To fully appreciate the exquisite instrument shown here, it is instructive to go back to the dawn of the Amati violin-building tradition, believed to be sometime around 15251 although a more precise date has so far remained elusive. Prior to the counter-reformations of the Council of Trent implemented from 15632, church records did not routinely include births, deaths and marriages, making it difficult to verify the dates of key historical events. From legal documents in the Cremona archives we know that Andrea Amati (c. 1505-15773), the patriarch of the Amati instrument-building dynasty, leased a large residence with a workshop and prominent storefront in Cremona in 1538–39.4 From this we infer that the Amati atelier was already well established and thriving by 1538.
The twenty known Andrea Amati instruments that survive today5 include several rumored to have been part of a set of 38 instruments commissioned by Catherine de Medici for the French Court upon the coronation of her son, King Charles IX, in 1560.6 These instruments bear decorations of King Charles’ coat of arms, generally accepted as proof that they were produced for the French Court. To date no commercial records of any transactions have come to light and the exact circumstances under which those instruments were built, sold and delivered to the French Court remains a matter of speculation.7 Andrea Amati’s surviving production also includes instruments with decoration that plausibly tie them to a reputed commission from Philip II, King of Spain, who visited Cremona in 1549 and again in 15518. Again no commercial records of such a transaction have been uncovered so we can only guess at the specifics involved, or whether Phillip II of Spain was the source of such a commission—not universally accepted by scholars. Regardless of the missing details, commissions of such importance, from places so far from the city of Cremona, bear testimony to the early international reputation of the Amati workshop.
When he died in December of 1577, Andrea Amati passed on his skill, knowledge, and an apparently successful business enterprise to two sons, Antonio (c. 1537–1607) and Girolamo I, (c. 1550–1630)9, who ran the Amati workshop as partners, producing instruments under the brand of Antonius & Hieronimus Amati, or “Brothers Amati” by 1580.10 As it went, the partnership did not last long and by 1588 the brothers were working separately and were untangling their financial ties.11 After 1590, Girolamo I continued to preside over the Amati shop and to produce instruments bearing the Brothers Amati label almost exclusively, even though the two brothers had dissolved their formal partnership years earlier. Antonio also appears to have continued working using the Brothers Amati label after the dissolution of the partnership.12 The production of instruments labeled Brothers Amati still continued even after Antonio’s death in 1607. It seems clear that when the formal partnership between the brothers was dissolved, the Brothers Amati “brand” had value that was recognized, sustained, and traded on by both brothers.
By the first quarter of the 17th century the Amati name had been central to the violin making tradition in Cremona, and in Western Europe for nearly a century. The overwhelming success of the Amati dynasty in its second generation is borne out by the numerous surviving instruments of the Brothers Amati. The consistently high quality and quantity of instruments labeled Brothers Amati could only have emanated from a highly organized and successful commercial entity. That the Amati workshop reaped sustained economic success after the death of Andrea Amati is further supported by documentary evidence confirming that by 1627, the Amati household, headed by Girolamo I, enjoyed a degree of wealth.13
From as early as 1614, Girolamo Amati I’s son (and eventual heir to the Amati dynasty) Nicolo (1596–1684) appears to have been active in the workshop14, and by 1624 he certainly had a central role in the Amati production. Built at that time, the instrument shown here is a full-sized violin on a Brothers Amati model to which we ascribe the hand of Nicolo, who would have been a young but experienced maker. The desirable larger size (now considered normal), combined with the flatter arching of the Brothers Amati design and with Nicolo’s inspired workmanship, all contribute to the beauty and tonal excellence of this violin.
Less than a decade later, Nicolo’s father would be dead, along with most his family and a large portion of the inhabitants of the city of Cremona; the famine of 1628–29 followed by the plague of 1630 are estimated to have together reduced the population of Cremona from a flourishing 40,000 in 1627 to a near–ghost town of 15,00015 by the end of 1631. Nicolo would be the only luthier in Italy to survive the various waves of the plague that were sweeping through Italy in 1629–1631. As the new head of the family survivors, Nicolo inherited new responsibilities along with the business. Nicolo Amati was easily up to the responsibility of carrying the torch as the sole link between the old instrument–building traditions of Cremona and the greatness to follow. The rise of the Amati workshop led the way for ensuing development and expansion of the capability of violin forms in Cremona that would ultimately have a profound effect both on violin making and on the course of music history. All of it owes much to Nicolo Amati who, up to his death in 1684, singlehandedly carried the Cremonese tradition across the decades, training violin making patriarchs such as Andrea Guarneri and Francesco Rugeri among others, and paving the way for the great masterpieces of Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri ”del Gesu“ to follow in Cremona.
Such powerful models as the one used for the violin illustrated here don’t again show up in the Cremonese makers’ output with any frequency until Antonio Stradivari begins building flatter, larger forms in the 1690’s. In this regard the Amati ideals are easily misunderstood; the “Amati Model” in evidence in the work of makers such as Cappa, some Venetians, and makers of the Low Countries and England is influenced by elegant, smaller, higher–arched violins that emanated from the Amati workshop, mostly from the 1640’s and later, during the last part of Nicolo Amati’s highly successful reign over the shop. These are significantly less powerful than both earlier Amati violins and the later Cremonese models to follow. While smaller, sweeter sounding Amati violins do make up a large body of the output of the Amati shop, they represent only one concept among a number of Amati designs. That these are so often held up as exemplars of Amati is easily understood in view of the relatively large and fine output of Nicolo Amati in contrast with other members of the family, embedded within four generations of Amati production spanning the period c. 1525–1740, when Girolamo II, son of Nicolo, died.
This instrument, which we sold to violinist Frank Almond, is a classic example of one of the most tonally effective Cremonese models. Concept and execution, materials and finishes are all exquisite. The large, bold, and powerfully–arched form make this a concert violin capable of filling a large performance space alongside the most famous examples of classical Cremonese violin making.
- Carlo Bonetti, A Genealogy of the Amati Family of Violin Makers, 1938, ed. Daniel Draley, 1989, 23
- Carlo Chiesa, Andrea Amati Opera, 2007, 13
- Bonetti, Draley, 17-19
- Chiesa, Opera, 13
- Roger Hargrave, Andrea Amati 1505–1577, 3
- Renato Meucci, Andrea Amati Opera, 2007, 31
- Chiesa, Opera, 17
- Meucci, Opera, 31
- Bonetti, Draley, p. 35
- Chiesa, DNA, 21
- Chiesa, DNA, 22
- Bonetti, Draley, xi
- Chiesa, DNA, 23
- Stewart Pollens, Stradivari, 2010, 3