A Homely Old Fiddle
by Otis Tomas


One of the more interesting fiddles I have come across in the last while bears the label:

Petrus Paulus De Vitor

Venetus fecit Brixiae 1738

This places its origin in the northern Italian town of Brescia, the birthplace of the violin as we now know it. This was the classical golden age of violin making. In nearby Cremona, Antonio Stradivari had just passed away and Guarnari "Del Gesu" was still at the height of his powers. This violin, however, shares little of the superb craftsmanship and artistic perfection of some of its more famous contemporaries.

In outline, it displays not the subtle complexity of curves of the Cremonese instruments, but rather resembles more the swollen form of an old wooden shoe. The thin top is a single piece of pine of coarse wide grain on the treble side , spreading even wider on the bass side to no more than three lines per inch. The back is of plain slab maple, figured only by a large knot in the lower bout which has cracked and split out to the bottom edge. Over the years this defect, under the pressure of the soundpost, has settled into a very pronounced "hunch" in the back and a corresponding sinking of the top on one side giving the bridge a decided list to the treble side. The varnish is a rough brown, revealing a surface severely scored by scraper marks. The neck is not original and features a regularly flamed maple not in keeping with the haphazard style of the rest of the instrument. And yet, despite all the "faults" in design, materials, and workmanship, it does play, after some 250 years, with a quite pleasant and open sound.

This homely creature was not made with long painstaking labor for one of the crowned heads of Europe, but gives the impression rather of a maker working roughly and quickly with whatever affordable materials were at hand, not concerned so much with masterpieces as with paying the bills; a maker supplying the townspeople and country folk with simple and affordable instruments, hands guided by long experience of what works, what is necessary and what can be done without. Or perhaps this is the work of a struggling beginner. Since this is the first year from which we have evidence of this maker's career, we may have here an early and crude attempt at the noble art which at that time was achieving its greatest accomplishments.

For over 250 years this fiddle has been gathering secrets, passing through generations of owners. It may never have seen the inside of a great concert hall, the goal of many of its more refined cousins. Instead, I imagine scenes of the market-place, the country dance, and the fireside after a day of hard work. it has been through wars and revolutions, famine and feast, the rise and fall of nations. Despite its crude appearance, humble beginnings and obvious scars and deformities, its gentle voice alone has caused it to be protected and cared for, its song bearing witness now for two and a half centuries.

by Otis Tomas

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last upddate 8/6/98