The Neapolitan School



Towards the end of the 16th Century, many luthiers from Füssen* moved to Italy to seek their fortune, settling down particularly in the cities of Naples, Venice, Florence and Rome.
Naples, along with Venice, was one of the musical Capitals of the time and attracted foreign luthiers, who joined the local instrument-makers in satisfying the increasing demand of musical instruments for the Court of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies.
Starting in the begining of the 17th Century, a remarkable number of German Instrument makers were active in Naples, connected to their related Catholic Brotherhoods – among others, Magnus Lang I (Magno Longo I), Matthaus Selloß, Jacob Stadler and Georg Kayser.
Mainly, more than makers of bowed instruments, they were “Gitarren- und Lautenmacher” (Guitar- and lutemakers) and it is therefore very likely that their presence contributed to the popularity and diffusion of the mandolin in the Neapolitan area.
The coexistence between German and Neapolitan luthiers gave life to a prosperous and thriving mutual exchange, which produced a very specific style (concerning bowed instruments) – undoubtedly inspired by the great Cremonese Masters, though with very characteristic stylistic marks.

Certainly inspired by the “Füssen-School” was Alessandro Gagliano (±1660-±1735), the undisputed founder of the Neapolitan School and head of a proper “dynasty”, that would dominate the Neapolitan violin-making scene for more than 150 years. It is not quite clear where he learned the trade, but scrutinizing his quite ingenious style, a long apprenticeship in the workshops of Amati and Stradivari in Cremona, as often stated in several sources, is at least worth questioning. However, the “Classical” approach is more perceivable in the work of his sons Nicola (1695-1780) and Gennaro (1700-1770).

It is certified that the son of Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), Omobono**, stayed for a lapse of time in Naples (as mentioned in A. S.´s testament, not without disapproval towards his son), probably around 1700 and he very likely left stylistic traces among the violin-makers, active in the city.

Among Alessandro Gagliano´s many descendants, his sons are especially outstanding, but also his grandsons are remarkable (all sons of Nicola) : Ferdinando (1724-81), Giuseppe (1725-93), Antonio (1728-±1807), and Giovanni (1740-1806). Other important members of the family were the sons of Giovanni, Raffaele (1790-1857) and Antonio II (1791-1866), who often collaborated.
In the circle of the Gaglianos, another two “Germanic” luthiers are worthy being mentioned:  Bohemian, Mathia Popeller (±1671-?) and Tommaso Eberle (1727-1792), Tyrolean from Vils (near  Füssen) – this last one a pupil of Nicola Gagliano.

The Gagliano-tradition was continued by the families Vinaccia (±1730- ±1880) and Ventapane, whose most representative member was Lorenzo (1790-1845), then to be followed by Vincenzo Jorio (1780-1869) and Alfonso Della Corte (1826-1884).


After the troubled period that followed the Unification of Italy in 1861, the Country was turned upside-down. The situation in Naples was especially precarious and the the circumstances forced thousands of Neapolitans to emigrate the USA and to South America in the hope of improving their living conditions.

Because of the almost total extinction of the Great families (above all, the Gagliano, but also the Ventapane, Vinaccia, Fabricatore and Filano: these last three families being mainly known for their beautiful mandolines and guitars) and the unstable economic conditions, only a few luthiers could manage to keep a workshop running, thus instrument-making in Naples became pretty stagnant. Finally, thanks to a growing interest for music that prospered at the end of the Century (in the wake of Verdi and Puccini), and because of a consequent higher request for bowed instruments, Violinmaking in Naples blossomed again; although it had never totally vanished, like in other Italian areas.

Vincenzo Jorio was the link between the old and the new school and he passed on the baton to his pupils Giuseppe Desiato (1826-1907) and especially Vincenzo Postiglione (1831-1916), who is to be considered the Master of the new generations of violin makers.
Alfredo Contino (1890-1963) and, at least for period of time , Giovanni Pistucci (1864-1955) attended Postiglione´s workshop and the former Ventapane-pupil, Francesco Verzella (1840-1928) taught the trade to Armando Altavilla (1876-1968) and Vincenzo Sannino (1879-1973).
At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, except from those already mentioned, the families Calace and Loveri, as well as Giovanni Tedesco (1861-1947), Giuseppe Tarantino (1878-1962) and Vittorio Bellarosa (1907-1979) were operating in Naples.

