Until a few years ago, Tommaso Balestrieri was thought to have been born around 1735. This was based primarily on his emergence as a violin maker in the mid-1750s, when he was assumed to have been in his late teens. However, recent research by Philip J. Kass has now placed his birth in the village of Viustino, south of Piacenza, on November 16, 1713, a mere two years after G.B. Guadagnini was born in the same region. This new research raised an interesting question – what was Balestrieri doing for 25 years from approximately 1730 to 1755, and how did this period affect his subsequent career as a violin maker?
Around 1730, at the age of about 17, Balestrieri left his family and moved to Mantua, where he worked as a valet to the Count Alberiggi di Quaranta, in all probability following in his father’s footsteps. For the next 24 years he worked as a servant for various noble families in Mantua, so what was it that prompted him to undergo such a sudden change of career in the mid-1750s?
In 1741 Balestrieri was in the employment of Count Giuseppe Malatesta Palazzi, who had inherited the instrument collection of Count Vincenzo Carbinelli. Carbinelli was a Mantuan nobleman whose extraordinary collection of fine Italian instruments included ten Stradivari violins, five Amatis and a Pietro Guarneri. The highlight of his collection was the decorated ‘Rode’ Stradivari of 1722. This contact with Cremonese violins may have been enough to inspire Balestrieri to embark on his new career as a violin maker, and by 1755 he had given up his life as a valet and moved into the via Cicogna, the same street where Pietro Guarneri had lived and where Camillo Camilli’s workshop was situated. It seems likely that Balestrieri had some contact with Camilli, although the latter had died in 1754.
Back of the Ex-Albert Caressa violin by Balestrieri, 1788