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Paganini's ‘Il Cannone’ brought from Genova to Grenoble for sophisticated X-ray synchrotron analysis at the ESRF

The European Synchrotron, the ESRF, played host to the most famous violin in the world: 'Il Cannone' violin, crafted in 1743 and played by the great virtuoso Niccolò Paganini. The Municipality of Genoa and the Premio Paganini teamed up with ESRF scientists to use the world’s brightest synchrotron to carry out X-ray analysis of the iconic violin.

The conservation of ancient violins of historical and cultural high interest, such as “Il Cannone”, Niccolò Paganini’s favourite violin, which ranks among the most important musical instruments in the history of Western music, requires constant monitoring of their state of health. The Municipality of Genoa in Italy and the Premio Paganini have developed a programme with the ESRF for an in-depth monitoring and analysis of the behaviour of the violin in different situations, in order to better preserve and understand this precious historical artefact. In this context, the Municipality of Genoa and its conservators have teamed up with ESRF scientists to define a measurement protocol and perform a unique experimental X-ray study – using non-destructive X-ray techniques – of the structural status of the wood and the bonding parts of the violin. Working day and night, they used a technique called multi-resolution propagation phase-contrast X-ray microtomography at the ESRF’s new BM18 beamline to scan the violin. 

‘ll Cannone’ was built in 1743 by the great Cremonese luthier Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri, also known as ‘del Gesù’. Paganini enjoyed an almost symbiotic relationship with what he called “my cannon violin” for its acoustic prowess. The ‘Cannone’ became an exceptional partner for the virtuosities of the musician, who developed new violin techniques by exploiting the instrument’s potential to the full. Niccolò Paganini left the ‘Cannone’ to his hometown, Genoa, “so that it may be perpetually preserved.” The violin has been kept in Palazzo Tursi, the seat of the Municipality of Genoa since 1851. The ‘Cannone’ is rarely played. Some famous violinists have performed with the ‘Cannone’ in concerts in Italy and abroad; however, playing the precious instrument remains a privilege reserved for the winner of Genoa’s biennial Premio Paganini International Violin Competition. 

The technique applied at the ESRF has been widely used for palaeontology over the last two decades. This technique has reached a new level of sensitivity and resolution thanks to the ESRF’s new Extremely Brilliant Source, which, since its commissioning in August 2020, provides experimental performances at least 100 times better than before. Combined with the unique capabilities of the new BM18 beamline, it offers the unprecedented capability to reconstruct a 3D X-ray image of the complete violin at the wood cellular structure level, with the possibility to zoom in locally anywhere in the violin, down to the micrometric scale. As a result, the experiments carried out at the ESRF provide a full 3D vision of the conservation status of the violin, but also a super-precise representation of the details of the bold structure of “Il Cannone”, which possesses a uniquely powerful voice, and also full mapping of the previous interventions and reparations done in the past by lute makers.

“This extraordinary event interweaves culture, science, history and music around the most famous violin in the world which Paganini himself chose to entrust our city with, for it to be conserved forever. May we continue to safeguard the “Cannone” and honour its worth.” says Marco Bucci, Mayor of Genoa.

“The diagnostic test was carried out as part of an unprecedented international cooperation centred around excellence and distinction. The Paganini Committee has facilitated the conditions for achieving a result that has been awaited for years. I would like to thank Francesco Sette, Luigi Paolasini and the entire team who worked alongside the Cultural Policy Department and the luthiers of the Municipality of Genoa. A heartfelt thank you to all those who have supported the initiative in their various capacities, in particular to Emanuela D’Alessandro, the Italian Ambassador in France, and to Chiara Petracca, Consul General in Lyon.” says Giovanni Panebianco, President of the Premio Paganini 

“Now that it has had this important check on the state of its health, I hope that Paganini’s “Cannone” can more often excite enthusiasts from all over the world and be an ambassador for our city. Thanks to the Municipality offices responsible for the procedures that enabled the violin to be transported to Grenoble, to the luthiers Bruce Carlson and Alberto Giordano who followed the process from the preparatory stages, and the Sponsors AXA XL and Associazione A Compagna, Technical Sponsors of the Paganini Violin’s journey.” says Barbara Grosso, Managing Director of the Municipality of Genoa

“It is a pleasure and an honour to be here. So many personal and family memories come to mind. Today I am witness to a truly special moment which makes me proud as a Genoese. My father Renato and my grandfather Paolo would be equally proud of this, as their lives have been linked to Paganini, the Premio and the Cannon” – comments Enrico De Barbieri, Paganini Ambassador and member of the Paganini Committee.

“This fantastic experience, undertaken with my colleagues at the ESRF and with the conservators of the “Cannone” violin, opens new possibilities to investigate the conservation of ancient musical instruments of cultural interest, as a crossing point between music, history and science”, says Luigi Paolasini, ESRF scientist and the project leader.

"It was a kind of dream to work on this violin. BM18 can be considered as currently the best place in the world to conduct such an experiment. We had to deal with some logistical and technical challenges, but the ESRF team did an incredible job to make this dream a reality. I hope that this experiment will be the first in a long series. In few months, we will even be able to work on much larger instruments, up to the size of a double-bass”, says Paul Tafforeau, ESRF scientist in charge of BM18.

“The microtomographic investigations undertaken at the ESRF represent one of the most important events in the second life of the ‘Cannone’; for us, conservators, working with such a team of scientists and with such fantastic equipment is an unforgettable experience. It’s a starting point for a better understanding of this irreaplaceable and still mysterious violin”, say Bruce Carlson, Alberto Giordano and Pio Montari, conservators of the “Cannone” violin.

Quote from Francesco Sette, ESRF, Director General
“ESRF’s mission is to serve the users of our Member Countries and the international community by enabling state-of-the-art investigations of the structure of materials, from the atomic all the way up to the macroscopic scales. The present study on “Il Cannone” is a wonderful example of ESRF non-destructive 3D X-ray imaging techniques enabling qualitative progress in the understanding of how this precious artifact is made, a key-step for its conservation for the next generations”.

Quote from Chiara Petracca, Consul General of Italy in Lyon 
“Due to the workmanship and the prestige of its owner, the “Cannone” can be considered one of the most important musical instruments in the world and it is essential to ensure its conservation.
I am therefore very excited to be part of the international collaboration started by the Municipality of Genoa and the Premio Paganini with a research centre with outstanding excellence such as the ESRF and I am particularly grateful to all those who have worked on this project for having combined science and the most advanced technologies in the name of art.” 


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