Venetian Double Bass circa 1650 – Review

Wow - this bass positively seems to glow.

Yes - the comment has been made quite a few times.

What causes this special effect?

It all has to do with the glorious colours, textures and transparency of the varnish. This just isn't any old varnish - it is Venetian varnish.

Yes - I've been to Venice. Its buildings, squares, bridges and churches are all so beautiful and inspiring. I guess that past generations of visitors were inspired too.

Yes - throughout the centuries many architects, painters, craftsmen, composers, and instrument makers were attracted to Venice because of its cultural vitality, its relative affluence and its political independence and stability.

Did the high concentration of artisans within the city contribute to the stylistic and technical similarities between the different trades?

Yes - an exchange of information seems to have been a key factor to the unique style, beauty and homogeny of the objects created by the artisans. The unique cultural expression is often referred to as the "Venetian Style".

In the previous paragraph why did you say "relative affluence"?

During the 17th and 18th centuries there were some tough economic and political times. There was however an enduring demand for entertainment and both music and art continued to blossom and evolve under the patronage of nobles and families of high social ranking. In 1637 the first public opera house opened. By the end of the century no less than 11 theatres had been built.

The ever increasing size of orchestras and musical activity in general, must have created a voracious demand for new instruments. Is that correct?

Yes indeed.

How was the appetite for new instruments met?

Füssen and Mittenwald were two violin making centres along the Alpine trade routes through which merchants had long passed on their way to do business in Germany and Flanders. Having supplied violins to Venice and aware of the cultural Renaissance unfolding there - it was - in the main - from these two towns that many luthiers migrated.

Did any particular composers influence the direction of instrumentation?

Yes - In 1613 Claudio Monteverdi (1567 - 1643) settled in Venice. His subsequent appointment to the highly sought after and well paid post of musical director at the great eleventh-century Cathedral of Saint Mark was to afford him an advantaged platform - which was to last 30years - from which to create, advance, refine and evolve music and instrumentation.

In Venice what was music evolving from?

During the late 16th century music had been essentially ecclesiastical in nature. Choral and organ music was written for both state and church occasions while instrumental compositions were derived from vocal models, dances, improvised pieces and variations. Compositions were often decorated by turns, trills, runs and other embellishments and included the ricercare, canzonas, dance suites, fantasia, sonatas and sinfonias that were scored for small groups of melody instruments accompanied by a basso continuo.

What sort of instruments were there?

Wind instruments were much softer sounding than today and consisted of cornets, trombones, flutes, and recorders. String instruments consisted of the viols, guitars, lutes and a type of long-necked lute called the theorbo.

Which composers worked in Venice prior to Monteverdi?

The Venetian born Andrea Gabrieli (ca 1520 - 1586) and his nephew Giovanni Gabrieli (ca 1557 - 1612) expanded the madrigal and motet. The Venetian organist and composer Claudio Merulo (1533 - 1604) pushed the toccata to new levels.

How and why did music change?

Following an excommunication by the Pope in 1605 - Venice acquired an independence of mind and a secular spirit. From then onwards - music was performed at secular festivals, the theatre, the opera, at private concerts and at carnivals and it was scored for much larger formations of instruments that were capable of producing stronger, more brilliant, more refined sounds.

Which Venetian composers continued the musical developments pioneered by Monteverdi?

One of the leading Venetian opera composers was Monteverdi's pupil - Pier Francesco Cavalli (1602 - 76). His output of forty-one operas is a reflection of the steady demand for new works in the city. Musical construction of the opera was further enhanced by Marc' Antonio Cesti (1623 - 1669), M.A. Sartorio (ca 1620 - ca 1685), Giovanni Legrenzi (1626 - 1690) and Antonio Lotti (ca 1667 - 1740). By the middle of the seventeenth century Italian opera had assumed the main outlines of form.

I just want to know about the instrument. Is all this music history stuff really relevant?

Yes - patience. Our double bass doesn't bear a makers label or date - so an attempt at trying to place its physical and stylistic features into some sort of regional and historical context is all the more relevant. The period that we are actually talking about is the transition from Late Renaissance to Early Baroque. It's an incredibly creative period for music, orchestration and instrumental experimentation and development.

OK - I understand. At what point did the craft of violin making take off in Venice?

Martinus Kaiser (1642 - 1695) is considered to be the founder of the craft of string instrument making in Venice. It was however Kaiser's peer and son in law - Matteo Goffriller (1659 - 1742) who arrived in Venice in 1685 at the age of 26 that is rightfully considered the founder of the classical Venetian school of violin making.

