Italian Double Bass by Lorenzo & Tommaso Carcassi, Florence anno 1752 – Review

I'm looking for a very special instrument. Of course it has to be Italian. What can you offer me?

To describe the double bass featured here we would use the term "extremely-fine". The instrument is by and labelled in black ink - "Lor° & Tom° Carcassi in Firenze nell anno 1752 all insegnadel Giglio".

That sounds interesting. What does the term "extremely-fine" encompass?

In this case the term can be used to describe the quality of the making, the overall condition of the instrument and also the tonal qualities of the instrument.

Would you say that the instrument is rare as well?

To find any Italian double bass from the mid 18th century has always been something quite elusive but to actually come across an instrument by the Carcassi Brothers has to be even more elusive than being offered the principal double bass position in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

A friend of mine in the orchestra plays on a Carcassi violin. In terms of violin making it's a big name isn't it?

Yes - the Brothers were excellent makers and good examples of their work are highly prized by both musicians and collectors. Instruments can exchange hands for considerable sums of money.

Can you give me a little background information on the Brothers please?

The beautiful and carefully crafted book - Four Centuries Of Violin Making by Tim Ingles published by Cozio Publishing in 2006 (ISBN 0-9764431-1-2) in collaboration with the London auction house Sotheby's - features many of the fine instruments from the past forty years of their auctions. In the volume the importance of the Carcassi Brothers is underlined by the fact that a total of four different instruments are featured over no less than ten pages of colour plates that reproduce the quality of the instruments at the very highest level. At the top of page 115 Ingles succinctly summarises the Brothers work as follows; "Lorenzo & Tomaso Carcassi (fl Florence, c1750-1780) - The Brothers Lorenzo and Tomaso Carcassi were probably pupils of G.B. Gabbrielli, who was the leading violin maker in Florence in the mid-18th century. As was the case in England at that time, the predominant influence among the Florentine makers was Jacob Stainer. This was possibly due to the ascendancy of the Austrian Habsburgs as Grand Dukes of Tuscany. The instruments of the Brothers Carcassi successfully combine a sometimes exaggerated but elegant Stainer-esque F-hole with an attractive and usually golden Italianate varnish. Although the Brothers occasionally worked individually, the majority of their work bears their joint label."

I notice that you have spelt Tommaso with a double "mm" and yet on the quote that you have just given from Four Centuries of Violin Making - Ingles has spelt his name with a single "m". Can you clear this up please?

On the instruments that are made and labelled by Tommaso - his name is clearly spelt with a double "m" - as Tommaso. Indeed in all of Sotheby's past and present catalogues they give the double "m" spelling - as Tommaso for the maker. The only other reference work within our own library of books that uses the same spelling as Four Centuries of Violin Making is the Dictionnaire Universel des Luthiers by René Vannes (3rd edition published 1975 in Brussels by Les Amis de la Musique - ASIN BOOOOE8V6D). What is bizarre about the Vannes is the fact that immediately opposite the text is a facsimile label showing the name "Tommaso Carcassi" spelt with the double "m". Obviously this is quite puzzling to say the least and taking up a lot more time than it should.

I must say - the disparity does seem quite frustrating particularly if you are doing research on the maker. What did you do about it?

I e-mailed Mr Ingles at Sotheby's to see if he could clear things up. This was his reply; "I think I was probably guided by Charles'(Beare) article in Grove (1980 edition) which has one m. But if you have an original label with two, then I would be happy to go with that. To be honest spelling was not as rigid then as it is now, as we see with the Ruggieri / Rugieri / Rugeri thing!"

If Tommaso used a double "m" on his own labels - that's good enough for me - lets move on. This German maker - Jacob Stainer seems to have exerted a major influence on violin making - can you tell me a little bit about him please?

In terms of violin making Jacob Stainer (ca.1617 - 1683) is recognized as an incredibly important maker. His instruments use to command higher prices than master Cremonese instruments and his work had a major influence on luthiers right across Europe. His instruments were sort after and used by the top musicians of the day and most unusually for a violin maker - he achieved fame during his lifetime. Today Stainer is widely considered the finest maker outside of Italy.

How was Stainer's work influenced?

His making techniques and processes were distinctly Italian. Plausible reasoning suggests that his teacher was Nicoló Amati (1596-1684).

I'd like to find out more about Stainer. Are there any interesting books or articles that I can read?

