Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri

Highest auction price achieved
£ 572000.00

By George Hart

Better known as Giuseppe del Gesu, his labels having the cypher [IHS below a Maltese cross] upon them. It is not known why he adopted this monogram, but it is possible that he belonged to a fraternity in Cremona, common at that period among Italian tradesmen, who banded themselves together in various societies bearing religious titles. This famous maker of Violins was born at Cremona in the year 1683, and died in 1745. To M. Vuillaume, of Paris, we are indebted for the identification of the date of his birth, which he succeeded in obtaining in the year 1855. The house of Giuseppe Guarneri was No. 5, Piazza S. Domenico, now called Piazza. Roma. The extract from the register proves that Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri, legitimate son of Giovanni Battista Guarneri and Angela Maria Locatelli, was born at Cremona on the 8th of June, 1683, and was baptized on the nth of the same month, in the parish of San Donate, at the Chapel of Ease of the Cathedral. The original of this extract is as follows:— " 'Guarneri (Giuseppe Antonio) figlio de' legittimi eonjugi Giovanni Battista Guarneri ed Angela Locadella nacque nella parocchia di San Donato aggregata alia Cattedrale il giorno 8 Giugno 1683 e batezzato il giorno 11 del detto mese.' Libro dei nati dal 1669 al 1692 G. dalla Cattedrale di Cremona, li 19 Settembre 1855. (Signe) Fusetti Giulio Vic"—Fetis, notice of Anthony Stradivarius. The father of Guarneri del Gesu does not appear to have had any knowledge of the manufacture of stringed instruments, and was thus an exception to the majority of a family which numbered many prominent makers within it. It has been asserted on all sides that Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu was a pupil of Antonio Stradivari, but in every case this statement has been made without a shadow of proof, either from recorded fact or analogy. That this bare assertion should have so long remained unchallenged is a matter of some surprise to the writer of these pages, who fails to see anything in common between the two makers, with the exception of the varnish, and perhaps the high finish, as apparent in the works of the second epoch of Guarneri. The following remarks on this point are the result of the most careful consideration of the subject, and may serve to assist the reader in forming an opinion. Had Giuseppe Guarneri received his early instructions from Stradivari, should we not expect his instruments to bear the character of the master in some slight degree ? The most diligent student will, however, fail to discover an early work of Guarneri bearing any likeness whatever to the work of Stradivari. Among the instruments of the second epoch may be found a few that show some gleam of the desired similarity in respect to high finish ; but it would be to the earliest efforts of Guarneri that we should turn in our endeavour to discover the source of his first instructions. The faint gleam of similarity, then, attaching to the instruments of the second epoch, be it understood, is in no way sufficient to demonstrate that Guarneri was a pupil of Stradivari. Upon turning to other makers, what will be the result if we judge them by the criterion above mentioned ? Bergonzi, Guadagnini, Gagliano, and others, whose names it is unnecessary to mention, leave upon their earliest efforts the indelible stamp of the master who first instructed them. To suppose that Guarneri del Gesu formed the single exception to the likeness between the work of master and pupil is scarcely sufficient to satisfy the enquirer. There are three essential points of difference between Guarneri and Stradivari. The first is the outline of the work, which, as the mere tyro must at once observe, is totally different in their respective instruments. The second is the sound-hole, in which, again, the two do not approach one another ; that of Guarneri is long, and a modified form of that of Gasparo da Salo. The third is the scroll, in which Guarneri is as distinct from Stradivari as it is possible to be. It may be asked, then, if not from Stradivari, from whom did Guarneri receive instruction ? To disagree with what is popularly accepted, and yet to withhold one's own counter theory, may perhaps tend to weaken one's case. There can be but one method to be pursued if, in the absence of any historical data, we set about the investigation of the question, viz., that of analogy. Starting upon this ground, the first step to be taken is to endeavour to discover the maker whose work and style bear some degree of similarity to those of Giuseppe del Gesu. If we carefully review the works of the Cremonese makers, it will be found that Giuseppe Guarneri, son of Andrea, and cousin of Guarneri del Gesu, is the only maker in whose productions we can find the strong similarity needed. Analogy, therefore, would point to him as the instructor of his cousin. Giuseppe Guarneri, son of Andrea, was del Gesu's senior by many years, and it is far more reasonable to conclude that it was in his workshop that del