The making of “Il Cannone”
About the instrument
Dated 1743, ”Il Cannone” is among the best instruments built towards the end of ”del Gesù’s” life. It is impressively attractive, of a majestic and austere charm and immediately strikes those who come to view it in its showcase at Genoa’s town hall.
It was owned by illustrious violinist, Paganini of the 19th Century. Known to him affectionately as “my cannon violin” for its powerful sound.
Modern luthier and renowned violin expert, Luiz Amorim, gives his insight on the original which inspired his copy.
Examining the wood used to make “Il Cannone”
The characteristic solid fibre of first choice Italian spruce wood makes the table of the violin. The head and the back are maple, with a medium flame and a broader and more in-depth flame on the sides. ”Il Cannone” has its table and back as two-piece wood. The process of centre joint has to be done twice, one with spruce wood and other with maple.
The wood of the ribs and back are an apparent match, but the head is of a slightly deeper figure, which is characteristic of “del Gesù’s” practice in this period. His earlier pieces usually featured a more contrasting selection of woods.
”Il Cannone’s twin”
The markings of the back match the wood of the ”Carrodus”, appearing to come from the same log as ”Cannone”. The ”Carrodus” is a fine companion to ”Il Cannone”, with which it shares many distinctive features, like their robust appearance.
When compared to other works of Guarneri, ”Il Cannone” has a large size and long stop length. The outline of the violin is rounded, recalling the style of Amatis. Its table measures 354mm, which today is considered on the short side, especially when compared to the instruments built by Stradivari.
Its ribs are in six pieces joined at the corners. On the inside, there are four corner blocks. Two other blocks are placed, one at the top to which the neck is attached, the other at the bottom which houses the end button.
The lower block is cut straight across and maybe slightly concave. There is a pleasing solidity to the lower bouts, whose extra breadth supports the tapering middle and upper bouts, reflecting the slope of the sound holes. Some features contribute to the more rugged quality of the violin.
The top bouts slope quickly from the top block and are asymmetrical, being shorter on the treble side. The instrument gives such a great impression of bulk, due more to the large scroll, the deeper ribs with wider overhanging edges and the full arching.
Many stray knife cuts are apparent on both sides of the purfling in the bouts, but none in the corners. The purfling is quite deep-set, though not overdone. Around the edge, we can still see the marks of the knife used to cut out the purfling through.
The purfling is not inlaid smoothly, but follows the knife-cut facets of the edge closely. It fits snugly into its channel with no sign of any filler, although there are several unconcealed gaps where the purflings do not quite meet in the corner mitres.
The fluting of the edge at the purfling is deeper than ever, a particular trend of these later instruments. The fluting rises very steeply from the purfling, with a concave section, indicating the use of a very curved narrow gouge.
Bass bar is at the heart of the sound creation of the instrument! The bass bar has 2 mains roles.
- Support the top. Without it, the top would just collapse due to the combination of the pressure and tension of the strings. When the instrument is played, the bridge exerts a lot of weight straight down through the centre of the top.
- It distributes the vibrations to the upper and lower areas of the top plate.
Its making is just as complex as its function. Only skilful makers can fit it perfectly along its entire length, a very intricate step in the making of an instrument
The key to a good instrument sound is the tuning of the bottom and top. First of all, it is essential to have a block of very dry wood, with at least ten years of drying. At Amorim Fine Violins, our pieces come from “Val di Fiemme / Italia,” which is the same source Strad and Guarneri used to have back in the 1700s.
This wood enhances the acoustic quality, in addition to it being a lighter and more resonant wood. The lightness of the wood helps to achieve an acoustic balance, without the instrument being too thin. It is advisable to combine the sound, the weight, and the flexibility of the bottom and the top.
Guarneri put all of his graciousness, creativity, discomfort and suffering into the making of the head. He sculpted it in a way that was almost brutal, speaking to his desire to give his last instruments a unique imprint. He parted from tradition, with the large open spirals of the scroll balancing the body beautifully.
The volutes are very large, the second turn particularly so. The spiral closely resembles that of the ”Wilton”, but the eye is in a less central position. The fluting and undercutting are much the same as on the scroll of the ”Carrodus”.
The central spine also follows a different outline from the edges and looks instead as if it was left uneven from the saw.
Indeed, every line on the scroll seems to wander in some way. The fluting stops short on the front face of the volute, and the remaining distance to the throat is merely a rasped or probably saw-finished barrel shape.
Remarkably, the neck, although repositioned, is still the original one. This is a rare, if not unique circumstance, especially for a violin built by a famous luthier. For most instruments of the string quartet family have had their neck substituted to make them suitable to modern requirements.
It is indeed the neck, together with a 2mm longer-than-normal diapason, which creates that well-known feeling of discomfort and effort when first playing ”Il Cannone.”
The neck set
The neck influences the sound quality and the physical connection of the instrument to the musician. Setting the neck is one of the most complex operations in the violinmaking world. All parameters and measurements are precise, and it must be carefully placed so the instrument can be played to its full potential.
Our copies go deep in the reproduction of the originals. We involve huge attention to detail, right down to the labels. It resembles a lot of the ancient methods of printing. The result is achieved with the use of a mould, special ink, pressure and 18th-century paper.
