28th March 2017
A violin by Tommaso Balestrieri, Mantua, circa 1765
Sold for £420,000 A new auction world record for an instrument by Tommaso Balestrieri
An excellent violin by the celebrated Mantuan maker, Tommaso Balestrieri, was one of the highlights of our auction on 31st March 2015 at Sotheby’s, London. It was estimated to achieve £200,000 - £300,000 and sold for £420,000 which was a new auction world record for this maker.
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Tomasso Balestrieri is a particularly interesting maker, working on the fulcrum point of Italian violin making, between the great ‘Golden Age’ and the subsequent, what might be termed ‘decadent’, era. From the first works of Andrea Amati in the 1560s to the death of Carlo Bergonzi in 1747, Italian lutherie seemed blessed with a bountiful supply of brilliant and characterful makers, each able to make instruments with a distinctive tonal quality as well as a certain aesthetic sensibility. The latter half of the eighteenth century was marked to some extent by an apparent loss of confidence, in one direction leading to retrenchment and the start of conservatism in making, looking back at old patterns and attempting to copy them, but without the greater insight that generation after generation had developed previously. On the other hand, some makers worked more adventurously, but again, without the firm basis of a continuing tradition, exploring some blind alleys but often developing a very robust style.
Born around 1735, probably in the district of Piacenza, Balestrieri, like his contemporaries G.B.Guadagnini and Lorenzo Storioni, probably had minimal contact with the previous generation of makers. Although usually assumed to be a pupil of Camillus Camilli, the most distinguished maker of Balestrieri’s adopted home town of Mantua, Camilli died less than twenty years after Balestrieri’s birth. At what stage he arrived in Mantua is not known, but once established there Balestrieri announced himself as ‘Cremonese’ on his labels, which would seem an effort to dissociate himself from the Mantuan tradition of Peter Guarneri and Camilli. His early work does certainly show some of the Amatise character of Camilli, perhaps reflecting the instruments that he found around him in Mantua. We know from correspondence with Count Cozio di Salabue that in 1776 he was in possession of two Stradivari violins himself. Cozio also notes an intriguing label stating ‘Thomas Balestrieri cremonensis restauravit Mantuae anno 1768. Joseph Guarnerius fecit Cremone 1744 I.H.S.’. But any of the delicacy and lightness of touch he might have learned from Camilli quickly evaporated in an intense and muscular manner that defines all Balestrieri’s best work. While del Gesu’s treasured late instruments incline toward a sinewy strength, Balestrieri is about robustness, a theme that continues right to his last instruments made around 1795.
This violin of circa 1765 is a definitive mature work. The form is certainly Stradivarian, with broad, strong centre bouts and short, wide corners, but very well regulated with flowing, Amatise curves in the upper and lower bouts. A very common characteristic is a slight straightness across the top block, as if it was planed flat to receive the neck. The edges are very deeply gouged, most noticeably in the corners, where the wide purfling is almost cut through by the energetic gouge work. The purfling itself is split and ragged, and hastily bundled into the corners. It seems to be made of three layers of soft poplar wood, with the outer layers not deeply stained, and the whole having a pulpy nature rather than the smooth elasticity of pear wood.
The archings are quite full, springing quickly from the edges, and with a slight flatness across the centre. Balestrieri’s soundholes, while also strongly Stradivarian, retain the distinctive Mantuan cut to the ends of the wings, which are pointed a little steeply. The scroll is very distinctive, sharing many characteristics of Storioni and other contemporaries. Not assiduously finished, with the last turn extended upwards to the prominent eye and narrow and uneven chamfer, the deeply hollowed front face of the volute is a very consistent and recognisable feature of Balestrieri’s work. The varnish seems harder and less vividly reflective than the greatest Stradivaris, and again, like Storioni and Nicola Bergonzi probably represents a drift away from the traditional recipes of Cremona’s ‘Golden Age’, but is here in a very pure and intact state.
Balestrieri represents a bridge between the great tradition of violin making in Lombardy, and the arrival of the conscientious copyists of the nineteenth century, Rocca and Pressenda. He worked freely in his own style, influenced and aided by the great work that was still around him, but reinventing the techniques as he felt appropriate. The more academic approach of the later makers, and Vuillaume in particular, put the emphasis on imitation and excellence of craftsmanship, at the loss, perhaps, of the great, forceful character of the work of Tomasso Balestrieri.