Gesu was first instructed, than that he was the pupil of a maker whose work he never copied, and whose style has nothing in common with his own. Enough has been said on this question to enable the reader to judge for himself, and this may the more readily be conceded when it is also admitted that, after all, it is of little importance to determine where the early training of this kingly maker was passed, as he so soon displayed that rare originality which separated him from his brethren for ever. We will now inquire into the character of Guarneri del Gesu's model. In forming this, he seems to have turned to Gasparo da Salo as the maker whose lead he wished to follow; and if each point be critically considered, an impression is left that, after well weighing the merits and demerits of Gasparo's model, he resolved to commence where Gasparo ceased, and carry out the plan left incomplete by the great Brescian maker. To commence with that all-important element, the sound-hole, it will be seen that Guarneri del Gesu retained its pointed form. Next comes the outline of the body, where, again, there is much affinity to the type of Gasparo da Salo, particularly in the middle bouts. Lastly, the quality of wood selected for the bellies is in both makers similar. In continuing the path trodden by Gasparo, Guarneri proved himself an artist possessed of no little discernment. His chief desire was evidently to make instruments capable of producing a quality of tone hitherto unknown, and that he succeeded is universally acknowledged. Workmanship, as evidenced by the instruments of his first and last epoch, was with him a purely secondary consideration. In the second epoch, his work shows him to have been not unmindful of it. That he brought much judgment to bear upon his work, the vast number of instruments that he has left, and the great variety of their construction, is sufficient to prove. The extent of his researches is surprising, and there is no ground for the assertion frequently made that he worked without plan or reason. The idea that such a maker as Guarneri groped in the dark savours of the ridiculous; moreover, there is direct evidence, on the contrary, of his marvellous fertility of design. At one period his instruments are extremely flat, without any perceptible rise; at another, the form is raised in a marked manner, and the purfling sunk into a groove; a parallel of this type of instrument is to be found in the works of Pietro Guarneri and Montagnana. At one time his sound-holes were cut nearly perpendicularly (a freak which, by the way, has some show of reason, for though it sacrifices beauty, it also prevents the breaking up of the fibres), at another, shortened and slanting, and some, again, are occasionally seen immoderately long. These hastily marshalled instances are quite sufficient to show the extent of his experiments, and the many resources which he adopted in order to produce exceptional qualities of tone. In order that the reader may better understand the subject, before going further into the peculiar features belonging to the instruments of Guarneri, we will classify his work. M. Fetis, doubtless under the guidance of M. Vuillaume, has divided the career of Guarneri into three periods—an excellent arrangement, and one that cannot be improved upon. It only remains to point out certain peculiarities omitted in the description of these three stages which M. Fetis gives us. In the first epoch we find instruments of various patterns, the character of the sound-hole being very changeable. At one time there is a strange mixture of grace and boldness; at another, the whole is singularly deformed, and the purfling roughly executed, as though the maker had no time to finish his work properly. It seems as if he had hastily finished off a set of Violins that he had already tested, eager to lay the stocks for another fresh venture. The second epoch has given us some of the finest specimens of the art of Violin making. In these culminate the most exquisite finish, a thoroughly artistic and original form, and the most handsome material. In some cases the lustre of the wood of the backs, set in its casing of deep amber, that unrivalled varnish, may be likened to the effect produced by the setting summer sun on cloud and wave. The reader may pardon a somewhat novel application of the loveliest description of the glow of evening to be found in the compass of the English language, which paints the heavens' colours as— " Melted to one vast iris of the west, Where the day joins the past eternity. All its hues, From the rich sunset to the rising star, Their magical variety diffuse. And now they change ; a paler shadow strews Its mantle o'er the mountains ; parting day Dies like the dolphin, whom each pang imbues With a new colour as it gasps away, The last still loveliest, till—'tis gone—and all is grey.'' The effect of this beautiful corruscation upon the backs of Violins is obtained by cutting the wood upon the cross, or, as the French term it, sur maille. The most perfect and the handsomest Guarneri in existence (Plate 9) has the appearance here described. It is also