"When did you start learning how to work with wood?" I ask Francesco Trevisan as we stand in his small workshop on the ground floor of his 16th-century house just behind the Guggenheim Museum in the Dorsoduro sestiere of Venice. He points to his two-year-old son Arturo, seated on the ground between us, pounding with a large wood mallet (but no nails) on a block of wood, and says, "When I was his size. I started out just playing in my grandfather's workshop, where the tools were my toys, as they are for Arturo. My grandfather was a carpenter in the Arsenale. He worked on boats belonging to the Navy. And his brother, my great-uncle, had a business renting boats near [the church of the] Carmini. My grandfather would repair those, too. Wood boats, boats to be rowed."
"No," Francesco replies, "for Venetians. My great-uncle rented traditional Venetian boats, sanpierote, tope... Through the 1970s there were not all the motorboats there are now in the city, and fiberglass boats had not yet taken over, as they have now. If a Venetian needed to transport something like a piece of furniture, for example, they would still do so by rowing. These were my great uncle's customers."
|Francesco in his workshop (updated 28 November 2014)|
"What made you want to learn to make violins?" I ask him. "Do you play?"
"No, I play the flute," Francesco says. "But I loved music, I had worked with wood my whole life, the school is excellent, and is nearby..."
"So if Cremona was the birthplace of the guitar, let's say, with a long tradition and an excellent school, do you think you would have learned to make them instead?" I ask.
"No, no," Francesco immediately replies. "For me the violin has a special allure."
"Was it the job or the chance to live in the city of New York that appealed to you more?" I ask him.
"The job," Francesco says. "It's an excellent shop, one of the best in the world. It turned out that I liked New York very much, but if the shop had been somewhere else, I would have gone there."
He spent his hours in the shop restoring and maintaining and repairing some truly great instruments. It was there, in New York City, that he had the chance to actually work on--and not just study--instruments made by the legendary luthiers of Cremona, such as Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù and Antonio Stadavari. In his spare time, after shop hours, he made violins of his own.
|Internal view of the f-hole of a mid-19th-century double bass|
It was Krein herself who would relay to Francesco one of the most flattering estimates of his violins he's ever received: she was in a recording studio in New York recording some pieces when the sound engineer in charge asked her, after a few trial runs, for information about the Stradavarius she was playing.
Francesco's skill as both a restorer and a maker of instruments in New York led to a job offer from Robertson and Sons Violin Shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, another of America's best known shops (http://www.robertsonviolins.com/), but a relationship and subsequent marriage brought him back to Venice, where he now devotes himself to restoration and repairs.
He shows me a mid-19th century double bass he's currently working on. "A local baroque musician found this in a flea market," he tells me. "The sides are quite damaged, with cracks and holes--you see I must fill in places with small pieces of wood as if I'm doing a mosaic. But it is a Viennese instrument, it's top is still in good shape, and it is not easy to find an instrument like this with wood that has been seasoned for 100 or 200 years. Or, rather, you can, but it will be extremely expensive. So we take our chances with this one. The job will take me six months, but I think we will have a very beautiful sounding instrument when everything is done. It will have the kind of sound that is perfect for baroque music, instead of the kind of tones you get from new instruments."
"Now, that is really exceptional," he says, " I don't imagine anything so grand in Venice. But I love the idea of musicians coming together to make this dramatic fleeting thing of such great beauty. What a great thing it would be for the city--so different from all the regulations and tourism and money-making--and what a great experience for the musicians who participate and the bystanders who see and hear it."
"No," Francesco says, "he sold fabrics." Which, of course, is another craft and trade at which Venetians have long excelled.
"Do you hope that Arturo will follow in your footsteps?" I finally ask. "Become an instrument maker, too?"
"I would like him to be able to do what really interests him," Francesco replies. "If that is working with wood, then, yes, I would be happy. I became accustomed to the smell of wood and the tools very very early in my life. I think that can be very beautiful, to start very young with very good memories of being with your grandfather, or father, in a good safe place, having fun, playing, not working. The memories stay with you always, when you are older, they inform your work, they remain. But if that is how he will feel about things--that is up to him. I don't worry about such things. The important thing now is to have fun."
|The entryway of Dorsoduro461 B&B, with a reflection of Francesco's workshop|