The Gasparo da Salò  project

 

For more than forty years now I have wished to build and play an instrument after Gasparo da Salò.

The initial reason might have been the aura that surrounded his name in the 1970s and 1980s: Some folks stated to have found the "inventor of the violin", although Mucchi's research from 1940 had already done much to establish the correct place in violin making history for the mysterious master from the Lago di Garda.

 

Meanwhile the situation changed for better thanks to research in Italy and in the anglo-saxon countries: Andrea Amati, by many years the senior to Gasparo did the lion share to form the design of the violin. In my opinion Gasparo knew (and probably admired) Andrea's instruments and tried to copy some details, although in his personal style: His upbringing as a craftsman had it's roots in the workshops of Brescia of the 15th and 16th centuries. Some of the most excellent masters of intarsia came from there, also the gentleman's favourite plucked instrument of the day, the cittern, was mainly built in Brescia.

 

 

With some probability three instruments by the hand of Gasparo in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford might illustrate his paths as an instrument builder: at first a cittern (as a student of Girolamo Virchi?), then a brilliant viola da gamba and - as the latest instrument: the mighty viola, most likely a late work around 1600. Unfortunately this development will remain fiction: contrary to their Cremonese colleges the Brescians did not leave any date of completion on the labels in their instruments...

 

The fourth instrument made by Gasparo that is located in the Ashmolean Museum is a "lira". This bowed instrument carries a heavy weight of symbolism on it's shoulders: To the renaissance man of poetry it is a direct link to the lyra of the ancient Greeks. This slightly smaller instrument might be from the same - late - years of Gasparo's output as our viola. I have the impression, based on the space between the ff-holes, that in it's original state it was a 5-string instrument. The musician and painter E. Baschienis shows these fiddles in his pictures around 1660. Today the "lira" appears as a viola due to a conversion in the Hill workshop.

 

 

Mainly owing to the fact that today we have so many lousy fakes and composit-instruments with parts by Gasparo (e. g.: back preserved, the other parts added later by ungifted hands) from the 19th and early 20th century poor Gasparo has the bad reputation of a second class maker: "... the more parts are croocked and sloppily made the more likely this is an original Gasparo instrument..."

On the contrary: Even though some of his works show details that are not comparable to the high standards in aesthetics that were benchmark in Andrea's shop, the master from the Lago di Garda to me nevertheless seems to be a precisely planning and working craftsman. Examinating original details and trying to copy them convinced me that he must have had the brains of an engineer. His viola da gamba in Oxford is a great piece of art. It seems very likely that his violas soon became sought after and he was forced to produce them rapidly. The use of not yet well seasoned wood seems to speak in favour of this idea: Some pegbox-scroll-sections are distorted and some cracks in the backs might date from an early age.

But, most important to the musician: This man had a feeling for the sound - his and his student G. P. Maggini's violas are unsurpassed both in quality and in price.

 

 

For my work I had basically three sources of inspiration:

- when still being a student I already bought a copy of the museum's plan drawn by John Pringle.

- a trip to Oxford in 2011 and the possibility to take the viola into my own hands and make pictures boosted my curiosity.

- in several articles John Dilworth explains the peculiarities of the Brescian style to us (e.g.: Liutai in Brescia and Musical Instruments in the Ashmolean Museum). Many ideas of his were a great inspiration to me and John is kind enough to answer questions via e-mail, :-) .

 

Based on these (and other) sources I decided to make the viola in the following way: I wanted to finish the top plate first and then glue the ribs to it without the help of a mould (4 parts). It could as well have been the bottom plate, but - in case I would produce a minor deviation of the outline - most people look at the top first! N. B.: Meanwhile I found a proof that the back was done first in a detail of a picture I took in 2011: at the right lower edge of the middle bout I could detect a "scare" from a saw that must have happened when Gasparo was sizing the corners.

I will have to alter this in the next reconstruction...

 

 

Scroll and pegbox appear - with some slight alterations - quite uniform on several original instruments: The massive first turn of the scroll is being followed by just one more turn. Owing to this peculiarity the side faces seem large (compared to e.g. an Amati-scroll). Gasparo used a flat chisel to undercut this second turn which - together with relatively flat vertical sides - produces a clean, sharp edge. The pegbox is of a generous design which makes it easier to change thick gut strings.

Apart from the personal stylistic features his (original) scrolls don't seem more coarse than those of some Cremona makers.

 

Gasparo's violas most likely had no inner linings to stiffen the ribs and offer more space for the glue. I chose to use small blocks of wood as helpers as seen in some well preserved originals around 1600 and later.

 

Unfortunately we lack any information whether a Gasparo viola either had a bass bar or a stiffer integrated section in the top plate. I decided to glue in a bb of about the dimensions of one made by J. Stainer.

 

 

I first glued the rib of the upper bout to the top, then the one of the lower bout and, at the end, the ones for the middle bout. This proved useful - but could also have been done in another way. Shaping the sides of the long ribs at the corners to the middle section turned out to be special fun: Whenever do you have the pleasure to shape ribs of up to 2 mm thickness, about twice as fat as Stainer's ribs?!

 

The neck with the pegbox and the scroll then were glued flat to the ribs as is mostly the case with early violin instruments.

John Dilworth states very plausible that the power of the construction must come from the thick ribs. As violins and violas of both Gasparo and Maggini didn't have the small platforms on both plates to be glued to the end blocks, I decided to glue the two blocks onto the ribs without any connection to the plates, "hanging". 

Also moving the prolonged neck into the inner space of the instrument (as I did with my proto-violins with flat plates) and gluing it there was - in this case - not possible: On the one hand the vaulted areas of the plates would not provide stabile ground to glue and, on the other hand, the ribs would have been cut through and so lost their strength.

 

 

 

To gain more stability for the neck I turned a piece of maple on the lathe, drilled a hole through the upper block and the neck root and glued it in. There is no historic example for doing this - I just had a weak moment feeling I have to do something to help my baby...

The little blocks I will also glue to the other side of the ribs to support the gluing of the bottom plate to the ribs.

After Easter I would like to do some more work on the back and - with some luck and patience - most of the wood work should be done by may.

For preparing the instrument for a soft, not too dark varnish I would love to have some sunny summer days - let's keep our fingers crossed!

 

... to be continued - thank you for your visit!