‘Gibson Huberman’ Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ of c. 1731
[Midori, who was programmed to perform the concerto with the LSO and had to pull out due to illness, plays the ‘Gibson, Huberman’ Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ c. 1731.]
Fifteen years ago I asked the late Robert Bein to help me understand the different periods of Guarneri ‘del Gesù’s work. He asked me what I had noticed so far and I said I thought there was so much variation of style and model that ‘del Gesù’ must have been a very unpredictable and capricious maker. I remember he raised his thick eyebrows and said, ‘No way, man. Guarneri was a creative genius but he’s one of the most predictable makers you’ll ever know.’ And in fact I had completely misunderstood; for all his reputation as a mad genius, ‘del Gesù’ is actually a regular and programatic maker – to understand him one must simply see the periods of his work in smaller spans.
Over his relatively short working life (c. 1725–44) ‘del Gesù’ created an extremely diverse body of work, but his instruments are easily classifiable into periods, each lasting no more than two or three years before he moved on to a new idea. In fact we now understand that ‘del Gesù’ often made instruments in matched sets; we find pairs and trios of violins from the same year made of exactly the same wood on the same model according to the same ideas and with the same details. From a violin making perspective there is a certain simplicity and efficiency in this; making two violins at the same time is faster than making two in succession, especially for a maker working alone.
The implications of this on expertise are significant. For many years the ‘Gibson, Huberman’ Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ was dated to 1734, but there was always something about this date that did not ring true. The style of making, outline, set of the sound-holes and wood choice just does not fit with the other violins from 1734. In fact, only by finding a near ‘twin’ in the 1731 ‘Geneva, Turettini’, which is currently in the collection of the Juilliard School, are we able to arrive at a more credible date for the ‘Gibson, Huberman’. Photographs of the two instruments reproduced here show that the wood used for their backs is a mirrored match; the flames of the ‘Gibson, Huberman’ descend from right to left and those of the ‘Geneva, Turettini’ descend from left to right. If one were to reverse the orientation of the backs we would see that the wood was from the same tree and nearly identical. From this pairing we are able to assign a much more logical date of c. 1731 to the ‘Gibson, Huberman’.
The careful study of Guarneri violins in the late 20th century, much of which was initiated by Robert Bein, has enabled modern expertise to make patterns out of what might otherwise seem – to the unstudied eye – to be an unpredictable and capricious sort of mad genius.
Jason Price— Jason Price