Legacy of a Late Starter/ Pressenda-His Life and Arts
[The Strad, March issue, 1998]
1777: Young Wolfgang Mozart has resigned the directorship of the Salzburg Royal Orchestra to embark on a journey to Paris, just two years after completing his celebrated set of five violin concertos. At this time, Viotti, a Piedmont native born the year after Mozart, has already gained fame as a leading violinist, and Italy is enjoying, under Sardinian adminstration, a rare respite from political turmoil and military adventurism. It is against this backdrop, on January 6, 1777, with the New Year not yet even a week old, that Giovanni Francesco Pressenda was born in Lequio-Berria, a small village 60 km southeast of Turin in the district of Alba in the Piedmont region. Representative of nineteenth-century Italian makers, Pressenda is an important link between the classical violin making of Cremona and modern Italian making.
An itinerant violinist, Pressenda's father Raffaelo taught young Giovanni to play violin during his journeys across northern Italy. Although there is no direct evidence for Luegendorff's (1) allusion to Raffaelo being active as a maker, it is quite probable that he was doing self-taught repair work during his travels and was instrumental in stimulating his son to study violin making.
It seems, however, that the social situation at the time was not conducive to the flowering of the Pressenda family's work. In 1802, Napoleon invaded Italy and the Piedmont region came under French rule. Because of this, Piedmont was for the next 13 years to be strongly influenced by French traditions and culture. Little is known about Pressenda's life during this period of French domination.
It is not until 1814, accompanying the return of Piedmontese royalty to Turin and the restoration of Italian culture, that Giovanni Pressenda, now aged 37, was to establish his first workshop, in Alba. At this time, however, for economic reasons he could not concentrate solely on violin making but also worked as a cabinet maker and jeweler. Only a few hand-labeled Pressenda instruments have survived from the Alba workshop. Around 1816 he was living in Carmagnola (near Turin) and also presumably in Marseilles, as has been referred to by William Henley (2). In approximately 1820 Pressenda settled in the city of Turin, where he opened his second workshop and was to remain until his death in 1854. Although his marriage to Maria Coccia of Alba has been documented, it is unknown whether he had any children or relatives who could assist with his work. As the founder of the Turin School and the father of modern violin making, Pressenda established an idiosyncratic style that influenced many later contemporary schools, and helped establish the reputation of Turin for superb violin making.
There are two points of interest for biographers of the renowned maker, assuming that one accepts that the unknown period (until age 37) was mostly occupied with repair work: how did Pressenda gain his professional violin making skill, and why did his output begin so late?
It is difficult to accept that Pressenda's skills were self-taught, but unfortunately only limited information exists with regard to Pressenda's working life. In 1873, at the Vienna World Exposition, Benedetto Gioffredo Rinaldi (1850-1888), the short-lived Piedmontese maker and a great admirer of Pressenda, exhibited his large Pressenda collection. A pamphlet Rinaldi published at the time (3) is a rare source for Pressenda biographers. Rinaldi writes that, at age 12, Pressenda left home and, supporting himself by playing from village to village, reached Cremona, where he studied under Lorenzo Storioni (1751-ca.1801), one of the last great Cremonese successors. There is, however, no record in Cremona of Pressenda having ever resided there.
More significantly, Pressenda's work apparently reflects little of the influence to be expected from a tutelage under Storioni, who, although talented in tonal development and renowned for the quality of his varnish, is a man of somewhat rough craftsmanship who frequently switched among various models. Contrarily, Pressenda was an assiduous maker, carefully completing instruments using an established style that is dissimilar to Storioni instruments. If Pressenda acquired anything under Storioni's guidance, it might be a varnish recipe and a method of tonal implementation, and, I would add, a stylistic hint in the sculpting of his own scrolls; these qualities play an important role in having maintained the value today of Pressenda's work.
There are, however, other strong candidates in the Turin area to whom I propose Pressenda could have been apprenticed. I suppose the involvement of G. B. Guadagnini's son Gaetano I (ca.1745-1831) in having provided a nurturing of the young Pressenda's budding skill. Upon the death of the elder Guadagnini in 1786, Gaetano I and his brothers took over their father's workshop. Although these men are better known as skilled repairers and guitar makers, much of their father's work and instructions would undoubtedly have remained in the workshop, providing Pressenda with at least indirect access to an important body of knowledge. Both Gaetano I and his son Carlo were in fact skilled in violin making (4), having inherited the nature of G. B. Guadagnini, who is the clear source for the Pressenda-founded Turin School. A comparison of the framework of these instruments, including the body length, proportion, and broad, flat arching, reveals an unmistakable similarity between the work of G. B. Guadagnini and Pressenda. James N. McKean reports that Dario D'Attili has seen a Pressenda violin with an internal work that followed the method used by G. B. Guadagnini, bearing a hand-written inscription that reads "Sotto la Disciplina di Baptista Guadagnini." I have also seen a Pressenda violin modeled after Turin-era G. B. Guadagnini with a varnish showing the maker's unique profile. Bearing in mind the near impossibility of the young Pressenda having been directly tutuored by G. B. Guadagnini (Pressenda was only 11 when Guadagnini died), the influence of the Guadagnini dynasty is certainly significant in any discussion of the origin of Pressenda's professional training. Pressenda, however, credits his father Raffaelo as being the key contributor, as is always stated on his tickets by the designation "q. Raphael". Regarding Pressenda's late debut as a maker, I suggest that, before being apprenticed to the workshop, young Pressenda was active as a local player, and that his labels in fact point to his father's true influence in his life: as a violinist rather than as a maker.