seen, though rarely, on backs divided, when the wood is particularly handsome in curl. The varnish on such instruments is of a rich golden hue, highly transparent; it is lightly laid on. The size of these works varies ; they are sometimes a trifle smaller than the other specimens of Guarneri. In the last epoch we find Violins of an altogether bolder conception, dating from about 1740 and a little later. They are massively constructed, and have in them material of the finest acoustic properties. The sound-hole loses the pointed form so much associated with Guarneri; the purfling is embedded, the edges heavy, the corners somewhat grotesque, the scroll has a mixture of vigour, comicality, and majesty, which may force a smile and then a frown from the connoisseur. The comparison may seem a little forced, but the head of a thoroughbred English mastiff, if carved, might give some idea of the appearance sought to be described. Mr. Reade says of these instruments, with much truth, " Such is the force of genius, that I believe in our secret hearts we love these impudent fiddles best, they are so full of chic" Among the Violins of this period may be mentioned Paganini's and M. Alard's, both rare specimens. These splendid chefs-d'oeuvre are strangely mixed with those commonly known as the "prison fiddles"—a sorry title. The name arose from the story current in Italy that Guarneri made some Fiddles whilst undergoing imprisonment, and that the gaoler's daughter procured him the necessary materials, which were of the coarsest kind. M. F£tis refers to the story, and mentions that Benedetto Bergonzi, who died in 1840, used to relate it. Allusion is also made to it by Vincenzo Lancetti, to whom it was doubtless communicated by Count Cozio di Salabue. These references lead to the belief that the tradition has some foundation in fact, though not to the extent that he ended his days in durance vile. Lancetti refers to the offence as an encounter with some person in which his antagonist lost his life. A deplorable circumstance of this kind may have occurred without the accused having been criminally at fault, though he may have suffered the penalty of being so. His reported love of wine and pleasure, his idleness and irregularity, in all probability were statements added by successive narrators of the prison story. I have referred to the three periods of this remarkable man's life in relation to his art, and it remains to point out some other features in his work and material. His selection of wood, when he had the opportunity of exercising his own judgment, was all that could be desired, and the belly wood in particular was of the choicest description. He seems to have obtained a piece of pine, of considerable size, possessing extraordinary acoustic properties, from which he made nearly the whole of his bellies. The bellies made from this wood have a singular stain running parallel with the finger-board on either side, and unmistakable, though frequently seen but faintly. If we may judge from the constant use he made of this material, it would seem that he regarded it as a mine of wealth. The care he bestowed, when working it, that none should be lost, affords clear evidence of the value that he set upon this precious piece of wood. I have met with three Violins by Carlo Bergonzi, having bellies evidently cut from the same piece of pine, and these instruments passed as the work of Guarneri for a long period. The sycamore that he used was varied both in appearance and quality; it is chiefly of a broad description of grain, the whole-backs being impressively marked like a tiger's skin. There are a few instances where, in his jointed-backs, the markings of the wood are turned upwards. Upon examining the works of Guarneri with respect to their graduation, it is found that he varied very much as to the quantity of wood left in the several instruments. Notwithstanding these differences, however, it will be found, upon closer comparison of the thicknesses, that there is every reason to be sure that he had a guiding principle in their management. They vary with the quality of the wood; and hard material was treated as needing a slighter solidity than wood of a soft nature. His workmanship in numerous instances is, without doubt, careless; but, even in the instruments where this negligence is most observed, there is an appearance which at once excites the admiration of the beholder, and forces from the most exacting the admission that, after every deduction on account of want of finish, there remains a style defying all imitation. Who can fail to recognize the quaint head, into which he seems to have thrown such singular character by the mere turn of his chisel, and which, when imitated, always partakes of the ludicrous, and betrays the unhappy copyist who is unable to compass that necessary turn ! In matters of the highest art it is always so ; the possessor of genius is constantly showing some last resort, as it were, impregnable to imitation. The sound-hole, also, of Guarneri always preserves its distinctive character, and a grotesque humour which at once pleases the eye, though it is found to