Around this circle of more or less important violin makers, there was quite a big number of minor makers, woodcarvers or just people with manual skills, who sold their manufactured scrolls (or even whole instruments) to make ends meet. This sometimes makes it extremely difficult to confer a definitive attribution to many Neapolitan instruments.


In the beginning of the twentieth Century, when the fine old Cremonese and Venetian instruments became more difficult to find, many a foreign Violindealer moved the attention on Naples, where it was still possible to find important instruments; at the time, a minor Gagliano could be purchased for little more than a modern Neapolitan violin.

Fridolin Hamma from Stuttgart was frequently in town searching for old Neapolitan instruments, as well as the important American violinshops at the time, like William Lewis & Sons from Chicago and the Wurlitzer Co. from New York, just to mention a few.

Very soon also Naples became almost drained out, so the increasing demand of 18th Century-instruments, caused many local luthiers – in order to survive – to start making copies of Neapolitan Master-pieces from the past, giving their “just finished” instruments an older and more important attribution.
This resulted in many “Master-copies” (for the most, copies of the Gagliano-family), made by the hands of Pistucci ***, Altavilla, Sannino and Bellarosa among others, often carrying authentic labels.
A big amount of the old original labels had survived from the workshops of the past and had passed on to the new generation of makers, among whom a general complicity existed.
Nowadays in Naples it is pretty rare to see violins from the “golden days”, but there still exist a significant number of the 20th Century “Master-copies”.


What makes the minor Neapolitan Violinmaking around the turn of the Century fascinating, is “L´Arte di arrangiarsi” (“The Art of adapting to all circumstances“) and many Violin makers would make their instruments with whatever kind of material was available, such as the planks taken from an old bed.
Often those kind of Instruments are rough and asymetrical – obviously made hastingly and with very few tools in possession – but of a strong personality, great acoustic qualities and covered with a beautiful, trasparent varnish.

The Varnish of the Old Masters was oil-based, but already since the second half of the 18th Century, the use of the quicker drying Spirit-varnish took over among many makers.
The legend says that the varnish of many violin makers around 1900 was acquired from Donna Teresa, who came from a village near Naples, where the Varnish was prepared by her family. She would come to the market-place in town with a horse-drawn carriage to sell her varnish-products “di tutti i colori” (“of all colours”) to the makers – a sort of a moving Paint-shop of the time.
Sometimes also tar was used for the colouring of the varnish: it leaves a dark-brownish shine and it was easy to find in a habour-city like Naples.

The spruce, used for the belly, often came from the Sila (Appeninian mountains in the Calabrian region). The maple used for the back, ribs and head often came from the many forests surrounding Naples or from the Appenine; it is called by many different names, such as “Abruzzese”, “Neapolitan” or “Field-maple”.
The southern species of both spruce and maple have a darker colour (brown-greyish the maple and pinkish the spruce), compared to the type normally used in Violinmaking, which makes it easier to obtain a nice ground-colour, before the varnishing process.

Other peculiar materials were sometimes used in Neapolitan instrument-making: eg. coloured paper for the dark part of the inlay; some opted for “Carta ´e maccarune” (“Maccaroni-paper”), a thick and rough paper of a dark-bluish colour, used by pasta-sellers to wrap the Spaghetti and Ziti.
The light part of the inlay and the linings generally was of beech-wood and came from the “Cascette ´e pesce” (“Fish-boxes”), used for the transportation of fish or vegtables. They were easily found at the end of a market-day and they were almost ready-to-use, being very close to the linings´ right thickness. Often one can also find instruments with linings made of spruce, maple or whatever kind of wood was available in the workshop.