The legacy of New York violin maker Luiz Bellini

Four mint condition violins by the highly-acclaimed New York violin maker, Luiz Bellini (1935-2015) are featured in our May 2024 New York sale. These violins were kept under lock and key by the maker and have never been used. They were only recently discovered by his family and are now being offered for sale for the very first time. In this week’s Carteggio, Tarisio Director, Jason Price looks at the life and influence of Maestro Bellini.

By Jason Price May 15, 2024
Copy of the 'Kreisler' Guarneri 'del Gesù' violin by Luiz Bellini, New York, 1989. Lot 136 in our May 2024 New York sale.

Born in 1935, in the countryside outside São Paulo, Brazil, Luiz Bellini originally trained as a wood carver. As a child, he liked to make things with wood and when, as a teenager he started his professional schooling at the Getulio Vargas Technical School in São Paulo, he was given the choice between painting and cabinet making. Although both options intrigued him, he chose wood working. At the end of his studies in 1955, Bellini made a violin for his final project and soon thereafter, he went to work for the violin maker, Guido Pascoli.

Bellini’s first teacher, Guido Pascoli, in the Late 1920s.

Like Bellini, Pascoli was born in Brazil to Italian parents. His mother, Serafina Spina, came from the Cremonese countryside but despite being from the cradle of instrument making, Serafina knew little about violins. Guido and his brother Benvenuto had learned violin making from Guido Rocchi, an Italian musician and self-taught luthier. Bellini worked in the Pascoli workshop for the next five years and made twenty violins, a viola and a cello.

Many of Bellini’s instruments from this period were made with a local Brazilian hardwood known as Perobinha-do-campo, or Peroba Rosa, instead of the traditional European maple. Although Peroba Rosa had great acoustic characteristics it was difficult to work with and consequently was great training for the young maker.

In the Pascoli workshop, Bellini became acquainted with Geraldo Modern, a successful businessman and violin collector. Modern was a client of Rembert Wurlitzer and in 1960, recognizing the talent of the young maker, Modern and Pascoli organized an apprenticeship for Bellini at the Wurtlitzer firm in New York. Pascoli and Bellini remained close friends until the former’s death in 1987.

Bellini returning to the Pascoli workshop in the 1970s.

Bellini was ecstatic to go to New York in part because it meant he would be working under the legendary Simone Fernando Sacconi who had pioneered restoration techniques and was responsible for looking after the instruments of some of the greatest artists of his time. Bellini’s first day at the Wurlitzer firm was November 20, 1960, a Sunday. Bellini didn’t speak English, so Sacconi spoke to him in Italian. But Bellini also didn’t speak Italian. Somehow, with a mixture of Italian, Portuguese and English, the two hit it off. The Wurlitzer firm at that time was a magnet for great restorers and makers and Bellini found himself working beside Dario D’Attli, Hans Nebel, Charles Beare, Frank Passa, Vahakn Nigogosian and Rene Morel. Sacconi affectionately called Bellini “Luigi” instead of Luiz.

The dream team of the Wurtlitzer firm in c. 1962: Mario d’Alessandro, Charles Beare, John Roskowski, Simone Fernando Sacconi, Luiz Bellini, Dario D’Attili, Hans Nebel, René Morel, Vahakn Nigogosian (photo courtesy, Stefan Valcuha).

Working closely under Sacconi, Bellini spent the next two years learning the ins and outs of the great makers. Five months in, Sacconi insisted that Bellini make a Strad model violin under his supervision. Bellini remembered this instrument as the one that taught him the most about Stradivari’s working methods and the one that launched him on his pursuit of copying great instruments.

To Bellini, the 1742 ‘Lord Wilton’ Guarneri was one of the greatest violins ever. In 1966, the instrument came to Wurlitzers and Bellini decided he wanted to make a bench copy. He finished the violin a year later but was unhappy with the varnish so he stripped it and shelved the instrument for the next several years. In 1968, Bellini left Wurtlitzers and went to work for the New York dealer Jacques Français.

A news segment from January 1979 covering Luiz Bellini as he works out of his New York City workshop.

In 1973, Charles Beare called Bellini at the Français workshop and inquired about his ‘Lord Wilton’ copy. Bellini agreed to show it to him. Just a few hours after Beare’s visit, Ruggiero Ricci dropped off two bows to be rehaired. He had heard about an unvarnished copy of the ‘Lord Wilton’, and asked to see it. He was suitably impressed and asked that he could try it when it was finished.

Ricci knew Jack Marlane who at the time owned the ‘Lord Wilton’, and Ricci arranged for Bellini to study the varnish of the original. For four weeks, Marlane dropped off the instrument late Saturday night, and picked it up Sunday afternoon giving Bellini just a few hours each week to study the instrument. On the final Sunday, Bellini laid out his completed instrument on a table next to the ‘Lord Wilton’. When Ricci and Marlane came to retrieve the Guarneri, Ricci took Bellini’s violin out of the room. When he came back he declared, “This is going to be a great violin.”

Ricci understood how great the instrument was, and decided to take it on his upcoming tour. Ricci would famously share an anecdote about the instrument where a fan came up after a concert and remarked, “Your Guarneri sounds great!” Only, it was really a Bellini… Returning from his tour, Ricci brought many commissions for Bellini violins. Over the span of two months, Bellini had become the maker that every violinist wanted. In 1985, he remarked that had enough commissions to keep him in business until the year 2000.

Ricci wasn’t the only one who was smitten with the ‘Lord Wilton’ copy. David Nadien, concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic commissioned an instrument after trying Bellini’s copy.

 

Bellini counted many of the great soloists and concertmasters of his generation as clients. After Ricci, came Yehudi Menuhin, Gidon Kremer, David Nadien, Glenn Dicterow, Berl Senofsky, Eva-Maria Tomasi and many others. He had a decade-long waiting list that was accentuated by the fact that he preferred to do everything on his own. Ricci noted in an Interview with The Strad that when he asked Bellini why he didn’t hire an assistant, Bellini replied that he could never do such a thing; in order to create his best work, he needed to get a feel for the wood. To do that he had to work on an instrument from beginning to end. Each and every one of his instruments was made by his own hands. Working alone meant his pace was slow. While some makers make dozens of instruments per year, Bellini preferred to make few. Early in his career, he made eight violins per year. Later on, he made only three or four. Among the instruments that copied the most were the ‘Baron Knoop’ Stradivari, the ‘Kreisler’, ‘Lord Wilton’ and ‘Plowden’ Guarneris.

Yehudi Menuhin plays his personal Bellini copy of the 'Lord Wilton,' a violin he famously owned.

The violin that skyrocketed Bellini to fame, the one he made for Rugeiro Ricci, is in the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History‘s instrument collection. The violin was donated to the Smithsonian by Ricci in 2002.

Bellini visiting the Smithsonian in 2003 to view his copy of the 'Lord Wilton.'

In 1980, Bellini was a founding member of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. Bellini made instruments until he passed away on June 3, 2015 at the age of 79.

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