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Bay of Naples by Vernet

Music in Naples and the Gagliano Family of Violin Makers

The Gagliano family plays a significant role in the history of violin making. With no fewer than twelve Gagliano makers spanning approximately 150 years and five generations, the family became synonymous with violin making in Naples, Italy. But it is impossible to discuss the prominence of the Gagliano family without an awareness of the importance of music in 18th century Neapolitan life.

Naples, Music Capital of the World

In 1739, the French politician Charles de Brosses referred to the city of Naples as the “the world capital of music,” a comment that speaks to the city’s vibrant musical history and the significant role Naples has played in the evolution of Western European music.

Opera as a Way of Life

Teatro San Carlo di Napoli
Teatro San Carlo di Napoli

Opera was central to the musical life of 17th and 18th century Naples. The development of opera seria and opera buffa (serious and comic opera forms) can be traced back to the work of Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) and other Neapolitan composers working in the early 18th century. By the 18th century, Naples was home to several opera houses including the Teatro dei Fiorentini and the Teatro Nuovo. The oldest opera house in the world, the Teatro San Carlo, opened in 1737 and over the years presented the premieres of numerous works by Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi that would become part of the standard canon. This bustling opera community in Naples created steady demand for instrument builders and repairers.

Thriving Conservatories

Another important element of musical life in 18th century Naples were the four church-run conservatories. Founded in the 16th century the Santa Maria di Loreto, Pietà dei Turchini, Sant’Onofrio a Capuana, and I Poveri di Gesù Cristo were originally intended as places to shelter and educate orphan boys. These four institutions evolved into music conservatories that were some of the most respected musical training centers in Europe. Among the important alumni of the Neapolitan conservatories were Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801); Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736); Nicola Porpora (1686-1768); and the castrati Farinelli (1705-1782) and Caffarelli (1710-1783).

That the Neapolitan conservatory students were all boys is significant. In contrast, the well-known Ospedale della Pietà in Venice also provided rigorous musical training, but for girls only. Given the times, this gender distinction meant that graduates of the Neapolitan conservatories were much more likely to pursue a professional career in music. It also resulted in the training of many male vocalists, especially the castrati. Like the Naples conservatories, castrati first appeared in Europe in the 16th century. During the 17th and 18th centuries they were stars of the opera stage and thus an integral part of the music of Naples. 

The Gagliano Dynasty: A Near Monopoly

The large number of extant instruments made in Naples during the 18th century attests to the thriving Neapolitan economy that makers there must have benefited from at the time. Repair work was also in demand. Civic archives in Naples contain records of conservatory expenditures including ongoing repair work by makers of harpsichords, organs, wind and string instruments. While other string instrument makers also worked for the conservatories, it appears from the records that the bulk of the services were provided by members of the Gagliano family. This is consistent with the perception of the overall Gagliano monopoly on Neapolitan violin making beginning around 1700.

In his paper The Gagliano: Two Centuries of Violin Making in Naples, musicologist Guido Olivieri includes entries from civic archives documenting some of the family’s activities. The patriarch of the Gagliano dynasty of violin makers, Alessandro Gagliano (1665-1732), is listed as working for the Santa Maria di Loreto Conservatory in the early 18th century, with payment notated: “Alessandro Gagliano—1703 on 20 May, Ducats 3.3.15 to be paid through the Bank of S. Eligio for six months of salary up to December 11, 1702.”

Alessandro’s son Nicolo is listed in a later entry for work at the Santa Maria di Loreto: “Expenditures – To Magnifico Nicola Gagliano for three ducats, grana 3.15 via the Bank of S. Eligio for his salary of 6 months ended this month of November 1758, corresponding to his annual stipend of ducats 7.2.10 for the duty of repairing violins, cellos, and double basses in our Conservatory and Sacred House of Loreto, according to what has been agreed, and he remains satisfied.”

Nicolo Gagliano is also documented as providing service for I Poveri di Gesù Cristo for 1 ducat to “Mastro Nicola Cigliano” [sic] to repair a cello completely broken (“rotta é tutta scassata”) of one of the figlioli (children). Still later, Giuseppe Gagliano is listed as having provided repair services between January and March of 1816.

The success of the Gagliano concept is in part the Stradivari-influenced design, which helps make the instruments excellent concert tools for today’s larger halls. The similarity, however, is more conceptual than technical; in terms of construction details, instruments by the Gagliano family bear relatively little resemblance to Cremonese instruments.

Omobono Stradivari and the Naples Connection

A violin by Guiseppe Gagliano, son of Nicolo

There is every reason to believe there was interaction between the Stradivari family of instrument makers and the Gagliano family despite the distance between their cities. An interesting revelation from the last will and testament of Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) is that his son Omobono spent an extended period in Naples probably around 1700, a period that would have coincided with Alessandro Gagliano’s time as a maker. While it is highly likely the two were acquainted there is no hard evidence confirming this. Alessandro sometimes labelled his instruments “Alumnus Stradivari,” but a student-teacher relationship seems doubtful as Alessandro’s work is quite different from the work of the Stradivari family. The Germanic appearance of Alessandro Gagliano’s instruments suggests the influence of one of the many German craftsmen who are known to have emigrated to Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, by the mid-18th century, Alessandro’s sons Nicolo and Gennaro (1705-c.1790) were active, building instruments that did show the influence, if not the methods, of the Stradivari atelier. A substantial number of instruments of this type would continue to be built by the later generations of the family. The legacy of the Gagliano family was the production of a staggering quantity of instruments, a great many of which continue to provide high-level artistic utility to this day.

Read a related article about the violin pictured here:

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