Drama and detail

Gasparo da Salò approached bass making with a spontaneity that set him apart from his Cremonese contemporaries - and the results could be breathtaking.
Stefan Krattenmacher basks in the beauty of one mighty instrument from c. 1550

Luthier Gasparo Bertolotti, was born in Salo in 1539 or 1540, a small town to the north-east of Brescia in northern Italy. He remains known as Gasparo 'da Salo'and died, reportedly almost blind, in 1609.

Da Salò's father, Francesco, is believed to have been a painter, organ tuner and musician. Da Salo's uncle, Agostino, whose son was also a famous musician of the time, was an organist and choirmaster at Salo's cathedral. Da Salo himself is believed to have been a musician and played the violone. He might also have played his own instruments, which would have refined his knowledge of making and his concept of sound, helping him to develop into the luthier he became.
In 1562 Da Salò moved to Brescia -which had a tradition of instrument making dating from the 15th century- and opened his own workshop. Judging by the properties he owned, he appears to have become a quite wealthy man, although his tax return shows otherwise (it is perhaps for tax reasons or because he did not think he would make it into posterity that his instruments bear no numbers)

Maggini was apprentice in is workshop, and some of Da Salò's basses might be the combined work of both men. He perfected the principles of bass design of Da Salò, but did not leave himself any successor in Brescia.

Their aesthetic was totally different to that of the Cremonese makers. While Da Salò's rival, Andrea Amati was working on perfection, almost hiding the nature of the material, Da Salò celebrated the wood in a way where the material was always remaining obvious. Is this carelessness or deliberate choice? Perhaps his thinking was that an instrument is meant to be seen from afar, and indeed from a distance his instruments do look gorgeous, especially thanks to the double purflings with ornaments or even painted ornaments which may have been executed with templates, but probably loose enough that not two instruments are quite the same. Also, unlike the Cremonese makers, Da Salò inlaid the centre part, but his main aim remained sound quality, not the visual perfection. Da Salò seemed to have been a very different character to Amati - both more spontaneous and less refined.

Unfortunately, most of Da Salò's instruments have been cut down, and there are barely any original double bass scroll left. This leaves very few clues as to how he stringed them. The bass we are looking at here does bare its original scroll, though!
There are still a fair number of Basses to be found, which means he must have dedicated a good part of his work to the instrument.

Extraordinary - this is the word that came into my mind the first time I saw this double bass, which is dated c, 1550. Just the sight of it is breathtaking.
The model itself is exceptional- the round, but well sized middle bouts with their long corners fitting so well the also round and wide upper and lower bouts, the upper block curve running steeply up towards the neck, making the instrument very comfortable to play.The table is extraordinary: the two-piece hazel spruce is of outstanding quality. It is fine-grained all over and strongly hazeled. Nowadays it would be very hard to find a piece of wood like this, especially considering that not only is the bass 450 years old, but the fine grain wood used for the table would have come from a tree of around 200 years old at the time of the making
In his typical manner, Da Salò keeps the arching low. There is no fluting from the edge and the arch find its highest point quickly from the outline. At the breast, the arching has sunken considerably, by 8mm! giving the whole arching a rather unique appearance. Still, the table has only a small soundpost crack and a bassbar crack, and there are no other cracks after more than 4 centuries. The table carries large inlayed double purfling ornaments. This might also be the reason why there are no more cracks; those large purfling areas securing the wood from cracking.

Although Da Salò went through a lot of trouble to fit these ornaments, he did it in a rather rushed manner. This is also to be noticed on many of his instruments.
The f - holes sit far apart from each other. Between them, there is a wide platform created for the bridge to sit on. The upper f - hole ball is typically bigger that the lower one. The shaft points outwards: it is cut perpendicular for most of its length, and has a lower part curved with energy. The f-holes wings show no fluting and the ends are cut in a steep angle. The nicks run in a round curve to a sharp meeting point.

Da Salò used, as he often did with his basses, pearwood for the back and ribs. For this mighty bass with its large dimensions he probably couldn't find two pieces of pearwood large enough and decided to use three pieces instead. Pear trees grow very slowly, and to find a trunk large enough for a bass is rare. The wood on this bass is cut on the slap, it is still very flat and has hardly any crack apart from one running along the entire back in the middle piece. It is likely that the maker had a good wood supplier, who provided him with high quality wood, which he would have then seasoned well before using.

The center-piece is not really centred; it is a bit out of symmetry; the joint are also decorated with one strip of purfling. The back carries a double purfling as well, but there are no ornaments such those on the table. On both sides the original outline can still be seen, despite the fact that some repair men cut the overhang of table and back rigorously away, loosing parts of the amazing double purfling.

The ribs are also made of pearwood, and with an average height of 20cm, they look rather narrow for such a large bass. Their condition is fairly good. A few decades ago, they were covered on the inside with a 1,5mm thick linen as part of a restoration to keep the ribs together. The small corner blocks seem to be still original and are probably poplar.
The scroll is original, but the pegbox is only about 150 years old making it impossible to tell how many strings this bass would have originally had.

The characteristic scroll is now sitting on a long and not very elegant pegbox.
It has been carved with courage, but not with perfectionism. Although the overcoat of varnish being applied by the repairman who has made the new pegbox partly hides the exhilarating piece of carving, it is still fascinating to take a closer look at Da Salò's way of dealing with the upper end of this bass. Both sides are quite different, and it looks like he finished one side on his bench, then turned the scroll around and finished the other side without really trying to match both sides. The volute is flat on the side part as well as on the front and back of the scroll. The turnings are a bit wonky, making it very special indeed. The shampfer is small and probably done with a file rather than with a sharp knife. The under-cut (seen from the front) gives it a lot of energy. The wood for the head seems to be maple.

The entire instrument is quite dark: Pearwood is very dark in itself, but the spruce table has its own dark intensity, and the hazels enhance this effect strongly. This might be due to the long time of oxidation, but it is also possible that Da Salò applied some colouring on the wood before applying a slightly coloured brown, very transparent varnish. The mixture of the fine craquelure with the well-worn places where the bare wood is visible, completes the appearance.
The sound is truly of a mighty bass, full of overtones and lots of depth. The current owner, Professor Günter Klaus, has enjoyed playing this bass for many years in ensembles and orchestras.


Originally published in Double Bassist 39, winter 2006
reproduced with permission
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