Pressenda's fame would not have been nearly so widespread without the important support of the violinist and composer Giambattista Polledro, a pupil of Pugnani, who became the leader of the Royal Chapel Orchestra in Turin in 1824. He became aware of the rare skill of this Piedmont maker and, with his successor Ghebart, introduced a number of Pressenda violins into their orchestras, thereby providing a great boost in sales and circulation of Pressenda violins. Despite his late start as a maker, Pressenda received many awards, both in Italy and France. Luigi Tarisio (ca.1795-1854), the celebrated dealer and the owner of "Salabue Stradivari," also bought a number of instruments from Pressenda himself and sold them outside Italy as part of his trading activities; the merits of these instruments later attracted the notice of the then London-based violinist August Wilhelmj (1845-1908), who also acquired many of them (5). Wilhelmj's collection included an "ex-Paganini" violin dated 1837, which had been played by Paganini when he, then 55, visited Pressenda's atelier at Via Arsenare in 1837.
Pressenda concentrated on the making of violins. We see only a limited number of his viola and cello, of which there may be around 20. Critics claim that the overall appearance of Pressenda instruments shows the influence of French violin-making, attributable to the 13-year period of French domination. In fact, based on a primarily Stradivarian outline, the instruments have been designed with some geometrical perfection, being covered with a rich reddish varnish on a amber-yellow ground and completed by marking the beveling of the scroll with black paint. On the other hand, however, his rule of body size, qualities of varnish, and tonal merit eventually distinguished his work from those of the French schools. Pressenda almost never worked with a body length exceeding the standard of 14 inches or 35.7 cm at maximum. While adopting a flat model, the front and back are chiseled with full archings that give the body a massive appearance. He used an original soft oil varnish, which is decidedly superior in quality to that used by the top French makers.
Pressenda is typical of those makers who are particularly concerned with the artistic appearance of the instrument. He preferred to use a one-piece back of choice maple with handsomely figured flame. His backs often exhibit a spectacular overlapping flame through his reddish amber varnish, which reminds one of the beauty of Honduran mahogany. This style was passed down to his prominent pupil, Josef Rocca, who also applied choice one-piece backs in most of his instruments. In view of the fact that Pressenda worked as a cabinet maker, it is supposed that his aim in constructing instruments of a one-piece, nicely figured piece of wood was aesthetic rather than acoustic.
Pressenda violin-making is divided into three periods. The first, early period, extending from his establishment in Turin in 1820 until 1825, was spent refining his style through the study of old Cremonese masters. Specimens from this time are rare and mostly follow Amatese-Stradivarian models with sound-holes reclining towards the center. Some even show the influence of J. B. Guadagnini in the cutting of the sound-holes. The backs are mostly of two-piece quarter-cut maple with a relatively narrow curl.
The second period is the short span from 1826 to 1829. This period shows a clear plateau in his work, within the context that the maker settled on his prototype model using a back that was invariably cut from the same lot of maple. The decided modelling of the Stradivarian outline exhibits a very personal stamp with a square shaped C bout. Output from this period are recognisable by the back, which bears a distinctive sap mark vertically running across the regular narrow curl (6). The square C bout is an exaggerated model in the Stradivari style and is less in harmony with the rest of the outline of body. At this time the sound hole is Amatese-Stradivarian. The round shoulder and broad flat arching, characteristic of the maker, were established in this period.
Having worked out this prototype, around 1830 Pressenda performed a quick change in regard to the body outline and the cutting of the sound hole, turning away from the Stradivarian influences to a more Guarnerian form. From the following year through the rest of his life, which I call his third period, he continued working with this ultimate model. I agree with William Henley's notion (2) that the maker established his ideal form in 1831. Throughout the third period there is little deviation from this model, which is a kind of Stradivarian and Guarnerian (del Gesu) blend. A Guarnerian severity is added to the shape of the ff-holes, and the square C bout was replaced with a smoother outline that is in harmony with the round shoulders, forming a well-proportioned body outline. Constructed with relatively wide upper and middle bouts, the overall appearance gives a massive, robust impression, although the instruments never look heavy.