Can you expand on Goffriller's influence?

On page 101 of the highly researched and sumptuously produced volume - Violin and Lute Makers of Venice 1640 - 1760 by Stefano Pio (Published - Venice Research 2004) Pio succinctly sums up my brief historical assessment as follows - "The elements that determined his success were his genius associated with the musical environment of the time. For more than twenty years, from 1690 - 1715, he (with his co-workers) was the principal Venetian source of new string instruments. His production, which at the time was unique for its innovation and high quality, directly influenced all later Venetian violin makers. In Goffriller's work we also see the melding of the diverse experiences of earlier Venetian violin makers, which were re-elaborated in the light of the new instrumental needs that developed at the end of the seventeen century."

Why do you think that this double bass pre-dates Matteo Goffriller's arrival in Venice?

If you take a look at the pictures of the instrument before it was restored - you will see that it was delivered to The Shoppe covered in years of dust and grime and in an extremely poor condition. Just so that you know exactly how poor the condition was - the entire "rebuild" consumed self employed restorer Jeroen Bruynooghe more than 500 hours of his time. Regarding the restoration Jeroen commented - "Obviously when one has spent such a large amount of time and effort on the one instrument you just can't help notice all the details both inside and out." It is really thanks to Jeroen's observations that our original thoughts of very early Goffriller bottego (shop) have been revised to something even earlier - something even more special and rare.

What were the first clues?

One of the first jobs that Jeroen undertook was to restore the peg box. It really was only held together by a brass plate on the bass side. Once again if you look at the pre-restoration photos you will see the sort of challenges that faced Jeroen. Jeroen - "When I took the brass plate off - the peg box just fell apart in my hands."

So what were Jeroen's comments after he'd well and truly got stuck into the work?

"There were so many holes and old bushings in the pegbox - I'm pretty positive that it was originally made as a five or six stringed instrument."

Was the five/six string theory supported in any other way?

Jeroen seemed to think so. "The distance between the two F's is relatively wide in comparison to the width of the centre bouts. In proportion to the dimensions of the whole body the depth of the same C-bouts is incredibly generous and open in form."

So a bridge for six gut strings and plenty of room for bowing certainly adds weight to the theory. Are there any other clues?

Yes. While working on both front and back Jeroen commented. "I think that the inlaid purfilling has been put in at a later date. If you take a look to the inside of the purfilling there are the remnants of a different purfilling. It is not an actual inlay - it is a simple double etched ink-line. Most of the outer line has been obliterated by the later purfilling but if you take a look at the back - on the treble side bottom corner there is a really clear section. You can see that the two etched lines are 2.8mm apart and the outer line is 11mm in from the outer edge of the plate. That's a very long way in from the edge. It's exactly the style of decoration that they use to do on viols and violone."

What happens if you trace the original etched lines around the instrument?

The visible etching on the back lower corners and around the C-bouts suggests that they are pretty well much as they were made. Tracing upwards from the upper corner blocks - the double etched lines draw closer towards the edge to such an extent that the inner line disappears altogether - re-entering approximately 14cm or so higher up - just below where the later purfilling divides to go around the back button. On the lower bouts - it is not quite so easy to trace the lines downward - however if you look hard enough it is clear that they also draw closer to the edge and disappear for about 14cm.

What does this tell us?

It suggests that the upper bouts were slightly wider and a tad squarer than they are now. The lower bouts would also have been fuller in profile.

How much wider?

We have already calculated the distance from the original edge to the inner etched line was approximately 13.8mm. If you add this amount to the points where the inner etched line bisects the current edge you get a pretty good idea of the original profile.

Hell - this is all quite fascinating. Are there any more violone type features?

Yes - the long looping back button is something that harks back to violone construction when the neck would have sat on the top of the block.

That's a good prompt for the next question. Before you put a new top block into the instrument did the neck that was already there sit on the top of the block?

Yes. Having said that it's probably best to start by saying that the bottom block was the original and most unusually - it was made from oak. The upper block on the other hand was made of spruce and put in some time later. It's not quite clear why the original top block needed replacing. There was quite a bit of worm damage to the back of the instrument so it is quite possible that the block was also damaged - although this seems doubtful as worms tend to prefer softer species of timber. What is really interesting is the way part of the old top block was incorporated into the new block. The luthier cut a trapezoid (12/10mm at front - 18/15 mm at back) type section off from the top of the original oak block and affixed it to the top of the new spruce block. The method must have provided them with some sort of time advantage. It is possible that they didn't want to face the challenge of ungluing the original joint. Whatever the reason - the neck with its violone style assembly was reinstated intact. If you take a look at the picture of the assembly you will see that three wooden pins helped secure the butt joint firmly together.

