Born in the south Tyrol, he arrived in Venice in 1658, probably already with some training as a violin maker. Worked in Venice for Martin Kaiser, a luthier of northern Tyrolean origin before taking over his business in 1690. The first significant violin maker of the Venice school, he produced many instruments in different styles, violins influenced by Amati and Stradivari, but cellos (and also a small number of violas) made on an original pattern that established him as the dominant luthier in Venice until 1720, after which his output diminished significantly. His pupil Domenico Montagnana then took over as Venice??Ts leading maker. His son, Francesco (1692-ca 1740) was less productive and his instruments less disciplined. He left Venice in 1714 for Udine, where he subsequently died.
Matteo Gofriller is a wonderful, muscular and adaptable maker, the effective founder of the colourful Venetian school of violin making, and a master of all three strains of the craft; the violin, cello, and viola.
Born ca 1659 in Bressanone, otherwise known as Brixen, in the southern Tyrol, he was probably originally German-speaking, but came to Venice in 1685, settling there for his whole working life. The Tyrolean region was well-populated with violin –makers even at this relatively early date, with the excellent Albani family established in nearby Bolzano since the middle of the century. Although nothing is presently known for sure, it seems reasonable to assume that the 26 year old Gofriller had at least some experience of lutherie when he arrived in Venice, although his official apprenticeship there was with Martin Kaiser, another Tyrolean from Fussen. Little of Kaiser’s work survives, and he was probably engaged primarily in lute making. Gofriller moved quickly, marrying his master’s daughter and soon taking control of the workshop. Within five years of his arrival, by 1690 he was producing work with his own label. From that date until around 1720, he was by some way the leading maker in the city. His success precipitated an influx of other violin makers to the jewel of the Adriatic; Pietro Guarneri from Cremona, Carlo Tononi from Bologna, Santo Serafin and Francesco Gobetti from Udine, all settled there in the first decades of the eighteenth century, making it the richest and most diverse city of all in the golden age of Italian violin making.
Gofriller’s greatest work was probably in the development of the cello, being one of the first to refine the instrument from its unwieldy large form to a more manageable size for soloistic playing. His cello designs are in fact remarkably original, with a powerful low arching and elegant rounded form. They led directly to the magnificent creations of the ‘mighty Venetian’, Domenico Montagnana, who was another craftsman drawn to Venice from the provincial northern town of his birth, Lendinara, to become Gofriller’s own apprentice and assistant.
In violins, Gofriller learned quickly from his peers in Cremona, making instruments clearly based on both Amati and Stradivari concepts. His very early adoption of Stradivari designs is a remarkable illustration of his refined and perceptive intelligence. No other contemporary luthier beyond Cremona’s walls could see much worth learning from the maverick Stradivari, while many gratefully grasped at the patterns and forms of Stainer, which Gofriller largely ignored, and indeed proved to be less productive and progressive in historical terms.
Gofriller ran against the grain in his production of violas as well. Great Italian violas are rare beasts. Too few of the classical makers expended much effort on the difficult middle- voiced instrument, and those that did concentrated on the large tenor size, now pretty much unusable for the modern repertoire. The Guarneri family and Stradivari were the exceptions, and Gofriller wisely took his cue from them. Although still relatively few in number, Gofriller produced several contralto violas throughout his career, maintaining a consistent form and layout which is most effective. The body length is an ideal 41 cm, and the elegant form not excessively wide, nor too highly arched. The outline is more Stradivari than Amati, with elongated middle bouts, and strongly accentuated corners. The soundholes too show a Stradivari influence in the broad lower wings, although the design is otherwise personal and distinctive, with large finial holes and large, rounded notches. One unique feature of Gofriller’s viola design is the slightly extended stop length. The soundholes, and therefore the bridge, sit low on the front. The centre and upper bouts are relatively long and the lower part of the outline slightly truncated. The long stop provides a proportionally longer sounding length for the string, and contributes towards a vibrant, resonant sound.
Gofriller’s heads are also appealingly distinctive and characteristic. The small volute is freely carved, and thrown back from the long and deep pegbox which provides a practical and elegant housing for the pegs and good access to the strings- a very important consideration for the player. Even more appealing to the musician is the straightforward violin form of the pegbox. The Cremonese persisted with the broad shouldered cello-style of pegbox for their violas, a distinct inconvenience for the left hand in the lowest position on the A string. Gofriller dispensed with it immediately.
All Gofriller’s work shows a pleasing variability. Each instrument is truly unique and expressive, yet seems to me to show a continued fascination with the possibilities of craftsmanship and design. At the root of this rich variety may be a straightforward technique, which wasted no time on the construction of elaborate moulds and repeated templates. No aspect of his construction gives evidence of a Cremonese-like internal mould, but the constantly changing outlines and differing scroll patterns imply a spontaneous and instinctive creativity, willing to experiment with new forms and ideas as they presented themselves. Spontaneity is evident even in his choice of wood. Although Venice enjoyed the richest and most diverse choice of raw materials, Matteo seems to have been happy to mix and match, eager to get on with the job rather than chase flashy cuts of timber. This viola has a relatively plain cut of wood in the back, but the varnish makes the very best of it, and gives it distinction amongst the conforming ranks of matched tiger striped fiddles. Stunningly beautiful wood in the conventional sense does appear in Gofriller instruments, but just as often they will be made of a humble cut of irregularly figured maple, which in different ways produces equally satisfying effects.
What does unite all Gofriller’s work is the splendid red varnish, with it’s spectacularly reflective golden ground. The crackled texture, caused perhaps by an excess of driers in the thick oil medium, is a definitive quality of the work of most of the subsequent Venetian makers. Often referred to as ‘ the Venetian varnish’, in truth it may well have been a recipe Gofriller brought with him from the Tyrol before the turn of the century. There are no signs of it in Venetian work prior to his arrival there, but plentiful examples in the Tyrol. Mathias Albani’s instruments are notoriously easy to mistake for Montagnanas, mainly because of the richly clotted dark red varnish they both exhibit. What both makers may have in common is not a city, but Matteo Gofriller.
Gofriller’s labels are rare and difficult to authenticate. For some reason his instruments were frequently attributed to Bergonzi in the nineteenth century, and much chopping and changing of labels took place behind workshop doors. 1737, the date recorded on this viola label, is a very late one. Gofriller’s production seems to have declined rapidly after 1720, perhaps due to the growing competition in Venice from Montagnana and Serafin, but he lived on until 1742. Alongside Montagnana at the workshop bench, Matteo trained his son Francesco, but his support ended in 1714 when he moved away to Udine to work alone. Francesco’s work is sometimes disappointingly effete, lacking the dynamism of his father- often the case with second generation makers. Matteo’s late work by contrast seem to grow in confidence and strength, and on this viola the broad and vigorously carved edges give it a powerful aspect compared to the slightly more constrained elegance of earlier styles.
Matteo Gofriller’s importance cannot be overstated. Although overshadowed by the glamour of Domenico Montagana, and of course the sheer genius of his close contemporary Antonio Stradivari, the glorious Venetian school of instrument making would not have been the same- indeed, may not have existed at all- without him.