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Artemio versari Collection

Great Italian Violin Making Tradition (part 2) Interview with Artemio Versari
Youthful in appearance, cordial and affable – in that way so typical of the people of Romagna, Artemio Versari has that friendly and pleasing demeanour that lifts the spririt and puts one at ease, almost like a glass of Sangiovese wine. He is a good talker and resorts to using animated gestures when the passion within him bubbles out into his discourses. Music and good food engage him, but it is when the topic shifts over to instruments that his smile widens and his eyes twinkle. His works begin to flow freely and without interruption, and his narrative becomes a recollection of violins, places and people. He is one of the most noted bowed string instrument collectors in Italy and Europe, and has already published a book that showcases the heart of his vast collection (Liuteria Moderna in Emilia Romagna) and the catalogues of two exhibitions (Tre secoli di liuteria italiana and La famiglia Guarneri e le copie del Novecento italiano) containing his treasured works. Nowadays, his focus is on organizing and putting on exhibitions. In Venice he created a permanent display in the Church of San Maurizio (Venezia - Il Museo della Musica – Strumenti Italiani nei Secoli). However, the idea that sparked this publication is different and goes beyond his previous endeavours; it stems from a desire to leave something behind. “With this second book dedicated to my collection”, he says, “I want to leave a testimony of the fruit of forty years of demanding and tireless research that has led me to travel throughout Italy to visit a great number of musicians, individual owners, and dealers in search of instruments. This, I wanted to widen the panorama to include the main regions in 20th century Italian violin making. It is a homage I want to pay to our violin making and its heritage, and ultimately, to my efforts. This book contains my life as a collector.”

On the subject of ‘life’, where were you born?

I was born, in the years around the Second World War. It was a farming village, where most of the economy was based on agriculture. My father was a blacksmith; I would like to point this out because most of the 20th century Italian violin makers came from artisan families that worked in wood or iron. Usually in those environments, boys were expected to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, out of necessity and family circumstances. My father thought me how to repair things, an activity that did not excite me or give me any satisfaction. As an adolescent, my fascination was with other sorts of people: I can still vividly remember that men that passed though my village on their way to the market in Cesena. They stopped in our village to have their motorcycles repaired or to have something at the osteria. I remember how they dressed well everyday, and not only on Sundays like us. My exposure to music took place in the period of my adolescence. I was sixteen when a good friend, who played the trombone, encouraged me to study music; initially, I was not at all interested. My natural talent did not go unobserved, however, and an aunt  succeeded in convincing my father to send me to Cesena to study the double bass. I only spent a few years in Cesena as my teacher tought I was gifted and encouraged me to enter the G.B. Martini Music Conservatory in Bologna. After only five years, I received my diploma with excellent marks under Maestro Rossi, who came from the Billé school. In the early 1960’s I found myself at the threshold of that unknown world of the Italian music scene. Though it was the beginning of a period of great economic development, for me it was a rather difficult time. After I completed my military service, I had to overcome a personal crisis regarding my relationship with music. In the end, after a series of occasional jobs with various orchestras, I decided to audition for a permanent position in an orchestra. I won some of the auditions. I entered and I had the luxury of choosing from the Teatro alla Scala, the Carlo Felice of Genoa and the Comunale of Bologna, where I won the post of first double bass chair. At the end, I decided to stay “at home” as I had also began teaching at music conservatory. I initially taught in Padua for two years, and then in Bologna for another twenty years, at the same institute where I received my diploma”.

You talk of music as a passion that has faded in some way.

