Whenever great violins are talked about, the name of Luigi Tarisio will arise at some point. Not a luthier himself, but a humble cabinet maker, he was nevertheless hugely influential in the history of the instrument, its appreciation and current high values. He was, according to most sources, the first violin collector. Like many of the things said about him, this is probably not true. Many of his best instruments were obtained from Count Cozio di Salabue, a contrasting character of aristocratic birth, but equally enthralled by the great violins produced by the makers of Northern Italy only a generation or so earlier, who were by the time both Cozio and Tarisio were active, virtually extinct.
Another collector was certainly active much earlier; William Corbett, an English violinist and adventurer, some say a spy for the English Government, who brought violins back with him from his postings in Italy, which he left in his will to Gresham College in London. This collection, including several important Amatis was dispersed shortly after his death in 1748.
The culture of the Cremonese violin was therefore already established when Tarisio was born in the village of Fontaneto, near Novaro in Piedmont, in about 1790.
The most vivid account of his life is given by Franz Farga in the book 'Violins and Violinists', a wonderfully readable anecdotal book published in 1940. Many of the stories are evidently collected from living authorities at the time, whose memories stretched back to an earlier generation. Charles Reade (1814-1884), the Edwardian novelist was certainly a source for Farga, and Reade met Tariso himself on at least one occasion.
According to Farga, Tarisio was born into a poor family, and was apprenticed to a carpenter as a youth. He taught himself to play the violin, which quickly became a consuming passion, and by the time he was twenty he began to travel Italy, fiddling at taverns and hostelries and repairing furniture for board and lodging. In so doing, he realised that there were many good instruments lying unused and unregarded in the provincial villages in which he found himself. He made a habit of taking spare violins with him as he travelled, cheap instruments that were nevertheless in good condition, to exchange for any good broken ones he found. He even took broken parts and fittings if they looked old, and took a particular interest in labels.
Having moved away from Fontaneto, he found an attic apartment in an inn on the Via Legnano near Porta Tenaglia in Milan, a remarkably sparse room which became his home for the rest of his life. In 1827 he made a bold move, packing six good violins from his collection and travelling to Paris, to the shop of Jean-Francois Aldric, whose address he had learned in Milan. The journey took a month, and he arrived at Aldric's establishment on the Rue de bussy, Fauberg St-Germain in a sorry state. He showed the startled proprietor a small Nicolo Amati, a Maggini, a Francesco Rugeri, a Storioni and two Grancinos. Aldric it seems was not impressed by the shabby customer, and succeeded in haggling a cheap price for the instruments, which Tarisio accepted, but soon regretted.
Nevertheless, with the cash he had, he resumed his search of the Italian countryside, and after only two more months, returned to Paris, this time carefully and smartly dressed, and visiting all the leading dealers by coach. He did not repeat his naive mistake of accepting the first offer, and this time saw Vuillaume, Chanot, Gand and Thibout, who engaged in a bidding war for Tarisio's new batch of instruments.
His fund of cash grew dramatically. Previously living a virtual hand-to-mouth existence and relying on barter and trade, he was now in a position to negotiate the purchase of Count Cozio's remaining collection in that same hectic year of 1827. For the next thirty years he visited Paris annually, his reputation growing all the time amongst the competing dealers in the city, and spiced by one particular story amongst many. 'I have a Strad so wonderful that one must adore it on one's knees' he told his clients. Delphin Alard, the violinist and son-in-law of Vullaume joked that his wonderful violin was like the Judaic Messiah, often spoken of but never to arrive. The name stuck. Tarisio though, was too attached to his beautiful 1716 Stradivari to part with it at any price.
By 1851 he was extending his trips to England. Introduced to the eminent collector James Goding by the London violin dealer John Hart, Tarisio successfully identified every instrument in Goding's salon. Goding is said to have whispered to Hart 'that man smells a violin as the devil smells a lost soul', not realising that most of his instruments had come from Tarisio in the first place.
That should not detract from Tarisio's evident skill as a connoisseur. His eye was sharp, and his experience second to none. What is more, violins were evidently a real and genuine passion for him, and meant far more than their cash value. It is repeated time and time again in published accounts that he was generally loath to part with any instrument he particulary appreciated, and in fact was known to buy back instruments he regretted parting with, at a higher price.
