An excerpt on the history of Neapolitan violin making from the book of Ernesto de Angelis: “The Neapolitan violin making from the seventeenth century to the present day”

The book is available in Italian language and from the spring 2023 also in English. You can buy it on Amazon at the link: https://amzn.to/3HU8GSj

Or you can pre-order the English Version sanding a WhatsApp message at the number: 0043 – 68120538300


Here is a short introduction written by Ernesto de Angelis to his book.

Even if few Neapolitan instruments certainly datable before 1680 have come down to us, it is certain that violin making has very ancient origins in Naples. A recent research of ours on non-living Neapolitan luthiers, starting from the second half of the 1600s, has identified about 150 of them, demonstrating how the noble art of making musical instruments has been kept alive, without interruption, up to the present day.

Naples is well known in the world for the ancient tradition for building excellent and refined plectrum or plucked instruments such as lutes, mandolas, mandolins, mandoloncelli, guitars, lire, etc., and there are numerous Neapolitan families who have handed down to their children, in the centuries, this art.

Plectrum and plucked instruments of the Fabricatore, Filano, Vinaccia, Calace families, as well as those of many other Neapolitan luthiers, have entered the history of music museums all over the world (1-2) and are sought after by professionals and collectors both for the refined and impeccable workmanship that for the extraordinary sound qualities. The habit of embellishing these instruments with mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell and ivory inserts, and of equipping them with hand-made mechanics and often engraved by skilled craftsmen, has made these instruments real jewels of Campania craftsmanship.

It is still well known that, while in other Italian cities, after the eighteenth century, the art of violin making has suffered a sometimes complete interruption for more or less long periods, Naples has been the cradle of a long and constantly alive luthier tradition over the centuries. . The Neapolitan luthiers, unlike those of other schools, were rarely specialized in the construction of a single type or family of instruments, more often they built a bit of all stringed instruments: mandolins, mandolas, mandoloncelli, guitars, lutes, theorbo , violins, violas, celli, etc. Of the approximately 150 Neapolitan luthiers identified, only a third built exclusively or occasionally string instruments. Although therefore the number of masters working in Naples in these centuries is limited, they, always tireless workers, occupy a pre-eminent place in international lutherie both for the large number of instruments produced, and for the great sound qualities of the same, absolutely not inferior to those of other Italian or foreign schools.

We must also not forget that in the 1700s in Naples there were the best minugia rope factories and that Paganini himself supplied himself with ropes in this city. It is still in Naples that in the early 1900s the steel strings for bowed instruments were made and marketed for the first time by Vincenzo Gagliano. If there is very little information on the major families of eighteenth-century Neapolitan luthiers, nothing has ever been published on the Neapolitan luthiers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, often wrongly considered “minor”. Nor is there any publication or article that deals with the Neapolitan school in general, analytically illustrating its peculiar characteristics that unequivocally distinguish it from other Italian schools.

I therefore proposed to fill this gap by providing general information on the Neapolitan school of bowed violin making, and of a particular nature on some aspects that characterize the production of individual luthiers of greatest interest.

The bowed violin making in Naples.

The common meaning that the Neapolitan bowed violin making comes directly from the Cremonese one, being the progenitor of the Gagliano family, Alessandro, who went to the workshop in Cremona from the “supreme” Stradivari, is “true” but imprecise. In fact, there is evidence that the art of building bowed instruments had long been the patrimony of this city and that the return to Naples of Alessandro Gagliano, which took place around 1695, only gave a new and strong impulse to the noble profession. As evidence of a pre-existing luthier activity in our city, we recall that some splendid instruments by Mathia Popeller, author of German origin, maker of violins, violas and cellos, working in Naples in the late 17th-early 18th century are known in the luthier world. It is also reported operating in Naples at the beginning of the 18th century Santo Giovanni, builder of stringed instruments based on Amati models and, as further evidence it should be noted that even instruments of the mid-18th century, and therefore contemporary to the Gagliano, such as eg. some instruments by Tomaso Eberle, who also appears to have worked in the workshop of Gennaro Gagliano, are to be considered of the “pre-Gagliano” school as they are clearly inspired by Amati, and neither the Gagliano nor their successors have ever referred to the models of this author.

Even if the Neapolitan bow lutherie is traced back, as we have said, to Alessandro Gagliano, he is often included in the Cremonese authors. But studying the instruments of Alessandro built after his return to Naples (1695), which are not few, it is observed that while the first are practically Stradivari, in others some distinctive elements of the future “Neapolitan” school are already introduced.
Alessandro’s sons, Nicola, and in particular Gennaro, are commonly considered the true forerunners of Campania lutherie. They, together with the Ventapane, while referring to the Cremonese construction principles, were able to impress the instruments with characteristics of such personality and originality to be considered as an independent school. In fact, even if every Neapolitan artist who succeeded the Gagliano and Ventapane was able to introduce something original and personal in his instruments, (originality is a peculiar characteristic of the Neapolitan school, fruit of the nature of the Campania people), it is evident in the together of his work, the influence that these two families had on those who continued to work with wood to produce bowed instruments.

Alessandro’s sons, Nicola, and in particular Gennaro, are commonly considered the true forerunners of Campania lutherie. They, together with the Ventapane, while referring to the Cremonese construction principles, were able to impress the instruments with characteristics of such personality and originality to be considered as an independent school. In fact, even if every Neapolitan artist who succeeded the Gagliano and Ventapane was able to introduce something original and personal in his instruments, (originality is a peculiar characteristic of the Neapolitan school, fruit of the nature of the Campania people), it is evident in the together of his work, the influence that these two families had on those who continued to work with wood to produce bowed instruments.

