Maestro Francesco Mario Bissolotti
The cultural and professional education of the master is particularly interesting. He initially worked as a wood carver and engraver; he learned the art of violin making later on in life. He worked as a wood carver during the 1940s and continued in this role until the beginning of the 1950s. In the same period Bissolotti studied music and violin, and he became an excellent amateur violinist.
In 1957 he enrolled in the Cremona Violin Making School which he attended for four years. He studied under Master Pietro Sgarabotto. Sgarabotto's work was not very refined, but it was decisive and demonstrated strong personality. Bissolotti maintained a relationship of mutual esteem and friendship with Sgarabotto until the death of his old master in 1990.
In the early sixties, the Milanese violin makers Ornati and Garimberti alternated in teaching a restoration course held at the violin making school. The course was interesting and instructive, as these makers were great craftsmen with extensive experience. Bissolotti has always considered it a great fortune to have studied with them, and remembers his teachers with fondness.
One cannot fully comprehend the stylistic and violin making development of Bissolotti without completely understanding his relationship with the great Italo-American violin maker and restorer Simone Fernando Sacconi.
Bissolotti first met Sacconi in 1958 at the Violin Making School, a school which the great expert desired to visit while in Italy. The school had previously invited Sacconi to act as director in 1937 but he had reluctantly turned down the offer. This Italo-American violin maker passionately loved the city of Cremona and its old violin makers and it was precisely this love which bound the relationship between Bissolotti and Sacconi. Theirs was a deep friendship with mutual esteem and frequent collaboration.
This meeting was fundamental for the development of Bissolotti who immediately understood that he was in contact with an exceptional artisan and human being. He studied under Sacconi's guidance from 1962 to 1972.
In those years, he continued to improve his work and approached the mysteries of antique Cremonese violin making.
He duly learnt the construction technique of the internal mould, which Sacconi had long since recovered unraveling all of its secrets. Bissolotti thus journeyed into the techniques of the past and at the same time projected himself into the future of modern Cremonese violin making.
In 1962 Sacconi offered Bissolotti a job at Wurlitzer's in New York where he could perfect his restoration technique and work on the construction of new instruments. Bissolotti was not able to accept this offer. The relationship between the two continued nonetheless as Sacconi began spending his summer holidays in Cremona. From 1962-1972, Sacconi spent 45 to 60 days a year in Cremona using Bissolotti's workshop as a reference point and logistic base.
In 1962 Sacconi and Bissolotti began to reorder the relics of the Stradivari Museum, then known as the Musical Instrument Museum, located on the third floor of the Art Building in Piazza Marconi. The days and months spent in the museum enabled the young Bissolotti to become thoroughly acquainted with the tools, moulds and original designs from the workshop of Antonio Stradivari and his sons Francesco and Omobono. Accompanied by the knowledgeable Sacconi, who already knew of the Stradivari relics through his master Giuseppe Fiorini (who had donated them to the Council of Cremona), Bissolotti penetrated the eighteenth century of Cremonese violin making, where the art had reached the finest levels of its history. By classifying, ordering, and restoring the relics of this mythical period, the young master came in contact with the spirit of Stradivari's workshop; he began to understand its ordered functioning, where meticulous methods and precision were almost maniacal and there was no place for carelessness, neither in the drawings, nor in the measurements.
Bissolotti further understood that the master he had chosen, and who had chosen him, was revealing to him the real secrets of Stradivari, not particularly mysterious, but difficult to assimilate. Sacconi passed on his modesty, the passion for his art, as well as an almost maniacal precision. He was always open to new solutions for improving the quality of work, while treasuring the contributions of past violin makers. Antonio Stradivari possessed all of this.
He was, in his own time, and still continues to be the greatest craftsman of the art of violin making. Bissolotti says, "it was in this museum and through these experiences that I understood the importance of building instruments according to the method used by the great Cremonese maker: the internal mould." Working with the internal mould requires manual, intellectual and creative ability which in turn reflects the personality of the maker.
Sacconi returned to the United States in autumn of 1962 and began an intense correspondence with Bissolotti who was now teaching at the violin making school. Sacconi's explanations were always thorough, often including photographs or sketches drawn by hand with data, measurements, and comments. His love for teaching was so great that he never denied anyone.
Every summer until 1972 Sacconi habitually spent his holidays in Cremona. He would plant himself in Bissolotti's workshop situated on Via Milazzo. (In 2001 the workshop moved to Piazza S. Paolo). Here he would pass many hours of the day giving advice and teaching as well as amusing himself with varnish experiments. When musicians and collectors knew that the renowned restorer was in town they would bring their prestigious instruments to the workshop on Via Milazzo, trusting them to Sacconi for small repairs or set-ups. The old master explained the life history of every instrument to the young violin makers, pointing out aesthetic and acoustic details. These years were full of unforgettable experiences, as intense as they were extraordinary.
Sacconi died in 1973, but his knowledge and experience has been sown in the heart of Bissolotti, experience which the young violin maker would never have been abe to acquire on his own. Bissolotti coveted this treasure, continuing the work of the master. He recalls Sacconi's morality, extraordinary generosity, his modesty and unfailing confidence in everybody's potential and ability.
After a decade with Sacconi, Bissolotti's style underwent a complete trasformation, and his work became increasingly removed from Sgarabotto's teachings. By following the method which Sacconi revealed to him, Bissolotti pays tribute to antique classical Cremonese violin making, an art which still continues to evolve. Originating from the Cremonese system and the internal mould, its only alternative is to progress, such are the possibilities and peculiarities that this construction methodology offers.
