The Gasparo da Salò  project


A picture from December 2021


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 Lago di Garda.


Meanwhile, the situation changed for better thanks to research in Italy and in the Anglo-Saxon countries: Andrea Amati, many years senior to Gasparo did the lion's share establishing 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: The roots of his craftsmanship are found in the workshops of Brescia of the 15th and 16th centuries. Some of the most excellent masters of intarsia came from there, and the gentleman's favourite plucked instrument of the day, the cittern, was also mainly built in Brescia.


The Studiolo at Gubbio, Met Museum of Art 


With some probability three instruments by the hand of Gasparo in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford might illustrate his development as an instrument builder: at first a cittern (as a student of Girolamo Virchi?), then a brilliant viola da gamba and the mighty viola, the latest instrument, most likely a work from 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 in the Ashmolean Museum is a "lira". This bowed instrument carries the heavy weight of symbolism on its 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. Based on the space between the ff-holes, I speculate that in its 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.


Evaristo Baschienis, Marco Rosci


Mainly owing to the fact that today we have so many lousy fakes and composite 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 a bad reputation as a second class maker: "... the more parts that are crooked 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 aesthetic standards that were the benchmark in Andrea's shop, nevertheless, the master from Lago di Garda to me seems to be a precisely planning and working craftsman. Examining 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 may have already been present shortly after the instruments left the workshop.

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 value.


The Ashmolean Gasparo viola, detail, Rainer Ullreich


For my work I had basically three sources of inspiration:

- While still a student, I bought a copy of the museum's plan drawn by John Pringle.

- A trip to Oxford in 2011 and the opportunity to take the viola into my own hands and take pictures of it boosted my curiosity.

- Several articles by John Dilworth explain the peculiarities of the Brescian style (e.g.: Liutai in Brescia and Musical Instruments in the Ashmolean Museum). Many of his ideas 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 most people look at the top first: a minor deviation from the outline would be easily detected.  N. B.: Meanwhile, in a detail of a picture I took in 2011, I have found proof that the back was done first:

at the right lower edge of the middle bout I could detect a "scar" from a saw that must have happened when Gasparo was sizing the corners.

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


Neck, pegbox and scroll with some additional wood left

for fixing it on the workbench. Rainer Ullreich


Scroll and pegbox appear - with some slight alterations - quite uniform on several original instruments: The massive first turn of the scroll is 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 coarser 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 about whether a Gasparo viola had either 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.


Four blocks help to glue the lower rib into place. Rainer Ullreich


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 of shaping 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 plausibly that the power of the construction must have 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 extended 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 losing their strength.


Ribs glued and cut, some extra small wood blocks added. Rainer Ullreich


To increase the stability of 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 historical precedent for doing this - I just had a moment of weakness and the feeling that I had to do something to help my baby...


Today most of the still existing instruments by Gasparo have a dark / oxidized surface and in some cases restorers later seem to have helped make the instrument look more "old and precious". Contrary to that most old depictions of stringed instruments show a light varnish. So I finished the viola with a yellow-orange linseed oil varnish. Will it be dark(er) in 200 years??


My future plans with other reconstructions after Gasparo:

- the 5-string lira/viola in the Ashmolean Collection

- a violin as a companion for the big viola. I will have to fly to Taiwan to visit the Chi-Mei-Collection and have a close look at their two violins first.

- maybe the viola da gamba of the Ashmolean Collection??

Who wants to place an order?