Over 450 years ago Andrea Amati invented the modern violin in the Italian city of Cremona. For centuries, this has been the global hub of luthiers. Known as luthiers, these craftsmen are now contributing to the recovery of Cremona, which was decimated last year by the COVID-19 epidemic in Italy.
As the pandemic calmed Italy last year, sweet melodies continued to float through Cremona. Its luthiers were sequestered but not subdued. The violins have created a melancholy soundscape for a hushed town. During strict closures, these instruments were produced and played in luthiers’ studios, their sounds escaping through the deserted streets and squares of this ancient city.
Cremona is 2,200 years old. He has survived invasions, insurgencies and infections even more deadly than COVID. It is a city once ruled, occupied or plundered by the Romans, Lombards, Goths, Huns, Spaniards and Austrians. More recently, it has been the domain of luthiers. More than 150 luthiers reside in this small town of about 70,000 inhabitants, about 70 kilometers south-east of Milan, in the region of Lombardy, northern Italy.
When COVID put pressure on Europe last year, Lombardy that’s where it exploded. One of the first deaths from coronavirus on the continent happened in Cremona, which quickly became among the most affected cities on the planet. Millions of people around the world have seen disturbing images of Cremona’s inundated hospitals, distraught medical staff and overflowing morgues.
Now, however, Cremona is bouncing back alongside its famous music export. Italy could soon reinstate travel restrictions for Americans, but, for now, the country has reopened to vaccinated tourists from many countries. They come to admire the graceful churches of Cremona, gorge on its Gran Bollito Cremonese meat platters and climb tallest clock tower in the country, the 367-foot Torrazzo from Cremona.
During this time, the violin community of Cremona is re-establishing itself, thanks to the September 24 return of the city’s music fair, and the upcoming launch in October of a large academy dedicated to stringed instruments. Composed of world-renowned musicians, the Stauffer center for strings will train talented violinists, violas, cellos and double bassists. Some of these gifted students may even wield instruments made in Cremona during its long period of pandemic containment.
The legacy of Stradivarius
One of these persistent artisans was Fernando Lima. At the height of the Cremona epidemic, the 59-year-old luthier from Portugal couldn’t leave his home, kiss relatives or savor the sustained sun. But he could cut shards of maple wood from the body of a violin until it was perfectly presented and executed with precision.
When I visited his workshop before the pandemic, he told me that meticulously crafting a violin put him in an almost meditative state. Most recently, he described how this therapeutic aspect of his profession guided him through the darker days of the pandemic.
(Find out how Italian luthiers perfected violin making in the 16th and 17th centuries.)
“It was a scary moment, the ambulance is ringing all day,” says Lima. “I could hear them inside my shop. I would come to work every day and stay in the store all day, just come home to sleep. But I took this opportunity to research my art, to try things that I couldn’t at other times, and it paid off.
Lima has lived in Cremona for 16 years and was trained at the city’s Antonio Stradivari violin making school. It was Stradivarius which helped Cremona gain its string fame. If Amati is the father of the violin, Stradivari is its master. No luthier has ever refined the tone of this instrument like Stradivari, who was born in Cremona in 1644, died there 93 years later and, in the meantime, has created over a thousand exquisite violins, some of which are are sold for up to $ 16 million.
A new school of music
Fortunately, visitors to Cremona don’t have to be wealthy to see or listen to any of Stradivari’s masterpieces. Facing the tree-lined Piazza Marconi, the impressive Violin museum displays instruments made by Stradivari and has an auditorium where soloists regularly play his violins.
The museum presents the collections of the municipality of Cremona and the Walter Stauffer Foundation. It is this latter organization that is helping the recovery of Cremona by opening the Stauffer Center for Strings on October 1. Center director Paolo Petrocelli said all of its programs will be provided to students free of charge, via full scholarships, as part of its goal of safeguarding the future of Cremona’s musical heritage.
(Here’s how to explore some of the most musical cities in the world.)
Despite the way Cremona has been ravaged by the pandemic, he says the foundation never considered building the center elsewhere. “This is where we belong,” says Petrocelli. It referred to both the city and the house in the center, the majestic Palazzo Stradiotti, a restored 17th-century mansion.
As the Stauffer Center prepares to launch, some of Cremona’s established violin making schools are fortunate to be still in operation. When I visited the city before the pandemic, Cremonensis Academy was overflowing with passionate violin-making students from all over Europe, Asia and the Americas. Its co-founder, Massimo Lucchi, gave me a tour of his large campus as he enthusiastically explained their expansion plans to me. This month Lucchi told me his school only barely survived the pandemic.
The school’s income had fallen due to the inability of many students to travel to Cremona. But it had remained open for most of the pandemic so its foreign students weren’t stranded, alone in their apartments. “It was nice to see our students from all over the world helping each other and creating a small community in a deserted and ghostly Cremona,” says Lucchi.
Other members of the city’s violin scene weren’t so lucky. Lucchi said he had received distressing phone calls from unemployed violinists asking him to sell their precious instruments so that they could support their families. Such stories of desperation had weighed on Lucchi’s soul as he spent countless days building violins as the pandemic spun like a hurricane outside his door.
With the increase in vaccinations against COVID-19 in Italy, the morale of Cremones is also improving. Locals were delighted to see tourists roaming the city streets again, Lucchi says.
(See the musical instruments made in these workshops around the world.)
In September, the annual Cremona Musica the fair will be back. Organized from September 24 to 26 at the Cremona exhibition center, this event allows luthiers to present their instruments to buyers and musicians from all over the world. Last year it had to be conducted online and few sales were made, Lucchi says.
This year, Lucchi says the city’s violin community is excited but anxious about this event. “We are all waiting to see if the world still needs Cremona and its violins.”
Ronan O’Connell is an Australian freelance journalist and photographer based between Ireland and Thailand.