Sunday, May 15, 2016

How Was the Old Making Different?

It's one thing to revere the great old instruments, but if we want to revive the old methods of making we need to understand their culture of making in greater detail.  How can we begin?  Perhaps it will help to bring out some contrasts between modern and old approaches to making things.

Economics and politics aren't irrelevant.   Industrialization is the great overall difference.

The old system of guilds, apprentices, and master craftsmen gave way to cottage industries and factories.

The idea of making smaller numbers of exquisite instruments for royal courts, nobles, and the church, gave way to making larger numbers of lower cost instruments.

The economic centers of violin trade moved from the violin making families of Northern Italy to dealers and restorers in the greatest cities like London and Paris.

Amid these changes of location, times, and economic focus, the old supply chains, building methods, and design methods all gave way.


The classical old Italian violin making can be seen existing across approximately 250 years running from around 1540 to around 1790.   This was a time of Mercantilism when royal nations competed more and more globally.   This was a time of discovery, of religious reformation, of the printing press and expanding knowledge.  Waves of change and progress were underway, but had not yet swept away the old systems of royals and nobles, and the somewhat secretive systems of guilds and master craftsmen.

Though it's somewhat artificial to identify any exact moment as the endpoint of classical old Italian making, it's fair to say that somewhere amid the revolutions in America and France, Napoleon's dismantling of the guild systems, and amid the social, technological, and economic changes of industrialization, the continuity of the old Italian making got lost.

This places Classical Italian making in a transitional position between renaissance and modern times, both culturally and technically.   Much of the craft and art practice of the era was a continuation of those ancient Roman practices that had survived medieval times, combined with new ideas and methods from the Renaissance which were inspired and informed by direct study and revival of ancient knowledge that had gotten lost in the dark ages.


 Leonardo's famous drawing is an exploration of the Roman author Vitruvius' statements about proportions in the human body.

The point of the square drawn around the man is to illustrate Vitruvius' statement that the stretch of the arms equals the height.  Again following Vitruvius, the circle around the man is centered on the navel.  Also notice in the line drawn below the figure -- and throughout the drawing -- Da Vinci has pricked little dots to mark out various simple proportions that guide the drawing.


Consider the art and craft of painting.  We see a flowering of oil techniques, and an exploration of perspective, as well as natural and formal proportions, inspired from study of ancient authors in geometry and architecture.  Increasingly artists tempered colors with linseed oil and other drying oils in addition to or even instead of the more ancient binders like egg proteins. Yet technically, these painters were still grinding pigments and 'tempering' them as had happened for endless centuries before. Thus, the new greater use of oils arises as an expansion of ancient methods of tempering pigments. Typically while the guild system still exercised its influence over the Italian arts, innovation comes in as an extension, rather than as replacement or destruction of traditions. 

The norm today is for the artist's 'paint' to come in a tube, already prepared.   This paradigm comes from later industrialization and commercialization of the craft.   But, at the beginning of the era of Classical Italian violin making, and in ancient times, an artist or craftsman would know how to grind and extract colors from raw materials, and how to mix these colorants with binders to 'temper' them. Until industrialization and commercialization changed the culture, an artist would consider 'tempering' -- manipulating the balance and behavior of pigments and binders -- to be an essential skill. And this process of grinding raw materials and mixing or tempering the with binder touched many crafts beyond painting.

So one profound difference between today and the era of classical making is in the handling and sourcing of the artisan's physical materials.

Another equally important difference lies in the relationship between design and final artistic product.

From our modern viewpoint, we tend to assume that a design is completed in all details first, then a product is made exactly following that design.  It's difficult for us to shake this assumption, or to realize how completely the notion is tied to commercial forces and industrialization.

An older paradigm of design is more like a recipe, and interactive with the building process.

