Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Violin Maker and Restorer in Dorsoduro


"When did you start learning how to work with wood?" I ask Francesco Trevisan as we stand in his small workshop on the ground floor of his 16th-century house just behind the Guggenheim Museum in the Dorsoduro sestiere of Venice. He points to his two-year-old son Arturo, seated on the ground between us, pounding with a large wood mallet (but no nails) on a block of wood, and says, "When I was his size. I started out just playing in my grandfather's workshop, where the tools were my toys, as they are for Arturo. My grandfather was a carpenter in the Arsenale. He worked on boats belonging to the Navy. And his brother, my great-uncle, had a business renting boats near [the church of the] Carmini. My grandfather would repair those, too. Wood boats, boats to be rowed."

I'm puzzled by the idea of someone renting out boats not far from the historic center of Venice. Overly-influenced by today's Venice, I assume the business must have been oriented toward tourists, but can't imagine either the little rowboats available for rent in someplace like Rome's Villa Boghese in Venice, nor tourists capable of rowing in the Venetian style. "This was a business for tourists?" I ask.

"No," Francesco replies, "for Venetians. My great-uncle rented traditional Venetian boats, sanpierote, tope... Through the 1970s there were not all the motorboats there are now in the city, and fiberglass boats had not yet taken over, as they have now. If a Venetian needed to transport something like a piece of furniture, for example, they would still do so by rowing. These were my great uncle's customers."

Francesco in his workshop (updated 28 November 2014)
It's hard for me to believe that traditional oar-powered Venetian boats had played such a role in the city during my own lifetime, but if I'm going to manage it anywhere Francesco's workshop, where he repairs and restores violins and cellos and other wood instruments, is one of the best places to do so in Venice. Outside the walls of this little room filled with tools and pigments and instruments and craftsmanship redolent of another era, Rio Terà San Vio is so completely quiet at noon on this weekday, without even a stray sound of a vaporetto or water taxi, that it's easy to imagine that one still lives in a time when Venetians get around by oar and that it's the norm, rather than something quite old-fashioned, that the son of violin maker would naturally become a violin maker himself.

But the fact is that Francesco's own path to becoming a violin maker, in spite of his grandfather's influence, was not direct. He studied physics at Ca' Foscari, then, after a mandatory year of military service, worked in the carpentry department of Teatro La Fenice until he was 30, when he gained admittance to the International School of Violin Making in Cremona.

"What made you want to learn to make violins?" I ask him. "Do you play?"

"No, I play the flute," Francesco says. "But I loved music, I had worked with wood my whole life, the school is excellent, and is nearby..."

"So if Cremona was the birthplace of the guitar, let's say, with a long tradition and an excellent school, do you think you would have learned to make them instead?" I ask.

"No, no," Francesco immediately replies. "For me the violin has a special allure."

At the time Francesco attended the school there was a three-year and a five-year program; because of his extensive prior experience with wood, he enrolled in the shorter program. (An interesting recent article on the school in Cremona can be found here: http://www.italymagazine.com/featured-story/violin-makers-cremona). Having completed it, he chose to spend his mandatory one-year training period not in Cremona, where the emphasis would have been on making new instruments, but in Germany, in Oldenburg (near Bremen), where he could take the first step toward becoming a restorer. He enjoyed his time there, then spent short periods gaining more experience in England and Holland, before returning to work in Cremona for two years. He then took a job in Lugano, Switzerland for a year and half, before moving back to Venice and trying to open his own shop. In a city so completely given over to tourism, it wasn't an easy task, nor was he thrilled at how much time he had to devote to matters of business rather than craft, so when a friend told him of a position available at an important shop in New York City, David Segal Violins, near Lincoln Center, he applied for it (http://www.davidsegalviolins.com/). 

"Was it the job or the chance to live in the city of New York that appealed to you more?" I ask him.

"The job," Francesco says. "It's an excellent shop, one of the best in the world. It turned out that I liked New York very much, but if the shop had been somewhere else, I would have gone there."

He spent his hours in the shop restoring and maintaining and repairing some truly great instruments. It was there, in New York City, that he had the chance to actually work on--and not just study--instruments made by the legendary luthiers of Cremona, such as Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù and Antonio Stadavari. In his spare time, after shop hours, he made violins of his own.

Internal view of the f-hole of a mid-19th-century double bass
"For anyone who wants to make violins, it's very important to have the experience of actually handling and working with a Stradavarius or a Testore, to see first-hand how they were made," Francesco tells me. To see and hear one of the violins that Francesco himself made during his New York years, you can watch a young up-and-coming violinist, Margarita Krein, performing the Red Violin Caprices by John Corigliano with it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yi_i-8vT2Fo.

It was Krein herself who would relay to Francesco one of the most flattering estimates of his violins he's ever received: she was in a recording studio in New York recording some pieces when the sound engineer in charge asked her, after a few trial runs, for information about the Stradavarius she was playing.

Francesco's skill as both a restorer and a maker of instruments in New York led to a job offer from Robertson and Sons Violin Shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, another of America's best known shops (http://www.robertsonviolins.com/), but a relationship and subsequent marriage brought him back to Venice, where he now devotes himself to restoration and repairs.

