Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù ranks today as one of the two greatest violin makers of all time, although the marked difference between the appearance and sound of his instruments and those of Stradivari makes comparison almost impossible. Some simply prefer Stradivari, and some (notably Paganini) prefer del Gesù.
Giuseppe trained with his father, Giuseppe Guarneri filius Andreæ, and assisted him from about 1714 until 1722. In that year he left his father’s house to get married, and seems to have forsaken violin making for a few years. The earliest known instruments that are entirely his own work date from the late 1720s, but it was not until 1731 that he began to insert the label with the monogram IHS (‘Iesus Hominem Salvator’: ‘Jesus Saviour of Man’), which gave rise to his nickname ‘del Gesù’. He seems to have been strongly influenced by the Brescian school, and his work combines the best of the Cremonese tradition with the stretched C-bouts and exaggerated f-holes of Maggini and da Salò. Tonally, his instruments retain much of the sweetness of a Stradivari, but have a seemingly unlimited depth and darkness of sound, irrespective of the pressure of the bow.
He reached his pinnacle as a craftsman in the mid-1730s, and produced some ravishingly beautiful instruments, such as the ‘King Joseph’ of 1737 (see Peter Biddulph; Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù, Vol. I, pp. 64-69). The wood of the back of the ‘King Joseph’ is very similar to that of the 1736 ‘Pollitzer’ and may even come from the same tree. However, it is the later instruments that have come to represent all that is characteristic of del Gesù — the unbridled creativity, the astonishing disregard for the details of workmanship, and the sheer daring of design and construction that are the natural conclusion of the deeply ingrained individuality of the Guarneri family.
The rapid spread of del Gesù’s fame in the mid-19th century was largely due to the patronage of Paganini, who played the ‘Cannon’ of 1743 for most of his career. The ‘Baron Heath’ of the same year and shows not only the quality of del Gesù’s varnish, but also the abandon with which he approached the cutting of scrolls in his later years.