vary considerably with the three periods of his life. Again, the button—that portion of the back against which the head of the neck rests, which forms a prominent mark in all Violins, and evidence of style, has a remarkably pronounced development in the Violins of Guarneri, and, in fact, may be said to give a vitality to the whole work. There are many instances where excellent and original specimens of workmanship have been, speaking artistically, ruined for want of skill in handling that simple factor of the Violin. Having endeavoured to point out the chief features in the work and style of this remarkable maker, I have only to add that his imitators would far exceed in number all the Violin makers that the city of Cremona ever sheltered. There has ever been a diversity of purpose with these Guarneri imitators, distinct from those of Stradivari and others. They may be divided into three orders, viz., the bona fide copyist, the subtle copyist, and the wholesale copyist. The first sets about making his instrument resemble the original as closely as possible, and when completed, sends it forth as a copy and nothing else. Among these legitimate imitators were Lupot, Gand, Vuillaume, and others. The subtle copyist takes advantage of the disturbed styles belonging to Guarneri, coupled with his misfortunes, manufactures and translates at will. He " spots " a back on an old fiddle, in which he sees Guarneri in embryo; he secures it. In his possession is a belly which, with a little skilful manoeuvring of sound-holes and corners, may be accommodated to the back. The sides need well matching in point of colour; workmanship is purely secondary. The scroll he sets himself to carve, giving it a hideous, burglar-like appearance. The inevitable label is inserted, and the Violin leaves the translator's hands a " Prison Joseph." Now comes the difficulty. How is this " Joseph," unaccustomed to elbow his legitimate namesakes in the world of fiddles, to maintain the character he has assumed ? The subtle copyist puzzles his brain without arriving at anything very satisfactory. He resolves to slip it into a sale of household effects. It is described in the catalogue, in glowing terms, as having been in the possession of Geminiani (he not being alive to dispute the assertion). Previous to the sale the instrument is viewed. The knowing ones pass it by with contempt. The half-informed turn it over and over, puzzled, and replace it in its case, disconsolate. The thoroughly ignorant look inside; " Joseph Guarnerius Cremonensis faciebat 1724," in old type, stares him in the face; he puts the bow on the strings and demands the maker's name—his thoughts are echoed back in gentle sounds, " Joseph Guarnerius." He returns it to its case, shuts the lid, and exultingly sallies forth, congratulating himself again and again upon his good fortune in having at last the opportunity of securing the real thing at the price of " a mere song." The time of sale arrives. The beauties of the instrument are dwelt upon by the auctioneer; he begs to be permitted to say two hundred guineas to commence with. Silence around. " Well, gentlemen, shall I say one hundred and fifty guineas ? " Dogged silence. " Come, come, gentlemen, this is mere trifling. A ' Joseph Guarnerius' for one hundred and fifty guineas! Shall I say one hundred guineas ?" The customary witty frequenter of sale-rooms, unable to restrain himself longer, cries out, " I'll give yer a pound." The auctioneer sees the whole thing; it is a copy that he is selling, and not the original. The pound bid is capped by another from our friend, who fondly fancies himself behind the scenes. The subtle copyist, seeing his eagerness, bids on his bid, and the "Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu " falls with the hammer to the anxious buyer for ten pounds. He demands possession of it at once, in case another may be substituted, and retires, perfectly satisfied with his day's work. The wholesale copyists are those who manufacture Violins in Bavaria and France in large factories, where the Violins undergo all kinds of processes to make them modern antiques. The wood is put into ovens and baked until it assumes the required brownness, or steeped in strong acids until it becomes more like a piece of charred wood than anything else—the sharp edges removed by the file—the wear of years effected in a few moments by rubbing down those parts subject to friction—ticketed and dated, regardless alike of orthography and chronology, the date being generally before or after the original's existence. There imitations are so barefaced as to render them comparatively harmless.

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Price History

Type Title Sold Price
Violin 1735 (composite) Wed 1st November 00 £ 311500.00
Violin 1736 Sat 1st November 97 £ 551500.00
Violin 1738 Thu 1st June 89 £ 253000.00
Violin 1743 Tue 1st November 88 £ 572000.00
Violin 1720 c. Tue 1st November 88 £ 242000.00
Violin 1741 c. Sat 1st March 86 £ 214500.00
Violin 35.5 cm Cremona, 1720 c. With provenance Mon 1st October 07 £ 460669.00

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