Umbrian double

Few examples remain of Pietro Pallotta's lutherie.
Stefan Krattenmacher examines two of his basses and highlights some general features of this maker's work.

Some Luthiers who have been forgotten by violinmaking history still left such a mark that their names are often found attached to instruments which have nothing to do with them at all. Without much knowledge about their lives or their overall work, the few fine true examples of their work stand for themselves. This is very much the case of violinmaker Pietro Pallotta who was born in Perugia, Italy, in 1789 and died in 1821.  

Rising up in the heart of the Umbrian region, Perugia -built on a trading route- was well developed from early times. The Etruscan and Roman presence are still very strongly represented today, with its long stretches of the 2.8km Etruscan wall and remains of the Via Appia.
It has a very rich history in art dating back from the middle age as well as a strong and liberal cultural presence, its University for foreigners is celebrated worldwide. In the 15th century it was the centre of the famous Umbrian school of painting, and the young Raphael worked at Perugino's workshop until 1504.

Subsequently, the town seems to have fallen into a kind of "provincial dose" for many centuries, however, beeing under the rule of the unpopular Pope's regime, and the region wasn't united with Italy in the mid-19th century.

The Umbrian instrument making school of the 1800s is poor in names and works, but Pietro Pallotta stands out as a prolific maker. His instruments were in great demand as they were highly valued for characteristics including beautiful varnishes, very flat arching, and a rich, deep tone.

There are not many instruments by Pallotta known to us, and the few which can be identified as his are mostly violins, violas and a few cellos. His double basses are even rarer, and the opportunity reviewing two of his instruments together at once should help us to gain a better understanding of this maker's work.

These two basses were made at the end of Pallotta's life, and have many very similar characteristics. One is dated 1819 and although the other's date's is not legible any more, it is likely it was made a few years earlier, as it is a less characterful instrument.

Although the general design of these two instruments is thoughtfully worked out in terms of harmony and balance, it is hard to find any symmetry. Had I been given only one Pallotta bass to look at, the conclusion that the maker didn't use a mould would have seemed the obvious one. But finding the same asymmetrical curves on both basses proves that it must firstly have been his mould which was made with more character than care.

The upper shoulders are spread out into a rounded curve to meet the rather short and stubby-looking corners. The middle bouts are long and very open, providing a lot of space for the bow to be played on the upper and lower strings. The reflection for the upper shoulder is viewed at the lower bout, but its curve is wide and still slightly rounded at the bottom block.

Quarter-sawn spruce has been used for the tables. Both basses show a similar level of quality, although the tables are not from the same tree. With a constant water supply even in winter, those trees have got strong winter grain and soft and wide summer grain. The wood may have not come from the upper regions of the alpine mountains generally used for instrument making, but from a lower alltitute at the feet of the Alps, where the wood grows much faster. Both tables have an arching height of 30 mm, which helps to produce a brighter sounds. It is not only very low by double bass standards but is also a typical trademark of Pallotta's work.

The curves of the arching rise very gently all over to the highest point at the centre of the tables. In connection to this arching design, the practically not- excistent fluting at the edge of the table seems to fit the general style of Pallotta's work. The f-holes are placed straight or even slightly inward looking, along the grain of the tables. They are well balanced with strong looking, wide shafts. Both the small upper ball and the slightly bigger bowl are based on the same design.

The straight cuts of the wings are on a steep angle, although Pallotta did not pay too much attention to cutting them symmetrically. The distance between them is rather narrow, giving the vibrations of the table created by the bridge a small gateway to the upper bouts. The purflings are of medium width and the black and white stripes (possibly poplar) are evenly balanced.

Pallotta seemed to have had a rather fast hand when it came to getting his work done, so it is surprising to find details such as the back laid with such beautiful purling. For the button detail, he found a solution which is both simple and chic: connecting the two sides with a half-circle.

Although the maple backs don't come from the same tree, they do show similarity in the quality and way the wood is figured. On both backs he used half slap cut maple with added wings at the bottom bout.

For the ribs he used wood matching the backs. The rib joints are held rather short and prove that Pallotta didn't want to spend too much time on bending them, a typical feature in Italy at the time. The small corner blocks are made of pine and the wide linings of willow.

The most striking detail of both of these basses is Pallotta's way of cutting a scroll. They have real character and are utterly unique. Adding to this do the wide ears viewed from the front. The second turning of the scroll being still wide makes the front view especially striking, and this is even more obvious in the bass from 1819. The pegbox on the 1819 is long and elegant, but the scroll itself sits short and stubbornly looking on the top of the pegbox. The earlier head shows more curves in the pegbox and a well-balanced scroll. On both, Pallotta cut the volute of medium depth all over the scroll. The campfires are kept narrow.

Pallotta used wood grounds of golden brown, with some green visible where there is no varnish left. The beautiful varnish is of medium hardness and fairly transparent and has some dark and red pigments in it.

The combination of a small body, flat back, a low table arching with a medium lower quality spruce creates a rather unexpected dark, silky or oily sound character which is focused with a prominent centre. Although Pallotta's instruments won't blend very well within orchestra's bass sections, they are fine instruments for the solo repertoire and chamber music.

Pallotta c.1815
Body width:
Upper bout 47,5 cm
Middle bout 34,6 cm
Lower bout 65,4 cm
Table stop: 57 cm
String length 104 cm
Table length 106 cm
Rib height lower block 21,5 cm
Rib height upper block 15,5 cm
Distance between f-holes; 14,4 cm

Pallotta 1819
Body width:
Upper bout 49.2 cm
Middle bout 34.4 cm
Lower bout 65.6 cm
Table stop 57 cm
String length 102.6 cm
Table length 108 cm
Rib height lower block 21 cm
Rib height upper block 16.5 cm
Distance between f-holes; 14 cm

Originally published in Double Bassist 27, Winter 2003
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