The forerunner

Gasparo da Salò's craft set a precedent for future generations of bass makers. Stefan Krattenmacher marvels at one of his instruments.

Gasparo da Salò (1542-1609), one of the earliest bass and violin makers, produced some of the best instruments ever. Despite their age, they remain well-balanced instruments and wonderful examples of the attention to detail that is characteristic of the great makers. Most of Gasparo's basses had their necks replaced throughout the 17th and 18th centuries to meet the demands placed on musicians at the time; however, the instruments' bodies are largely intact, revealing valuable information on early bass-making techniques.  

Gasparo was born in Salò, Brescia. He probably received musical training from his father, Francesco di Bertolotti, and possibly even began to dabble in violin making. He served an apprenticeship under Girolamo Virchi, and in 1568 assumed the illustrious title of 'magistro di violini'. Gasparo's own business in Brescia was quite successful, and as he lived frugally, he became a considerably wealthy man.

What set Gasparo apart from his contemporaries was his preoccupation with larger bass instruments. He pioneered a new type of bass which in some respects was the forerunner of the double bass that we are familiar with today. The problems makers encountered when constructing larger stringed instruments necessitated a number of structural changes that Gasparo perfected. Rather than constructing a carved back, he borrowed the flat-back design from the viol. He set the f-holes widely apart, indicating that he intended the bridge to accommodate as many as six strings, and increased the height of the ribs to guarantee a better sound and greater depth.

Gasparo's customers were generally wealthy, which meant that the maker could afford to use materials of the highest quality and practise time-intensive and costly methods that other makers could only dream of. Hence, all of his instruments feature an exquisitely crafted double-purfling, and they are often made of unusual woods, such as pear, cherry or poplar.

The magnificent transparent varnish is another aspect which sets Gasparo's instruments apart from those of his contemporaries. Appearing brown at first glance, a closer look reveals an attractive reddish chestnut tint. Gasparo's unique f-hole design is stylistically about a century ahead of his time; cleanly and neatly cut, the f-holes demonstrate great mastery. Lastly, there is the characteristic black ornamentation of the instruments. The table of this Gasparo bass from c.1600 is constructed from four-piece slab-cut spruce, which has a dominant grain. At 3.5cm, the arching is fairly low and has been planed in a typically Northern Italian style. The arching begins directly at the edges of the C-bouts, but further in from the edges of the upper and lower bouts. As such, the entire arching commences along a single vertical line, in keeping with the direction ofthe grain. Due to the low arching of the table, the thickness of the table is c.8mm throughout. only at the table edge does it vary between 6mm and 8mm.

The ribs and back are made of very finely-grained, slightly figured pear wood of high quality. The ribs are 23cm, and since pear wood is dense and hard, Gasparo made them as thin as the ribs of a cello. The diameter of the back is 6mm throughout. The corner-blocks are cut and fitted in the manner of the Brescian school and are made out of pine, as are the linings. Originally, the back comprised one soundboard of medium size and three bracings, two in the lower bout and one in the upper bout. The bend of the back was secured with four small, thin blocks also made out of pine and shaped like a trapezium. Gasparo's tool marks are highly visible on the inside, suggesting hasty, yet masterful production practices.

The joint of the ribs at the middle bouts were left long, making the corners of both table and back relatively long. Cut with an elegant curve, the outlines of the corners appear quite sharp. Although the corners are now worn, their elegance and grace is undiminished. The purfling, probably made of willow, is inlaid with precision in both table and back. The bass-bar has been replaced at least four times, and the position of the original bass-bar, which was smaller and thinner than the current one, is still visible. The scroll is also not the original, which was lost some time in the 20th century. For a Gasparo da Salò, this instrument is very well preserved, and its authenticity (bar the scroll) has been confirmed by J. &A. Beare in London.

Table length 113cm
Body width at back:
Upper bout 51.3cm
Middle bout 38.0cm
Lower bout 68.2cm
Distance between f-holes 19.0cm
Arching height of table 3.5cm

Originally published in Double Bassist 20, Spring 2002
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