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Testalino Liutaio
Last updated on 13 September 2023

Cremonese luthiery: five centuries of expertise

Anywhere in the world, in New York, Moscow or Shanghai, taken a seat in the back of a cab, anyone with a violin case in hand will hear the driver ask the same question, "Stradivarius?"

The violin is Stradivari, Stradivari is the violin. And Cremona, the city to which this illustrious son remembered to belong on the cartouches of his instruments, is now more than ever Stradivari.

Andrea Amati and the birth of luthiery

The first violin in history was produced in Cremona in the mid-16th century, which shouldn’t come as a surprise when we think of the extraordinary times the city was experiencing then. The city was ruled by the Spanish during those decades and was a hotbed of ingenuity, art and music, with men of science, artists, musicians and violinists all working there, all of them cremonensis[1] invited to the major European courts as a result of their skills. This was only the very beginning of a creative narrative that would immediately ensure the primacy of instruments produced in Cremona. The city was, at the same time, an excellent musical breeding ground that gave rise to musicians and composers such as Marc’Antonio Ingegneri and his pupil Claudio Monteverdi, the Divine Claudio, the brilliant artist who, at the start of the 17th century, paved the way for the development of music. This period coincided with a time of great mobility for musicians, who moved from Cremona to other Italian and European centres; indeed, many violinists and viola players left the city for the main courts, testifying to the city’s significant violin tradition and the excellence of the “Cremonese” school.

In 1539, a magister from Cremona rented a house with a workshop in the craftsmen’s block just a stone’s throw from the monumental cathedral. This man was Andrea Amati (1505c.-1577), the artist whose hands produced the very first violins.

[1] The latinized name of Cremona. 


Cremona, land of ingenuity, music and art

Sixteenth-century Cremona was not only a hotbed of music but a cradle of talented men who, just like the musicians, found themselves in demand way beyond the Alps. The city was also the birthplace of men of science such as Janello Torriani (1500-1580), a clockmaker and hydraulic engineer who served Charles V, King of Spain, a talented builder of mechanical robots and, above all, famous designer of the Artificio de Juanelo–a complex mechanical system that lifted water from the Tagus River to the Alcazar fortress in the upper part of the city.

When we think of figurative art, we think of one of the greatest female exponents of the Italian Renaissance, Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625), a painter from Cremona and lady-in-waiting to Queen Elisabeth of Valois in Madrid from 1559 who became portrait painter to the Imperial family, and it was no coincidence that Andrea Amati and his instruments bore the motto and emblem of Philip II, Elisabeth’s husband. But Cremonese painting was also an expression of the work of Bernardino Campi (1520-1591), an exponent of Lombard Mannerism whose presence is evidenced in the pieces visible in the Cathedral and the Church of San Sigismondo, and later Galeazzo Campi and his sons Giulio (1502-1572), Vincenzo (1536-1591) and Antonio (1524-1587), who were not related to Bernardino but were responsible for many of the pieces now preserved in the city’s churches and at the Museo Civico.

Finally, the presence of a well-established carpentry scene in the city is also of note. In fact, unlike other major centres known for their significant stone sculpting scenes, Cremona set itself apart with its major woodworking tradition, the rich heritage preserved within the city comprising some prime examples such as Giovanni Maria Platina’s cupboard, built before 1480 and now held at the city’s Museo Civico.

It is not surprising, then, that at the time, a citizen of Cremona would choose a developmental path that started from the bowed stringed instruments of the previous era and carved out the form and features of a new instrument: the violin; nor is it surprising to learn that Cremonese painters played their part in decorating the instruments that that particular citizen of Cremona, Andrea Amati, produced for the King of France, Charles IX. The symbolic representations of piety and justice and the angels holding crowns display all of the characteristics of 16th-century Cremonese Mannerism. These were instruments that combined the art of luthiery with the art of local painters.


First historical record: home and workshop of Andrea Amati

Archive sources reveal that magister Andrea Amati, son of Gottardo, who was also a craftsman, rented a house with a workshop in the parish of Santi Faustino and Giovita in 1539. A later document dating from 1576 states that the house and its workshop belonged to Andrea, as well as confirming the owner’s profession: “Magister Andrea di Amadis in casa suva: l'arte suva se de far strumenti de sonar...” (Magister Andrea di Amadis at his home: his craft is making musical instruments...).


Andrea Amati dies: material and artistic inheritance left to his children

Andrea, a family man with at least two sons and three daughters, died on 24 December 1577 and was buried at the church of San Domenico, just a stone’s throw from his home. His sons Antonio (1540c.-1607) and Girolamo (1550c.-1630) inherited what was undoubtedly a flourishing business with an established position on the European scene. The two brothers glued a cartouche onto the inside of their instruments bearing both their names and stating that they were sons of Andrea.

