From mercenary captains to theatre impresario
with some news from Wien
Sometimes you start for what seems an exciting research, and then it turns out that there’s nothing much more than what you already knew. We went to Wien with the plan to see the small cello belonging to the Catajo collection. But unfortunately, it was not in the exhibit and the curator was too busy (for months!) to accord us a meeting. In Wien’s Kunsthistorisches museum they have only one curator left for the whole collection, who is a winds expert.
So my hope for this week’s newsletter was to share with you the state of an old instrument, potentially a small da spalla cello, the signs of use, if it appeared original or not. Instead I can only share the assumptions that brought me there.
Following from Agnes Kory’s paper “Tenor violin or Tenor cello” and from Antonino Airenti’s researches there is a strong connection between the music in the estense manuscript in the Austrian National Library, a cello and a bow in the Kunsthistorisches Museum collection, all of these belonging to the Estensian legacy that comes from the Catajo castle near Padua.
The history of the Catajo castle and the Obizzi family is more than fascinating. The Obizzi were mercenary captains, owners of a strong army, who got rich thanks to marriages with wealthy heiresses. To show their wealth, they built this big palace that is the Catajo castle, near Padua, and they collected many different items: coins, books, paintings, and other objects of art. They had a gallery and rooms dedicated to exhibiting their collections to impress their guests.
All of their legacies went, at the death of the last Obizzi, Tommaso, to the Este dukes in Modena and from them to the Augsburg. This patrimony included the estensian manuscripts, a collection of chamber music with many cello sonatas still unpublished, and the musical instruments collection.
The manuscript features several sonatas for violoncello, most of them not using the C string at all and playable all in the first position if tuned GDAE. Works by Antonio Maria Bononcini, Antonio Caldara, Evaristo Felice Dall’Abaco, Domenico Dalla Bella. They are mixed with several sonatas for violin. It is in these manuscripts that we find the ten sonatas for violin by Dall’Abaco, with the last one “ma violotto”.
The musical instruments collection features a violoncello piccolo, 56 cm of body, ribs 6 cm (so, following proportions more like a very very big viola), catalogued SAM 103, and a beautiful ebony bow with clip-in frog, SAM 077.
However, reading further into the story of this collection and the Obizzi family, it is impossible to say anything more. The collection was moved several times during the 19th century, first to Wien, then probably to Modena and then to Wien again. Sometimes the manuscripts appear to be in possession of the Sanguinazzo family in Padua, including works composed by Nicolò Sanguinazzo, an amateur violinist, cellist and composer. Actually, I think that the chamber music collection with all of these works by famous composers could have been made by commissions of the Sanguinazzo and later acquired by the Obizzi. So no relation with the instruments can be proven.
At each transfer of the collection, anything could have been added or subtracted. Lists are vague, like: “violins, violas and violonzelli”, a “collection of bows”, no names, no labels. Lists from different years do not fit. The string instruments of the collection are primarily from manufacturers from the region between Brescia, Venezia and Füseen, so a German cello like the Sam 103 is not really fitting. However, it is Anonymous, as are other instruments in the lists.
The exciting part of Obizzi’s story, however, is what happens between the early 17th century and the end of the 18th century. If you can read Italian, you have to read this paper by Alessandra Chiarelli: “Gli Obizzi e la musica nel lascito di Tommaso” (at this link, on page 117).
Pio Enea II degli Obizzi was a theatre impresario. He had a small theatre built in the castle, a covered amphitheatre with a stage and 16 steps for the audience. There is no evidence of its use, probably for chamber music and private concerts. He was an organiser of “tornei”, big shows with fights, athletic feats, theatrical and musical interludes. He was very successful, his performances were required in Venice, Bologna, Ferrara, and Torino. In Ferrara and Padua, he opened two theatres that were to continue their activities until the mid of 19th century. Ferdinando Obizzi, who took the theatres managements in 1710, was an author of dramas and comedies. He extensively used the small Catajo theatre to promote his works in private representations of his productions, to which other managers were invited. In the family theatres in Padua and Ferrara, several operas were represented, and he was at the centre of the polemic of the reform of the theatre. For him, Gluck was too theatrical! He was a friend of Tartini and Farinelli, and he represented operas with music by Galuppi, Piccinni, Iommelli, and words by Metastasio, Alfieri, Diderot.
About his music collection, we know, from a description of the Catajo theatre reported at the beginning of the 20th century, that in 1669 the walls of the theatre were all covered with cabinets filled with all sorts of music manuscripts and musical instruments. However, in the estensian collection in Wien, there is no theatre music. About the instruments, Beatrix Darmstaedter writes that what came from Catajo were mainly wind instruments. So, the situation is very confused.
On top of this, two years ago, in Utrecht, I attended a talk by the former curator of the stringed instruments, Rudolf Hopfner, explaining that the Catajo collection not only suffered from its “animated” movements but also from a member of the family (I am not sure, but probably the last Tommaso) who had the hobby of lutherie and restauro, and was opening instrument, match their parts with other parts, glueing old labels inside… so that the famous Linarols are probably not authentic, the same for the Gasparo viol (which has a modern four strings neck, by the way) and many other instruments.
So, no exciting news directly from Wien’s museums, but many exciting stories to read about.
Updates from our workshop
Our Viennese trip was prosperous of meetings, each highly informative and exciting. We feel we learned a lot, and we have to admit we are also proud of our accomplishments. Not only making Violoncello da Spalla but also raising the interest in this instrument. People meet us with enthusiasm, and this is the best reward ever.
We first met Sigiswald Kuijken, who was in Vicenza for a concert. He tried both our instruments, the Wagner model and Alessandro’s last one made on our personal model. He was supportive, enthusiastic and shared good advice. I could try both of his cellos, and we could compare all those small details that make the difference in playability.
In Wien, we met Jun Keller, section leader of the 1st violins of the Vienna Philharmonic, genius string designer. We have been in touch since before the pandemic, writing to each other in a WhatsApp group of string makers that he formed. We spoke about strings and about, again, playability and those little details that increase the feeling of comfort when playing an instrument and that increase the response of a string. We also listened to a concert of the Wiener Phil. that words cannot define, we had goose-bumps and tears all the time.
Finally, in Graz Conservatory, we met Dario Luisi, the man who informed me about the existence of the original Wagner in Lübeck. He was pleased by trying my “copy”, and when three of his “students” (who are actually all violin teachers and are studying baroque violin with him) entered the room, we had a little party trying the Spalla. I cannot forgive myself for not having a pic of that moment, full of laughter, joy, questions and bright glances.
Now we feel overwhelmed by the beauty of all the art that we saw in these last three weeks and deeply grateful for all these meetings. They energised us! We still have three weeks of different engagements before committing ourselves full time to the bench again, and we are longing for that moment soooo much!
Featured video of the week
After all this excitement, I need this meditative “Ancor che col partire” by Rho Terakado