The following make interesting reading;

    1. Jakob Stainer Leben und Werk des Tiroler Meister 1617-1683 by Walter Senn and Karl Roy (Published by Verlag E. Bochinsky, Frankfurt Main 1986. ISBN 3923639694, 9783923639694).
    2. Jacobus Stainer & 18th Century Violin Masters Exhibition Catalogue. The exhibition was held from Oct 26th 1981 - Jan 29th 1982 and was a collaborative effort between Jacques Francais, the Museum of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Centre and the Austrian Institute.
    3. The Strad March 2010 (Published by Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd). Cover article entitled "Think Big" by Darren Freeman. 
    4. The Strad April 1990 (Published by Orpheus Publications Ltd). Article entitled "A Violin by Jacobus Stainer 1679" by Roger Hargrave.

Lets move on to the double bass. How are you so sure that the instrument is by the Brothers Carcassi?

Instrument identification is all about comparison. When you look at this instrument and compare it to the instruments in the Four Centuries of Violin Making book and to other examples of the makers work in other reference books and catalogues - it just looks exactly like a large Carcassi violin or viola. You see all the same features and makers characteristics that are present in the violins. The consistency in the making is absolutely fabulous to see.

Can you point some of those features out please?

Yes as follows;

    1. The model: As previously mentioned the model follows the form and outline of a violin. Remarkably and strongly supporting the fact that the instrument was made by true violin makers from the period - the swell back is devoid of any upper incline or angle break. 
    2. The table arching: As with the better examples of the Brothers work the arching is "moderately" arched in the Stainer style. At the margins the arching cleverly blend into an edge work of the utmost subtlety.
    3. The outer workmanship: Is very neat and tidy. When viewed from the front there is a slight asymmetrical appearance that strongly supports the fact that the Brothers used an inside mould to make their instruments.
    4. The purfilling: Is very much in the style of Stainer. It is meticulously neat and accurate and positioned very close to the edge. At the corners the purfilling forms short symmetrical points that are angled towards the middle of the corners. On both plates the points extend right to the outer margins of the plate. On the back the points seem marginally longer than those on the front. The illusion is more apparent on the back of the Brothers work and is presumably due to a combination of the greater difficulty of cutting the point channel with a knife into the hard maple and less wear.
    5. The sound-holes: Are beautifully conceived in the Stainer form. In terms of their execution they are perfectly positioned, perfectly cut and perfectly finished.
    6. The scroll: Is neatly carved and beautifully proportioned.
    7. The timber: In general the Brothers used well selected straight even-grained spruce and maple that was handsomely figured. On larger instruments many makers chose to use lesser quality timber. On this double bass however we see that the Brothers have used a wood selection that is consistent with their smaller instruments.
    8. The inner workmanship: Is exceptionally neat.

In addition to the Four Centuries of Violin Making - which other reference works did you consult in order to make these comparisons?

The following reference books and catalogues show absolutely classic examples of the Brothers work;

    1. The Cooper Collection - Volume 2 by Albert W.Cooper (Published by Ashford Publications 1998. ISBN 0 9528478 1 7) Pages 28 - 33. Violin circa 1750 by Brothers. J & A Beare certificate 1947.
    2. Sotheby's 14/06/90 - lot 12. Violin circa 1785 by Brothers (Full colour front and back views). Hill certificate 1979.
    3. Sotheby's 06/10/09 - lot 62. Viola circa 1760 by Lorenzo (Full colour front back and scroll views).
    4. Sotheby's 14/11/85 - lot 68. Violin circa 1760 by Lorenzo (Full colour front and back views). Hill certificate 1938. D'Attilli certificate 1978.
    5. Sotheby's 15/06/89 - lot 28. Violin circa 1750 by Tommaso (B&W front & back views).

Can you tell me about the varnish on the Brothers Carcassi double bass. Is it typical of their output?

Most typically the Brothers work is covered in a transparent golden-yellow, amber-yellow coloured varnish over a yellow ground. On these instruments the attractive, varnish is uniformly applied. Other instruments exist such as this double bass that feature additional layers of dark blood-red or dark-brown varnish.

The composition of the varnish on the Brothers Carcassi double bass appears to have quite a bit of texture to it. It looks beautiful. How has that happened?

As the varnish dried the surface slightly separated and became textured with what is termed a "fine-craqueleur". Over many years these outer layers have oxidised and further darkened.

Some of the dark varnish seems to have worn away. How do you explain that?

Over many, many years of usage the upper layers of varnish have worn slowly and naturally due to them coming into direct contact with the human body and of course through them coming into contact with physical things such as the instrument`s cover and the floor.

