Although formerly attributed to Giuseppe Guarneri ‘Filius Andrea’, the Guarneri cello of 1729 contains some untypical characteristics. Robin Aitchison examines the instrument and explains why part of it seems to have been made by Filius’ son, ‘del Gesù’.
In The Violin Makers of the Guarneri Family the Hill brothers describe two of the three Cremona-based Guarneris – Andrea and his son Giuseppe, Guarneri ‘Filius Andrea’ – as productive cello makers. But in their chapter on Filius’ son, ‘del Gesù’, the Hills explain at some length that no cello presented to them as the work of ‘del Gesù’ had ever proved to be authentic.
However, discerning observers have long acknowledged that the last two cellos bearing Filius labels (1729 and 1731) clearly show the hand of ‘del Gesù’. Indeed, the cello dated 1731 has been ascribed entirely to ‘del Gesù’ by Rembert Wurlitzer and Charles Beare (1). The other is dated 1729 and seems to be completed by ‘del Gesù’ working with his father.
In 1729 Giuseppe Filius was already 63 years old and would certainly have been regarded as elderly. A healthy maker of 63 might still have been prepared to undertake the hard physical labour of making a cello, but recent archival research by Duane Rosenguard and Carlo Chiesa has revealed that in 1730 Filius was admitted to hospital, an event which, according to the researchers, would have been ‘a clear indication of a grave illness’.(2) Although he survived his stay in hospital, there is no evidence of him working again until 1732, when his hand can be seen in the carving of the heads on his son’s violins. Therefore it seems most unlikely that he was making violins in the period 1729-1731, and it may well have fallen to ‘del Gesù’ to fulfil commissions which his father was unable to complete.
The 1729 cello came to light in the early 1970s when it was purchased by J. & A. Beare Ltd from a noble Italian family during whose ownership it had remained almost unused. It was restored by Beares and sold to an established performer who has owned it ever since. Tantalisingly, the cello’s certificate states: ‘This instrument is a good and characteristic example of the late period of the maker’s (Filius’s) work, assisted, at least in the making of the front, by his son Joseph Guarneri del Gesù’.
A close examination of this cello gives a fascinating insight into the work of both father and son. The instrument is often remarked upon as having an organic appearance. Its substantial asymmetries, variety of corner shapes and use of unfigured wood, combined with its golden-brown colour, give it an intimate and accessible feel.
The cello’s outline indicates that it was constructed on a mould favoured by Filius for many of his later cellos. At 29 ¼ inches (74cm) the model is somewhat smaller than a B-form Stradivari but is substantially wider through the C-bouts and so, when compared with the statuesque, hourglass outline of a Stradivari cello, the Guarneri presents a more sturdy, homely figure.
The upper and middle ribs on the treble side are made of willow while the other four are made from an extremely attractive, fine-growth beech wood with massive medullary rays. The head is made from a similar beech wood to the ribs and the back is cut from a single piece of slab-cut poplar (wood generally associated with the Italian Po valley on account of its very wide annual growth, 20-25mm on this instrument).
This apparently haphazard choice of wood is in fact consistent with other poplar-backed cellos by Filius. However, the wood selected for the front is far from typical of a Filius cello. Four pieces of fine growth spruce (the annual growth never exceeding 1.25mm) have been jointed together to form the front, with the secondary joints running through the lower wings of thef-holes. I have never seen this type of wood or jointing on any Filius cello front (except the 1731 cello, which is very similar) and I suspect that this spruce was selected out of necessity from a stock of wood which was intended for violins rather than for cellos.
Just as surprising as the choice of wood for the front is the arching, which departs so radically from the arching on the back that when one turns the cello over to compare one with the other, one is faced with a dramatic contrast in style.
The back is typical of Filius’s late work. The height is generous but not excessive. The arching is somewhat pointed through the C-bouts but is full in the upper and lower bouts, and it is a testimony to Filius’s exquisite working that a natural flow between the different areas is achieved.
On the front, however, we find a completely different personality at work, carving a much broader arch through the C-bouts with a distinct flattening in the bridge area. The arching in the bouts is less full than on the back and is formed with powerful curves, the subtlety of which make the arching appear lower than it actually is.
The f-hole flutes on this cello are bold and assertive, contrary to what we would expect of Filius, whose subtle flutes never altered the course of the arching in this area. On this cello the arch is planed in quite aggressively outside the lower circles of the f-holes, bringing the outside edge of the circle almost to the level of the edgework. The area of the wing and edge is then carved away to create a flute so straight that it appears to shoot off the inside edge of the wing and into the arching of the lower bout. This bold fluting is not a device which ‘del Gesù’ continued to use, but it can be found on a number of his violins from this period and appears to have been inspired by the work of Stradivari.
Although no two sets of f-holes are identical, it is possible to spot some strong family likenesses between the 1729 cello’s f-holes and those on violins by ‘del Gesù’ from the same period. A particularly close example is the 1727 ‘ex-Lenau’ violin where the f-holes have the same square wing shapes, uprightness and slightly closed appearance.