In 1973 Bissolotti and some of his younger colleagues and pupils founded the ACLAP Association (Cremonese Association for Professional Violin Makers), an association dedicated to the promotion of the classical Cremonese methods for making violins and bows.
It was during this period in 1980 that Francesco Bissolotti first conceived the idea for a travelling exhibition which would present the Cremonese method of violin construction. The exhibition entitled "Classical Violin-Making, a Method" reveals the "secrets" of the creative process of violin making, and it is now permanently on display in Cremona at Palazzo Trecchi. This important exhibition which travelled all over Europe, thoroughly explained the construction methods of the classical Cremonese system used by Bissolotti and his school. The construction techniques used by Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari, originally conceived for the construction of baroque instruments, were adapted by Sacconi and Bissolotti for the construction of the modern violin. In Bissolotti's method several details differentiate the baroque violin from the modern one. In the modern violin, for example, the neck is joined to the upper block, whereas in Stradivari's period the neck was glued onto the ribs of the upper block and then fixed with nails. Other differences are the longer neck, fingerboard and bass bar found in the modern violin. Apart from these differences, which were due to the evolution of the instrument and the music it was intended to play, the construction method is identical to that of the antique Cremonese makers. According to this method of construction, the instrument is first modelled on a wooden mould which is carefully planned and designed beforehand by the maker. In Stradivari's case, the forms reached an extremely high level of harmony, style and aesthetic completennes.
This form, known as the internal mould (different from the French one known as the external mould) is used inside the instrument. The instrument is built around and on top of the mould. Later on the mould is removed to permit the closure of the body. In this way the instrument is constructed around the wooden mould, following a certain stylistic rigor which limits arbitrary innovations. This leaves the craftsman free to use the creative process to follow his own feelings and personality. Each instrument made using a certain mould will be similar to others, but never the same. Thus, every instrument remains a unique object and a testimony to the creativity of the craftsman. Because of these characteristics, the internal mould employed in the classical Cremonese system is most suitable for realizing the acoustical and stylistic possibilities of an instrument; it also allows the maker to express all of his potential.
One could assert that this method rewards and frees the creativity of the violin maker. This method has become Bissolotti's violin making ideal. He has gone out of his way to teach it to his pupils, defending it from the many attacks coming from other violin making environments which support and practice different methods.
In 1982 the virtuoso Italian violinist Salvatore Accardo asked Bissolotti to make him a large five-string viola. Maestro Accardo needed this instrument in order to play the Sonata for gran viola by Niccolò Paganini correctly. The adjective "gran"refers to a special five-string viola known as the Paganini "controviola"which the well-known Genovese virtuoso supposedly commissioned from Francesco Borghi, a violin maker of Forlì. There were no longer any traces of this old "controviola", nor did any drawings or documentation exist. This only fuelled the challenge for Bissolotti to construct the "gran Paganini viola". In his customary fashion, Bissolotti approached the task by studying the works of the antique cremonese masters, who still remain the uncontested reference points for modern makers. As the basis for the inside mould he used a 41 cm. Stradivari mould of a 1672 viola preserved in the Stradivari Museum. After careful study he lengthened the mould so that it could accomodate five strings. Appropriate thicknesses were studied to take into consideration the greater tension on the strings on the bridge. The bass bar was made larger and stronger than normal and even the f-holes underwent appropriate modifications. While respecting Stradivari's style, he completely redesigned the head to accomodate the extra peg. All of the accessories for the set-up were hand crafted as nothing similar was to be found on the market.
The five strings were commissioned as they were longer than the usual lengths.
With these changes the master attempted to unite elegance and practicality. The final result was an excellent instrument both from an artistic as well as an acoustical point of view. The instrument fully satisfied the demanding Accardo as well as the equally demanding Bissolotti. Not entirely content with this exceptional result, the Cremonese maker built three more Paganini controviolas of different measurements. Today these extraordinary instruments are dispersed throughout the world, thus demonstrating the vitality and quality of modern Cremonese violin making.
In 1982 Francesco Bissolotti resigned from the Cremona Violin Making School after twenty-two years of teaching, several years before he was due to receive his full retirement. The master loved teaching, even though the school itself was not a source of great satisfaction. At this point he totally dedicated himself to violin making in Piazza S. Paolo, working with his sons and his pupils. From 1982 to this day, he has put in many years of hard work, producing numerous violas, violins and violoncellos which are dispersed around the world. Finally people have begun to understand that string instruments worthy of the great Cremonese tradition are once again being made in Cremona.
When he thinks back to the beginning of modern Cremonese violin making in the sixties, when makers survived on sacrifice, study and hope, and the contemplates today's movement of musicians, dealers and violin makers populating the streets of Cremona, Francesco Bissolotti realizes that many of his contributions have made this rebirth possible. The principal pupils of Maestro Bissolotti are his four sons: Marco Vinicio, Maurizio, Vincenzo, and Tiziano. The latter unfortunately died in 1995. As children they came to their father's workshop and were curious and interested in the unusual craft of making a violin. They were fascinated by the precious woods that filled the shop, the thrilling sounds that visiting musicians would produce, and the mysterious smells of the colored essences used in the making of the varnish.
By the time they were adolescents, they were already learning the craft from their father. Today, some thirty years later, they are still working together with their father, as was the tradition in the antique Cremonese workshops, even though they have become "masters" in their own right. Even though the four sons studied under father Francesco, their individual styles and personalities emerge in their respective instruments. Their violin making experience together has been one of collaboration and endless discussions.