However, both the joint venture and the harmonious relationship between the two seemed to come to an abrupt end in 1588, when Girolamo, who, unlike his still unmarried brother, had married twice, having shared both his wives’ dowries with Antonio, demanded that they be returned. Antonio, who had no financial resources to call upon, gave up his share of the house in San Faustino to Girolamo. The document testifies to a less than sunny relationship between the two, which even resulted in them parting ways in business. That said, despite their disagreements, both would very rarely use labels bearing only their own name, choosing instead to brand their instruments with the following wording: Antonius & Hieronymus Fr. Amati / Cremoneñ. Andreæ fil. F.

Girolamo continued to use the same wording for a long time, even after his brother’s death. 


The plague and the rise of Nicolò Amati

Nicolò (1596-1684), son of Girolamo, joined his father in the workshop from a young age and would work with him until his father died of the plague in 1630.

As well as Girolamo Amati, the epidemic would also claim the life of Giovanni Battista Maggini, a luthier working in nearby Brescia, thus leaving Nicolò alone at the workshop and at the same time signalling the end of the Brescian luthiery tradition. Nicolò’s business grew extremely quickly and before long, since he had no sons of his own at the time, he found himself training young pupils, among them famili (pupils in residence) Andrea Guarneri (1623-1698) and Giacomo Gennaro (1624c.-1701), in order to cope with the demand. In 1645, Nicolò, who was now approaching fifty years of age, married the young Lucrezia Pagliari and a few years later Girolamo was born, becoming the heir to his father’s workshop. Everything pointed towards the family’s continued supremacy, but the situation in the city after a century of the Amati workshop being the only one in town was marked by strong development that proved detrimental to the long-established workshop.


The new key players: the Guarneris

New players emerged in the later decades of the century in the form of young, first-generation craftsmen linked to Nicolò’s workshop or influenced by his work. These included Andrea Guarneri, the familio (pupil in residence) who practiced until the end of the century and was the closest luthier to Nicolò. Indeed, Andrea had a family connection to the maestro and was even best man at his wedding and again a guest at Nicolò’s home for a short time when he got married. Upon his death, Andrea left the task of running the business to his son Giuseppe (1666-1740c.), his eldest son Pietro (1655-1720), a luthier and musician, having long since moved to Mantua.

The context was further enriched by the presence of Francesco Ruger, or Rugeri, (1620c.-1698), forefather of a new family of luthiers, with his four sons, Giovanni Battista (1653-1711), Vincenzo (1661-1719), Giacinto (1663-1697) and Carlo (1666-1713) later continuing their father’s work. Although Francesco Rugeri’s apprenticeship at the Amati workshop is not documented, his instruments do provide surprising evidence of a strong bond. Furthermore, one of his daughters’ certificates of baptism cites Nicolò as her godfather, demonstrating that the two were not only acquaintances but very good friends.

End of the 17th century

Alumnus Amati Antonio Stradivari’s first violin

The arrival on the local scene of the man who would shape the future of violin-making history, namely Antonio Stradivari (1644c.-1737) and his early activity, completed the picture.

Born a few years before Girolamo II Amati, nothing is known for sure about his education, and his date and place of birth are also unknown. His earliest instruments showed traits that could be traced back to Nicolò’s work, although there is no evidence of his presence in the Amati workshop either, but a violin from 1666, considered to be his first instrument, does bear a label with the words alumnus Amati (former pupil of Amati).

These were the years in which Antonio established himself on the city’s scene, the time he dedicated to producing extraordinary inlaid violins and plucked instruments.


The quintet for Ferdinando de’ Medici and Stradivari’s success

In 1690, the Marquis Ariberti’s commissioning of an entire quintet of instruments to be donated to Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici sanctioned the success of this new leading player on the city’s luthiery scene. Shortly after, in 1698, Andrea Guarneri and Francesco Rugeri died, and as if to compensate for the death of the two luthiers, Giuseppe’s son, one Bartolomeo Giuseppe known universally as Guarneri del “Gesù” and who would shape the early decades of the next century, was born. The Rugeri’s activity continued in the 18th century thanks to the work of Francesco’s sons. Giuseppe and his son Bartolomeo Giuseppe later ensured the continuity of the Guarneri workshop, located on the island close to the long-established Amati workshop.