Pressenda was most prolific in the third period, during which his instruments enjoyed a swing from the more Stradivarian to the Guarnerian outlines with regard to the C bout and ff-hole, with a reinforcement toward the end of his life of the Guarnerian character of the instruments. Beyond 1848 little of his genuine work appeared and he seems to have ceased working around 1850, at age 73. One violin dated 1847 from the end of his third period belongs to the collection of the Royal Academy of Music (7) this instrument retains an original neck having already been attached in the modern style that has just begun to be used in the mid-nineteenth century.
Periodical distribution of the number of instruments more concisely demonstrates the maker's activities. Figure 1 compares the number of Pressenda instruments when collected by division of periods of two years beginning from 1820. Here, 84 authentic specimens with known dates, including a couple viola and cello, are selected from those which have happened to come into my investigations. This spectrum exhibits that Pressenda's output forms a broad peak between 1826 and 1837. The period between 1831 and 1837 corresponds to the generally accepted golden age of the maker that is associated with many excellent instruments constructed with first-class maples. Looking at this data, of interest is the drop in output that begins in 1838. This year is said to be when his important partner Joseph Rocca left the workshop. Knowing that Rocca's earliest Turin-labelled work appears around 1830, Rocca might have been apprenticed to Pressenda from around 1830 up to 1838 and helped to make the master's instruments, as shown by the increase of output. In connection with his participation, I detected a unique habit in the cut of the ff-holes that is attributable to Rocca's hand. It is the asymmetry in the cutting of f-hole notches that invariably exists for all Pressenda violins dated from 1831 to 1837 and which disappeared in his later work. In the right f hole, a couple of notches are set fairly separated each other in vertical direction, but they are closely in parallel position in the left (see the illustrated violin). The same feature is also found in many Rocca's violins dated up to around 1850. Following Rocca's departure, Pressenda instruments gradually shift to a more Guarnerian style.
It is estimated that Pressenda made approximately 300 or fewer instruments, including a small number of viola and cello. Although not a particularly large number of instruments, Pressenda maintained a high standard of craftsmanship throughout his life without resorting to cheaper, more efficient methods that which would have saved labor. He labeled all his genuine instruments with unique large hand-written dates, and relatively few Pressenda-brand pupil-created instruments emerged from his workshop. These facts implies that Pressenda was not interested in extending his workshop to harvest earnings. Pressenda's idiosyncrasy in this regard is also found in the content of his last will and testament, which was recently discovered by Mr. Duane Rosengard in the State Archives of Turin. In the testament, he offered no property to speak of and his only relatives, two nephews, inherited nothing more than his two exposition medals and a few books (8). Evidently, he was a humble but industrious maker in the city, devoting his energy to his own making rather than distributing branded instruments.
The Pressenda violin illustrated here is one of the highest order, both in terms of the level of craftsmanship and the depth of human sensitivity that the instrument emits. The original label dated 1835 places the violin to the maker's most prolific period. Modeled on Stradivari, the outline shows less mixing of Guarnerian characters. Compared to the maker's early Stradivarian models, the C bout has been refined without moving to the square exaggeration. There is a twin to this model, dated 1835, at one time owned by the late Alfred Campoli. The principal dimensions are: body length, 35.4 cm, upper bout, 16.7 cm, middle bout, 11.3cm, and lower bout 20.8cm. The height of the ribs is 3.05-3.15 cm, showing a slight tapering toward the upper bout. Looking from the side, the round thick edges of the front and back give the impression that the side is higher than the standard for Cremonese makers. The one-piece back of quarter-cut maple has an attractive irregular curl in the upper bout. The wood used is of the best quality, comprising dense grains with strong fibres. The outline of the back is characteristically framed with a round flange whose rise immediately starts at the edge of the purfling. While this flanged edge is as thick as 5 mm, the distribution of thickness over the back plate falls in a narrow range between 3.0 mm (in the corners) and 4.0 mm (in the centre), flatter in thickness than the classical standard. Pressenda followed the classic Cremonese tradition in fixing the back by thrusting bradawls through it into the end blocks. Two holes left on the back were filled up by relatively thick pegs (pins).
The ff-holes are slender but masculine-looking, in the style "Pressenda" with distinctive hollowing in the lower wing which flows into the arching of the table in good harmony. The notch position shows the asymmetric styling, possibly assisted by the hand of Rocca. The ff-holes are placed fairly apart, creating a broad flat arching in the area between them; in this point a similarity is noted to some of the work of G. B. Guadagnini. Particularly, in the violin illustrated here, the lower eyes of the ff-holes approach close the lower edges of the corners. This situation is also brought about by the characteristically short stop length used by the maker, 19.2 cm in this violin, which pulled up the sound-hole position. Pressenda generally adopted short stop lengths, between 19.1 and 19.4 cm and rarely exceeding 19.5 cm. This is in contrast to his pupil Joseph Rocca who was inclined to use a longer one. The short stop length, as well as the broad arching, clearly contributes to the formation of the Pressenda sound, described below.