Does this mean that the neck dates back to the time of the original oak blocks?

No not necessarily - it only confirms that any renewals of the neck adopted the same method of fitting.

Can you tell me how the violone C-holes started to develop into F-holes?

Many viol (treble, tenor and bass) and lira (da braccio and da gamba) and viola (da braccio, lira and perfetta) type instruments of the 16th and 17th century had back to back C type sound holes. On some instrument a wiggle or large outer nick appeared in the middle of the C - making the bass C look more like a figure 3 and the treble side look more like an inverted three. On other instruments the C's became much straighter with only a suggestion of the former C shapes. On some instruments a more classic F shape began to appear with the introduction of a second inner nick.

Jeroen - "Yes - the slightly inward swinging F's with their tear-drop style of upper lobe and the straight ending wings are strong evidence that this is indeed one of those transitional type instruments. You could say a double bass right in the throws of evolution."

Do you have any reference books with similar looking instruments?

In order to compile this short review there has been a great deal of head scratching and a serious amount of searching through the reference books in our library. The simple fact is - there are very few stringed instruments that have survived three and a half centuries plus with which to compare it to.

Yes - I can appreciate that in terms of classical stringed musical instruments 360 years plus is incredibly old. Still - did you manage to come up with anything?

Yes. The volume entitled European & American Musical Instruments by Anthony Baines (Published 1983 by Chancellor Press - ISBN 0 907486 28 2) is particularly interesting for showing the wide variety of instrumental forms and shapes being produced between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Of special mention are illustrations No 64 - a violone by Ventura Linarol 1585, No 86 - described as a bass viol by Gioanbattista Ciciliano, Venice, 16th century and No 87 - a tenor viol by Francesco Linarol, Venice circa 1540. Interestingly enough instrument No 86 is pictured again - this time in full colour and in a much larger format - in the book Musical Instruments in Art and History by Roger Bragard and Ferdinand J. De Hen (Published 1968 by Barrrie and Rockliff). In this volume it is described as a viola bastarda from the year 1660 and by the Venetian maker Antonio Ciciliano - obviously a relative of Gioanbattista Ciciliano. The Antonio Ciciliano is definitely the more probable of the two attributions. The interesting thing about these three instruments is that all feature four complete corners, six strings, wide central bouts, arc like upper corners, etched purfilling and C evolved sound holes. In other words they all display the same fundamental characteristics as our double bass.

So our instrument is seemingly an enlarged version of these instruments?

There are obviously modifications - but basically you could say yes.

Would you go as far as saying that our instrument was originally constructed as a violone?

Yes. The features just mentioned all strongly support this theory.

Wow a mid-17th century violone. Historically - this must be a pretty important instrument then?


Is there anything in the pioneering reference work by Raymond Elgar?

Yes - Looking at the Double Bass (First published in 1961 by the author) also contains a couple of very interesting images. In the section on Italian instruments - on page 115 -there is a six stringed instrument that is described as a 17th century violone. Unfortunately there isn't an attribution but in terms of its model and form - even down to the cut and positioning of the F holes - it is stylistically very similar to our example.

Which is the other interesting example in the Elgar book?

The other example that displays remarkably similar making characteristics to our instrument can be found on page 111. The five string violone is described as being by the mid 17th century Venetian instrument maker Zuane Rechaldini (1621 - 1697). Interestingly - the exact same instrument along with a second instrument is featured in the Pio book Violin and Lute Maker of Venice already mentioned. In the volume Pio devotes an entire chapter to Zuanne and his family members. He writes - "Zuanne Recaldini concentrated his production on larger instruments such as violone or viola bassa. The store sign of his botteqa, al Basso, evidenced his legacy."

Do you think that Recaldini could have made this violone?

The style of work, the choice of wood and the dates do fit together very well - so we would have to say that it's not an unreasonable attribution. The only problem is that the two featured in the Pio book are seemingly the only known examples available with which to make a comparison. On the basis that the F's are more classically developed than our instrument it is difficult to apply the attribution with sufficient certainty.

Don't the more developed F's suggest that the two instruments in the Pio book are later examples?

Yes - it is possible but then again we need to consider that there were plenty of other instrument makers in Venice at this time.

When do you think that the first true double bass would have been made in Venice?

