Few violin makers over the centuries can claim to have travelled as much as Vincenzo Panormo did over the course of his career. In preparation for the forthcoming Panormo exhibition, dendrochronological testing was carried out on all the instruments, revealing inconsistencies in his choice of tonewood for the soundboards. The tests show that while on occasion he used high-quality wood, sometimes from the same sources as his local contemporaries, in other instances he apparently chose poor-quality timber. The dendrochronological evidence now available suggests that this was because Panormo was unable to establish a consistent source of wood due to his itinerant habits.

Comparative tests of a substantial number of two-piece Panormo violin tops reveal no relationship between the two pieces. In itself, this is no proof of the lack of alternative wood or a deliberate mis-match, as this situation is not uncommon especially among Italian instruments of the 18th century. However, the wide-grained timber Panormo often used, which rarely exceeds 55 rings over the width of the pieces, would be rejected by many makers and tonewood dealers today. Yet Vincenzo Panormo made the best use of the available materials, and the tone qualities of his instruments testify to its suitability.

The lack of relationship often observed between two halves of a Panormo top, and the confirmation that wood from different trees was used, together with the low ring-count seen on many examples, suggest that at least some of Panormo’s wood came from non-standard sources. The absence of significant cross-matches with data from other instruments and available published geographical references is due in part to wide-grained wood providing too few annual rings. However, it could also be attributed to the acquisition of wood from reclaimed sources, as indeed Panormo is alleged to have done with maple from an old billiard table in Ireland. Spruce and wood from other conifers were widely used in the building trade and may well have been a cheap alternative to the timber specifically processed for the musical instrument making trade. Had Panormo used such reclaimed wood, the dendrochronological dates could easily be two or three hundred years prior to the making date. Such early dates would be difficult to identify through cross-dating due to the lack of available reference, let alone the low ring count. Incidentally, the wide-grained timber may also suggest that some of the trees used grew at fairly low altitude, as this type of growth rarely reflects the annual temperature variations that tends to be recorded by trees growing at higher elevations.

  • A Panormo viola probably made in London, showing the wide grain that he often used – perhaps due to financial constraints
  • The spruce for the front of this early Panormo violin was cut from the same tree as the previous viola, according to the dendrochronology report