Valentino De Zorzi

The Tuscan violin making school and the spirited maker who helped to revive its lost traditions in the late-19th century

By Dmitry Gindin in collaboration with Paolo Sorgentone July 11, 2018

In 1737, just five months before the death of Antonio Stradivari and after nearly 300 years of Medici rule, Tuscany became a satellite state of the great Austrian monarchy. A similar fate had already met the Duchy of Milan, where by 1713 the Austrians had consolidated their unwelcome rule. In Tuscany, as in Lombardy, the desire of Francis I of Lorraine and his wife, Maria Theresa, to spread Austrian culture to every corner of their dominions, resulted in many political, social, economic and cultural changes. These Habsburg reforms were largely unpopular locally, as they tended to favor everything Austrian, and eventually they resulted in a near-total eclipse of the fine violin making traditions in Milan and Cremona.


Piazza della Signoria, Florence, by Giuseppe Zocchi, first half of 18th century. Image: Wikimedia Commons

By contrast, Tuscany continued to thrive economically and culturally, especially under the Grand Duke Leopold II during the second half of the 18th century and, unlike Lombardy, the Tuscan violin making tradition actually emerged during the Austrian regime. The region enjoyed a lively musical scene, first under the patronage of the wealthy grand-ducal court, and later as part of the new Kingdom of Italy, of which Florence was the capital from 1865 to 1871. The refined musical tastes of Florence’s new Austrian ruling class – who were partial to opera and church music performances – led to the sponsorship of a number of new opera theaters; this was one of the Austrian cultural improvements that was popular with the locals. At the same time, towards the end of the Baroque period and into the Classical era of the 19th century, Germanic composers began to dominate Europe’s musical scene, taking over from their earlier Italian counterparts; in Italy instruments in the style of the great Tyrolean maker Jacob Stainer gained in popularity, as they were more likely to yield the type of sonority that many composers now expected.

Earlier in the 18th century violin makers in several major Italian centers had already succumbed to the Stainer model, though the greatest makers of Venice, Bologna and Rome also borrowed much from Cremona’s Amati and Stradivari. By contrast, most 18th- and 19th-century Tuscan violin makers, especially those of Florence, seemingly consciously rejected nearly all Cremona’s influence. This was despite the fact that some of the best Cremonese masterpieces, selected decades earlier by the Medici court for their orchestra, had remained in Florence (where today they are exhibited just a few meters away from Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia Museum).

Violin by G.B. Gabrielli dated 1750. Photos: Tarisio

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The classical Tuscan violin making school, headed by Giovanni Battista Gabrielli and the Carcassis, emerged somewhat before 1750 and flourished until about 1780. These makers were of local origin, but catering to the tastes of their Habsburg rulers, and the musicians they employed, often led to exaggerated improvisations of Stainer’s style. Despite this, the Tuscans’ refined work is highly characteristic and their output is easily distinguishable both from one another and from the Stainer-influenced work of other Italian and foreign schools. The core of the school was formed by Gabrielli, the Carcassis and the Piattellini families in Florence, with the Gragnanis in Livorno, and Bartolomeo Bimbi, who worked in both Siena and Florence. A good number of their far more obscure contemporaries such as P.A. Cati and Simeone Giamberini also constructed noteworthy instruments during the second half of the 18th century. As a group satisfying a fertile market they were highly prolific, but by the end of the 1700s demand had declined and nearly all violin making activity in Tuscany had ceased. The region’s makers left no children or students to continue the old Tuscan traditions, leaving the 19th century virtually free of any violin making of substance or quality.

The region’s 18th-century makers left no children or students to continue the old Tuscan traditions

The only workshops left open in Florence throughout much of the 19th century were those of Lorenzo Arcangioli and the Castellani family. While a good number of Carcassi-inspired instruments by Arcangioli exist, there are very few known instruments by the three generations of the Castellanis – most of them plucked. We can thus assume that their workshop largely focused on instrument maintenance and restoration. Certainly there were rare exceptions to the rule with interesting makers such as Luigi Cavallini of Arezzo fulfilling the meager demand of the local musicians.

The first important sign of a rebirth was marked by the arrival in Florence in 1866 of a Brescian native, Giuseppe Scarampella, who joined the Castellani workshop. Scarampella, having trained in Paris with Nicolò Bianchi, was a refined craftsman and a skilled restorer: it was he who was charged with the restoration of the worm runs on the back of the great 1690 Stradivari tenor viola and other prestigious instruments of the Medici collection. His violin production, though relatively limited, was sufficient to place him in the ranks of the most important violin makers of the later 19th century, though his adherence to the Guarneri model with some French influence places him well outside the school of Tuscan violin making.