The differences between the f-holes on the 1729 cello and typical Filius f-holes are demonstrated in the accompanying diagram. Filius normally cut his cello f-holes with approximately 107mm between the upper circles, and although he reduced this dimension by a few millimetres in his late period, the 1729 f-holes are a mere 93mm apart, which is exactly the same spacing used by Stradivari on the ‘Batta-Piatigorsky’ cello of 1714. The diagram also shows that the wings on the 1729 cello are broad and untapered, unlike the wings on earlier Filius cellos. In order to accommodate the stronger wing, the curves at the top and bottom of the f-hole take on a subtly different shape to those cut by the father.
The edgework on Filius’s cellos of often an extravagant affair. Filius inherited a deeply incised flute from his father and developed it over his lifetime to a voluptuous pout, the surface dropping away from a thick, bulbous edge by as much as 2mm before rising into the arch. By contrast, the edgework on this cello is carved with restraint. The flute is minimal and the two knife cuts which shape the edge are clearly visible in the C-bouts with very little softening. This economical approach has left the instrument with a comparatively flat border and a strong edge.
The purfling is made from three strips of poplar of roughly equal thickness. The dying of the blacks appears to have been particularly ineffective – even by Guarneri standards – and survives in very few places, leaving the inlay only subtly darker than the surrounding wood. In the cutting of the purfling channel and insertion of the purfling strips, function rather than finesse seems to have been the order of the day. In some places three strips swim around in an oversized channel filled with mastic while in others there is room for only two. It would be satisfying to be able to ascribe this purfling to ‘del Gesù’ with confidence, but there is insufficient stylistic evidence and, after all, even an ailing maker can insert purfling.
The head is a fine example of Filius’s elegant scroll carving. Like both his father and his son, Filius seems to have had little regard for geometrical purity in the spiral of the volute, although the 1729 head is unusually controlled in this respect. The quarter views show the head at its best. The work is completely natural and uncontrived. The volute develops from one turn to the next with every line gently restating what has gone before. The unworn chamfer shows no sign of blacking and proceeds around the volute in a confident if sometimes uneven fashion. At the eye the chamfer continues without tapering to form an abrupt end to the volute. Marks left by ‘knife chatter’ in the carving of the tight flute over the top of the scroll are present, as one would expect of Filius, but the fluting down the back of the peg box is shallower that on most Filius cello heads and the facets on the vertical surfaces of the volute have all been cleaned up with a scraper.
The elegance and strength of the peg-box design are characteristic of Filius. The massive peg-box walls are undamaged and run to the rough floor of the box in a smooth convex surface. The front lines of the peg-box run in their original state all the way down to the nut, thanks to the skilful fitting of a hidden neck graft to the head during restoration.
Whenever Filius received a particularly rewarding commission, he would produce a varnish of the highest quality. His poplar-backed cellos were, however, usually clad in a less distinguished rich red-brown varnish that has, in fact, matured well with the benefit of an excellent ground. The varnish on the 1729 cello surpasses most of its brethren. The wood is quite dark and at normal indoor light levels the ground is not strongly reflective, leaving the observer relatively unaware of the highly transparent orange colour of the medium-thickness varnish. However, in brighter light the ground starts to reflect with a vengeance and the instrument takes on a luminous orange colour. The instrument also presents a bewilderingly complex textural landscape, particularly on the back where myriad lines and patches of chipped varnish are interwoven with long ribbons of tiny holes where the varnish has sunk into the porous early growth of the poplar.
What are we to make of this cello? The ribs, head and back are all characteristic of Filius, while the front and edge work betray the hand of ‘del Gesù’. Earlier I suggested that the cello may have been started by Filius but was completed by ‘del Gesù’ due to his father’s ill health. Current understanding of Cremonese construction methods supports this hypothesis, since the Filius parts of the instrument would have constituted the first three stages in the construction process. Subsequently ‘del Gesù’ would have carved the front and finished the edges and he was probably also responsible for the purfling, varnishing and original set-up of the instrument. The result is a fascinating and unique record of a collaboration between two of the greatest violin makers in the classical period.
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Willing Guarneri versus wilful Stradivari: the tone colour test
Several players assisted with a comparative sound testing of the 1729 Guarneri cello with a fine golden-period B-form Stradivari. The two instruments were given similar strings and set ups.
Both instruments demonstrated great powers of projection, but what immediately struck the participants was the contrast in tone between the two cellos. The Stradivari had a concentrated, bright, golden timbre which was sustained down to the bottom of the bass register. The Guarneri had a darker and more song-like tone, the colours of which the players felt they could produce and explore at ease within a single bow. The Stradivari felt more wilful, independent and headstrong to them, while the Guarneri was more willing and malleable.
It was not long before the listeners were lost for words with which to describe sound and found themselves in the realms of analogy. The sound of the Guarneri was likened to a painting by Rembrandt with great contrasts of light and darkness and a magnificent array of warm brown tones, while the Stradivari was a Turner with a swirl of gold emanating from a single source of light.