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Bartolomeo Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri, del Gesù (21 August 1698 – 17 October 1744) was an Italian luthier from the Guarneri house of Cremona. He rivals Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737) with regard to the respect and reverence accorded his instruments, and he has been called the finest violin maker of the Amati line. Instruments made by Guarneri are often referred to as Josephs or del Gesùs.
Giuseppe is known as del Gesù (literally 'of Jesus') because his labels incorporated the nomina sacra, I.H.S. (iota-eta-sigma) and a Roman Cross. His instruments diverged significantly from family tradition, becoming uniquely his own style. They are considered second in quality only to those of Stradivari but are also claimed by some to be superior. Guarneri's violins often have a darker, more robust, more sonorous tone than Stradivari's. Fewer than 200 of Guarneri's instruments survive. They are all violins, although one cello bearing his father's label, dated 1730, seems to have been completed by Del Gesù.
The most illustrious member of the House of Guarneri, Bartolomeo was the son of Giuseppe Giovanni Battista, thus the grandson of Andrea Guarneri, both noted violin makers themselves. Andrea learned his trade as an apprentice of Nicolò Amati, to whom Stradivari was also apprenticed. Undoubtedly Del Gesù learned the craft of violinmaking in his father's shop.
Del Gesù's unique style has been widely copied by luthiers since the 19th century. Guarneri's career is a great contrast to that of Stradivari, who was stylistically consistent, very careful about craftsmanship and finish, and evolved the design of his instruments in a deliberate way over seven decades. Guarneri's career was short, from the late 1720s until his death in 1744. Initially he was thought to be a man of restless creativity, judging by his constant experimentation with f-holes, arching, thicknesses of the top and back and other design details. However, what has become clear is that, like other members of his family, he was so commercially overshadowed by his illustrious and business-savvy neighbor, Antonio Stradivari, that he was unable to command prices commensurate with his rival, needed to make more instruments and work hastily. Indeed, two of the five violin makers of the Guarneri family, the two Pietros—of different generations, left Cremona, the first for Mantua, the second for Venice, apparently because business prospects in Cremona were so stunted by the presence of Stradivari. From the 1720s until about 1737, Joseph's work is quick and accurate, although he was not obsessed with quality of finish per se. However, from the late 1730s until his death, his work shows increasing haste and lack of patience with the time needed to achieve a high quality finish. Some of his late violins circa 1742-1744 are actually quite amazing to look at. The scrolls can be crudely carved, the purfling hastily inserted, the f-holes unsymmetrical and jagged.
Nonetheless, many of these late violins, in spite of the seeming haste and carelessness of their construction, possess a glorious tone and have been much coveted by soloists. His output falls off rather dramatically in the late 1730s, and the eccentricity of the works following that period gave rise to the romantic notion that he had been imprisoned for killing a rival violin maker (actually it was one of the Lavazza brothers in Milan to whom this occurred), and even the unlikely fiction that he made violins in prison. Such stories were invented during the nineteenth century and were repeated by the Hills in their 1931 work; while the Hills did not take them at face-value, it did feed into their idea that Joseph Guarneri del Gesù must have been temperamental and mercurial, rather than simply overworked and commercially unsuccessful. More recent data shows that business was so bad during the later period of his life that he had to relegate violin-making to the sideline and earn his living as an innkeeper (refuting the "prison" myth).
It has also become known that some of the violins emanating from his shop and bearing his label were actually the work of his German wife, Caterina Roda, who apparently returned to Germany after her husband's death in 1744. The couple had no children in over 20 years of marriage, exceedingly rare for violin makers of the period, and one must wonder about the reason. Moreover, while every other member of the family, the Stradivari family, Nicolo Amati, and a peculiarly large number of makers, lived long lives—Stradivari living and working to age 93, Joseph died at only 46. There is thus the possibility that the odd qualities of finish in his later instruments—ironically, those most highly prized and expensive—were due not only to stress and haste but also to encroaching illness. It is also worth noting that a common wisdom is that the tone of both Stradivari and Joseph Guarneri did not come into their own until late in the 18th century, that the high-built instruments of Amati and Stainer were the only ones prized during the 18th century. While it is true that players, then as now, preferred old instruments, Stradivari made one of the handsomest livings of all violin makers during his lifetime. It is also customary to conflate Stradivari and Guarneri in this regard, but even the Hills hinted that such was not the case in their styles, the Guarneri always bearing traces of Amati, and even Stainer, the latter Stradivari "would have none of." (p. 33). Moreover, Joseph's instruments were recognized by a world-class soloist three decades before Stradivari's were likewise championed. By the 1750s, Gaetano Pugnani is known to have acquired and preferred a Joseph Guarneri del Gesù violin, but it is not until the 1780s that his pupil, G.B. Viotti became an advocate of Stradivari instruments. Of course, Pugnani's advocacy is usually forgotten when Paganini became the most noted del Gesù player three generations later.