In our library we are fortunate enough to have an exhibition catalogue by Marco Tiella and Luca Primon entitled "Catalogo degli strumenti dell'Istituto della Pietà Venezia". The exhibition was in homage to the greatest master of the Italian concerto - the Venetian - Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741) and timed to coincide with the 250th anniversary of his death. In 1703 Vivaldi was appointed violin teacher at The Ospedale della Pietà as the building was then named. The Ospedale was one of the largest orphanages in Venice that offered musical training to talented girls. When Vivaldi rose to the rank of resident composer and director of the orchestra, the quality of the concerts given quickly made the orchestra famous and the orphanage developed more into a fully fledged music school to which court musicians from neighbouring states were sent. The exhibition held between 1990 and 1991 displayed many of the fine instruments that were actually used in Vivaldi's orchestra at the institution. On pages 69 -71 there is a double bass by the Venetian maker Pietro Caspan. The instrument is in an unmodernized and unrestored condition and bears an original pencil inscription on the back - IO: PIETRO CASPAN / IN VENETIA / 1665.

Tell me more about the instrument.

There are of course lots of interesting things about this instrument. For this review however the first most important thing to note is that it was made as a three string instrument. The second most important thing is that the instrument follows the classic Brecian model of violin outline, flat back with upper bevel and deep ribs - that was first conceived by Gasparo da Salò (1540 - 1609) possibly as early as circa 1580.

What does all that mean?

The Caspan bass is incredibly important for it is evidence that a true double bass was made in Venice in 1665.

Do you think that this was Caspan's very first instrument?

No. The model, stylistic features and the proficiency of the making strongly suggest that Caspan was a bass specialist and that he'd made a number of instruments prior to this one.

The quality of varnish that was originally applied to our violone and to other earlier violone type instruments being produced in Venice would generally have been quite indifferent. What sort of varnish does the Caspan bass have?

It is covered in a decent quality red-brown varnish of good depth and texture.

What does all that mean?

The Caspan bass is yet again incredibly important - this time because it establishes the fact that significant advancements in varnish quality, application and aesthetics in general had been made in Venice by the year 1665.

Do you have a little more info on Caspan?

Also known as Giovanni Pietro Caspani. According to the Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers by William Henley (Published 1973 by Amati Publishing Ltd) Caspan worked in Venice between 1650 and 1670 and produced upwards of 200 instruments of "considerable versatility and talent". Karl Jalovec Italian Violin Makers (Anglo-Italian Publications Ltd - 1964.) writes - "He was a pupil of the Amati brothers and worked well in their manner".

When do you think that our violone was first strung as a double bass?

According to Dwane Rosengard in his book Contrabassi Cremonesi (Published by Editrice Turris - 1992. ISBN 88-7929-073-8) as the demand for a fuller and deeper sound increased many of the larger violone were adapted and altered to three strings within a few decades of having been constructed. With the shop of Matteo Goffriller already highly productive between 1690 and 1710 and a number of other makers involved in the production and sales of violins it is quite feasible that the adaptions previously mentioned to the model and pufilling also took place at this time.

You suggested that when our violone was built the varnish would have been quite mediocre. Do you think that it was upgraded at the same time as it was converted to three strings?

Yes - it is possible. Whenever it was done - you have to admit it is pretty nice.

Do you think that the neck was changed at this time too?

The fact that the heal and top of the neck are covered in exactly the same varnish type as the body of the instrument - does suggest that the neck was already in place prior to the varnish upgrade.

What else do you think I'll find really interesting?

The old fingerboard.


At some stage of its life it was widened right the way along its length by a strip of stained rosewood. Incredulously the strip has been fitted to the centre of the board. That means truing up four long edges prior to gluing and clamping.

Wow - that must have taken them an awful lot of time. Why would they do that?

Well - the obvious answer is that a wider board was required.

Yes - thank you that would seem obvious. When would they have needed to fit a wider board?

The most probable time for this would have been when the instrument was converted from three to four strings. If a new blank of ebony wasn't available at the time - it would appear that the restorer just decided to make do with the old board. But what a lot of work!

Have you ever seen it done before?

No. Having said that - one bass restorer that we know is considering recycling old fingerboards. With good ebony in such short supply and on the verge of being a prohibitively priced commodity - he reckons that joining two thin fingerboards together to make one useable one is not that far off.

Surely - in view of the fingerboard on this instrument - he should be saying that the recycling of fingerboards is coming back into fashion.

Yes indeed.

What else can you tell from looking at the board?