He shows me a mid-19th century double bass he's currently working on. "A local baroque musician found this in a flea market," he tells me. "The sides are quite damaged, with cracks and holes--you see I must fill in places with small pieces of wood as if I'm doing a mosaic. But it is a Viennese instrument, it's top is still in good shape, and it is not easy to find an instrument like this with wood that has been seasoned for 100 or 200 years. Or, rather, you can, but it will be extremely expensive. So we take our chances with this one. The job will take me six months, but I think we will have a very beautiful sounding instrument when everything is done. It will have the kind of sound that is perfect for baroque music, instead of the kind of tones you get from new instruments."    

In his spare time now, Francesco plays flute in a nearby amateur wind orchestra--the Gruppo Musicale Città di Molignano--and, like many Venetians, runs a B&B out of his house. Named Dorsoduro 461, after its address, it offers three double rooms in the apartment two floors above his ground floor workshop, and a bright book-filled lounge/breakfast room looking over the beautiful and tranquil Rio Terà San Vio (http://www.dorsoduro461.com/). "They are not extravagant lodgings," Francesco says, "but they are very fairly priced, I think, and comfortable, and the location can't be beat--close to everything, and very Venetian, but also very peaceful."

His ideal now, he tells me, is to integrate his work on instruments with the B&B: "I'm lucky to have had very interesting guests from all over. But when musicians come to stay, that is even more special. If a musician has an instrument to repair, or is interested in having a violin made, then the shop and B&B merge perfectly. Or if a musician comes to Venice and would like to play here, it would be fun to arrange for a performance with other musicians, in a hall. Or also as a flash mob. I have been quite taken with what musicians have done with flash mobs. You know flash mobs?"

I admit I really know only the term, so he leads me to a computer in his apartment upstairs and shows me the following video of an extraordinarily well-choreographed and striking flash mob performance by the Vienna Philharmonic in the Vienna Westbahnhof: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PXglXeONApw.

"Now, that is really exceptional," he says, " I don't imagine anything so grand in Venice. But I love the idea of musicians coming together to make this dramatic fleeting thing of such great beauty. What a great thing it would be for the city--so different from all the regulations and tourism and money-making--and what a great experience for the musicians who participate and the bystanders who see and hear it."

It is now time for Arturo's lunch. Arturo has kept a small hammer with him from the workshop. I think of the line of wood working descending from Francesco's grandfather, to Francesco, and possibly to Arturo, and it suddenly occurs to me to ask, "But what about your own father, Francesco, he didn't work with wood?" 

"No," Francesco says, "he sold fabrics." Which, of course, is another craft and trade at which Venetians have long excelled.

"Do you hope that Arturo will follow in your footsteps?" I finally ask. "Become an instrument maker, too?"

"I would like him to be able to do what really interests him," Francesco replies. "If that is working with wood, then, yes, I would be happy. I became accustomed to the smell of wood and the tools very very early in my life. I think that can be very beautiful, to start very young with very good memories of being with your grandfather, or father, in a good safe place, having fun, playing, not working. The memories stay with you always, when you are older, they inform your work, they remain. But if that is how he will feel about things--that is up to him. I don't worry about such things. The important thing now is to have fun."

The entryway of Dorsoduro461 B&B, with a reflection of Francesco's workshop

11 comments:

  1. What a loving tribute to this artisan. I'm so glad you found him, and told his story. I would love to see a flash mob such as he mentions, in Venice!

    Yvonne

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    1. Thanks, Yvonne, I was happy to be introduced to him as well! And I agree with you and him that Venice could be a great place for a flash mob or two of the sort he has in mind.

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  2. Wow, I never knew he was there. I'll have to check him out. I always wanted to learn the violin.

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    1. You could then learn to play, Michael, on a beautifully-restored violin. Not a bad way to start out.

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  3. I think his location is incredible for quiet, I love that spot, which I believe is a Riotera'. I will keep his B&B in mind for anyone who asks me.

    Hearing that there are Venetians who decide to stay and make a living there gives me hope.

    Thanks for this wonderful post.

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    1. I'd love to see all that open space in the Arsenale given rent-free to artisans of this sort: there could be a whole zone of craftspeople which, close by the Biennale, might become a destination in itself. After all, they were providing free Arsenale space to MOSE...

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    2. PS And you're very much welcome, Laura.

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  4. That is a cool idea! There is so much space, it could become an incredible hub for artists and musicians.

    The brother of a friend of mine, Nicolo' Zen, was looking for a location for a museum of traditional venetian boats years ago, and if Venice had had the brain and the heart they would have given him some of the Arsenale space. He was able to open a museum in San Giuliano but I believe it closed, probably for lack of interest due to the location. Why not keep the arsenale open for the restoration of traditional boats as well?

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    1. I'll have to ask around, Laura, and see if the idea of developing the Arsenale along such lines has been floated before--it probably has--and see what kind of response it got. I hate to heardof places like the one your friend started going under (if you'll pardon the unfortunate, but perhaps apt, aquatic terminology).

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  5. I know him very well. One of the greatest people and makers today! Use to perform on his violin quite often in New York while studying at Juilliard.

    -Artur Kaganovskiy

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    1. I agree completely, Artur, (though I suppose I'm not qualified to comment on the violins except on the basis of what I've heard). Venice is lucky to have him living and working here.

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