Can you point out some of the contact areas?

Yes indeed. If you take a look at the upper back the darker layer has been worn completely away to reveal the splendid hues and transparency of the lower layers of the varnish. Other areas where natural contact points reveal the lower layers of the varnish to a larger degree are on the upper shoulders and on the middle ribs where the instrument has been placed down on the floor.

Would you say that the varied textures and hues in the layers of the varnish have further enhanced the grace, beauty, character and appeal of the entire instrument?

Yes indeed. The instrument is visually a real stunner.

Do you know of any other Brothers Carcassi instruments with a similar colour and type of varnish?

Yes. The Conservatorio "Luigi Cherubini" Collection in Florence houses a Brothers Carcassi violin dated 1767 which they described as being "... in a good state of conservation with moderate signs of use." The instrument is fully pictured in both colour and in black and white and analysed over four pages in their catalogue of Bowed Stringed Instruments and Bows (Edited by Gabriele Rossi Rognoni and published in 2009. ISBN 978-88-8347-476-7). The analysis on the varnish states "The thick, dark brown paste varnish speaks to the use of opaque minerals. Although we cannot overlook the possibility that the darkening was caused by oxidation - this shade seems original and it also extends over the purfilling making it less visible."

Do you know of or have you heard of any more examples of the Brothers work with the less typical darker varnish?

Yes. A colleague in the trade confirmed that he once owned an early Brothers Carcassi violin that had a varnish with a near identical colouration, texture and patination to this double bass. The authenticity of the instrument was fully supported by a certificate from the leading violin shop John & Arthur Bear of London.

Are there any internal inscriptions from past restorers?

Yes - there are two. The first is located on the treble side upper-back close to the linings. The pencil inscription simply consists of the date 6/10 1908 accompanied by an undecipherable squiggle type signature. The second inscription - Rep W.F. Crines 1939 - was written in large handwriting in blue crayon and located quite close to the centre joint on the treble side lower-front. Unfortunately the surname of the inscriber isn't that easy to decipher - so it could easily be something slightly different.

In the paragraph above I noticed that you used the words "is located" for the first inscription and the words "was located" for the second inscription. Are the inscriptions still present in the instrument?

The inscription on the upper back is still present. The inscription on the lower table was removed during the work that was required to make the table less rigid.

Looking through the label and inscription pictures - I can see some markings in yellow crayon on the top of the treble side middle-bout. With the bass standing upright - the writing is upside down. Can you tell me what it reads please?

The inscription reads - Ex K Hall 10/62 £6/=1

Why was the marking put there?

It is the sort of marking that a dealer or violin proprietor will put onto an instrument to remind himself when he bought the instrument and from whom he purchased it. We know this for sure because we do something similar ourselves albeit much more discreetly. In view of the state of the instrument and the boldness of the marking one must wonder if the shop owner/restorer was already resigned to the fact that he might not get round to doing it up for quite some time!

So - let me get this straight. Are you telling me that before you purchased this instrument it had been sitting about in a store room since 1962?

Yes incredible as it may seem - the dealer has inscribed the name K. Hall as the vendor and the purchase price of six guineas.

I guess that six guineas must have been a fairly large sum of money then.

Yes - for a normal working person six guineas was an awful lot of money. Unfortunately we are unable to provide you with a comparison as to its buying potential at that time because our own auction records don't really start until 1977.

Are there any other inscriptions or bands on the instrument?

Yes - there is a small figure "10" just below the back button.

Any idea what it refers to?

Although it is not possible to conclude anything from the number on its own - the system of branding a number onto an instrument in this way was usually done to provide identification or reference to some sort of inventory or collection.

Feedback from a London based professional player.

Shortly after posting this review on The Contrabass Shoppe's website - we received a short e-mail from one of his former playing colleagues regarding the yellow crayon inscription on the outside of the treble side middle-bout. The essential part reads - "K Hall might well be Kneller Hall".

That sounds like a really good call to me. Did you not consider Kneller Hall yourself?

No - for some reason we just automatically assumed that the instrument must have belonged to a player. Kneller Hall certainly fits in perfectly with the number branded just below the back button, to some extent the damage that was sustained to the instrument and also to the close proximity of a historically important string musical instrument repair shop in which we suspect the instrument had been ensconced for such a long time.

Can you expand on your phrase - "to some extent the damage that was sustained to the instrument" - please?

Yes. Instruments in the ownership of Royal Military often had an extremely "hard life". Any instruments that became damaged beyond economical repair were often disposed of and simply replaced by new ones. We are almost certain that the repair shop referred to in the above paragraph - currently in its fourth generation of ownership - would have serviced the needs of the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall.

