Venetian Visionary

Matteo gofriller held court at Venice's most successful stringed instrument maker around the turn of the 18th century. Stefan and Florence Krattenmacher appraise one of his double basses from c. 1720

Considered to be the founder of the Classical Venetian school of violin making, Matteo Gofriller (1659-1742) arrived in Venice at the age of 26. He joined the workshop of maker Martin Kaiser, who came from Füssen, a town at the northern edge of the Tyrolian Alps, himself probably the first violin maker in Venice. The relationship between the two makers must have soon become that of equals, and the fact that they spoke a similar dialect probably didn't harm Kaiser's liking for his new employee - Gofriller was born in South Tyrol in the town of Bressanone (or Brixen in German).

Within a couple of years Gofriller married Kaiser's daughter, Maddalena, and quickly took over the business. Little is known about Gofriller's original training, but this leaves us with little doubt that he must have already learned his craft by another maker before arriving in Venice. Some elements of his work - for example the deep and rich red varnish he used in Venice - were already to be found in the work of maker Matteo Albani, who worked in the nearby town of Bolzano (Bozen). It is therefore fair to believe that the young Gofriller not only came across Albani's work but maybe even first trained with him.

Gofriller's workshop was the main producer of stringed instruments for some 20 years around the turn of the 18th century and boasted unrivalled quality, before the arrival of competition from makers such as Domenico Montagnana, Pietro Guarneri and Sancto Seraphin. Moulds were probably not used in Venice before Guarneri, and indeed no two instruments made by Matteo Gofriller have an identical shape, as this could only be achieved by using moulds (which Cremona's makers used). Instead, Gofriller probably only used drawings, as was the practice in Brescia in the 17th century.

As there are very few original labels, it is very difficult to establish a real chronology of Gofriller's instruments. This instrument does not have an original label. Although the upper bout is cut down, the outline is still full of harmony and grace. Tracing the remaining original purfling at the table and at the back, it appears that the upper bout was much wider. The round middle bout connects to the upper and lower bouts with typical Venetian long and outward-pointing corners. Gofriller's choice of wood seems, as usual, quite accidental: the back and ribs are not even made from the same type of wood . Here we find a six-piece spruce table with mostly fine grain of very high quality, including a single slab-cut piece. The wood seems to have come from the same tree as another Gofriller bass, to be found in the Museum of the Conservatory of Music in Venice, and dated 1715. Both instruments also show a very similar pattern.

The arching of the table is kept at a medium height of 39mm. Any fluting which may have been there from the beginning has now completely disappeared; therefore the arching rises straight from the edge, gently but steadily, to its maximum height. At the centre of the table, between the f-holes, Gofriller left a little platform for the bridge to sit on. Interestingly, at the f-holes the arching falls in a very Germanic way, with a little edge around the f-holes. The f-holes themselves are placed very close together and show a great master at work. The balls are cut as circles, the well-proportioned lower ball larger than the upper ball. The connecting shaft is cut with elegance and vision, and the nicks are small and well worn over the nearly three centuries. Gofriller cut his purfling canal close to the edge, most probably in poplar wood. The black and white are in equal thickness and are combined with a rather small inlay. This enhances the outline but is not too obvious. As is often the case with this maker's instruments, the purfling looks imperfectly fitted, with unequal width of veneers.

Although Gofriller sometimes used well-figured backs (including the one in the Venice Conservatory), the back of this instrument is made from a two-piece plain poplar wood. While the table arching proves Gofriller's talent as a maker, the back arching is a truly amazing piece of art. The arching shows the same design as the table, but is kept much lower, with a very gentle climb up the centre of the back, very much in the Cremonese style of the time. The ribs are made from slightly-figured maple and are, at 2.5mm- 3mm, (one space too many) rather on the thick side.
The scroll is further evidence of Gofriller's skill as a maker, and reveals the full harmony and character of this great Venetian master. His scrolls often seem to have been carved without a pattern, but they all show a strong, recognisable shape. The side turns are balanced, with the ear well centered. The volute is slightly undercut with clearly visible gouge marks where the patina found a place to rest. The chamfer is small. There is fluting at the front of the scroll, but none at the back. The front view shows a medium width of the ears with balanced turns. Due to extensive woodworm damage the pegbox was completely replaced in the early 20th century. The new pegbox, however, shows similar features to other basses by Gofriller.

For this bass Gofriller used a rather darker, brownish version of his transparent 'venetian red' varnish. But at a closer look the rich red pigments and the fine craquelure typical of the Venetian makers of this period make this varnish very exciting.

As for the sound, this is one of richest and most beautiful-sounding basses I know. It is dark and powerful at the bottom end and has a rich sound spectrum in the upper registers. It gives the player the feeling of vibration and projection, but is not loud to the player's ear.

Vital measurements
Body length: 112cm
Body width
Upper bout: 48.2cm
Middle bout: 34.8cm
Lower bout: 64.8cm
Arching height table: 39mm
Arching height back: 36mm
Stop length: 60.5cm
String length: 105cm

Originally published in Double Bassist 36, Spring 2006
reproduced with permission
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