THE CHARACTERS OF CREMONA

Music man

As gorgeous as it is, Cremona will always be more about people than places to me. Characters from the past and the present.

This city is famous for its violinmakers, and one more than any other – Antonio Stradivari, who was born somewhere around 1645 and died aged about 90 in 1737.

No one is entirely sure if the violin was actually born in Cremona. They say instead that it had “many parents”, but it was developed in the area in the 16th century – in neighbouring Brescia, Verona and Mantua as well as in Cremona. However, it was in Cremona that the first violin-making school was founded so the town became the centre of the industry.

Statue 1
The crucial leap in the instrument’s development came when the arched bridge was created so that the strings could be played individually, unlike earlier similar instruments that had a flat bridge and could only play chords. There was another “secret” ingredient, the ‘sound post’, a small cylindrical piece of wood, shaped rather like a cigarette, which was put into the belly of the violin. The little sound post ‘synchronised the vibrations and increased the instrument’s resonance’, which sounds rather poetic.

This all comes from my visit to the brand new and quite marvellous Museo del Violini where I learned that, bizarrely, the name violin comes from the Latin for widow, though the connection was not explained, or perhaps just lost. Also, rather sadly I felt, violinmakers have no title of their own, they simply kept the old name for a lute maker ‘liutaio’, luthier in English.

Soon the new violin became hugely popular and Cremona’s violins were demanded in all the courts of Europe, including Henry VIII’s but especially the French court.

The Cremona violinmakers congregated around the square of St Dominico, now gone and replaced by a park. I like to imagine that small square and church with all the artisans at work in their workshops. The most important founder of the industry, Andrea Amati, had his atelier here and such was his skill that a number of famous violinmakers started out as his apprentices. There are only 15 precious Amati violins left in the world, though there are many more remaining that were made in his workshop by his sons and grandsons, the most renowned being Nicolò.

Violin window

One of the numerous violin workshops still at work in Cremona

It is thought that it was in the Amati workshop that the young Stradivari initially learned his trade before he opened his own workshop, developed his individual style, and gained a reputation as an especially talented artisan. His violins were in high demand from the rich and royalty – Dukes of Savoy; James II; Charles II of Spain.

Interestingly, in his lifetime his violins were priced at a fairly average sum for a musical instrument, it is only in later centuries that violins became more appreciated and the price of his creations constantly increased to the incredible figures now reached at auction. The museo notes that a 1721 Stradivari recently fetched 12 million euros. His violins gathered histories of their own, and even names such as The Medici, The Messiah, The Sleeping Beauty, and the Clisbee.

Stradivari is said to be the greatest violinmaker ever to have lived. The museum explained that he made violins of “creative vibrancy unparalleled in the history of violinmaking”. And this is when I marvelled. What makes one man able to craft an instrument so perfectly that he is never rivalled in 300 years? How can that happen from carving wood, joining the pieces together, putting the additional parts and strings in place, and varnishing the finished work? Cremona still has 156 workshops at work. How is it that no one in three centuries has been able to make a violin to equal the sound of Stradivari’s? One can talk about being especially gifted, but still … Stradivari is a magnificent mystery.

There is another mystery around where Stradivari lies, if anywhere. He was buried beneath St Dominico Church beside which he had worked all his exceedingly long and fruitful career, but he has no tomb. When the Church was demolished he was not famous and his remains were ‘dispersed’ as the museum put it. – A poignant footnote as I was visiting palaces and ornate tombs of the fabulously rich nobility in the area.

I will always remember modern day Cremona characters too. There was delightful “F” and her mother who guided me to the town centre from a car park, offered me warm friendship and bought me coffee in one of Cremona’s oldest cafés.

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Then there was gentle Luigi who, seeing me taking a photograph of his workshop window, opened the locked door and invited me in to observe him at work for a while. Watching Luigi’s hands smooth an instrument that he told me would take three months to finish I rejoiced in the fact that, with all our modern technology, our advances and 3D imagery, the skill flowing through a man’s hand cannot be supplanted.

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Luigi’s angelic workshop & him working inside

The Museo del Violino holds occasional recitals and I was lucky enough to catch one on my visit to Cremona. Two young virtuosos with a string of awards to their names played several pieces in the beautiful new wooden auditorium which gives the impression that you are inside an enormous violin. It was not until I took my seat and was given a programme that I discovered that remarkably one violinist, Guiseppe Mondini, was to play the 1669 Antonio Stradivari Clisbee violin.  I am not a musician, and have no ear, so was it only my imagination that made the Clisbee sound so sweet?

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A few photographs of Cremona.

Dumo arch 2

Cremona’s Duomo in the perfectly preserved medieval square

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The Duomo and the 111 metre / 502 steps Torazzo bell tower.

Zodiac 2

The zodiac clock on the Torazzo tower

Every available space in the Duomo is covered with frescoes, which my guidebook described as “overwhelming”. I fell in love instead with the lighter San Sigismondo Church and closed convent just outside of town.

Sisismundo nave 2

Sigismondo Church nave

 

Sisigmmundo altar

Sigismondo’s glorious altar

Sisismundo closeup

Frescoe man 2

Just one of San Sigismondo’s exquisite frescoes

 

And lastly, my favourite, the flower festival and market which graced the streets of Cremona during my stay.

Duomo arch lady

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