Can you provide me with a little information about Kneller Hall please?

Yes. The British Army has an incredibly long and rich history of using military bands to provide moral support for their fighting forces and to provide support for state and ceremonial occasions. At one time there was a total of 69 bands in existence. In 1857 a 'Class of Music' was founded at Kneller Hall near Twickenham by His Royal Highness Field Marshal the Duke of Cambridge. In 1887 - the Golden Jubilee year of Her Majesty Queen Victoria it was graciously retitled as the Royal Military School of Music. On 1st September 1994 the Headquarters of the Corps of Army Music joined the Royal Military School of Music on the site. Today (August 2011) the School of Music is still a centre for excellence that plays a vital role in shaping the attitudes, values and standards of soldiers wanting to join the Corps of Army Music. For more information on The Royal Military School of Music please click on the following link -

With the military band in England being held - historically - in such high esteem - one would assume that there was a pretty healthy budget available for the acquisition of instruments.

Yes. Many of the military bands were able to acquire and indeed still have very valuable instruments in their ownership. For those interested there is a Music Museum at Kneller Hall that has a collection of musical instruments, music, documents, prints, manuscripts, paintings and uniforms that show the history of military music. It is open to the public by appointment.

Can you tell me about the restoration work that you have done to the instrument?

We have done absolutely everything necessary to put this instrument into the finest structural and playing condition possible. In total the work consumed over 480 hrs of our restorer's time. Please take a look at the pictures of the restoration work and read the short captions that are immediately underneath. Out of approximately 125 photos taken - the small selection of images that are posted here should hopefully give you an impression as to the extent and variety of the work involved. They have also been selected to demonstrate the high level of skills necessary to complete the project and bring an unquestionably beautiful instrument back to life.

Wow - I've just had a look at the images. That's one hell of a nice job. Who did the work?

Thank you for your compliments - they are always welcome. The work was performed by self-employed luthier Jeroen Bruynooghe who currently lives in France.

Is there anything else that you find particularly interesting about the instrument?

When we purchased the instrument - it still had its original "fixed-peg" endpin unit in place. We are not talking about any old endpin unit here - we are talking about an endpin unit that has been on the instrument for over a quarter of a millenium.

You mean that the modern fully adjustable endpin unit developed from this humble beginning?

Yes indeed.

How interesting. Can you describe it to me please?

The unit or endpin "peg" as it is best described - is made from a very dense type of Blackwood and simply consists of a short non-adjustable steel tip that projects from the end of a non-adjustable turned peg. When new the steel tip is likely to have projected by 10mm or so - but following years and years of use - it has completely worn down and is now virtually flat with the end of the wooden peg.

I have to say that the peg has great visually appeal. If I purchase this unquestionably magnificent instrument can I have the peg too?

Yes indeed. It forms part of the instrument's history.

On one of the pre-restoration pictures I can see that about 4cm above the endpin peg is a small round hole that is about 2 cm in diameter. Can you tell me what that was for?

It was for the tail wire "stop" or "endbutton". On early instruments such as this - the tail wire or tail gut as it would have been then - was secured by means of a small round hard-wood stop as opposed to being secured directly on to the endpin unit as we do today.

What was the reason for this?

The feature has its origins in viol construction. When these instruments were held - as they were - either at the shoulder, between the legs or supported on a cushion - nothing else was necessary. When instruments started to become larger in size and were required to rest directly on the floor - the separate fixed-wooden peg was introduced and used in conjunction with the tail-gut endbutton.

I know that sound is a highly subjective matter - but do you think that this Lorenzo & Tommaso Carcassi double bass has that "Italian" sound that we all dream about?

The experience of playing on this Brothers Carcassi double bass really is something very unique, something very special, something very, very rewarding indeed. If we did use adjectives such as tonally rich, clear, refined, projecting, warm, even and articulate - they will never quite do enough justice in comparison to actually playing and hearing the instrument yourself.

How about a final summary?

If you are a player looking for an extremely-fine concert or solo instrument, an orchestra or a collector with an eye for a good investment then this immaculately made, superb looking, superb sounding instrument by Lorenzo & Tommaso Carcassi ticks all the right boxes for sure.

How about a final, final summary?

Historically, visually and aurally this is a jaw-dropingly amazing instrument.

Hmm... I can just imagine how wonderful it would be to own this instrument.

There you go. It could be yours.

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