On his visit to London he met Charles Reade, who relates the story of the 'Spanish Stradivari Cello' amongst the many jottings and journalistic accounts he published during his life. Georges Chanot had found the cracked and abused belly of a Stradivari cello hanging in the shop of the Madrid violin maker Silverio Ortega, and brought the piece back to his Paris shop. Tariso spotted it immediately, bought it from Chanot, and immediately set off to Spain to recover the rest of the cello. Through Ortega he tracked it down to an elderly widow, and managed to buy it from her. Sailing back through the Bay of Biscay with the treasured Stardivari, Tariso's boat was caught in a storm, and he told Reade that he feared both for his life and the survival of the cello. He survived, however, and gave Chanot the job of piecing the instrument back together. The 'Spanish Bass' of 1713 remains a celebrated example of Stradivari's work, thanks to Tarisio's dedication. It subsequently came to England, and was sold by the Glasgow dealer David Laurie to John Adam in 1877.
Dressed like an aristocrat in Paris but, as Farga has it living 'like a mole in Milan', Tarisio kept his Milan attic heavily locked and chained while he was travelling, and allowed no-one to enter. But in October 1854 he disappeared into the flat for several days, until his landlord reported the situation and civic officials broke in. Tarisio was found dead on a sofa, fully dressed, clutching two violins. It was a sordid sight. He had evidently been dead for some time, and the room was without any other furniture but a bench and a few tools. But it was by no means bare. No-one could take a step without hitting a violin, viola or cello, not to mention a magnificent Gaspar da Salo Double bass. Clerks counted more than a hundred instruments, and found large amounts of cash in notes and gold coins in a mattress.
It took a while to trace his family to an estate in Fontaneto, bought by Tarisio himself ten years earlier, where the money was eagerly shared by Tarisio's two nephews.
It took even longer for the news to reach Paris, but within an hour of hearing it, J.B.Vuillaume had collected as much cash as he could and set off for Fontaneto, arriving in January of 1855. Invited into the insalubrious farmhouse, Vuillaume asked about Tarisio's instruments. Evidently uninterested, the two nephews told him that they were all in Milan. Except, it turned out, for a half-dozen left with them. The six instruments that Vuillaume saw in the farmhouse were two Guadagninis, a del Gesu, one of the finest Carlo Bergonzis in existence, still known as the 'Tarisio' of 1733, a Golden period Stradivari, and the 'Messie'.
Vuillaume offered all he had for the entire collection, what was in the farm and whatever was in Milan, sight unseen. The nephews gladly accepted Vuillaume's 80,000 francs, and he set off to the city. In the squalid flat on the Via Legnano he recovered 144 more instruments, a booty conservatively estimated at 2,000,000 Francs worth at the time.
Needless to say, this was the making of Vuillaume. Already a successful Paris violin maker and dealer, for the remaining twenty years of his life he enjoyed a position at the very top of the burgeoning international violin trade.
Nevertheless, a number of Tarisio's instruments had already found their way to London and beyond. His connections in the English trade, notably with Hart, brought the attention of the American collector Royal de Forest Hawley, who purchased several notable examples including a Maggini, a G.B. Rogeri and a Guadagnini, which still carry the joint names of Tarisio and Hawley.
Other great instruments that passed through Tarisio's hands include six of the very greatest del Gesu violins, the 'Diable', 'Haddock' 'King', 'Sainton', 'Leduc' and the flawless 'Alard'.
The list of Stradivaris encompasses a little known example attributed to 1665, the MacDonald viola, the Royal Academy of Music's 'Maurin', the elegant 'Clapisson' pochette as well as the 'Bass of Spain' and the perfect Francesco Stradivari of 1742, not to mention the unique 'Messie' now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The Gaspar bass found in the crowded Milan attic is still used by the contemporary composer and bassist Barry Guy.
Luigi Tarisio was an oddity, but the very prototype of the unworldly enthusiast, the mad collector. Charles Reade wrote 'the man's whole soul was in fiddles. He was a great dealer, but a greater amateur, for he had gems by him no money would buy.'
He was entirely devoted to the violin; not the rarest of addictions.