Well for a start - it is incredibly thin and on the lower positions deep ruts have been worn into the ebony by the strings.

What does that suggest?

Plenty of use - plenty of playing.

Looking at the pre restoration pictures I can see some writing on the fingerboard. There is the word "OPEN", the date "1947" and some other faint markings in yellow crayon. What do these mean?

They are the sort of markings that dealers put on instruments to remind themselves when they bought an instrument and from whom they purchased it. We know this for sure - because we do something similar ourselves.

So are you telling me that before you purchased this instrument it had been sitting about in this sort of condition since 1947.

Yes incredible as this may seems - it is true.

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

Well I could - but I won't. The review is already way too long and I'm quite sure that if you take a look at the pictures of the restoration work and read the short captions that are immediately below them you will get a much better idea of what was necessary.

Are there any other things that you find particularly interesting about the instrument?

Yes - the fact that the front is made from four pieces of timber and that the back is made from three.

Is there a reason for the use of several pieces of timber to make the plates?

Most double bass makers tend to use what wood they have in stock or what they can find available. The wood for the back and ribs of this instrument appear to be made from some sort of fruit wood. If it is pear - which we suspect it is - the tree grows very slowly and to relatively small dimensions. Consequently it would have been difficult to find pieces large enough from which to construct a two piece back. It is interesting to observe the exact same three piece construction on the Gasparo Da Salo double bass featured in the Double Bassist (Orpheus Publications) issue No 39 - Winter 2006. The back and ribs of this instrument are similarly made from pear.

I have to say that the spruce front is absolutely stunning. It seems to have both straight grains and an elliptical type of grain. How has the wood been cut?

The type of figure that one can see on a piece of wood depends on which way the log has been cut and from which part of the log the timber has been taken. On the table of our instrument the two types of grain indicate that the selection of wood was from a board or boards that were cut at a tangent to the annual growth rings. Due to its gorgeous decorative effect the part "quarter", part "slab" sawn timber has often been the cut of choice for many an Italian maker.

Is there anything else?

Yes - we find the fact that the nicks on the F-holes are the opposite way round from what they normally are most intriguing.

You mean that the inner nick is placed higher than the outer nick?


Have you seen this done before?

Yes - there is an identical placement of the nicks on the circa 1720 Matteo Goffriller double bass featured in the Double Bassist (Orpheus Publications) issue No 36 - Spring 2006.

Do you know of any more Matteo Goffriller double basses with this most unusual and distinctive placement of the nicks?

Yes - the placement can again be seen on the circa 1715 double bass featured on pages 166-169 of the Stefano Pio book Violin and Lute Maker of Venice 1640-1760 mentioned earlier.

Can the feature be seen on other Matteo Goffriller instruments?

Yes - some of his cellos and violins incorporate this feature.

Does our double bass have a swell back?

Yes - there is a very slight swell to the back. It really is so slight that it is probably best to describe it as a "demi-swell".

I guess that's quite unusual too?

Well put it this way - we've not seen a profile quite as low as this one before.

Are there or were there any inscriptions inside the instrument?

Yes. On the upper treble-side back close to the lining and the top block there was the semblance of an inscription in faded black ink. Obviously of considerable age - it is most unfortunate that it was undecipherable because there is a good probability that it was placed there by the original maker. A second inscription is located on the treble-side lower rib near to the corner block and the back lining. This much more visible inscription reads "Calow, Broad Marsh, Not.m (Nottingham) 1924". We also found a third inscription located on the upper central back. It was from the same person as the rib inscription and was written in fairly large hand writing. It read "Repaired by Calow 1924".

Are the inscriptions still inside the instrument?

The Calow inscription on the lower rib is still present although partially covered over with new stud work. The Calow signature on the upper central back and the signature "L'Ancienne" were removed during the course of the restoration program.

How does the instrument sound?

Full, rich, rounded, projecting, clear, brilliant, complex, expressive, enchanting - are just a few words that come to mind.

Do you think that the instrument will put a big smile on my face when I come into play it?

Yes definitely.

Time for a summary.

The origins of the double bass are something that every bass player will ponder at some point in his or her career. This fascinating instrument is incredibly important for it helps piece together the transition from five or six string violone to three string double bass that was unfolding in Venice during the mid 17th century. As if all this wasn't enough to digest - the instrument also demonstrates the stylistic freedom and grace of the Venetian school of making and simultaneously anticipates the more refined and classic Italian form that was poised to follow and evolve with the work of Matteo Goffriller.

How about a final summary?

The fact that this instrument still exists is absolutely incredible.

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