What Violin Did Paganini Play

Back to Blog

What Violin did Paganini play?

Housed since 1851 in Genova inside Palazzo Doria Tursi, is one of Guarneri’s most wonderful masterpieces. ‘Il Cannone’ was Niccolò Paganini’s affectionate instrument and today is exhibited in a particular room inside the museum; along with the ‘Cannone’ visitors can see the fittings and some other accessories owned by Paganini. Together with the violin by Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ there is the copy made by Vuillaume in 1834, while Paganini left the violin to Vuillaume for some repairs he took advantage and made a bench copy of it. The violin was owned by Paganini who later gave it to his one and only pupil, Camilo Sivori. in 1894 Camilo Sivori’s heirs donated it to the City of Genoa.

Made in 1743, Il Cannone is definitely among the best instruments built towards the end of ‘del Gesù’s’ life. The illustrious violinist of the 19th century named the instrument “my canon violin” because of its power and resonant sound. For him, Il Cannone was like an extension of his own body, a sort of longa manus, a living being with his behavior. 

It was after Paganini’s brilliant presentations that Guarneri’s violins began being searched by musicians, collectors, and merchants interested in their sound rather than their status.

‘Il Cannone’ played by Paganini’s charming features.

The characteristic solid fiber of first choice Italian spruce wood makes the table of the violin. The head and the back are maples, with a medium flame and a broader and more in-depth flame on the sides. ‘Il Cannone’ has its table and back as two-piece wood. The process of center joint has to be done twice, one with spruce wood and the other with maple.

The wood of the ribs and back are an apparent match, but the head is of a slightly deeper figure, which is characteristic of “del Gesù’s” practice in this period. His earlier pieces usually feature a more contrasting selection of woods. Compared to other Guarneri works, Il Cannone has a larger size and long stop length, the reason for a well-known feeling of discomfort and effort when first playing on it. 

The back markings match the wood of the” Carrodus,” appearing to come from the same log as” Cannone.” The” Carrodus” is a fine companion to” Il Cannone,” with which it shares many distinctive features, like their robust appearance.

The neck, although repositioned, is still the original one with three original nails. This is a rare, if not unique, circumstance, especially for a violin built by a famous luthier. Most instruments of the string quartet family have had their necks substituted to make them suitable to modern requirements. 

The label on the Cannone is set unusually close to the center joint. The date is given is 1742; however, under ultraviolet light, the last digit of the year is revealed as a 3. The lower sweep of the 3 was rubbed away and left what looks, to the naked eye, like a very small 2.

Unique Dimensions

When compared to other works of Guarneri, ”Il Cannone” has a large size and long stop length. The outline of the violin is rounded, recalling the style of Amatis. Its table measures 354mm, which today is considered on the short side, especially when compared to the instruments built by Stradivari. The top bouts slope quickly from the top block and are asymmetrical, being shorter on the treble side.  The instrument gives such a great impression of bulk, due more to the large scroll, the deeper ribs with wider overhanging edges, and the full arching.

A fascinating fact is that Paganini used to move the bridge quite frequently in order to adjust the string length to his needs. If you observe the Cannone, the marks on the wood in the bridge area are deep and wide, and some scratches seem as though the user’s fingernails created them. Many stray knife cuts are apparent on both sides of the purfling in the bouts, but none in the corners. The purfling is quite deep-set, though not overdone. Around the edge, we can still see the marks of the knife used to cut out the purfling through.

The purfling is not inlaid smoothly but follows the knife-cut facets of the edge closely. It fits snugly into its channel with no sign of any filler, although there are several unconcealed gaps where the purflings do not quite meet in the corner miters. The fluting of the edge at the purfling is deeper than ever, a particular trend of these later instruments. The fluting rises very steeply from the purfling, with a concave section, indicating the use of a very curved narrow gouge.

A Characteristic Scroll

Guarneri put all of his graciousness, creativity, discomfort and suffering into the making of the head. He sculpted it in a way that was almost brutal, speaking to his desire to give his last instruments a unique imprint. He parted from tradition, with the large open spirals of the scroll balancing the body beautifully.

The volutes are very large, the second turn particularly so. The spiral closely resembles that of the ”Wilton”, but the eye is in a less central position. The fluting and undercutting are much the same as on the scroll of the ”Carrodus”. The central spine also follows a different outline from the edges and looks instead as if it was left uneven from the saw.

Indeed, every line on the scroll seems to wander in some way. The fluting stops short on the front face of the volute, and the remaining distance to the throat is merely a rasped or probably saw-finished barrel shape.

The Thick, Rich Red-Brown Colour

Its varnish, soft and silk-like, has remained miraculously undisturbed and in its original state. The layers seem to be quite homogenous, highlighting the delicacy of the original coating. On the front and back, the varnish appears textured, dripping with ruby red and pulled up into little clumps, rather than crackled. It may be that Guarneri did not brush out his varnish too thoroughly on these smaller, less accessible areas, and the thicker varnish coat dried unevenly.

It formed a dry skin over the slightly liquid underneath, which quickly pulled apart into the pattern now visible. There is some retouching across the upper bouts of the back, but otherwise, ultra-violet inspection reveals a remarkably pure coating. Paganini took great care of his “II Cannone” violin, the signs of wear are almost non-existent, except for a small crack on the table, at the height of the upper left block.

The wax seal does not appear in early descriptions of the instrument. It was during the execution of Paganini’s will that a Genoese notary fixed the wax seal on the back of the violin. A few years later, it was removed and reattached to the scroll. A scar was left in the varnish of the back, which can still be seen.

A powerful Masterpiece

From the late 1970s up to the first years of this century, it then went through quite an intense period of use and some of the world’s best players had the privilege to play on it. Such a wonderful violin, no wonder Paganini liked it so much. Nowadays, the instrument is very well preserved. It serves as study and inspiration for so many makers who are fascinated by Guarneri’s genius work.

Check out a copy of Il Cannone we have for sale from a master maker of Amorim Fine Violins, Luiz Amorim.

A Violin by Luiz Amorim