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Reference Library Articles

Gennaro Gagliano

Gennaro Gagliano seems to be an unjustly overlooked member of a particularly large violin making family. The names of Nicolo and perhaps Alessandro are generally held in the highest esteem, but I have a particular fondness for Gennaro-s versatility and craftsmanship.

Dates for the Neapolitan makers are very hard to pin down. The Naples archives have been pretty resistant to exploration as far as I understand, and all I know comes from other speculative sources, and observed dates on labels. Gennaro was the son of Alessandro, and the brother of Nicolo, and was at his peak in the middle of the eighteenth century, from about 1740 to 1780, the same period in which his brother Nicolo worked with perhaps a little more energy.

Gennaro (or Januarius in the latin form found on his labels) was more flexible in has approach than most of his family. He made fairly close copies of Stradivari and Amati violins, which sometimes evade all the recognisable traits of other Neapolitan work. His varnish varies too, from luscious warm red and orange, to a slightly more flinty yellow. His heads are usually appropriate to the chosen model and very nicely carved, rather than the oddly distorted plastic shapes that the rest of the Neapolitans seemed to prefer.

His father Alessandro was even more idiosyncratic, and stands well apart from the mainstream Gagliano style. His work seems to show a particular mixture of Tyrolean and Italian characteristics, indicating the influence of one of the many Fussen-trained makers at work throughout Italy and the rest of Europe in the early eighteenth century. But his sons Nicolo and Gennaro quickly moved onto a more directly Cremonese form, albeit with strong local inflections.

Gaglianos are usually recognised by the use of beech wood in the construction of the interior and the purfling, a material which was in fact by far the most common choice outside of Cremona. In model and outline, the preference was for a broad, Amatise or Stradivarian form with full arching, largely lacking the recurved edge fluting of seventeenth century styles. A very sensible mannerism the Gaglianos adopted was to place the pegs in pairs in the pegbox, so that they can be more easily manipulated on either side. The G peg is placed as far away as possible from the D, and likewise the A from the E. This results sometimes in a rather long, awkwardly curved pegbox, and a slightly squashed, oval volute.

Gennaro-s work can be distinguished by his more frequent use of maple for the purfling, and the working of the upper wing of the treble soundhole. This is almost invariably carved downward slightly, to compensate for the anticipated soundpost distortion in that area. The only other member of the family who seems to have done this regularly is his nephew Ferdinand. It is intriguing that despite being the sons of Nicolo, both Ferdinand and is younger brother Giovanni acknowledge Gennaro as their teacher.

As well as a dizzying variety of violin forms and models, Gennaro made gorgeous cellos of good size and subtle Stradivarian modelling. The only idiosyncracy with these is his habit of making scrolls with an open pegbox, with the mortice cut cleanly through the back.

The Gagliano family contributed an enormous number of fine instruments- some of the later work is a little mediocre it has to be admitted, but in their prime in the second half of the eighteenth century, they showed themselves to be very intelligent and versatile craftsmen, open to developments outside their native city, and yet possessed of a technique and style that is unique. Of them all, Gennaro perhaps best exemplifies all these qualities, and it is to be hoped that future research will reveal a little more of his life and circumstances.