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The philosophy for the conservation and use of the 'Cannon'

by Bruce Carlson (luthier conservator of the 'Cannon')

The violin of the great Genoese virtuoso and composer Niccolò Paganini ranks among the most important musical instruments in the history of Western music.

Its state of preservation is exceptional, mainly due to the fact that it was rarely played after the violinist's death (in 1840). The instrument, according to scholars, accompanied Paganini from 1802 until his death and he became so fond of it that he called it 'my violin cannon' for its acoustic prowess. We believe that most of the visible wear and tear on the instrument can be attributed to that caused by Paganini himself during the course of his brilliant career.

The 'Cannon' became an exceptional partner for the virtuosities of the musician who developed new violin techniques by exploiting the instrument's potential to the full. Paganini influenced many musicians, not only violinists, both of his era and of subsequent generations, among them the pianists Franz Liszt and Robert Schuman.

"Paganini's favourite 'medium' for musical interpretation, this precious violin was built in 1743 by Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri, later known as Giuseppe Guarneri 'del Gesù'. Today, this violin-maker is considered, together with his fellow citizen and contemporary Antonio Stradivari, one of the greatest exponents of the glorious Cremonese school of violin-making that began in the first half of the 16th century, with the crystallisation of the violin shape by Andrea Amati. Paganini, in his will drawn up in 1837, three years before his death, specified: 'I tie my violin to the City of Genoa so that it may be perpetually preserved'. A simple sentence, easy in concept, but full of pitfalls.

Anyone involved in instrument conservation will be confronted with two priorities that are difficult to reconcile: that of preserving the objects for future generations, slowing down their deterioration and wear and tear as much as possible, and that of making the collection accessible and usable to makers, musicians, enthusiasts, scholars, visitors and, in short, to today's society. it is essential to come up with a conservation policy that safeguards the two aspects. Moreover, to the risks and damage resulting from use must be added those connected, and I would say inevitable, with the transport of the instrument.

It is well known to anyone who deals with stringed instruments, builders, restorers and musicians alike, that the continuous use of the instrument requires an equally continuous series of small repairs, adjustments and fine-tuning, which can lead to gradual and often irreversible modifications of the original parts, erasing the historical evidence and generating an instrument that is progressively more and more reinvented.

The decision to have carried out the "historical recovery" of the "Cannone" should be interpreted as one of the keys to balancing the policy of conservation and use of the instrument, with a view to displaying Paganini's violin in its renewed guise as faithful as possible to its original appearance, when it was delivered to the city of Genoa.
Historical recovery, which has received flattering feedback from musicians, is in vain if it is not supported by a radical change in the way the instrument is used. In fact, the public's expectation to hear the sound of the instrument should not be pursued at all costs, but should be addressed by carefully choosing the most congenial occasions and taking certain precautions necessary for the instrument's good conservation.

In recent years, the increasingly important need to know the state of health of this precious violin has grown. Only with precise data, recorded using a rigorous scientific method, will it be possible to understand how the violin behaves inside or outside the case under different conditions of use or conservation.
It is clear that the behaviour of a musical instrument during the course of its life is in many respects still unknown and that, thanks to modern technology, it is possible to acquire elements that give the possibility of operating in the best conditions for both the display and the conservation of stringed instruments, furthermore each instrument represents a case in itself. Precisely for the above-mentioned reasons, we availed ourselves of the collaboration of Dr. Gabriele Rossi Rognoni, curator of the Museum of Musical Instruments at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence, and Prof. Marco Fioravanti, lecturer at the University of Florence - Department of Environmental and Forestry Science and Technology: together with them, we developed a project for more in-depth monitoring and analysis of the behaviour of the "Cannon" in different situations in order to better preserve and understand this precious living historical document.