Vincenzo Panormo

Few characters in the history of violin making have attracted as much misinformation and mystery as Vincenzo Trusiano Panormo. The major reference books of the 19th and 20th centuries correctly note some of his movements, but they also optimistically imagined him as apprenticed to the Gaglianos, sojourning in Turin and training with the Bergonzis – all things that we know now to be extremely unlikely if not patently untrue. The challenge of unravelling this biographical tangle is complicated by the fact that Panormo has also been widely misattributed. In 2012 when Tarisio acquired the Cozio archive, it contained 219 ‘Panormo’ instruments, a full three-quarters of which had nothing more to do with Panormo than a label and an optimistic certificate. Now the archive contains just 61 authentic examples by this most famous and least understood of English violin makers.

The significance of Panormo and his influence on English violin making is difficult to overstate. In the mid-18th century English makers typically followed Stainer and Amati models, with a few notable exceptions including Daniel Parker and John Hare, who made some instruments on a model of a long pattern Stradivari. Panormo’s arrival in England in the late 18th century coincided with a growing fascination with Italian musical culture that accompanied the arrival of violin superstars such as Giovanni Battista Viotti, and which began an enduring fascination with the Stradivaris and Guarneris they played. With his Italian origins and his highly successful employment of a Stradivari form, Panormo had the perfect qualifications to become the inspiration for the generations of English makers who followed.

And somewhere along the way violin maker biographers embellished his life with a healthy dose of Romantic myth-making. The truth about Panormo, as Andrew Fairfax makes clear in his excellent new biography, is much more humble. Economic conditions in late-18th-century Italy made life difficult for violin makers. In fact only Venice and Naples seem to have provided sustainable work at this time, which led many – Guadagnini, Valenzano and Panormo being the most notable examples – to migrate in search of fresh economic opportunities. The eternally restless Panormo made more stops on his journey than most, and in doing so he contributed greatly to the cross-pollination of violin making ideas across Europe.

The driving force behind this exhibition and the brainwork that made it happen are due to the tireless efforts of Andrew Fairfax. Thanks to extensive new research by him and by Giovanni Paolo di Stefano, our understanding of Vincenzo Panormo’s life and works has taken an enormous leap forward. We are also very grateful to the owners of these 22 instruments and bows, who have generously made them available to be studied and appreciated.

The Panormo name

Gaspare Trusiano and his family seem to have adopted the surname ‘Panormo’ after their move to Naples, although they also occasionally used the name ‘Palermo’