By the turn of the century, Antonio Stradivari was the leading violin maker on the local scene. Moreover, the purchasing, in 1680, of the house with the workshop in a very central district where there were already two other active luthiery workshops bore testimony to the success he had already achieved in the last decades of the 17th century. Stradivari continued to work vehemently, with sons Francesco (1671-1743) and Omobono (1679-1742) by his side, producing extraordinary violins and cellos that were the fruit of intense and continuous research and innovation that was mindful of the evolving violin repertoire at the time.

One event in particular could be considered indicative of what was happening in the city in the early decades of the 18th century given how small the world of Cremonese luthiery actually was.

In the wake of a complicated matter arising in 1698 in relation to a loan obtained by pledging a portion of the house in San Faustino, brothers Giovanni Battista and Girolamo Amati were forced to pay an annual income of 150 lire to Don Alessandro Stradivari, son of Antonio. This house was the one that Andrea had rented in 1539, the seat of the family business. What happened confirmed the decline of the Amati family and the unstoppable rise of Antonio Stradivari, personal events that would mark the end of an era. The difficulties experienced by Girolamo II Amati and the Rugeri family, as testified to in Giacinto’s will, in which he lamented the previous years, and the difficult life of the Guarneri family were the harbingers, in the early decades of the 18th century, of what was to come in the latter half of the century. At the same time, Carlo Bergonzi (1683-1747), the last luthier to have worked in Stradivari’s workshop, from 1745-46 onwards, and to have used the forms and models with which Antonio’s heirs had entrusted him, appeared on the local scene.


Stradivari dies and the Guarneris fail to achieve the same success

Antonio died in 1737, at over ninety years of age, and was buried at the Church of San Domenico, opposite his home, symbolically joining Andrea Amati and Andrea Guarneri.

Giuseppe Guarneri’s sons failed to achieve the same level of success enjoyed by Stradivari alone; Pietro II (1695- 1762) left the city for Venice and Giuseppe Guarneri “del Gesù” (1698-1744) struggled to get by, his popularity only truly being recognized later on and his instruments only becoming sought after in the following century, when his name would feature alongside that of virtuoso Nicolo Paganini. Despite his uncontested skill, Girolamo II, the final heir of the Amati family, fled the city in search of better fortune after witnessing the death of the family business, the craft of instrument-making in which the Amatis had excelled for over a century.


Death of Carlo Bergonzi and beginning of the slow decline

Antonio Stradivari’s sons, Francesco and Omobono, both bachelors and without heirs, died a few years after their father. In the years that followed his death, they lived mainly from the sale of the many finished instruments still left at the workshop.

Carlo Bergonzi died in 1747, in what were terrible times for Cremonese luthiery, which lost Antonio Stradivari and his sons, Guarneri “del Gesù” and his father Giuseppe, Carlo Bergonzi and finally Girolamo II Amati, all between 1737 and 1749. Carlo Bergonzi’s sons Michele Angelo (1721-1758) and Zosimo (1724-1779) experienced the city’s slow and gradual decline despite themselves. During these years, competition from luthiers practising in other parts of the peninsula was increasingly fierce, stemming from areas in which the instruments being made presented a valid alternative to those from Cremona in terms of quality, with luthiers working in Venice, Naples and Turin, cities that had far more opportunities to offer than little old Cremona, which had undoubtedly been unable to reverse a difficult fate that had increasingly distanced it from its prestigious past.


Storioni, Rota and Ceruti

At the start of the 19th century, a young officer of Napoleon’s army, Marie-Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal, wrote in the summer of 1801: “I’m leaving, I’m going to Cremona... a big village where you die of boredom and heat”.