The label is set unusually close to the centre joint and is the cause of some controversy. The date is given as 1743; however, under ultraviolet light, the last digit of the year is revealed as a 3. The lower sweep of the 3 was rubbed away, leaving what looks to the naked eye like a very small 2.
Closing the box
Usually during the making of a violin, the top is glued first, then you can set the neck. At the time of the neck set, it is necessary to cut a piece of the top so the neck set can be done over it. However, to follow the same violin making standards of the original, ”Il Cannone” must be done differently.
As ”Il Cannone” originally has the top glued over the neck, a part of the neck was cut to be able to fit the top over it. Although the neck is original, the fit had to be adapted to modern standards.
The shaping of the corners represents one of the main features of Guarneri’s aesthetics. He was able to change the outline of his instruments radically, almost without modifying their shape, just by altering the curvature and length of the corners where they join the side.
The edges of the violin show vigorous and robust working. On the corners, we can still see the marks of the chisel used to carve out the edge channel. The edges are well preserved and very even in-depth; the corners do not flare up in thickness, and neither does the button.
Thick, rich red-brown colour covers ”Il Cannone”. Its varnish, soft and silk-like, has remained miraculously undisturbed and in its original state.
The layers seem to be quite homogenous, highlighting the delicacy of the original coating.
On the front and back, the varnish appears textured, dripping with ruby red and pulled up into little clumps, rather than crackled. It may be that Guarneri did not brush out his varnish too thoroughly on these smaller, less accessible areas, and the thicker varnish coat dried unevenly.
It formed a dry skin over the slightly liquid underneath, which quickly pulled apart into the pattern now visible. There is some retouching across the upper bouts of the back, but otherwise ultra-violet inspection reveals a remarkably pure coating.
Paganini took great care of his “II Cannone” violin, the signs of wear are almost non-existent, except for a small crack on the table, at the height of the upper left block.
La verniciatura – varnishing – comprises several phases, on top of the varnish application itself. All of these phases are extremely important in the final result of the varnishing process.
- First, after the violin is finished in white, the whole instrument is cleaned in warm water.
- Second, after the drying process, the use of scrapers and puzzle grass is necessary to remove the hair from the wood, giving a velvety finish to the entire instrument.
- Third, oxidation of the surface of the wood is required through prolonged exposure in a chamber of UV and sunlight, to become an ‘old wood’ colour, similar to cinnamon.
- Fourth, the application of a sealing layer across the whole instrument.
- Fifth, application of layers of colourless and coloured varnish. This can be anywhere from 8 to 10 layers
- Sixth, after allowing the varnish to dry, we begin to wear and scratch the surface of the wood imitating the 270-years-old natural wear of ”Il Cannone” itself.
- Seventh, application of scrapes and dirt on the entire instrument imitating a patina, which is natural on old instruments.
- Eighth, an application of colourless varnish to fix everything in place and seal it all in.
- Ninth, polishing with brazing paste.
- Tenth polishing with shellac.
The table is partly blackened at the bridge by the accumulation of bow resin over many years. The pores are filled with dust and dirt, characteristics of the beautiful signs of age and patination, adding to it a refined historical air.
Regarding the strings Paganini used, there is evidence that they were thinner than those commonly chosen today. This enabled the 4th string to be tuned a major third above G, and, in Concerto No.1, all four strings to be tuned up a semitone, the original tonality being E flat and not D.
The bridge was less curved than usual in order to make it possible to play chords involving three, and in some cases even four strings, not in succession but simultaneously.
It seems likely that Paganini had the habit of moving the bridge to adjust the length of the vibrant string to his needs: the marks on the wood in the region of the bridge are deep and wide, and some scratches look as if they were created by the musician’s nails.
Adjusting the position of the bridge could have been quite easy with the old-fashioned bridge that came with ”Il Cannone,” which has short, narrow feet, allowing more space for movement. It is not known if this small bridge was used by Paganini, but it certainly fits ”Il Cannone” correctly.
The bow he used, and that he never replaced, was by Tartini. It was bigger than a modern bow and with horsehair running almost parallel to the stick.
The wax seal
The wax seal does not appear in early descriptions of the instrument. It was during the execution of Paganini’s will that a Genoese notary fixed the wax seal on the back of the violin. A few years later, it was removed and reattached to the scroll. A scar was left in the varnish of the back, which can still be seen.
In order to recreate the violin with the highest level of authenticity, we included the Genoa’s coat of arms seal. For us, it was like a coronation ritual for ”Il Cannone”, it was the final step to finish it – its stamp after being completed.
Why we pride ourselves on the art of making copies
It would be a reasonable question to ask, why should we be attempting to recreate what master’s perfected over their entire lifetimes. Amorim Fine Violins do not look to merely create an identical copy, but to replicate the authentic feeling of owning, holding, and playing an instrument such as “Il Cannone”. Our instruments are for those who wish to experience the same feeling toward their violin as Paganini felt towards his.
Our aim is to bring new life to violin making, inspired by the originals, and to continue to provide the great musicians, collectors, and enthusiasts of today with the most authentic experience possible.