Accomplished violinists such as Joseph Joachim, Henri Vieuxtemps, Eugène Ysaÿe, Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern, Leonid Kogan, Henryk Szeryng, Charles Fleischman, Itzhak Perlman, Uto Ughi, Salvatore Accardo, Anne Akiko Meyers, Gidon Kremer, Gordan Nikolitch, Pinchas Zukerman, Eugene Fodor, Michael Rabin, Bartek Niziol, Domenico Nordio, Marie Soldat, Maud Powell, Rachel Barton Pine, Richard Tognetti, Midori, Nigel Kennedy, Elmar Oliveira, Kyung-wha Chung, Henning Kraggerud, Bill Barbini, Ruth Palmer, Sarah Chang, Leila Josefowicz and Charlie Siem have used Guarneri del Gesù violins at one point in their career or even exclusively. Virtuoso Niccolò Paganini's favorite violin, Il Cannone Guarnerius of 1743, and the Lord Wilton of 1742, once owned by Yehudi Menuhin, are del Gesù instruments. In addition, the Vieuxtemps Guarneri—once owned by Henri Vieuxtemps—has been offered for sale at a price of $18 million, which would make it the most expensive instrument in the world. Jascha Heifetz owned a c1742 Del Gesù from the 1920s until his death in 1987. It was his favorite instrument, even though he owned several Stradivaris.
A treasury of instruments
- Chang 1717 Guarnerius, used by Sarah Chang. (This instrument is often questioned. But it has been verified that this is indeed a Guarneri Del Gesù. Albeit made with a lot of help from Andrea Guarnerius 1727, used by Glenn Dicterow
- Folinari c. 1725 Guarnerius, in private use
George Enescu's 1731 “The Cathedral” Guarneri violin.In 2008, after a competition organized by the Romanian Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs and the Romanian National Museum “George Enescu”, the violin has been entrusted to violinist Gabriel Croitoru, today the instrument being again played in concerts.
- Marteau 1731 Guarnerius, owned by Henri Marteau, then Gerard Poulet and used by Maxim Vengerov
- ex-Huberman 1731 Guarnerius, used by Midori Goto, on lifetime loan from the Hayashibara Foundation
- ex-Soldat 1742, used by Rachel Barton Pine
- Ferni 1732 Guarnerius, for sale at Peter Prier Violins in Salt Lake City, Utah
- Kreisler 1733 Guarnerius, given to Library of Congress in 1952
- 1733 Guarnerius for sale at Peter Prier Violins in Salt Lake City, Utah
- Prince Doria 1734 Guarnerius, acquired by the Doria Family from Jacquot of Paris in 1860 and described by the renown expert Rembert Wurltizer as "a fine and typical example in an excellent state of preservation" and "un-excelled, particularly in its tonal characteristics".
- The King 1735 Guarnerius, now in the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts
- ex-Kubelik 1735 Guarnerius, used by Kyung-Wha Chung
- King Joseph 1737 Guarnerius, reportedly the first Guarnerius del Gesù to go to America in 1868, now in collection of David L. Fulton
- Ysaÿe 1740 Guarnerius, used by Issac Stern, now belonging to Nippon Music Foundation
- ex-Vieuxtemps 1741 Guarnerius, called the "Mona Lisa" of violins. Owned by a private collector who bequeathed lifetime use of the instrument for performances to violinist Anne Akiko Meyers.
- ex-Kochanski 1741 Guarnerius, used by Aaron Rosand, sold for about $10 million in 2009
- Lord Wilton 1742 Guarnerius, used by Yehudi Menuhin, now in collection of David L. Fulton
- ex-David 1742 Guarnerius, used by Jascha Heifetz, now in the San Francisco Legion of Honor Museum
- Dushkin 1742 Guarnerius, used by Pinchas Zukerman
- ex-Alard 1742 Guarnerius, now in Cité de la Musique, Paris
- Il Cannone 1743 Guarnerius, used by Niccolò Paganini, now in the City Hall of Genoa
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