Who was working in the workshops in that big village at the start of the new century? Who were the new architects of a centuries-old tradition? Who was struggling through an economically difficult period in a Cremona, cut off from the major commercial channels, in a cultural climate that was no longer the vibrant and creative one it was in the 16th century? Which craftsmen witnessed the temporary rule of the French from 1796 and the defeat of Napoleon in 1814  and the return of the Austrians? Michele Angelo Bergonzi died, all too young and without an heir, and did not get to see how his art would develop. It was his brother Zosimo’s sons, Nicola (1754-1832) and Carlo Antonio (1757-1836), who would, in fact, lead us into the 19th century. Toiling alongside them in the city were Lorenzo Storioni (1744-1816), whose instruments are known to have been built from 1770 onwards, later his apprentice Giovanni Rota (1767-1810), and finally Giovanni Battista Ceruti (1756-1810). Still quite a number, then, but what becomes clear is the increasingly insignificant role of Cremonese luthiery on the national and European stages. What was happening effectively reflected the personal events occurring in Nicola Bergonzi’s life. Carlo Bergonzi’s nephew, Nicola, was listed among the violin and guitar makers at the company run by Lorenzo Storioni and his assistant Giovanni Rota in 1787. Some years later, on 12 March 1832, Nicola himself appeared on a list of notifications stating that he had ceased trading as a textile merchant. Luthiery was clearly being abandoned in favour of more profitable or more modest professions that could guarantee greater economic security—a situation that was quite different from the days when better conditions allowed Cremonese craftsmen to invest their earnings in property and other entrepreneurial activities. This was how the city’s luthiery scene looked during the 19th century, the century that would be associated for many decades to come with the activity of the Ceruti family; indeed, following in the footsteps of Giovanni Battista, his son Giuseppe (1785-1860) and grandson Enrico (1806-1883) would continue to produce instruments in the city. Along with the last of the Ceruti family we find Pietro Grulli (1831-1898) and Giuseppe Beltrami (?-1881), though we must also not forget Gaetano Antoniazzi (1825-1897), who likely had professional ties to the Cerutis, and his sons Riccardo (1853-1912) and Romeo (1862-1925). The family left the city in 1870 to move to nearby Milan in search of better fortune and made a significant contribution to the development of the Milanese school of violin making in the early 20th century. The baton in the city was then passed to Pietro Grulli (1831-1898) and Giuseppe Beltrami (?-1881) and later Romedio Muncher (1874-1940), Luigi Digiuni (1878-1937), Carlo Schiavi (1883-1943) and Carlo Bosi (1908-1943).

The 19th century

Aristide Cavalli, serial production and the end of craftsmanship

Following centuries of great splendour, Cremona now found itself lacking in both talent and music, and at the start of the 20th century it remained on the same course as in the previous one, headed for decades that would see the end of family traditions, the closure of long-established workshops, and Cremonese violin makers migrating to more vibrant areas that offered better prospects. Around this time, the city’s luthiers would cross paths with Aristide Cavalli, who had the entrepreneurial spirit to launch the serial production of instruments in the city with the founding of the Officina Claudio Monteverde, inspired by patterns of work organization that had already been trialled for years in France and Germany. The initiative appeared to be putting an end, once and for all, to any ambition the city had of regaining its excellence in the artisan production of musical instruments, an experiment that was not to end well.

Early-20th century

Stradivarian celebrations: Cremona once again the capital

In the late 1930s there came a turning point. The city had long been trying to regain its identity and Stradivari, along with the Cremonese luthiery scene as a whole, was beginning to become part of the local heritage following a period of being overlooked. In 1937, great economic and organizational efforts were made to celebrate the bicentenary of Antonio Stradivari’s death, thus fuelling his legendary status within the city, and Cremona once again became the luthiery capital it once was for a month. Four years earlier, the Sala Stradivariana had opened at the Museo Civico, dedicated to exhibiting all of the artefacts from Stradivari’s workshop.


Foundation of the School of Violin Making

The year after the Stradivarian celebrations, the School of Violin Making opened with the aim of rediscovering and regaining the expert craftsmanship that had been lost over the past century. The very early decades were tough for the school, and it wasn’t until the end of World War II and the country’s subsequent economic recovery in the 1960s that enrolments and graduate numbers would rise steadily, resulting in the creation of new workshops and the revival of the city’s long-standing expertise. That was the situation at the dawn of the third millennium.


Luthiery today

The Cremona of today is once again the city of the violin; it’s in the air they breathe there. Instruments can be found on display in the windows of city-centre workshops, the craftsmen inside concentrating on cutting wood, and there are numerous statues dedicated to Stradivari, the violin and music—a sign of the city’s rediscovered identity as a city that plays, be it in concert halls or on street corners.

This extraordinary tradition has certainly not followed a linear path, experiencing moments of both great splendour and extreme difficulty over the course of its history. But today, thanks to an entire community, that village founded by the Romans has rediscovered its role in the world, a role in which the Amatis, the Guarneris, the Stradivaris, the Rugeris or Rugers, the Bergonzis, Lorenzo Storioni and all of the craftsmen who came after them, including the over 160 luthiers who currently tune instruments for musicians all over the world, have played their part.

The traditional Cremonese production method has been inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2012 and its community is responsible for its preservation, in addition to keeping it alive through daily practice.

The 21st Century
Fausto Cacciatori
Edited by

Fausto Cacciatori

Curator, Museo del Violino

He is responsible for the preservation, cataloging, and enhancement of the instruments and artifacts preserved at the Violin Museum in Cremona. Mr. Cacciatori also oversees the exhibition layouts and related publications.