De Zorzi violin from 1892. Photos: Tarisio

It was another emigre from the north of Italy who ended up having the greatest influence on the revival of violin making in Tuscany: Valentino De Zorzi. Born in Vittorio Veneto (Treviso) in 1837, De Zorzi had a rather eventful life before settling in Florence in 1885, where he set up shop in via del Corso, in the heart of the city. A volunteer in the army of Giuseppe Garibaldi, he fought for the independence of Italy; he then worked in Bologna after 1861 as a carpenter for the army and in 1880 moved to Pistoia (a town about 40 km west of Florence), where he began working as a blacksmith and cabinet maker. At the same time he also must have dabbled in violin making, presumably as an amateur. It is unclear whether he had contact with the workshop of Scarampella, and a comparison of the instruments of these two contemporaries – one a foreign-trained, refined master, partial to a revised Guarneri model; the other a self-taught but spirited maker poised to revive the lost, old Tuscan traditions – reveals two diametrically opposed styles and personalities.

De Zorzi was probably self-taught, though he received encouragement to undertake this career from a wealthy local collector, Count Vieri Ganucci Cancellieri, who provided him with ample opportunity to study his 18th-century instruments, especially those of the Tuscan school. This is probably why he adopted many traits associated with the old Tuscan school. Though his models are by no means overt Stainer copies, they also avoid direct quotes from either Stradivari or Guarneri. Instead they are a unique blend of the above influences, resulting in a very recognizable style.

The earliest-known instrument by De Zorzi: a viola made in Pistoia in 1880

De Zorzi’s first known instrument is a viola dating from 1880. It is already an expertly executed effort, suggesting that he was by then a reasonably experienced violin maker. The viola exhibits the main characteristics of the style that remained constant throughout his production: the ‘framed’ brands inspired by those of Gabrielli and Gragnani, affixed at different points of the instrument (on the back button, near the end button, on the table under the fingerboard, internally on the back, the table and the upper blocks); the deep channeling with its lowest point set several millimeters from the purfling; elongated, thin corners, pointing inwards towards the C-bouts; rather long f-holes, with normally unfluted lower wings (though exceptions exist); raised edges in the upper part of the beautifully round and deeply cut scrolls (perhaps a tribute to the Veneto school of Eugenio Degani); the neck that enters deeply into the upper block; relatively non-transparent, spirit varnish, tending towards brown hues, though at times it can be lighter and more luminous, reminiscent of the varnishes of Gabrielli. The wood used by De Zorzi is almost always of local origin (from the Appennine hills), with maple characterized by faint curl, although sometimes we find wood from the tree roots, with its deep and very irregular figure.

Left: De Zorzi (standing, third from right) with a group of Garibaldi survivors in Milan. Right: playing one of his contraviolino instruments

De Zorzi’s creative spirit, coupled with the curiosity of Count Cancellieri, led to the creation of the contraviolino. This experimental instrument, tuned an octave below the violin, was meant to find its place between the viola and the cello. It was presumably inspired by the role of the tenor viola during the 17th century, a form which must have been familiar to De Zorzi through the 1690 Stradivari tenor viola of the Medici quintet. The tenor’s 47 cm body length makes it virtually unplayable in modern performance, but the contraviolino was meant to be played like a cello, making it far more user-friendly. Yet despite a few chamber music compositions featuring it, the contraviolino fell into disuse. Some of de Zorzi’s examples of this fascinating instrument are in the collection of the Cherubini conservatory in Florence, kept by the Accademia Museum.

De Zorzi appears to have worked alone nearly until his death in 1916 and, as far as we know, no pupil of his was ever employed in his workshop. Nonetheless, he exerted a strong influence on a multitude of Florentine violin makers of the early 20th century. Apart from Iginio Sderci, who under the leadership of the Bisiachs adopted the style of the modern Milanese school, all the other Florentine makers followed de Zorzi’s move away from the Amati school in favor of their own, rather unconventional convictions regarding aesthetics and form. As a group these makers represent a refreshingly deviant approach to violin making not seen in Italy among professional luthiers since the 19th century.

Paoletti violin c. 1950. Photos: Tarisio

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After the death of De Zorzi, his pupil Silvio Vezio Paoletti took over his workshop with all of its tools, wood and instruments. A number of instruments sporting De Zorzi’s labels and brands were most likely made later by Paoletti as copies of his work and must be distinguished from De Zorzi’s own more inspiring instruments. From Paoletti’s workshop also emanated many instruments inspired by the style of De Zorzi. These were created, besides Paoletti, by a variety of local makers including Serafino Casini, Fernando Ferroni, Alfio Batelli (who emigrated to the US after the Second World War), Giuseppe Bargelli and possibly also Alfredo Del Lungo, who emigrated to South America. Casini, although active as a luthier from 1865, did not build violins until 1900, having first focused on the building of guitars and mandolins. His son, Lapo, initially built rather interesting instruments inspired by the old Tuscan school, but later developed a unique, extraordinarily flat yet uninspiring model. Ferroni followed De Zorzi’s style more scrupulously and successfully, although his work is distinguished by fewer marked flutings, purfling further from the edge and a pastier varnish, sometimes tending towards purple hues. At his best his instruments are rather beautiful and have excellent tonal potential. The work of Batelli, Bargelli and Del Lungo remains rather rare and obscure, although at times it is also of great interest.

The word ‘Cenetensis’ on Del Zorzi’s labels refers to the Latin name for the Diocese of Vittorio Veneto, his hometown.

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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