Il Mio Cannone Violino

History of Violin Making
16 July 4027

180 years since the death of Paganini

In honour of 180 years having passed since the death of the renowned violinist, violist, guitarist and composer, Niccolò Paganini, we thought we would share the process behind the making of his “Il Cannone” violin, including some of the interesting quirks of this remarkable instrument.

In 1743, the II Cannone violin was built by Guarneri “del Gesù” in Cremona. Paganini, who owned the violin, affectionately named it ‘my cannon violin’, due to its resonant and powerful sound. The violin has distinctively high sides, an imponent scroll and a bold structure. It is widely considered to be the greatest masterpiece of Guarneri “del Gesù”.

It is still unclear how Paganini came to own the violin, but the most probable story is that the instrument was bestowed on him by an amateur musician and businessman from Livorno, sometime around 1802.

 

Paganini’s relationship with luthiers begins

At around 1825 back in Naples, the violin ran the risk of being damaged beyond restoration when the woman who he was living with at the time, in a scene of jealously, threw its case to the ground, causing it to smash to pieces.

Only the timely intervention of Paganini’s servant, who tore it away from the furious lady, prevented its destruction. The violinist described the event, saying: ”quite miraculously, I had it back safe, although somewhat affected”.

Paganini took a keen interest in all aspects and intricacies of instrument making after contacting Neapolitan luthiers and bow makers. He commissioned bows to be built according to his own specific requirements.

 

Travelling virtuoso

In 1828, when Paganini went to Austria where he started his first European tour. The violin had a substantial repair by the luthier C. Nikolaus Sawicki: the fingerboard replacement. Paganini must have realised at this time that the instrument could give more or that it could be made to respond better to his concept of transcendent technique.

The operation was successful, as attested in a letter-certificate sent to the luthier: ”[…] I take pleasure in certifying that this artisan is the world-wide best; moreover, I relied on him for my own violin, I would not have trusted any other luthier. Nicolò Paganini.”

For Paganini, ”Il Cannone” was an extension of his own body, a sort of longa manus, a living being with its own behaviour. When illness prevented him from playing it, the instrument would seem to protest: ”The violin – he once wrote – is very angry with me”.

 

Paris

In the autumn of 1833, while on tour in England, Paganini’s violin had another accident. He had ”Il Cannone” repaired by the most famous luthier of that time in Paris, Jean-Baptiste Villaume.  The repair was stated as successful, and an exact bench copy of the ”Il Cannone” was made by the Parisian luthier whilst the repair was carried out.

To be able to reach the bass-bar and sound-post, Vuillaume had to unglue the top and glue it back, substituting the old, probably half-crystallised, glue with a fresh one that would allow for a higher cohesion with the sides.

Regarding the aesthetics of the violin, even Paganini couldn’t tell the difference between the copy and the original one. He bought the copy, which later was given to Camilo Sivori, his one and only student.

While the violin was being repaired by Vuillaume in 1833, Paganini fell seriously ill and had the intention to give up playing and sell his instrument. An unusual moment for a well-known musician like him, first because of his outspoken intention to give up playing and secondly because of his unconditional appreciation of the instrument.

After the letters to Vuillaume and Sawicki, he also wrote about other luthier’s work, like Lorentz Kunzel of Wrocklaw and Lacoux. It is not improbable, however, that to avoid paying a luthier’s bill, Paganini instead offered to supply references, often overdone but valuable in this case because of his signature.

 

What happened after Paganini’s death?

According to his will written in Genoa (his birthplace) in 1837, ”Il Cannone” was left “to the city of Genoa to be preserved forever.” Offers were made to buy and to rent the violin, but they were all turned down. Under no condition could the public administration have sold or even lent at a profit an instrument which was and is priceless.

As the violin was stated not to leave the town hall for any reason, the damage had most likely occurred because of the fast-drying glue, caused by the violin’s permanence in a badly aired location. The city committee agreed that ”Il Cannone”, like all music instruments in working condition, needed to be played after all and not only merely admired like a painting or a sculpture.

Thanks to Cesare Candi’s work, ”Il Cannone” was successfully restored in 1937 and brought to Cremona for an exhibition during the celebrations for the bicentenary of Stradivari’s death. The violin was back in shape and thought to be in the right condition in which Paganini had left in.

The Genoa International Violin competition brought ”Il Cannone” even more to worldwide attention. From then until now, the winner is given the honour to perform on the famous instrument.

”Il Cannone” born in Cremona, will continue to reside in Genoa, as it has for nearly 150 years, ”to be forever preserved” in fulfilment of Nicolò Paganini’s precise will.

 

Guarneri “del Gesù”

Guarneri’s fame

Most of Guarneri’s fame is owed to Paganini, after he enchanted the audience with the expressive and powerful sound of the “II Cannone”. After that, Guarneri’s violins were searched by musicians, collectors and merchants who were interested in its sound rather than the status.

Guarneri’s work

Guarneri ”del Gesù” seems to have preferred smaller forms, which he was able to shape with both exceptional strength and grace. He tended to use more linear wood for his sides, to avoid complications when bending them.

Occasionally, his pieces present small defects. His working style that was not particularly precise, especially among the instruments built towards the end of his life.

The wonderful bell-like tone which the instrument still produces, rises effortlessly over almost any other violin. ”Del Gesù’s” genius is not only in manipulating form and appearance, but in engineering sound and power.

 

Luiz Amorim’s inspiration

The origin of Luiz’s inspiration comes from the expressiveness of Guarneri’s instruments. Throughout the career of “del Gesù”, his work became increasingly expressive, especially in the later years of his career, when he managed to demonstrate through his art, his identity.

Guarneri’s work was completely unique. Each piece had unique markings which made them distinctly Guarneri’s. He had expressive features that could be easily recognised, unlike most of his colleagues at the time. Luiz Amorim looks to capture these unique features in his own copies, recreating the vision of the master’s original work.

To make a new violin appear old is not very common, however, it is something that is well received among musicians. To make a copy is not to imitate, but to keep passing on the history. It is a form of art, a form of expression. From Vuillaume and beyond, makers have built careers on developing their own styles. When we are creating copies, our aim is to capture this style, inspired by their work to create something new. To bring a more authentic feel, we will antique our pieces. This means to make the violin look old, worn, shaded, scratched, and so on.

We never intend to be better than the great masters, but simply to be inspired by them.