When ten-year-old Abbie took up playing the fiddle, she was delighted that her Auntie Wanda made her a gift of the old violin she used to play. No one suspected the instrument could be worth well into the six-figure range.
Their view of the old violin soon changed after Abbie’s music teacher took one look at her pupil’s instrument and dashed off to speak with Abbie’s parents, Iain and LynnAnne. A bit more research showed the violin had a faded sticker within its interior, dated 1849, bearing the name of Giuseppe Rocca, one of the most eminent Italian violin makers of the 19th century.
The instrument had been a gift to Auntie Wanda from her cousin, Pietro, a wealthy textile magnate in northern Italy, in the 1950s when she had been accepted to the Juilliard School of Music in New York. When she decided to study pharmacy instead of music, the fiddle rested in a linen closet for over 50 years.
After consulting musical instrument specialists in Canada, one name came up consistently: Bruce Carlson, considered by many to be the world authority on violins of this era. The only problem was that Mr. Carlson resided in Cremona, Italy (the birthplace of the violin) and the violin would have to be brought to him for verification.
Not one to miss out on an adventure, I promptly offered to accompany Iain to Italy. Thus, in late May, Iain and I found ourselves en route to Milan. Cremona is a short train ride from Milan, so we boarded a train bound for the ancient and historic northern Italian city.
On arrival in Cremona, Iain and I navigated through twisty medieval streets until we encountered the storefront offices of Carlson and Neumann. Bruce Carlson proved to be a soft-spoken American, originally from Michigan. He had visited Cremona in the early 1970s and fallen in love with the city, never leaving. Bruce asked us to leave the violin with him for a few days.
Iain and I didn’t spend those days fiddling around. Cremona itself has a wonderful 12th-Century duomo, a huge medieval church packed with Renaissance era paintings and a tower that dominates the town. I elected to climb the 400 or so stairs to the top, to be rewarded with incomparable views of the town and countryside for miles around.
Next we visited the town’s Raccolta di Violini housed in the Gothic-styled Palazzo del Commune opposite the duomo. Here we could gaze in awe at violins by the likes of Stradivarius, Amati and the Guarneri. I was amazed to see 16th century violins that looked almost indistinguishable from their modern counterparts. The legendary Antonio Stradivari made violins for over a half century and examples from both his early and late years were on display there.
In keeping with the musical theme of our excursion, Iain and I had also purchased tickets for a performance at Milan’s legendary Teatro della Scala, arguably the world’s most famous opera house.
Tickets are scarce and expensive but I had been able to get two of the best seats available online to a performance of Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Assassinio nella Cattedrale, an opera based on T.S. Eliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral.
The evening of the performance we donned jackets and ties and walked from the Hotel London to the opera house. Even with seats at 350 dollars apiece we found that we still had to lean forward and crane our necks to see all of the stage from our sideward facing box. European opera houses are notorious for selling seats with no view of the stage. I was glad I hadn’t gone for the cheap seats!
After the performance we retired to il Salotto di Milano café housed in the nearby Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, for a glass of red wine and the best pizza in Milan. The Galleria is the 19th Century version of a mall, with arching glassed-over roofs, ornate buildings and is packed with shops bearing names like Gucci and Prada.
The next day we rented a car and drove to the little town of Valle Mosso, where Iain’s mother’s family had originated and where Pietro, the cousin who was Wanda’s violin benefactor, had resided.
Iain visited here 40 years ago as a child and had fond memories of happier times, but he’d been told that the family had died off over the years and no one was left.
We decided to have lunch in the Cacciatore Restaurant, once a private club to which Pietro had belonged and which Iain had visited. At the next table sat a group of older local gents sipping red wine, eating pasta and discussing politics and the latest soccer scores. Iain approached and introduced himself as a cousin of Pietro B. who had died many years ago. A portly, balding gent at the end of the table snorted in surprise and said, “But I had lunch with Pietro two days ago!”
To paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of Pietro’s death were greatly exaggerated. Iain’s long-lost cousin joined us and we had a joyful and emotional lunch together.
“Well, Iain, the violin was in fact not a Rocca. The Rocca sticker was most likely put in place to raise the price of the instrument.”
Iain’s face fell in disappointment.
“It is, however, an early and extremely well-preserved instrument by a prominent Turin violin maker by the name of Enrico Marchetti,” continued Bruce. “As such the violin is still worth in the low six figure range.”
One could say that our visit ended on a pleasant note.
“Milan’s world famous La Scala Opera House at night.” © George Burden
“The opulent interior of La Scala Opera House before a performance.” © George Burden
“The cast takes a bow after a performance of Pizzetti’s ‘Assassinio nella Cattedrale'” (Murder in the Cathedral) © George Burden
“A bust of world-Pi famous violin craftsman, Antonio Stradivarius, in a public park in his home town of Cremona in northern Italy.” © George Burden
“Bruce Carlson, a world authority on the violins of master Italian craftsmen, gives Iain the verdict on his vintage instrument.” © George Burden