Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The devil made him do it. (It could have been the great Genovese olive oil too.)

Genoa’s best-known musical export could well be the violinist Niccolo Paganini, still acclaimed by some as the greatest violin virtuoso of all time. Born in the port city in 1782, he was a performer of such brilliance and drama that women would faint at concerts. Even some men would weep. How to explain such incredible virtuosity? Oh, of course it had to be......could it be......SATAN? (reverberate! reverberate!)

Gosh, if I was Genovese I would really insulted. What do you mean, you don’t think one of our boys could be this good unless he consorted with the devil?

In any case, Paganini’s favorite instrument was a Guarneri, nicknamed Il Cannone (“The Cannon”) because of its soaring resonance – some even say it’s an aggressive sound. The violin is considered Guarneri’s finest creation; the last of the great violins made in Cremona. At Paganini’s death, he gave Il Cannone was given to his beloved city of Genoa.

And that’s where we saw it, in a glass case in a dimly-lit room in the Palazzo Tursi Museum. I don’t know all that much about violins, but I could tell there was something different about this particular instrument. I later read that the neck is short and flat – and obsolete. There are dark spots in places – greasy fingers? did Niccolo forget to wash his fingers after indulging in Genovese farinata? Just imagining Paganini’s very hands on that violin before me generated a frisson.

Also in that room is the only copy every made of Il Cannone. The virtuoso gave that to his favorite student. It’s possible that’s the only reason we remember the student’s name, as this instrument is known as the “Sivori.” Tsk. He played second fiddle to...his violin?

(Sorry, it was too good to resist.)

Il Cannone is not confined to life in a vacuum. Every year the winner of Genoa’s "Paganini Competition" (open to anyone under age 34) earns the right to play the hallowed instrument on October 12, Columbus Day. Great way to tie it in to Genoa's other favorite son, Christopher Columbus. But the person who created the most controversy with Il Cannone is an African-American musician, Regina Carter. In 2001 the City of Genoa invited her to play jazz on Paganini’s Guarneri. (There's that whole devil thing again!) It was scandalous, but ultimately, Miss Carter charmed all the skeptics, and everybody lived happily ever after.

Incidentally, pictures are not allowed at the museum. The images above are from the City of Genoa website.

And here's an in-depth article (bilingual) on the technical aspects of Il Cannone.

I leave you with a Paganini quote:

"I am not handsome, but when women hear me play, they come crawling to my feet."

Gillian Coldsnow

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