Surprising Wood

Posted By on April 2, 2013

Here’s a really beautiful violin. I bought it from an antique dealer. He told me it had come from a house clearance. It was in an old case together with a really nice tortoiseshell-mounted bow. The label looks completely original – somebody famous, and it’s dated 1905.

1905 Italian violin by Bisiach

So it has all the ingredients of a fake. However, we have to check.

The fingerboard was very worn – actually furrowed – which means that somebody played on it a great deal before it was put away. That’s a good sign. It has glamorous wood in the back with a very wide figure, and matching wood in the ribs. The varnish is red-gold and it has rather short corners. Also it’s very neatly made, with widely chamfered, almost flat internal linings, typical of Italian workmanship. The age: well, yes, that’s about right. Patina is hard to copy, and the varnish wear on this violin is just that: genuine wear, not artificially aged. There are no fake scratches or rubbed areas. The button, so often overlooked by copiers, is carefully finished too . . . so far so good.

1905 Italian violin by Bisiach

A significant clue is the purfling. The black lines are really thin, the filling of the sandwich being very much thicker. Now, that’s characteristic of the maker named on the label. So is the scroll, and so are the careful edges. Now then, what next?

1905 Italian violin by Bisiach

Dendrochronology. If that shows the wood in the table dates from after the date on the label, why then of course this must be a fake. I suppose I was hoping for a date of around 1895, something like that . . . so the result astonished me. Peter Ratcliff’s unambiguous result is that the wood of the treble side dates from 1646 to 1723, and the bass side from 1651 to 1727. The wood is absolutely indistinguishable from that used by, for example, Carlo Bergonzi and Guarneri del Gesu. Had this front been on a classical violin, dendrochronology would not have been able to tell the difference.

1905 Italian violin by Bisiach

OK, now here’s what the label says: Leandro Bisiach, Milanese fece in Milano, anno 1905. I should add that the label is contemporary with the instrument – nobody’s stuck it in later.

Well, did Bisiach have old violin-making wood? Yes. He was probably the only “modern Italian” maker so equipped.

Leandro Bisiach was a pupil of Riccardo Antoniazzi, who was himself a pupil of Enrico Ceruti, the last of the line of the great Cremonese makers. Bisiach was an excellent businessman, as well as a meticulous researcher and maker. Bisiach’s workshop later employed Antoniazzi, as well as his four sons, and Sgarabotto, Ornati, Garimberti and Sderci, among others. It’s widely recorded that Bisiach was the sole successor to the great Cremonese tradition of violin making. The real clincher, though, is that Leandro Bisiach had acquired workshop contents that had belonged to various old Cremonese masters (see Pardo Fornaciari, Arte Liuteria). To quote from the dendrochronological report:

“The overwhelming nature and type of wood that correlated with the front of the Bisiach, i.e. wood used almost exclusively by classical Italian makers of the early to mid 18th century, strongly suggest that Leandro Bisiach had been fortunate in acquiring old stock of tonewoods from predecessors, possibly via the Antoniazzi line. As a result, the piece he used on this violin displays a typical growth ring pattern found on spruce bellies of many Italian classical instruments. This situation is by no means the norm as most so called Modern Italian violins, or Italian violins of the very early part of the 20th century tend to have been made within 15 to 25 years of their dendrochronlogical date.”

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