The “classical” texts, when they mention Bairhoff, Circapa, Vinaccia, Filano, Della Corte, add: “Gagliano school”. And whoever has had the fortune or fortune, being increasingly rare, to see or own some instrument by these authors, will immediately notice that, although each of them has a strong individuality, they all come, always, from the same stock.
And what about the originality of the various Della Corte, Garani, Iorio, Obbo, Loveri, the Fabricatore family, Raffaele Trapani, Verzella, the great Postiglione and his disciples, Desiato, Pistucci, Altavilla, Contino, etc. From the most important of these to the least, from those with dizzying prices to those of more modest value, all have given their work the “Neapolitan” imprint.
This is what creates the difference between art and craftsmanship.

While many luthiers of other schools have referred, sometimes slavishly, to the great masters of the ‘700 by copying their instruments with extreme precision and fidelity, the Neapolitan luthiers, without exception, have always been able to introduce one or more elements into their models personal and original. The Neapolitan luthiers, even if less refined in their execution, have always interpreted rather than copied. And this is why they are often neglected or even ignored by the so-called “purists” who evaluate the correspondence to the classical constructive canons considered more important than the sound produced by the instrument itself.

To fully understand the Neapolitan luthier production, it is essential to frame it in the socio-economic fabric in which the luthiers have operated. The Neapolitan authors have in fact often been accused of having used poor materials for the construction of their instruments which conditioned the precision of the work and the final beauty. This is in many cases actually true and derives from the fact that Naples, as a “city of the South” has always been a poor city, just as all the violin makers we speak of have been poor. As a result, their production was seldom directed at some high-profile instrumentalists or the few rich. Generally it was the poor people who bought poorly made but excellent voice instruments from luthiers with which they earned their living by working as “parking attendants”, or playing in the streets, in restaurants and in public places to brighten up the evenings and dinners of the rich. .
The greatest demand was therefore for economic instruments. And when the luthiers were unable to sell the instruments produced in the city, they went to the port where many of them had a permit to get on the parked ships to sell the instruments to foreign cruise passengers or emigrants who then resold them on their arrival with a certain gain. This is perhaps the most logical explanation of the massive presence of Neapolitan instruments in Europe and in the U.S.A.

The Neapolitan luthiers, not having the possibility to buy precious woods and materials, adapted to use a “table for the bed” or the piece of local maple to build a base, the Sila fir for the lid, the tablet for the controfasce was often obtained from the “fish box”, or boards that were barely sufficient for a small violin were transformed into a “cello” top made in various jointed pieces (e.g. a cello by G.B. Fabbricato was built with a top in 5 pieces and bottom in 3 joined pieces). But, as Angelo Marino, who remains the greatest expert in Neapolitan bow lutherie, says, “what a marvel came from their hands when, with the classic stroke of genius, they sculpted a head, carved an” f “, or painted an instrument”.
Certainly attributing an instrument to a specific author has always been the prerogative of expert luthologists. The label affixed to the inside of the instrument has never been a guarantee of authenticity. In addition to the millions of factory instruments, especially German, built on classic models and equipped with false labels of the copied author, the labels in the instruments have always been replaced with fakes or with labels of luthiers with higher prices. Thus the works of Bairhoff, Eberle, Della Corte, Altavilla, etc…, have often been subsequently labelled Gagliano, those of Contino have become Postiglione, and many minor Gagliano have all been renamed Gennaro Gagliano. Moreover, many luthiers, having at their disposal an instrument of an important author, made a copy of it, then exchanging the labels between the copy and the original so that the latter carried a false label, which in any case did not decrease its value, while the copy , with its original label, could more easily fool some experts.
These practices, common to the whole luthier world in every era, have particularly afflicted Neapolitan lutherie, but this too finds its explanation in the socio-economic conditions of the city where these luthiers worked, that is, in the extreme poverty of the vast majority of them. The replacement of labels in instruments, especially in the late 1800s – first half of the 1900s, was almost a rule in Naples, and was not only reserved for ancient instruments, but apparently strange, even for contemporary instruments. If one author was more accredited than another, and consequently sold at higher prices, some competitor did not hesitate to put the label of the luckiest colleague in his instruments.
In fact, it is well known that many of Pistucci’s instruments have been labeled by himself as Contino. The latter, in fact, having joined the fascist party, in power in that historical period, was greatly supported and publicized by it in the upper middle class. He had also successfully participated in some luthier competitions and consequently, his instruments, perhaps the only example in Naples, were well rated, even in the period in which he was alive. Contino was envied by his contemporary colleagues, all very poor, for the high prices of his instruments, and it is known that Pistucci, not at all inferior to him, in order to earn something more, often used to put a false label on his instruments. Contino.
We must not forget the “copies” of Sannino. This truly brilliant author was able to reproduce with the utmost fidelity the instruments of the greatest masters, not only Neapolitans, but of all the greatest Italian schools. The of him Gagliano, Ventapane, Guarneri, Stradivari, Montaganana have often deceived the greatest Italian and foreign lutherie experts. Therefore such confusion has been created in Neapolitan lutherie that today it is really difficult, and the patrimony of very few expert lutologists, to ascribe with certainty an instrument to a specific author, limiting many “experts” to the sole attribution to the “Neapolitan school”.