Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711-1786) was one of the most prolific and talented cello makers of his generation. More than 45 of his cellos survive and are played by soloists such as Natalie Clein and David Geringas, as well as by prominent chamber musicians. Compared to Stradivari who spent his long life in Cremona (1644-1737) with his large family and thriving workshop, Guadagnini’s life was turbulent and unsettled, moving from Piacenza to Milan, Parma and finally Turin in search of financial stability.
Guadagnini began his working life as a carpenter in Piacenza and was gradually drawn to violin making through his friendships with local musicians such as Carlo Ferrari, a virtuoso cellist. There is no evidence that Guadagnini underwent any formal apprenticeship with a luthier, which explains his original, organic and ergonomic approach to instrument making. He worked with great freedom, while managing to achieve amazingly consistent tonal results.
In 1744 Carlo Ferrari moved to the cosmopolitan city of Milan leaving Guadagnini to face a terrible series of events. In 1745 Piacenza was captured by the Spanish and then besieged by the Austrian army in 1746. The resulting food and water shortages and spread of disease led to the death that year of Guadagnini’s wife, father and half brother, leaving him responsible for three small children and two half sisters. In extremis, he quickly married a newly widowed woman and family friend, Teresa Opici, but she died four months later in February 1747. In April of the same year he married Anna Vitali and together they had seven children who survived to adulthood.
In 1749 Guadagnini moved to Milan to join Ferrari who was now a celebrated member of the thriving musical scene. This was a costly move, forcing Guadagnini to leave at least one daughter and his two half sisters in Piacenza. However, he soon became the busiest maker in Milan and built over one hundred violins and at least six cellos during his nine year stay. The exceptional quality of Guadagnini’s work and the beauty of his materials during the Milan period reflect the wealth of his patrons and the plentiful supply of beautifully figured wood and rich, brilliant pigments available in this big trading city.
In Milan Guadagnini developed the distinctive cello model which he was to use for the rest of his working life. His early cellos were based on a classical model by Andrea Guarneri but in Milan Guadagnini evolved a shorter, fuller-waisted model with widely spaced f-holes. He may well have designed this model for Ferrari who had a damaged leg and needed a comfortable instrument. The quick response, rich, powerful tone and effortless handling characteristic of Guadagnini’s cellos are almost certainly due to Ferrari’s influence.
Ferrari left Milan in 1754 to enter the service of the Duke of Parma, paving the way for Guadagnini to join him in 1758. This move prompted Guadagnini to arrange for his eldest daughter Maria Antonia to join him in Parma; she married soon afterwards. Guadagnini’s first ten years in Parma were settled and productive although imported violin making wood was in short supply in this small state. In 1765 the Duke of Parma died suddenly and a long period of official mourning followed during which public performances were banned, putting many of Guadagnini’s customers out of work. The musicians of the Royal Chapel, including Ferrari, also suffered when their annual stipends were cut by 35%. By 1768 Guadagnini, his wife and seven children were living in the poorest quarter of the city and in this year the government imposed heavy taxes which left the struggling family destitute. Guadagnini appealed for help to leave Parma in search of better fortune and in May 1771 he was granted the equivalent of three years’ stipend to pay for his move. That summer Guadagnini left Parma for Turin to set up a new business just before his sixtieth birthday.
In Turin Guadagnini met the 18 year old Count Cozio di Salabue, an amateur violinist and collector under whose exclusive patronage he produced more than fifty instruments. Guadagnini also worked as an intermediary for Cozio in the purchase of a large number of Cremonese instruments, including twelve Stradivari violins and, in 1776, all Stradivari’s remaining workshop tools and moulds. Cozio was not an easy employer and he was often late in payments for instruments. The relationship finally broke down when Cozio instructed Guadagnini to base his instruments on the Stradivari form. An extract from a letter written by Cozio in 1804 to an amateur violin maker, Count Alessandro Maggi, reveals his frustration with Guadagnini:
‘Twenty five years ago or more in Turin, I made the late Giovanni Battista Guadagnini work on foreign wood and had the satisfaction of seeing his work improve greatly before my very eyes in the space of three years. In truth his instruments are now particularly fine.
He [Guadagnini] was however a coarse man and ignorant, obdurate in opinion, lacking in patience, with a large family and him the only one working. He wanted these instruments to be known as his work, even the finish and the varnishing! I never succeeded in making him imitate the best makers or even work on their forms.’*
In 1777 Guadagnini terminated his contract with Cozio and worked on with his sons until his death in September 1786 aged 75.
In 2001 Robin Aitchison was asked to copy a Milan period Guadagnini cello (1755) for its owner, which marked the beginning of his fascination with G.B. Guadagnini. Robin now regularly makes cellos to G.B. Guadagnini’s original model (l.o.b. 715mm or 28”) as well as his own slightly enlarged version. (l.o.b. 737mm or 29”)
Robin’s close study of this and other Guadagnini cellos has given him a profound understanding of the model. Guadagnini’s cellos tend to be wider in the front than in the back and it appears that Guadagnini removed his mould from the ribs and glued them to the back before defining the shape of the front. When released from the mould the ribs splay out a little so that when Guadagnini drew round them to create the outline for the front of the instrument, the front was wider than the back. This design is comfortable for the cellist, since the narrow back sits easily between the legs. The design also has tonal advantages, since the wide front increases the tonal potential of the instrument.
Robin follows the same construction method with his Guadagnini cello copies which, along with his meticulous selection of wood and faithful re-construction of Guadagnini’s arching and thicknessing results in a tone close to that of the original instrument.
A G.B. Guadagnini cello dating from 1760 (two years into his Parma period) with a back length of 711mm was auctioned at Christies in November 2004 for £341,250.