Again using Vitruvius as example, here he gives the 'design' for hoisting equipment -- in words as a 'recipe' for building:
1. First we shall treat of those machines which are of necessity made ready when temples and public buildings are to be constructed. Two timbers are provided, strong enough for the weight of the load. They are fastened together at the upper end by a bolt, then spread apart at the bottom, and so set up, being kept upright by ropes attached at the upper ends and fixed at intervals all round. At the top is fastened a block, which some call a "rechamus." In the block two sheaves are enclosed, turning on axles. The traction rope is carried over the sheave at the top, then let fall and passed round a sheave in a block below. Then it is brought back to a sheave at the bottom of the upper block, and so it goes down to the lower block, where it is fastened through a hole in that block. The other end of the rope is brought back and down between the legs of the machine.

2. Socket-pieces are nailed to the hinder faces of the squared timbers at the point where they are spread apart, and the ends of the windlass are inserted into them so that the axles may turn freely. Close to each end of the windlass are two holes, so adjusted that handspikes can be fitted into them. To the bottom of the lower block are fastened shears made of iron, whose prongs are brought to bear upon the stones, which have holes bored in them. When one end of the rope is fastened to the windlass, and the latter is turned round by working the handspikes, the rope winds round the windlass, gets taut, and thus it raises the load to the proper height and to its place in the work.

3. This kind of machinery, revolving with three sheaves, is called a trispast. When there are two sheaves turning in the block beneath and three in the upper, the machine is termed a pentaspast. But if we have to furnish machines for heavier loads, we must use timbers of greater length and thickness, providing them with correspondingly large bolts at the top, and windlasses turning at the bottom. When these are ready, let forestays be attached and left lying slack in front; let the backstays be carried over the shoulders of the machine to some distance, and, if there is nothing to which they can be fastened, sloping piles should be driven, the ground rammed down all round to fix them firmly, and the ropes made fast to them.

Vitruvius gives similar 'recipe' style designs for catapults and other war machines, and even for a type of pipe organ.

These kinds of 'recipe' designs are sufficient, but also flexible.   They enable us to build a functional item, but also to customize the details to any size or style we might require.   The approach has little in common with modern concept of design as a complete dimensional specification of all details.  Where needed, the recipes express critical relationships between parts as simple ratios.

Importantly, with this kind of 'recipe' approach to design, many details can be decided while building.  In fact, the design in the modern sense is only fully realized as a particular build proceeds from the flexible 'recipe'.

Closely connected to this interaction between design and building is the greater importance of the relationship between parts instead of specific measurements.

In earlier times, there wasn't even a consistent standard measure from one town to the next.   You might say something was an 'arm' (braccio) in length, but this would mean something a little different in Venice, Milan, or Bologna, etc.   On the other hand, to say that one part needs to be three times longer than another is universal.

Specific precision measurement did not carry the importance it has today.   Instead, the focus was on the fit and relationship between parts.


We've identified a number of important areas where we can expect the culture and methods of Classical Italian violin making differed from a modern paradigm.

  • The continuity of traditions surrounded by a guild based system
    • Innovations extending rather than overwriting traditions
  • The handling and sourcing of materials
    • Many fewer 'prepared' products
    • 'Tempering' and 'Grinding' very widespread artisan skills
    • A largely common and traditional 'Materia' shared across the arts and even in medicine
    • Many shared handling methods and preparations across the arts
  • The interaction of design and build processes
    • Design as a 'recipe' giving key steps, sequence, relationships among parts
    • Final details not completely predetermined ahead of time
    • Many particulars can be set during build
    • Many variations of size and style might share the same 'recipe' design
  • Proportion and relation between parts rather than specific measure
    • Works guided by simple geometry and key ratios among parts
  • Unique custom fit between parts instead of adherence to planned or standard shape
    • Little or no priority given to uniform consistency, high precision measure, interchangeable parts, or exact symmetry
    • Uniquely custom fit parts as needed
    • Harmonious balance among parts more significant than exact precision

The whole thing is the opposite of Henry Fords assembly line, interchangeable parts, and commercially driven industrialization.

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