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Text and photos by Peter Weld.
Wandering through the streets of Cremona, it might seem at first like any other large town in north-central Italy. But over the centuries, Cremona has been home to more notable figures than most towns in the Lombardy region: luminaries such as Nicolò Amati, Giuseppe Guarneri, and Antonio Stradivari.
Antonio Stradivari? The most famous violinmaker in history? That’s the one. Amati and Guarneri, though not as widely known today, were also master violinmakers of the 17th and 18th centuries whose instruments still command breathtaking prices in the 21st century, and they all lived and worked in Cremona.
These men were luthiers, or makers of stringed musical instruments – violins, of course, but also violas, cellos, and occasionally even guitars – and their craft thrives in Cremona like nowhere else.
A short distance southwest of the town’s centre stands Museo del Violino, the Museum of Violins. Opened just two years ago, it features instruments created by the three masters and many others. It’s undoubtedly worth a visit, but to get a real feel for Cremona’s stringed heritage, you need to stroll through its streets and alleys and visit some of today’s violin-making masters.
There are roughly 160 violinmakers in Cremona today with about half hailing from Italy while the rest come from countries as diverse as Japan and Argentina. Most of them are happy to have visitors come in and watch as they slowly, painstakingly craft their instruments.
In Cremona the best place to begin a violin visit is probably in the square at the centre of town, where a 900 year-old cathedral stands as a landmark with its enormous red-brick bell tower, the Torrazzo.
From the cathedral it doesn’t matter which street you take; in Cremona, all roads lead to a luthier’s workshop – or several. Yael Rosenblum’s is one of them. A native of Israel, Rosenblum started learning to play the violin and viola when she was six, and she has played professionally in an orchestra.
“But I’m not a stage person,” she admits, “and I didn’t want to continue performing. I do have good manual skills, and when I started learning to make violins, I knew it was my destiny.”
Since graduating from Cremona’s violin-making school, she has been practicing her trade for over 15 years, and her workshop can be found in Vicolo Pertusio, just a hundred metres or so north of the cathedral.
Layers of varnish
A few streets away from Rosenblum’s workshop stands Simeone Morassi’s studio. He’s a second-generation violinmaker; his father Gio Batta Morassi is now retired but sometimes comes to the workshop to make violins just for fun.
The younger Morassi explains to a visitor that Cremona’s violinmakers still use the same methods and hand tools that Stradivari and his contemporaries used, as well as the same materials: red spruce from the Dolomites of northern Italy, maple from the Balkans, ebony for the fingerboard, and rosewood for the chin rest. Making a violin, says Morassi, takes about two months: one month for the woodworking and one for the repeated layers of varnishing – 30 to 40 layers in all.
When all the woodworking and varnishing has been finished, a new hand-made violin from Cremona will sell for anywhere between 5,000 and 20,000 euros. But that’s nothing compared to what some of the used ones cost: in 2011, a violin known as the Lady Blunt Stradivarius sold at auction for more than 9,000,000 euros, and the following year, a violin called the Vieuxtemps Guarneri was sold for an even higher (but undisclosed) amount. That’s a lot of money, but some things are worth more than money.
In Cremona, the masters of the craft also have a chance to show their talent beyond the workshops. Every three years, a violin-making competition called the Triennale is held in the town. The winning violin is purchased by the City of Cremona for its collection – the collection that is housed in Museo del Violino. There it will live forever alongside some of the greatest violins ever made, and its maker will enjoy something that no amount of money can buy: immortality.
This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.