It could be something out of “Mission Impossible.” Only under armed guard, chaperoned by a conservator, and kept in a protected temperature- and humidity-controlled custom-made case can the celebrated 1743 Guarneri del Gesù “Il Cannone” leave its specially made room at the Palazzo Doria-Tursi in Genoa, Italy.
To host such a celebrity must be both a dream come true and a logistical nightmare. Needless to say, this beauty rarely travels.
Yet, the famous violin of the great Italian violinist Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840) is now briefly on display in the exhibition “Paganini in Columbus” at the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, until May 19, 2019.
A Rare US Play Date
“Il Cannone” comes to the Midwest for the first time, and is only the fifth time the violin has traveled to the United States. The first time was in 1982, when Salvatore Accardo played all 24 of Paganini’s caprices on “Il Cannone” at Carnegie Hall in New York.
In 1994, when “Il Cannone” was on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “The Violin Masterpieces of Guarneri del Gesù,” its visit commemorated 250 years since Guarneri’s death. In 1999, Eugene Fodor played “Il Cannone” at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.
The last time the violin came stateside was in 2003, when Regina Carter played the violin at New York’s Lincoln Center.
The Columbus visit is the result of years of arrangements, and a long-term collaboration between the cities of Genoa and Columbus, as part of the Greater Columbus Sister Cities International, a cultural exchange program that began in 1955.
The Italians see “Il Cannone” as a cultural emissary. Part of the agreement to loan their national treasure is to promote Italian culture, in particular, that of Genoa; it’s the city that Paganini was born in and that he bequeathed “Il Cannone” to, for it to be “preserved for eternity.”
On May 15, the Columbus Symphony concertmaster Joanna Frankel will play the iconic violin in a concert dedicated to honoring Italian composers. The concert will be attended by an Italian entourage headed by the mayor of Genoa, Marco Bucci.
Normally a musician would have time to acclimatize not only to their instrument but also to the orchestra. Due to the unique circumstances and security restrictions surrounding “Il Cannone,” Frankel will have only a few hours to rehearse at the Columbus Museum of Art. The violin will be moved from the museum to the theater only on the day of the performance at the Ohio Theatre.
Frankel was humbled to be chosen to play the Italian national treasure: “It will be a welcome challenge to unlock this amazing instrument’s mysteries albeit in a short time span,” she wrote in an email before the performance. “I’m so lucky to have the chance.”
Preservation Versus Being Played
The price “Il Cannone” pays for being priceless is the perpetual balance between its conservation and being played. As a consequence, the violin is rarely heard publicly, but often seen.
Alone, confined to its glass cabinet at the Palazzo Doria-Tursi where it’s on permanent display, it exhibits its maker Guarneri’s exemplary craftsmanship. But this beauty was made to be heard, not merely seen. This is actually a requirement in order to be defined as a musical instrument, rather than a work of art.
Remarkably, at around 275 years old, “Il Cannone” is in good condition, with all its original varnish and main body intact. Paganini never used a chin rest, nor did his contemporaries. He preferred to rest his chin directly on the tailpiece, and it’s here that the varnish has tarnished somewhat.
Michigan-born Bruce Carlson is the conservator tasked to look after “Il Cannone” at the Palazzo Doria-Tursi since 2000. He explains in an interview on the Premio Paganini website that the reason the violin is in such good condition is that it hasn’t been played much since Paganini’s time.
In order to protect it, the violin is purposely played rarely, but with regularity; Mario Trabucco is the main violinist to do so. And then once a year, “Il Cannone” comes out on Oct. 12 to be played as the prize of the prestigious international Premio Paganini competition.
Outside of these, the requirements to play “Il Cannone” are strict, and for good reason. Carlson explains that the instrument should be respected. It is part of the Italian “cultural heritage and cannot be misused in an egotistical or self-serving way,” he said.
Why Is ‘Il Cannone’ So Treasured?
The Guarneri line and those of Amati and Stradivari are considered the greatest violin makers of all time.
Guarneri del Gesù’s instruments are rare; only 135 are known to exist, including one cello. In contrast, 650 Stradivari exist, according to the Christie’s website.
Guarneri del Gesù came from a family of luthiers. His grandfather, Andrea Guarneri (1626–1698), was an apprentice of Nicolò Amati (1596–1684), as was Antonio Stradivari (circa 1644–1737). Both Stradivari and Guarneri learned the luthier tradition in Amati’s workshop in Cremona, Italy, at the same time.
Paganini’s “Il Cannone” was made in 1743 by Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri (1698–1744), who is more commonly known as “Guarneri del Gesù.”
Guarneri labeled each violin he made with a Roman cross and the initials “I.H.S.,” which means “Iesu Hominum Salvator,” a Christian inscription that translates to “Jesus, Savior of mankind.” It was this inscription that gained him the nickname “del Gesù,” “of Jesus.”
Guarneri del Gesù’s violins differ from his father’s due to the full arch in the violin body, the longer waist, and the longer f-holes that taper, producing a strong violin, meaning the sound is loud and rich and almost earthy in its tonal range. That sound is why Paganini called his violin “Il Cannone,” or “The Cannon.”
‘Il Cannone’ in Paganini’s Hands
How Paganini came to own “Il Cannone” is a mystery. The general consensus, although unsubstantiated, is that he was gifted the violin in Livorno by a wealthy French patron.
Paganini’s hands were incredibly flexible and his fingers could extend their reach. He composed for how he could play: His 24 caprices, composed in 1817, are some of the most technically challenging pieces for the violin.
In the hands of a virtuoso violinist such as Paganini, “Il Cannone” is truly elevated to the realms of the sublime, as pure harmony is born from the marriage of fine craftsmanship and fine musicianship. One hopes this virtuosity can be heard again and again.
To find out more, go to ColumbusMuseum.org