Makers from the Dawn of Violin-Family History
There is an air of mystery surrounding Peregrino Micheli Di Zanetto, a maker from the very dawn of violin-family history whose instruments are extremely rare today. His name, as printed on the original label in this nearly-unique viola, means “Peregrino, son of Zanetto,” but any knowledge of Peregrino and his father rests almost solely on their instruments; little hard information on the makers themselves is available. We ourselves have had extremely limited experience with this maker; the Peregrino instrument featured in this article is the first Peregrino we have sold.
What we know is that both father and son were instrument makers from Brescia, Italy, and that Peregrino was born c. 1520 and died around 1606-1609. Peregrino was, therefore, twenty years older than famed viola maker Gasparo Bertolotti “da Salo,” who lived from 1540 to 1609. Furthermore, Peregrino’s father, Zanetto Micheli da Montichiaro, who was born in 1489 or ’90 and died in 1560 or ’61, would have been active more than a full generation earlier than Gasparo and dead by the time Gasparo was past 21 years old.
Maurice Riley’s History of the Viola provides a capsule view of the problems connected with sorting out the genesis of the viola. He confuses the family naming, referring to the “Zanetto family” and using an inconsistent array of names in his discussion of them. In spite of the fact that early instruments are generally not dated (ours is not), he offers that the first “dated” Peregrino instruments were viols made in 1547, 1549, and 1550. If we accept this, then they would have been from Peregrino’s 27th and subsequent years, when Gasparo was only 7 years old. Gasparo, often mentioned as the first Brescian maker of violin-family instruments, might be too late to merit that title since Riley also lists a Zanetto viola, discussed below in this article.
This timeline places Zanetto—who was born 20 years before Andrea Amati and who died as Andrea Amati was just entering his prime—as a primary candidate for the earliest violin-family instrument maker from whom we have surviving examples. Although many early instruments’ makers and precise dates of origin are unknown, this raises the interesting question of who else might have been involved in the field at that time. As an additional point of confusion, Riley offers up a “Zanetto” instrument, specifying the maker as the father of Peregrino, from the “late 1500s,” when he was possibly already dead—unless the instrument actually predates 1560. Obviously, sorting out who did what (and when) is a challenge in the 21st century.
According to renowned British violin expert Charles Beare, Peregrino worked with his three sons, Giovanni, Battista, and Francesco, but no instruments with their labels seem to have survived, if there were any to begin with.
An Instrument by Peregrino
The exceptionally rare Peregrino viola in the photo above was originally much larger, as evidenced by the abruptly abbreviated arching and traces of the original purfling visible in the c-bouts. It’s now a nearly-ideal (by contemporary taste) 16″ length, and it has likely been that size for many years. The charmingly primitive head and f-holes are completely original. The interior of the back, which hasn’t been re-graduated or smoothed out, still shows the extremely rough workmanship characteristic of the interiors of old instruments. In spite of its age, the overall state is presently quite good, and a restoration done in the 1990s ensures that it will remain so for quite some time.
What form this instrument may have originally had will forever remain a mystery. Was it something we would now recognize as a viola with four strings but in a much larger format? Or was it some other, transitional, form with another configuration of strings? The originally arched back, as opposed to a flat back, and f-hole spacing both clearly distinguish this instrument from the members of the viol family and from more simply-constructed flatbacked early stringed instruments of various types.
We initially assumed the body was originally somewhat similar to a modern violin-family instrument. We noted the remaining bits of purfling in the lower corners meeting with concave curves at a right angle, implying the short, stubby corner of later Brescian makers such as Da Salo and Maggini; the f-hole spacing suggesting fewer strings than a viol of the time; and the original scroll being intended for a four-stringed instrument of some type.
