldest son, Natale, was born in 1904, followed by Orfeo in 1906; both sons trained with their father, assisting him from an early age, and themselves became professional violin makers during the 1920s; the third son, Nullo, born in 1911, also became a violin maker, although this does not appear to have been his primary occupation.

View of Pieve di Cento, showing the Collegiate Church of S. Maria

In his effort to make a living, Carlo constructed instruments for himself and for other makers, in particular Leandro Bisiach and Romeo Antoniazzi, for whom he produced instruments ‘in the white’; similarly he worked briefly for Luigi Mozzani, a guitar maker who opened a factory in Cento (a larger town close to Pieve) around 1908.

Natale Carletti was encouraged to become a musician and studied the cello, earning a diploma from the Bologna Conservatory. But earning a living was never easy for the Carlettis and from around 1915 the 11-year-old Natale worked for the Mozzani workshop, which produced cheaper-grade instruments. Orfeo Carletti followed a similar path to his brother, though there is no evidence that he worked for Mozzani. Natale married Maria Malagutti in 1932 and the couple had a daughter, Elena. Maria died in 1936 and Natale remarried Eros Fregni in 1939. Gabriele Carletti, the last violin maker of the clan, was their third son.

In 1928 Carlo directed Natale and Orfeo to open a workshop in the center of Bologna, just steps away from the old Fiorini workshop in via Pepoli. This Bologna workshop functioned for about six years, finally closing its doors around 1934–36.

An early 20th-century view of Palazzo Pepoli in Bologna. The Carlettis opened a workshop nearby in 1928, a few doors away from the old Fiorini business

Orfeo died prematurely in November 1940, aged 36. Just over three months later the 68-year-old Carlo died of a heart attack near Cento. Quite suddenly, Natale and Nullo Carletti found themselves in charge of the Carletti workshop in the midst of World War II. These could not have been easy times for any violin maker, particularly those in rural Italy. In spite of this, demand for their work continued, and we see a reasonably steady production during the war years from the best makers of Emilia-Romagna, including the Carlettis.

Quite suddenly, Natale and Nullo found themselves in charge of the Carletti workshop in the midst of World War II

While Natale’s work is plentiful, Orfeo’s personal work is rarely encountered and that of Nullo is still rarer. It may be inferred that Orfeo was initially helping his father along with Natale and later worked with his brother. Nullo’s work is quite a bit rougher than that of his brothers; violin making was unlikely to have been his main occupation. Natale’s son, Gabriele, took up violin making during the 1960s, also becoming a maths teacher. Natale died in 1979, aged 75.

Along with his sons, Carlo also taught his nephew, Genuzio Carletti. Son of Carlo’s brother Tullio, Genuzio was close in age to both Natale and Orfeo. He lost his father aged five and from a young age apprenticed with his uncle in both carpentry and violin making. At 15 he was working in Bologna for a book printer, but returned to Pieve di Cento aged 20 to work with his cousins and uncle. He soon appears to have had a major falling out with them and went his separate way, never reconciling with them. He thus began to work on his own from 1936. In the following years he mostly worked as a carpenter in Bologna to maintain his family, which eventually included at least four children.

Genuzio’s work was noticed by a New York maker–dealer of Italian origin, Joseph Settin, with whom he began a collaboration that grew after World War II. During the 1950s Genuzio was employed by a large pasta-making equipment producer in Cento, although he continued to make instruments on a part-time basis. These were largely exported to Settin, who appears to have been his key client, until the latter’s death in 1970. From then on Genuzio worked full-time as violin maker until his late 80s. He died in 1996, aged 91.

The Carlettis’ making

The Carlettis worked in the shadow of some of their greatest contemporaries in the cities of Bologna and Ferrara. Nevertheless, they managed to build a niche for themselves and their best work ranks among the most interesting of the traditional modern Italian school.

The quality of Carlo’s production is not consistent: instruments produced by the Carletti workshop for others, and even some bearing Carlo’s own labels, are generally of a substantially lower quality than his far rarer truly fine examples. The difference in quality can be quite staggering. With his best instruments, Carlo earned his place among the most creative and clever violin makers of the period.

Carlo built two basic types of instrument: straight and fake. The best of the straight instruments are loosely modeled after Stradivari, sometimes Guarneri and Amati, but are also influenced by the work of Pollastri. His complex, soft, red-brown varnish can be sublime and even crackles and coagulates similarly to that of Pollastri. However, compared with Pollastri and Soffritti, Carlo’s models are generally thinner and the workmanship, with a few outstanding exceptions, is considerably inferior.

Carlo Carletti violin, c. 1920. Photos: Tarisio

The characteristic and bold scrolls are tastefully designed, unaffected by the tendency of his contemporaries to imitate Stradivari. They have something of Raffaele Fiorini’s style but also show similarity to the scrolls of the Tononis and even G.B. Ceruti, to whom his work is sometimes also attributed. They are deeply and carefully carved, demonstrating Carletti’s observation of the work of his long-gone predecessors.

The f-holes are finely fluted at the wings. The purfling tends to be wide and dark; it terminates fairly abruptly within the dainty, though sometimes squarish corners. The gentle arch of medium height generally yields a balanced and opulent tone.

