The Forgotten Female Violin Maker of Cremona
Who was Katarina Guarneri?
Katarina Roda, who married Giuseppe Guarneri ‘del Gesù in 1722 and became known as Katarina Guarneri, is reported to have created some of the unexplained ‘del Gesù works. Whilst her contribution has never been officially confirmed, her story provides a very plausible explanation for some of the ‘del Gesù mysteries.
She arrived in Cremona with the Imperial Austrian army in 1707, where she met her future husband. When her husband died in 1744, she survived on her own for four years before remarrying in 1748. This remarkable woman survived, widowed and childless, at a time when women were viewed as nothing more than housemakers. She was been reported to have assisted ‘del Gesù in his workshop, but could her contribution to Cremonese violin making be even greater than we thought?
What evidence is there to suggest Katarina was a working violin maker in her own right?
There have been multiple accounts of the name Katarina Guarneri, in its various forms, appearing on instrument labels. The dates at which we see these instruments appearing in history suggest she not only assisted Giuseppe, but was a working violin maker herself.
Whilst it is very likely that she assisted her husband throughout his life, he died in 1744. As a widowed and childless woman in Cremona, with the know-how and facilities to create these instruments, it is very likely she turned to these as a way to support herself; something unheard of for a woman of this time. There is now a suggestion that the entrepreneurial Katarina used her late-husband’s workshop and finished any already started instruments.
The ‘Leduc’ violin was labelled as 1745, the year after ‘del Gesù died. Could this have been an instrument which Katarina worked on?
The theory that she continued making, using her husband’s designs and workshop, is supported by the unexplained departures from Giuseppe’s instruments. A remarkable number of heads do not fit the characteristic ‘del Gesù style, some of which also demonstrate unusual working techniques. This would suggest someone created them who had a thorough understanding of the style, but also their own stylistic input, yet some inexperience. Fewer than half of the ‘del Gesù instruments have been proven to have a genuine label, so there must be some explanation for the unconfirmed pieces.
Why has her contribution been largely forgotten?
Whilst we have multiple accounts and research which point to Katarina’s contribution, many of the labels were removed from the instruments. Within the violin industry, there are scrupulous criteria which a violin must meet in order to be officially labelled with a maker. It isn’t surprising that in the 1700s, a woman’s contribution to violin making was largely dismissed, but now that leaves us with unconfirmed works and an unresolved mystery.
With the complex circumstances of Katarina’s potential venture in violin making, and being a woman in the 1700s, her work has and will probably remain largely unrecognised. If she had produced the works she is rumoured to under the ‘del Gesù label, then it will likely never be proven that they belong to her unless some ground-breaking documentation is discovered.
It is important that her contribution to the industry, particularly to inspiring future female luthiers, is recognised. If not in the instruments themselves, we should look to her story of survival as a widowed, childless woman against the odds to inspire us.
Many women’s contributions have been forgotten throughout history, but the more of their stories we remember, the more we can rightfully acknowledge and admire them.