Count Ignazio Alessandro Cozio di Salabue, to give him his full title, was the first great connoisseur and collector of violins, among the first to recognise the unique value of the work of the luthiers of his own country, and certainly the first to take the trouble to record the details and lives of these men. His notes and memoirs constitute a fundamental resource for violin historians which continue to reveal new aspects of the work of the great Italian luthiers.
He was born into an aristocratic family with an intellectual character; his father Carlo was a celebrated chess player and the author of a textbook on the subject. He also owned an Amati violin, which is said to have been the origin of Cozio's obsession. Cozio himself was born in Casale Monferrato in 1755, a town of Piedmont, just east of Turin on the banks of the Po river which flows through Cremona. The family seat of Salabue itself lay in the hills a little to the south west. In 1771 Cozio attended the military academy in Turin, and in that city he made the acquaintance of the elderly Giovanni Battista Guadagnini. By 1773 he was diligently compiling notes on the history of the violin, and had entered into a contract with Guadagnini to buy what seems to have been effectively the entire production of his workshop. A third party was brought in to administer this, the man who was to become Cozio's main agent, Giovanni Anselmi. Cozio was still only seventeen.
Guadagnini was crucial in setting up the most important deal in Cozio's career. Already in correspondence with Antonio Stradivari's youngest son Paolo, in 1775 Guadagnini was able to arrange for Cozio to buy from him the entire remaining contents of the Stradivari workshop; not only ten finished violins, but all the tools, templates and relics of the studio.
It is one of the most significant moments in the history of the craft, in that thanks to Cozio, all these artefacts have remained in a single collection, rather than becoming dissipated amongst other makers and dealers. Cozio was exactly the right person to inherit this priceless legacy. He noted all the relics of Stradivari's shop, devoted himself to understanding and interpreting them, and used the information to help other contemporary makers, not least G.B.Guadagnini himself.
Nevertheless by 1777, the relationship between Guadagnini and Cozio seems to have waned, and there was little further interaction between the two up until Guadagnini's death in 1786. But Cozio had already assembled the great majority of his collection by the end of 1776, and had begun to use the Turin showrooms of the silk merchants Boch and Gravier as his selling offices.
Cozio invested heavily in researching the origins of the various makers he admired, and wrote extensively about his findings and interpretations, guided to a considerable degree by the Mantegazza brothers, at that time working in Milan. In Milan, Cozio made use of another agent, namely Antonio Monzino, already established as a dealer in that city. Cozio used this hard-won knowledge to become a very successful dealer in instruments, and many of the finest and most celebrated instruments known today passed through his hands, being carefully noted and recorded by him as they did so. Cozio seems to have been quite aware that the great Cremonese tradition which he so appreciated was in decline, and it was his idea to revive and re-establish it. Sadly few of the younger makers who corresponded with him, including Tomasso Balestrieri, Giacomo Rivolta and G.A.Marchi, had the resources to capitalise on the opportunity.
Nevertheless, Cozio was not the most trustworthy custodian of great violins by today's standards. In his notes he makes clear his criticisms of makers who today are almost sacrosanct, and it is plain that he was not afraid to order comprehensive alterations if he felt they would make the instruments sound better or appear more attractive. He was not a fan of Guarneri del Gesu, and recommended that his instruments be thinned out before use. He did admire Bergonzi, but that did not restrain him from having the 'excessively long' (in his opinion) corners of the violins he owned filed back and shortened.
After another period of intense writing of notes and memoirs in the early nineteenth century, by 1827 he seems to have become disenchanted with the violin trade, and his writing came to an end. After his death in 1840, in his family home at Salabue, his collection was sold to Luigi Tarisio, another charismatic Piedmontese violin collector. Negotiations were carried out through another agent, Giuseppe Carli, acting for Cozio's daughter, the Countess Matilda. The collection of Stradivari tools and templates remained largely intact, and today is housed in the Museo Stradivariano in Cremona, and it remains one of the most important resources for the understanding Stradivari's techniques and methods. The plum of Cozio's violins originally acquired from Paolo Stradivari, which he referred to as his most beautiful Stradivari of 1716 and is now known as the 'Messie', is kept in the Ashmolean Musem, Oxford. Amongst many other great instruments which at one time formed part of his collection are the 1721 'Lady Blunt', the 1723 'Jules Falk', the 1727 Paganini and the wonderful small-size 1736 'Belle Skinner' Antonio Stradivaris; the immaculate 1742 Francesco Stradivari still referred to as the 'Salabue', the 'Tschudi ' and 'Kreisler' Bergonzis, and of course several great Guadagnini violins and cellos from the Turin period 1773-1777.
Cozio's writings have recently been published for the first time in complete form in English translation by Brandon Frazier, as 'Memoirs of a Violin Collector', Gateway Press, Baltimore.