Monday, May 23, 2016

A Plan for Reviving Old Italian Methods of Building and Designing Violins

So let's say someone wants to 'build violins the same way the old Italians did'.  How would you go about it?

We can't learn the way most of the old masters did, by apprenticing.   If you apprentice or go to violin making school today, you will be taught copyists methods that have much more to do with today and with the French, English, and German commercial dealer violin cultured that emerged out of industrialization and general world change at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. 

The old Italian ways fell out of use, and out of memory.   So how do we proceed if we want to revive the old ways?

We have five main bodies of evidence: the instruments themselves, remnant tools and artifacts, texts and written evidence, paintings and drawings, general cultural history.

We can make a good start from these materials.   But, we don't have any detailed text explaining violin making from the period, so the revival maker must accept a degree of uncertainty.  We can not know in any absolute way how the old makers worked or thought.  However, we can narrow things down considerably.

If we keep asking, 'How can I make what we see in the old instruments, using only tools and methods of those times?'  Then we can start to get partial answers, and smaller unknowns.   If we further ask: 'What is the simplest, most natural, and most historically consistent way to do this?', then we can narrow the results further.

And we don't need to start from nothing.   Various people have prepared the way, laying important foundations.

About a hundred years ago, the violin dealer Hill family of London made a significant contribution to scholarly investigation of the Cremona making families with their books on Stradivari and the Guarneri family.   These books make a start at collecting and sharing concrete information on the Cremona maker families.  Such scholarship continues today, with many books by different authors documenting what has been learned, and what artifacts have been found. Authors making major recent contributions to our historical understanding include Stewart Pollens, Carlo Chiesa, Charles Beare, and Christopher Reuning.

In 1979, Simone Sacconi publish his book 'The Secrets of Stradivari'.   Sacconi suggests that many of the details in the classical making are best understood as closely linked to the process of making.   And he begins to offer useful insights into how the forms and tools remaining form old Cremona would have been used.

In 1985, Kevin Coates published his book 'Geometry, Proportion, and the Art of Lutherie'.   This book presents the basic geometric constructions behind not just classical violins, but all the many instruments of Italian Lutherie more generally.

Inspired by Sacconi's book, Roger Hargrave continued developing a process based understanding of Cremona construction methods.  Many of his writings are available on his website.  The 1998 articles on 'The Working Methods of Guarneri Del Gesu' are of great value.   He approaches Del Gesu's particular idiosyncratic methods as variations on the Amati Family methods that run through all the classical Cremona making.

More recently in 2010, Brandmair and Greiner publish 'Stradivari Varnish' which takes a big step forward in clarifying our understand of the classical violin finishes.


So here is my recipe for exploring revival making:

  • Put yourself in the same situations as the old makers as much as possible.  
    • Avoid modern tools, solutions, materials
    • Bring yourself to confront the same difficulties they would have
    • Allow yourself only the same tools and solutions that they would have access to
  • Use modern tools and information to understand what they did and didn't do, but only use old tools, materials, and solution to do what they did.  
  • Broadly explore the known arts, tools, and solutions surrounding violin making.  Just as can be seen in the other arts and crafts of the time, try to find violin making solutions that are simply variations of other art techniques of the times.
  • Know that processes generally have primary outcomes, but also secondary side effects.
    • Develop ever greater understand of both in the old making
    • Honestly pursue only the creation of the desired primary outcomes through historically consistent means.  Let the side effects of your hypothesized processes fall naturally as they will.
    • Look to the side effects of your process versus the classical work as contributing confirmation or denial of your process.
  • Treat all possible solutions and answers as hypotheses to be tested and tested and retested
  • Look to first understand broad sketches, then refine and resolve details
    • Survey the range and scope of problems
    • Survey possible historically consistent tools and solutions
    • Hypothesize and test possible methods
  • Favor methods that:
    • are most historically consistent
    • are most natural and straight forward
    • are simple variations of broad practices
    • produce the same results seen historically
    • naturally share side effects with historical processes

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