The purflings are uniform and neatly chiseled, with a fairly thin black strip relative to the white strip. With some instruments of the maker, including this specimen, stained black pear strip has been chosen which is wider in the front than in the back, due to some aim for working with a much softer pine wood than the maple of the back. The working of the corner purfling of the C bout takes the "open point" style, in which the direction of the point where the two purflings meet goes toward the centre of the border, not following the Stradivarian style. This is also the case in G. B. Guadagnini. Some violins show a type of edge work in which the outer black strip elongates toward the centre of the C bout. The edges outside the purflings are wide, and particularly broad at the corners of the front table, implying that Pressenda, having seen the result of old played violins, foresaw the future wear that his instruments would suffer. There is also found a purfling at the end pin where two rib woods are jointed, a manner common to this maker. This, together with the maker's preference to use a one-piece back, would indicate that it was an esthetic policy of Pressenda to avoid a jointed appearance.
Looking at the scroll, incisively cut spirals are in a beautiful symmetry and surround a large masculine eye, extending out toward wide edges. Fusing masculine cutting and beautiful curvilinear work, the scroll is decidedly one of the most beautiful and personal aspects of Pressenda's work. The scrolls he used in his earlier work lack the esthetic balance of their extremely large eye, which is placed in a narrowly convoluted spiral. The shape of the spiral, when carefully viewed from the side, appears slightly oval in parallel with the line of the peg box. This typically reflects a combination of delicate, sophisticated skill and artistic expression. The edges of bevels have been outlined with black paint, which, in Pressenda, is a material that is easily chipped off and has largely worn away in this violin. Pressenda used a vividly flamed wood for the scroll along with his selected back rather than allotting a plainer one. The lower end of the back of the scroll is well-grooved with full curvature. Through the full length of the head a gauge mark (line) is clearly visible at the central beveling. Despite chiseling with perfect care, Pressenda prefers to leave a human touch in his work, as the classical makers did.
Among the elements of the Pressenda violin, most of which show consistent craftsmanship, the varnish used is one area in which there is a certain fluctation in quality. Pressenda conducted extensive experimentation in search of the ideal varnish, even during his most prolific period (9). His varnish is soft, lustrous, and apparently of high oil content, exhibiting cracklure where it gathers. The varnish used after 1830 is mostly dark red to reddish brown if occasionally shaking to an amber orange tint. However, some of the results when he changed his recipe appeared as an extremely dark surface which tends to immediately be rejected by collectors. One violin dated 1834, once offered for sale by the Wurlitzer Co., was almost black under room lighting. Another violin dated 1837 was dark red but its surface is covered with a black layer. The black surface can be the result of later phase separation of varnish substances in the process of drying, which took too long to dry. In this respect, it is difficult to compare the quality of Pressenda varnish with that used by the top Cremonese masters. And it should be added that Rocca's handling of varnish was superior, at least with his best work around 1850. Interestingly, it is recognized that Pressenda used only small amounts of or no preliminary sizing in the varnishing process. This allowed the coloured varnish to soak through a thin undercoat into the soft pine wood. As a result, in the front the tint often became darker than the back and a unique inverse grain pattern emerged in which the soft summer grain (the wider part of the grain) is stained darker than the tight winter grain, exhibiting a pattern of lighter stripes (see Figure 5).
There are endless disputes with regard to the tonal characteristics of Pressenda instruments, which constitute the fruition of his many idiosyncracies. The Pressenda sound is generally accepted to be powerful, suited for concert use. But the timbre of average Pressenda violins is often underwhelming to the ear of those who have played 18th century Italians or have grown accustomed to the instant responsivity of modern Italians; Pressenda violins, while having depth in lower strings, often sound darker or mild in the higher strings, rather than brilliantly robust under the ear. Nevertheless, they have excellent carrying power, and are full of overtones such that audiences in concert halls hear the silvery power of the sound. In short, the Pressenda sound tends to take an energetic focus (not physically but more sensuously) in a space far distant from the musician's immediate surroundings. It is important to note that Pressenda's Turin workshop was located near the city theatre. It is not by any means a stretch to assume that Pressenda often played - and checked - his brand-new instruments in this venue, in this way working out an understanding of what aspects of violin making are essential to creating an instrument that is above all distinctive in its carrying power.
Dr.宮坂さんの近況この論文を読んで海外から問い合わせがきたなかで，不思議な縁ですが，１人，アメリカのクリーブランド音楽院(Cleveland Institute of Music）の卒業したばかりの留学女子大生で，論文を大学で読んで私に興味を持ち手紙を送ってきた人が居ます。