Further research, though, indicates that this could equally well be an earlier form derived from the medieval fiddle: a simple oval with C-shaped cutouts in the waist for bow access and rudimentary lower corners. Similarly oval-shaped instruments like this do remain, and the shape is pictured in paintings of the time. Viol-type instruments of the early 1500s with pointed, violin-type corners (including the highly decorative Da Salo gamba in the Ashmolean Museum and the Zanetto instrument illustrated later in this article) have more extreme, longer points than the violin form eventually settled on. This could indicate that the present viola was not cut down from the early four-cornered type of outline.
These aspects highlight the separate origins of the viol and violin families. Not only is this instrument very early, but it also is distinctly different from the viols of the time. The shape of the body and head perhaps derive more directly from the wild mix of experimental stringed instruments characteristic of the late 1400s, forms which were transitory, unusual, and probably highly local in many cases, from which the current guitar, viol, and violin families eventually emerged.
One interesting point that we were reminded of by our research is that the viol, relative to these early violin family objects, is not an especially ancient form, though we often think of it that way because of its current obsolescence. The styles of the two families (including number of strings, back construction—flat or arched—etc.) evolved nearly side by side through the early half of the 1500s.
In fact, there are two ways to view this evolution. The most common is to follow the timeline forward, and in that context the emergence of both the viol and violin families seems quite logical, and obviously a result of two innovations: wider bodies offering greater volume, and arched plates, providing more subtle musical possibilities. If, however, one stands in the 1500s and looks backwards, a different story emerges: It’s hard to pick out definite structural antecedents for either family from the morass of unique and strange forms that characterize the fifteenth century, and wide, arched instruments are scarce. The years from 1500 to 1550 were a pivotal time for stringed instruments and virtually anything could have emerged.
One aspect is striking, though: out of all the possible forms that were current, the survivors were wide-bodied. They were loud instruments with broader tonal potential; narrow bowed representatives, such as the rebec, were quickly abandoned as the more sophisticated instruments gained wider acceptance.
In spite of their age, ancient violas such as this one are considered highly desirable by players, and many of the surviving da Salos are used regularly in performance. Several of the known examples of both Zanetto and Peregrino—there may be a total of fewer than ten violas surviving from these two makers—are housed in museums, so it’s quite rare for one to come on the market.
The tone of this particular instrument is fascinating. Owing to its original heavy graduations in the back, particularly in the lower bout, setup of this viola is a tricky matter. Once all of the variables are put right, however, the tone of the instrument takes on a haunting beauty. It does not have the traditional “full-throttle” type of tone, but rather possesses a penetrating sound of infinite complexity. The instrument is slow to respond and requires skill to coax out its best sounds, but the deft violist is well rewarded for the effort.
An Instrument by Zanetto, Father of Peregrino
Illustrated above is an instrument attributed to Peregrino’s father, Zanetto, that is currently in daily use. This is an arched-back, viol-shaped instrument, with characteristically long early corners and sloped shoulders, now arranged as a viola. The f-hole setting seems obviously positioned for a wider bridge than for a four-stringed instrument, and the proportions of the head imply that some length (and extra pegholes) have been cut off. The outer bouts, upper and lower, have both been cut so the precise original shape has been lost, but the central area is pristine and very beautiful.
There is a considerable amount of well-preserved original varnish, which is very reminiscent of the best of Cremonese varnish from around 1700, both in texture and color!
A handful of Micheli family instruments are in use by musicians, and accessible examples by this family are:
- A Zanetto viol in the Musée Royal of the Brussels Conservatory
- A Zanetto viol and a Peregrino viola in the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota
- Viols attributed to Peregrino in the Musée de la Musique, Paris
- A viola owned by the Chi-Mei Cultural Foundation, Tainan, Taiwan
For more information on the evolution of the viola, see:
- The Early History of the Viol, Ian Woodfield (Cambridge University Press)
- Un corpo alla ricerca dell’anima…Andrea Amatie la nascita del violino, Consorzio Liutai Antonio Stradivari Cremona (Exhibition catalogue of the 2005 Andrea Amati Exhibition in Cremona)
- The History of the Viola, Volume II, Maurice Riley