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Testalino Liutaio
Last updated on 05 July 2023

UNESCO and Safeguarding

Five hundred years of practice, honed expertise, investigation and experimentation, and slow, meticulous movements. Five hundred years of patience.

This is what the master luthiers in the workshops of Cremona are still perpetuating today in their daily practice of a craft of the highest artistic value, recognised by UNESCO as part of the heritage of humanity, with traditional Cremonese violin craftsmanship having been inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2012.

There is, of course, more to cultural heritage than just monuments and collections of objects; it also includes all of the living traditions that humans pass on from generation to generation, like traditional Cremonese violin craftsmanship, which originated in Cremona in the mid-16th century.

Inclusion on the list is undoubtedly recognition of cultural relevance, but that’s not all. Since we are talking here about living heritage, one made up of the wealth of knowledge and expertise that is passed on from one generation to the next, inscription on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage is also, first and foremost, a commitment that the community to which said knowledge belongs makes to ensure that it is passed on.

Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage

It is this transmission of knowledge and expertise that UNESCO protects through various measures designed to promote this, starting with the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003), which provides a series of procedures and tools for identifying, documenting, preserving, protecting, promoting and enhancing each element.

And this is precisely the aim of the safeguarding plan, a series of actions designed to protect luthiery knowledge and expertise, which are threatened as much by globalization as by natural events, as evidenced during the recent disastrous spread of the Covid-19 virus.

Work on developing the Piano di salvaguardia del saper fare liutario tradizionale cremonese (‘Plan for the Safeguarding of Traditional Cremonese Violin Craftsmanship’) [link], which the community is implementing with the support of the City of Cremona, the Ministry of Culture and UNESCO, in partnership the Lombardy Region (AESS), is part of this process.

The aim? To identify the strengths, weaknesses, challenges and opportunities of the process by which traditional Cremonese luthiery expertise is transmitted and to identify practices and strategies for safeguarding it in conjunction with the entire Cremonese community.

Safeguarding the ancient method of producing violins in accordance with the practices passed down through the centuries in the workshops, from master to master, is an issue that has always been close to the heart of the Cremonese community. Nowadays, a dedicated office that has been set up within the City coordinates the measures put in place, but there has always been a network in the city that keeps the pursuit of quality luthiery alive and continues to champion traditional expertise.


First Steps: Cultural districts

The focus on safeguarding luthiery and Cremona’s distinct position goes back a long way and is linked to the Districts project introduced by the Fondazione Cariplo in 2004 to enhance cultural heritage through territorial development. A cultural district is, in fact, an area that is home to numerous cultural and environmental assets, services and interlinked production activities that are affected by investments in human capital, integration between production chains and the cultural sector, and innovation in services and methodologies.

The project was implemented in 4 phases:

  • 2005-2006: general study to identify homogeneous areas in which to create districts;
  • 2007-2008: selection of areas in which to carry out feasibility studies to verify the institutional and economic conditions required for district development;
  • 2008-2010: feasibility studies;
  • Approval of districts: the ‘Cultural District of the Province of Cremona’ was approved in July 2010.

The Convention

Italy ratifies the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.


The Inscription

Traditional Cremonese violin craftsmanship is inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.


The Cultural District of the City of Cremona

In 2015, the City of Cremona submitted a funding request to the Fondazione Cariplo for a project entitled Distretto culturale della città di Cremona (‘Cultural District of the City of Cremona’), an extension of the Fondazione Cariplo’s own cultural district project.


With measures pertaining to the cultural district of the province of Cremona having concluded, in fact, the Fondazione Cariplo reflected upon the situation, along with the City of Cremona, and came to the conclusion that the urban dimension, especially when it is a peculiar urban dimension, as is the case with Cremona, was the best dimension in which to continue investing, since even small investments can have major transformative potential.

In the case of Cremona, investment was made in the education sector, meaning that the funding requested would serve to strengthen the presence of the university campuses in Cremona, and in particular those of the University of Pavia and the Polytechnic University of Milan. This would focus on both their research and their teaching, the former through the consolidation of research laboratory activities and the latter by means of a distinct training offering that would set Cremona apart from other campuses. With regard to the University of Pavia, this gave rise to work resulting in the presentation and consequent recognition and accreditation of the degree course in the Restoration of Musical Instruments and Scientific and Technical Instrumentation, whereas the Polytechnic University of Milan, over the longer-term, made the city the base for its master’s degree in Music and Acoustic Engineering.

The idea behind the moves was that consolidating these hubs of research and training would have a direct and indirect impact on the city and especially on certain sectors, including luthiery, because having access to skills so akin to certain aspects of the city’s luthiery sector available on a permanent basis could generate positive synergies without the need for further investment.


Luthiery and the District

During these years, and in terms of the district’s physiognomy, luthiery unequivocally proved to be the dominant element, even within the theory of territorial districtization; at the same time, the luthier community, spurred on by a number of training projects, expressed an interest in what the district was doing and what it was about, resulting in it becoming a district that was still all about training, but focused specifically on the art of luthiery.

Also in 2017, Italy implemented the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003) that had already been ratified in 2006 and modified the law that had hitherto been used to fund the protection and development of management plans for UNESCO sites, introducing so-called ‘intangible elements’ as recipients of state protection for the first time.

From then on, the Ministry of Culture, on the one hand, and the Ministry of Forestry Policy, on the other, began issuing calls for tenders to fund initiatives aimed at outlining, developing and drafting plans for safeguarding certain elements. Drawing on its previous years’ work with the District and the Fondazione Cariplo, and all the coordination that had been done in 2010-2011 ahead of submitting the application for its luthiery heritage to be UNESCO-listed, the City of Cremona took up the matter again and suggested to all parties that had signed the application in 2011 that it serve as the Ministry’s single point of contact and therefore as the community representative. All parties signed a statement of agreement that served as the legal document on the basis of which Cremona continues its work in this field, having since been legally defined by a state law and adopted by the local authority under its own competence.


Creation of the UNESCO Office

Having taken it on as its own responsibility, the City of Cremona set up an internal office dedicated to coordinating measures relating to the safeguarding of traditional Cremonese violin craftsmanship: the Ufficio per l’Unesco (UNESCO Office).


From few to all

Until the Fondazione Cariplo funds were used, activities centred around a project instigated by the local authority and a special council, which therefore had a certain political orientation that focused very much on the issue of ethics in the profession. For this reason, the district functioned somewhat selectively with regard to the community in that it worked with those luthiers who had not only expressed interest but also signed a special agreement that included certain ethical integrity provisions. Other luthiers were not involved.

Once the City became the Ministry’s representative and responsible for implementing UNESCO conventions, however, it could no longer be selective but instead had to address and reach out to the entire community, as stipulated in the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003) and by the Faro Convention.