“I liked teaching and playing. The ease with which I was able to learn my part was particularly useful. I remember sight-reading Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat; though the endeavour was daring, my colleagues thought my performance was effective. In a certain sense, however, my relationship with music was comparable to those early loves in youth that are a bit confused; it was a curious mix of pleasure and attraction, but always unpredictable and unstable. On the other hand, with instruments it was love at first sight, one of those passions that takes hold of you and never abandons you for the rest of your life”. What was your first instrument? “I still remember it with fondness: a double bass in the shape of a pear. My father got it for me from a farmer. In truth, it was quite rustic and perhaps even made my one of those farmers who wanted to take part in the merriment of an evening in the osteria or in a festival in the square; in those days, they made instruments at home with the tools that were available. But at conservatory I could not show up with that sort of instrument. I bought a German factory instrument that I used until my diploma. Later, when I started playing in orchestras and teaching, I was able to buy a more respectable instrument in terms of construction and sound. I began with a Marcolongo; then I had a Marcucci with a very large sound; this was followed by a Pedrazzini (purchased from my teacher) that I used when travelling; and a Carcassi that I used only in thre. The ease in which the Carcassi could be played was extraordinary, and it’s sound was magical”. How did you become a competent expert? “Unlike my experience in music, I must confess that in violin making I never had a teacher. My eyes were my guide. I began by carfully studying instruments, by holding them in my hands and studying them in details. I trained my eye and developed a sense of style; by continually observing instruments I began to learn about the peculiarities of the stylistic choices of various makers. Of course mi visits to the leading violin makers active in the 1960s and 1970s were also useful. In general, they did not like revealing all their knowledge, but asking them about the identity of certain instruments and exchanging opinions sometimes proved useful. I met Leandro Bisiach Jr towards the end of his professional career, and I remember how amiable and agreeable he was. He gave me advice and I purchased some of the instruments in my collection from him, including the Carcassi double bass  and I mentioned earlier. In Milan, I met and visited Farrotto and Malagutti; I purchased some instruments in the collection from the latter, and we had some lovely conversations on instruments and makers. For example, he explained why Ornati preferred leaving the graduation thick. Ornati was not interested in producing good sounding instruments immediately (his definition of immediate extended to several decades), but was convinced that wood became thinner and lost its strength over time; this, he aimed for the future. I began visiting Milan because it was one of the most important cities for trading in that period; the business activities developed by Leandro Bisiach Sr. was very much alive thanks to his entourage of children, ex-students and work assistants. Unfortunately I never met Ornati, though I did manage to visit Garimberti on several occasions. He was not at all affable. Obviously I did not only visit the Milanese workshops. The makers from Romagna and Emilia were much closer to me, in terms of distance. I visited Capicchioni in his workshop; he was extremely serious and taciturn and did not enjoy talking about antique instruments, or at least he revealed a little. As you can imagine, I met and visited Poggi, Fracassi, Bignami, the Carletti’s (Natale and Genuzio), Rocchi, Raffaele Vaccari, Parmeggiani, Contavalli, Lucci, Lepri, Cavani and Simonazzi. My passion also took me to other regions. For example, I met Morano in Piedmont, De March in Veneto, and Casini in Tuscany. But I confess to not having travelled beyond Rome, where Lucci had relocated. I have special memories of all the makers I have visited. Regarding Poggi I remember the importance he placed on money and the marked diffidence he displayed towards strangers; he rarely welcomed someone to his home that he did not know well. On the other hand, Fracassi was a good talker. Mario Gadda, who recently died, was a great maker; I remember with admiration his experience and knowledge, in addition to his extraordinary skill in imitating the style of others. I still have many more anecdotes that I can share with you, but I do not want to bore the readers. Returning to your original  question, for the most part I became an expert thanks to my passion and enthusiasm for violin making; my love for this art has not diminished over the years. Nowadays, many musicians and enthusiasts ask me to look at their instruments and seek out my advice, something I do with great pleasure”.

Did you buy instruments from other violin makers?

“While I have bought instruments from makers and musicians, most of them have come from private owners. I began putting a collection together in the 1960s. In that period, there were still a lot of instruments in Italy, and above all, a lot of genuine instruments. In the past, there was not the wild and desperate search for instruments that there is today. I managed to train my eyes to recognize makers’ style without being confused by questionable or evidently false instruments; unfortunately many such fakes exist nowadays. In addition, back then, it was still possible to buy instruments at reasonable prices”. What other criteria and priorities did you consider when creating the collection? “I had priorities, but I respected them with a sound bit of pragmatism. The criteria are substantially linked to typologies, time, periods and places. Most of the collection is made up of bowed string instruments, although there are also some plucked instruments: most mandolins but also guitars. I purchased Italian instruments exclusively, and this is the only point from which I did not deviate. Italian violin making is what I know best and its origins are in my native land. I would like to indicate that while my intention was to represent the national panorama, in reality my choices were focused on central and northern Italy, in addition to a few works by Roman and Neapolitan masters. I gave greater importance to instruments from the 20th century than from other periods. Finally, there was the beauty of the instruments. I mention this last, but it is really what counted the most. If you were to start it all over again, how would you proceed today? “I don’t know exactly. I have only rarely bought instruments from the workshops of living makers. I have already bought used or antique instruments. For this season I seldom visited Cremona in the first three decades of my life as a collector. Cremonese violin making today is a huge presence, almost too massive for the other regional Italian schools. Cremona has produced great makers and has given solid fundamentals to many young makers, but it has also strongly homogenized and standardized the market”. What are your plans for the future? “To purchase more splendid instruments and further enrich a collection that can be defined as one of the biggest private European collections of bowed string instruments. Regarding the future of this collection, I cannot say. Of course instruments are not created to be kept in museum showcases or in private safes, but to make music and to transform the great intuitions of the musical geniuses of the past into vibrations. Perhaps they will return to roaming the streets of the world as they initially did when they left the workshops of their makers”.

From: Artemio Versari, Great Italian Violin Making  84 Masterpieces of Modern Violin Making ed. Novecento. Iinterview by Antonio Moccia to Artemio Versari, Cremona, April 2009.
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