Violin Making and the Ravages of the Plague
Nicolo Amati, the third generation of the illustrious Amati instrument makers, must have begun to assume a leadership role in the family workshop by the early 1620s. But his rise was interrupted by the plague epidemic of 1629-1630, the worst mortality crisis of the early modern period in Italy, which took the lives of as much as 30 to 35% of the population in Northern Italy.1
By 1630, when the epidemic reached Cremona, the city had already been hit hard in previous years by a series of droughts leading to a desperate famine in the late 1620s. Many members of the Amati workshop and its clientele must have met their end as a result of circumstances related to the plague, drought and famine in the late 1620s through 1630. Both demand and production capability must have been impeded, which accounts for the lack of extant instruments from the Amati atelier in the decade following 1630. In fact, lower economic productivity was seen throughout the plague-affected Italian Peninsula during the years following the plague.2
The Rise of Nicolo Amati
When Nicolo Amati’s father, Girolamo I, died in 1630 amid the ravages of the plague, the 35-year-old Nicolo became the patriarch of the household and family business. There was no one else to sustain the Amati workshop and the entirety of the Cremonese instrument building legacy hung in the balance on Nicolo Amati’s shoulders during the 1630s as the city gradually emerged from under the cloud of loss and hardship. While no instruments verifiably built during the 1630s are known to us today, the world nonetheless owes a debt to Nicolo Amati for carrying forward the precepts that would ultimately serve as the inspiration, foundation and model for the most famous violins yet to be built.
By the 1640s the Amati workshop was again flourishing, producing instruments of various sizes, employing lavish materials and featuring unequaled refinement of construction details. The Amati business must have been growing again; by the 1650s census returns tell us that the Amati household had grown to include patriarchs of the Guarneri and Rogeri instrument-building families on hand to assist in production.
When Nicolo Amati died in 1684, the string instrument trade in Cremona was thriving but the Amati monopoly had given way to a competitive environment. Nicolo’s son, Girolamo II, was sustaining the Amati atelier alongside the workshops of both the Guarneri family and the Rugeri families, who were each producing original designs based on the Amati concepts. The emergent workshop of a gifted newcomer not directly connected to the Amati workshop, Antonio Stradivari, was beginning to shift the balance of power in the violin making community in Cremona. The new century would see that balance of power completely overturned as an explosion in design innovation of bowed string instruments took Cremona to new, bolder models and forever changed the music world.
A Fine Amati Example
Those bolder models owe their genesis to the example of the Amati workshop and instruments like the violin pictured here. Even by the lofty standards set by the general run of Amati production, this instrument is particularly remarkable for its fineness of proportion, precision of finish and sumptuous materials. Original construction details remain intact due to a pure state of preservation rarely met with in classic Italian instruments: The bottom rib is still in one piece and there is not even evidence of a post crack in the top let alone any of the other breaks and repairs usually in evidence on such ancient instruments. Much of the delicate, warm and radiant original varnish covers the instrument. This violin has been passed down to contemporary times intact through over three-and-a-half centuries with almost unprecedented care and good fortune.