The Tiniest Clue
The Maclise portrait of Paganini was not commission by the violinist. We know this because of one important detail: the window with the horizontal bar high up on the right side of the scene. The setting is a dark basement room, a jail cell. There was a rumor about Paganini that he had learned to play the violin while in prison, waiting to be taken to the gallows for having murdered his lover. This rumor was published in the mid-1820s and became common newspaper gossip by the time Paganini arrived in Vienna in 1828. In Vienna and Paris, Paganini wrote into the newspapers, denying the story. This made matters worse. In any event, the last thing Paganini would have wanted to buy in London in 1831 would be a portrait showing him playing the violin in the slammer.
The curled up broken strings in the Maclise portrait are a reference to one of Paganini’s famous tricks: playing music entirely on the lowest string of the violin. The top string, known then as the chanterelle or “the singer,” needed no encouragement to break. The middle two strings had to be unwound or clipped. The broken strings are illustrated nicely in the Maclise portrait, but other details of the violin do not seem right. The proportions of the violin itself are off; the ribs are too deep and the varnish is too light and uniform to be an accurate depiction of Paganini’s old Italian violin, his 1743 del Gesù, il Cannone. The impression given by the portrait is that the violin has been freshly made or at least recently resurfaced. The violin was perhaps drawn to look like the violins being sold by the Betts violin shop, the location of the portrait in the decades after 1831. Not only the newly fabricated ones, but also the ancient instruments newly refurbished with the violin shop’s signature varnish, “Betts’ Blush.”
The violin bow is the most interesting part of the portrait. It is missing two decorations that one might expect to see on a violin bow of the 1830s: bows of the time usually had a mother of pearl disc on the side of the frog, and there was usually silver thread wound around the stick near the frog. One might think these are missing because the artist was too lazy to paint them, but there is a detail on the hand end of the bow that suggests the image was carefully done: the bone frog adjuster button has a collar. This means the bow was possibly a French violin bow from the 1780s.
I’ve illustrated this post with a picture of a bone button of a violin bow made by François Tourte in 1788. The little decorative collar can be seen on this button. Maclise must have seen Paganini’s bow up close and noted this little detail. The bow may not be by François; similar buttons can be seen on bows made by his brother, Léonard.
The violin bow in the portrait has been lost, so we can’t easily check the portrait against the original. Looking at the history of the violin bow, and sorting out the history of the bows Paganini might have used, the bow is most likely to be what was known as the Viotti bow. This doesn’t help us either, because there are no surviving examples of the Viotti bow. If we knew what we were looking for, we might be able to find the bow. If we found the bow, we might discover what we were looking for. This catch-22 has been a thorn in the side of violin bow historians for the last two hundred years.
The violin bow in the portrait is important. At the time the portrait was made, Paganini was doing something that is almost impossible to do today: he was becoming wealthy by playing the violin. For one of his London, 1831, concerts, each member of his audience had to pay in gold coins. The cheap seats cost one guinea: a quarter ounce of the metal. The expensive seats were five guineas. The actual money he made is disputed, but may have been as much as 8000 guineas. If Paganini’s gold coins from just one concert were put in a cloth bag, it would have to be pretty sturdy because it would weight around thirty pounds. Dreams of much less gold would cause a rush to California just a couple decades later. A great modern violinist today would be thrilled to earn one tenth the money that Paganini pulled in night after night in 1831.
The violin in the picture is may or may not represent il Cannone, the famous museum violin that may or may not be in a museum in Genoa. But il Cannone may not have been a violin. Paganini wrote about il Cannone only once. He wrote to a friend in 1833, complaining about all the rumors and complaints circulating about him in London. He said that he had put the conspiracy to rest using “his cannon violin.” We presume that he was speaking about a violin that was as loud as a cannon. But in 1833 the novelty of Paganini playing his violin was gone, his only good reviews came from playing viola. The Viotti bow in the Maclise portrait would have been the only violin bow heavy enough to play the viola. It is possible that that violin bow, rather than that violin, is the instrument that was as loud as a cannon. This leads to a troubling conclusion: the greatest musical instrument of all time may be Paganini’s long lost Viotti violin bow.
In the nineteenth century, the typical violinist made exactly enough money to get drunk on, just like today. The best paid violinist in the years after Paganini was Camillo Sivori, a pupil of Paganini who claimed to have the il Cannone violin. The violin was a money maker for him for his entire career: later in life when Sivori’s concert career was done, people paid to have a chance to play it. The person who finds and uses the Paganini Tourte can expect to do at least as well as Sivori.
There are two problems with finding the Paganini Tourte. The first one is technical: having to describe the violin bow accurately enough that the person who has it now, who may not know they have it, can realize they have it and perhaps sell it to a violinist who might use it. The second problem is a bit more worrisome: the violin bow in the Maclise portrait is cursed.
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