FLORENCE, Italy—If you are lucky, you may hear this workshop before you see it. Dulcet sounds have been known to waft from within this tiny workshop’s walls, in a way that literally stops traffic. Follow the melody and you’ll find Chicago-born Jamie Marie Lazzara, a master violin maker and restorer of fine stringed instruments, perfecting one of her handcrafted violins. If you’re really lucky, the sound may be emanating from the violin of one of her clients, among whom are the world’s renowned violinists Itzhak Perlman, Micha Molthoff, and Sarn Oliver.
Such famous clientele recognize Lazzara’s high-quality traditional instruments, as does Florence. In the entrance to her workshop hangs a parchment from the Society of St. John the Baptist, an honor from the Medici family that Lazzara states is one of the highest honors an artisan can get in Florence. The paper recognizes her 40-year-old workshop as a historic shop where everything is done entirely by hand, in the spirit of art conservation, using antique procedures of the great master violin makers of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. It further acknowledges Lazzara’s work of meeting the needs of soloists today.
Florence is a long way from Lazzara’s American roots, but the violin has always been close to her heart; she started to play at 8 years old. Yet, at 15, she knew that being a soloist was just not for her. She knew she wasn’t motivated enough to study six months for a five-minute recital. With strong natural talents for the arts, such as sculpting, painting, drawing, and playing music, she realized that if she were to make violins, she could also play them. That’s when she began to become a violin maker.
Researching her new career in the United States, she soon realized she needed to study in Italy. In 1980, having no knowledge of Italian, she embarked on a course in fine art restoration at the International University of Art in Florence (U.I.A.). It was a pioneering time in art conservation, when her professors were restoring masterpieces such as Giotto’s frescoes and Botticelli’s paintings, which were damaged in Florence’s great flood of 1966.
From there, Lazzara went on to the prestigious School of Violin Making in Cremona, where 3,000 applicants applied for just 100 places. In 1985, she was one of only eight who graduated, becoming graduate number 226 in the school’s 70-year history.
Open, humble, and sincere, Lazzara diligently goes about her life work, and here she tells us how.
The Epoch Times: Please tell us about violin making in Italy.
Jamie Lazzara: I have to tell you that in Cremona, when I was studying, only two of us played violin in a town where there were some 3,000 violin makers. And so, they were making beautiful instruments that looked formally beautiful, but they didn’t play them. So, I think that the majority of people are just copying from their teachers, but not many people are really trying to make the violins playable.
In Cremona, I was able to learn how to make violins and also most of my tools, to be self-sufficient. As a matter of fact, I make everything except the strings. Well, I can make the E-string because that’s a type of tempered steel. So, I can get the wire, calculate the calibrations, and I could actually use it as an E-string if I needed to. You have to think, back in the 1500s and 1600s, they didn’t have music stores like today. There were violins makers, but it’s not like you could go out and get your little pack of strings.
When music started, it was played in a room at court, or it could’ve been performed in a pub. The first time we saw a fresco with a violin was by Gaudenzio Ferrari in the 1530s. By Niccolò Paganini’s (1782–1840) time, musicians had to play to bigger and bigger audiences, and they didn’t have amplification back then even though the theaters were very well designed. Even here in Florence, we have Theater Verdi (established in 1854), which still has all its original wood, maybe like Carnegie Hall used to be. When Carnegie Hall was renovated using cement, it changed the acoustics of the hall.
My aim is to make an instrument through which artists can express their music with extreme power, and with relatively little effort. So, the musician has to figure out his side, and I have to try to make an instrument that doesn’t need him to work hard for a sound. I look at things like adapting the shape of the neck to promote ease in playing. So, I’m shooting for a very strong-sounding violin that you don’t have to put much effort into playing.
The Epoch Times: Who do you make violins for?
Mrs. Lazzara: I meet with very few people, but usually they’re very fine players, people who are in their craft paving the way for the future.
Itzhak Perlman ordered a violin after he’d played on a copy I’d made of Paganini’s 1743 “Cannon” violin. That’s a very strong violin, and in my copy I was hoping for more strength, and he loved it.
He asked me to make a copy of his 1714 Stradivari “Soil.” I’m the only one who’s ever made a violin for him. He came to my workshop, and for a couple of days I got to study his Stradivari. It was Yehudi Menuhin’s violin for 35 years, so it’s in such good shape and plays so well. It’s beautiful. And it belonged to famous people, who knew what to do with it.
Perlman uses my violin a lot when he plays out of doors, and when he doesn’t want to take out his Stradivari.
The Epoch Times: Please tell us about your commission to make a gift for the U.S. first family a few years ago.