Carlo Carletti label

Carlo Carletti label dated 1920

The Carlettis had a preference for the softer local woods, quite often selecting a variety of highly figured poplar similar to that sometimes used by the Tononis. This wood, extensively seen in the one-piece backs, is one of the characteristic traits of the family until well into the 1970s, when Natale continued it in the construction of some light-colored instruments, even some cellos. On occasion both Carlo and Natale also used oppio for the backs of the instruments.

Although connoisseurs have become more familiar with the clever copies or fakes made by Vincenzo Sannino, Giovanni Pistucci, Gaetano Sgarabotto, Celeste Farotti and other 20th-century masters, Carlo’s fakes remain enigmatic. It seems that while his workshop was busy turning out simpler instruments under his supervision, Carlo himself was making a rather different type of violin: his copies are among the most creative ever made and some to this day are enjoying attributions to the more obscure 18th- and 19th-century Italian makers.

It seems that while his workshop was busy turning out simpler instruments under his supervision, Carlo himself was making a rather different type of violin: his copies are among the most creative ever made

While some excellent non-Italian works of the period by copyists of Stradivari, Guarneri, Pressenda or Rocca may be mistaken for Bisiach, Giuseppe Fiorini, Sacconi and even Fagnola or Guerra, no foreign-made instrument could be confused with a Carletti. Rather, his most interesting copies bear spurious labels of Raffaele Fiorini, Giuseppe Marconcini, Antonio Gibertini and some rare northern Italian makers of the 19th century. Some have even been passed off as the work of obscure mid-19th-century Guadagnini family members. While showing a vague resemblance to their mysterious 18th-century prototypes, they never follow any particular maker or school – perhaps even less so than the copies of Sgarabotto. On occasion Carlo would produce an instrument of an almost entirely different model from his usual copies. Often it is only the wood and the varnish or the carving of the scroll that, together with some quirky details, point to the hand of Carlo.

Carlo’s making blends creative ideas and good taste with sound technique and a knowledge of tradition equaled by few makers of his generation. He was extremely prolific.

Natale Carletti began labeling his own instruments from the early 1920s. Unlike his father, who made very few cellos, Natale produced many cellos and basses as well as violins. He received a silver medal for a double bass at the 1949 Cremona competition, among other awards. It is said that he constructed at least 200 cellos and 20 basses.

Natale Carletti violin, c. 1923. Photos: Tarisio

Natale did not follow the individualistic modeling of his father. Instead he was initially inspired by Stradivari and later also by Guarnerian f-hole models. He was perhaps the most technically proficient maker of the Carletti family, capable of controlled, sober work, with beautifully crafted, fluted edgework and lower wings. His scrolls are characteristically smooth, rounded and deeply carved; the cello and viola scrolls often show an unusual triangular feature at the lower rear. His soft, oil varnish with a tendency to crackle, ranges from red to golden-yellow. He often branded his instruments ‘CARLETTI’, usually on the interior but, as seen on the viola below, sometimes also on the exterior.

Brand on a Natale Carletti viola

Natale Carletti brand on a viola dated 1935

Orfeo’s work is comparatively little known; however, it is close in quality of workmanship to that of Natale, and I believe a good number of excellent instruments that currently bear Natale’s labels are collaborative works of the brothers. Orfeo was perhaps the most skilful scroll carver of the family. His hand is responsible for the cleanest workmanship of the Carlettis.

Orfeo Carletti violin, 1927. Photos: courtesy Dmitry Gindin

Throughout his career Natale continued his interest in Guarneri-style f-hole models, varying them in length. His no-doubt vivid imagination caused him to employ these patterns for his cellos and violas. While in France and elsewhere this model had been quite fashionable for cellos and violas, in Italy it was rare as it was then believed that ‘del Gesù’ completely excluded bass instruments from his opus. It was thus quite adventurous of the Carlettis and a few other Emilian makers to adopt such a whimsical f-hole model.

Natale continued working late into his career, with later works showing a gradual deterioration in quality. Instruments from the late 1960s and 70s, though still conceptually sound and attractively varnished, show a quicker, freer approach resulting in rougher edge-work and usually wider purfling.

Natale’s son, Gabriele, maintained the Carletti family tradition, making some instruments and giving a few lectures at the Bologna violin making school.

Genuzio Carletti violin, 1930. Photos: Tarisio

Genuzio worked in parallel with his estranged cousins and uncle and most of his work dates from the years of his collaboration with Settin; it is therefore far more common to find his instruments in the US than in Europe.

While Genuzio was a skilled maker, his work is heavier than that of his cousins. The models range from Stradivarian to Guarnerian. The characteristically round scrolls vary, the early ones recalling those of the other Carlettis, while the later ones are more personal or Stradivarian; some have a rather sharp chamfer, others are smooth and rounded.

Genuzio Carletti cello made for Settin

Genuzio Carletti cello made for Joseph Settin. Photos: Tarisio

His simpler, yellow-orange or yellow-brownish varnish is a weak point, especially on the instruments made for Settin’s market. Settin may well have varnished some of them himself once they reached New York in the white. Genuzio made many violas, often quite large and at times with the Guarneri-model f-holes characteristic of the Carlettis. The edges are rather flat and the well-crafted purfling often ends in a bee-sting, a rare trait among the Carletti family.

Thanks to Roberto Regazzi.

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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