Mrs. Lazzara: I was given full artistic license, and I put a lot of thought into the project. I wanted to tie in Tuscany’s contribution to the founding fathers of the United States. Not many people in America know that about five miles out of Florence there was a man called Philip Mazzei. We know a lot about him from his autobiography. He was a physician and a man of many talents.
He was part of that small group of people who were thinking about how to write the Declaration of Independence. So there are letters where Mazzei writes to Jefferson. President John F. Kennedy found the original documents and included them in his book “A Nation of Immigrants,” which was published after his death. In America in 1980, they actually made a postage stamp of Mazzei, along with the words “Patriot Remembered.”
On the sides of the violin I made, I wrote in gold leaf from the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal.” So when it’s played, the audience can see that inscription. On the other side, I wrote two lines of script: The first line is Mazzei’s quote, the way he wrote it in Italian along with his signature, and then further down is written, “All men are by nature equally free and independent.”
The Epoch Times: How long does it take to make a violin?
Mrs. Lazzara: Three months to get to the white violin (without any varnish), and then it takes me four months to varnish, and that I do at home because I use oil varnishes which are very slow to dry. Quick-drying varnish is common now, as people can’t stand four months of varnishing. For me, once I’m varnishing, I’m already starting to make a new violin anyway, so I just keep up that rhythm.
I only make four violins a year. It’s really complicated to understand the woods that you are working on and to hear the sounds that the wood can make; that’s why it takes me such a long time.
The Epoch Times: How do you select your violin wood?
Mrs. Lazzara: I find using wood split in the direction of the fiber is best, as it’s got a natural structure and strength. There are people who actually get the trunks and saw them. The place I like the best is called the Val di Fiemme near Bolzano. It’s a valley which is protected, so the wood doesn’t bend from the wind and get distorted. So that wood is very harmonic. They even did some tests on Stradivari’s violins, and he got wood from that area too. So, it’s not that I discovered it.
The Epoch Times: Can you tell us about some of the processes involved in making a violin?
Mrs. Lazzara: Have you ever seen people who make shoes by hand? I use a traditional type of wooden form that’s like they use to make shoes, and you make the wooden foot and you build the shoe around the foot. Not many violin makers use this inside form, because this Italian technique takes longer as I’m also making the actual wooden form. I’m concerned about the internal part of the harmonic box and about the calculation of these proportions.
The violin gets constructed around the wooden form like a skeleton. Nothing is predetermined, as I cut the shapes out really wide and work it down, and have my reference points and glue it on, and then I finish the edges.
For the thin inlay called the purfling that runs around the edge of the entire violin, where other people would be using a router or something to do that, I have to make a really precise channel using knives and tiny chisels, and then I inlay within those channels with three strips of wood: black, white, and black. Some people even paint them on. The reason they’re inlaid is because when a violin gets whacked or dropped, the crack will stop here. So it’s an important feature.
I use natural resins for my varnish: materials like dragon’s blood from a palm, shellac secreted from an insect, and elemi from a bush. Each one is different, because different tree saps have different characteristics. First of all, you need to understand what kind of solvent can be used to dilute the resin. Some are a little bit elastic; some will chip away. So the key to making varnish is to know the characteristics of the resins. For example, amber is very strong. It’s not brittle, but it’s a fossilized resin, and to bind that to oil is sometimes a dangerous process that should be done by professionals.
The trick is to start with the recipe and then try that varnish, and see how it reacts, how it weathers, and when you’re using it, if it’s strong enough. Since I do everything myself, I do that. I keep notes, make changes, and see the violins I’ve made after 35 years. This is my life. For me it’s really important.
The Epoch Times: Why is it important to keep traditional craftsmanship alive?
Mrs. Lazzara: A hands-on approach is like the difference between eating in your house and picking your foods from the ingredients that you know, versus buying packaged food you don’t know. I know everything that’s in a violin I make because I’ve practically selected all the materials. I’ve gone through the whole process myself, making any necessary changes according to what I’m working with, so there’s a big difference if somebody takes the time to do that.
I’m not like any other violin maker; I don’t sell instruments that are not mine. Nobody can figure that out. They go, “What?” People can’t comprehend that because most violin makers are now violin dealers.
I have colleagues that have big electronic equipment to check the violin to see if it vibrates like a Stradivari. I mean, all I have to do is [hold it up to my ear]; you can hear it. Stradivari, he didn’t have electronic instruments. So, with a little bit of sensibility in your hands, you get to know the piece of wood that you are using and make it react the way you want it to react. People believe in this technology today, but they don’t understand that those original $20 million instruments were made without that.
I take the time to do this. I’m not fooling anyone in the sense that I’m not telling them that I’m the new Stradivari or something. It’s just I’ve got an aim; I’m aiming toward that kind of result.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.