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Viola by Nicola Bergonzi, Cremona, 1781

Back of pegbox Back of viola Back of viola Back of viola Back of neck heel Top of back Top of back Upper treble corner Upper bass corner Lower treble corner Lower bass corner Upper bouts Center of back Center of back Center of back Lower bouts Bottom rib

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NMM 6046.  Viola by Nicola Bergonzi, Cremona, 1781. Gift of Cora Witten, Vero Beach, Florida, in memory of Laurence C. Witten (1926-1995), 1997.

This large viola (16-1/4") is one of only a handful of well-documented 18th-century instruments to survive in virtually original condition, retaining its original bass bar, with its neck only slightly reset at the heel in the early 19th century. The instrument's shape, with its added wings at the lower bouts, is reminiscent of Andrea Guarneri's work.



Note: Click on image above to see a larger image of the soundholes.

The Italian violin collector, Count Ignazio Alessandro Cozio di Salabue (1755-1840), was already collecting instruments when this viola was made by the grandson of the great Cremonese luthier, Carlo Bergonzi, a contemporary of Antonio Stradivari.

With the deaths of Stradivari (1737), Guarneri 'del Gesù' (1744), and Carlo Bergonzi (1747), Cozio noted a decline in the quality of Italian violin making. He took it upon himself to document the process in writing, before the tradition died out, hoping to pass on its secrets to a new generation of Italian luthiers.

In addition, Cozio passionately collected Cremonese instruments and the tools used to create them, while at the same time carefully recording the genealogies of the Cremonese makers.

Cozio had the opportunity to examine the 1781 Nicola Bergonzi viola in 1816, copiously recording his observations on July 5 and August 29. His handwritten notes are part of a larger body of his papers (Carteggio) given to the city of Cremona in 1930. They were transliterated into modern Italian by Renzo Bachetta in 1950 and continue to undergo translation and interpretation by violin researchers.

From Cozio’s notes, as translated by Duane Rosengard, noted Cremonese violin-school researcher, one learns that the viola was sent to Cozio for examination by Serafino Trivella of Brescia, a violin professor who originally purchased the instrument for "only 17 lire." Along with a complete physical description, an assessment of its condition, and a set of measurements, Cozio noted that "the scroll of the neck is rather beautiful and in no way resembles that of Carlo Bergonzi [Nicola’s grandfather] [but] rather resembles that of Andrea Guarneri." The varnish on the belly, he wrote, was "badly worn in many places, perhaps during cleaning," suggesting that the instrument had been extensively played and handled in its, as yet, short lifetime.

Pegbox and Scroll Views

Front view of pegbox Back view of pegbox

Note: Click on images above to see larger images of the pegbox.

Cozio’s notes also indicate that he showed the viola to Francesco Mantegazza, a member of the well-known Milanese violin-making family with which Cozio was long associated (Pietro Giovanni Mantegazza, the best-known maker of the family, is represented in the Witten-Rawlins Collection by a 1793 viola in unaltered condition), as well as to Professor Zaneboni, both of whom offered their opinions concerning the instrument. Neither of them were familiar with Nicola Bergonzi, although they certainly would have known of the renowned Cremonese family.

This unfamiliarity led Cozio to conclude, albeit too hastily, that "there is no definite proof of the existence of a supposed Nicola, another son of Michelangelo, despite the fact that a viola of 1781 bearing his name has been seen." According to Philip J. Kass of Philadelphia, another Cremonese scholar, Nicola was a son of Zosimo Bergonzi, Michaelangelo's younger brother, thus a grandson of Carlo Bergonzi I. Nicola was born on February 19, 1754, and died on February 23, 1832.

It is ironic to note, in light of its present-day importance as one of but a few well-documented, 18th-century instruments to survive in virtually original condition, that Cozio once wrote that "it has no value" (from a translation by Dario D’Attili, adapted by Philip Kass).

In stark contrast, as Charles Beare, noted London violin expert, reflected more than a century-and-a-half later, "His [Cozio’s] experiences with the viola are actually quite amusing, especially when one realises that [the viola] was only 35 years old at the time in 1816. It really is a great instrument."

Bass side view of pegbox Underside of scroll Treble side view of pegbox

Note: Click on images above to see larger images of the pegbox.

In spite of the fact that Cozio was unfamiliar with Nicola Bergonzi, it may still be accurate to characterize the Italian collector as "craftier than a mere enthusiast and rather more intelligent than the usual dilettante who indulges in the glory of the spots and misses the leopard entirely" (Andrew Dipper and David Woodrow, Count Ignazio Alessandro Cozio di Salabue: Observations on the Construction of Stringed Instruments and their Adjustment, 1987, p. 11).

Cora Witten, who donated the viola to the NMM in memory of Laurence C. Witten, remarked that she was struck by this metaphor, which she also believes aptly characterizes her late husband. Beginning his activities some 110 years after Cozio’s death, Larry Witten carried on in the spirit of his predecessor, striving to assemble a collection of the earliest, best preserved, and historically most important bowed stringed instruments known to survive in order systematically to trace the early history of violin making in the chief Italian centers.

There is no doubt that the addition to the Witten-Rawlins Collection of the magnificent Nicola Bergonzi viola—coincidentally, preventing the "modernization" that might otherwise have been the instrument's fate—enhanced Larry's dream in a most significant way.

Excerpted from Margaret Downie Banks, "Rare 1781 Bergonzi Viola Given in Memory of Laurence C. Witten (1926-1995)," America's Shrine to Music Museum Newsletter, Vol. 25, No. 1 (October 1997), pp. 4-5 and 8.

Click here to access an index of all available digital images of this instrument.

High-Quality Image (Actual Size) of this Viola Available from Luthier's Library of Violin and Viola Photographs

Consult the Luthier's Library for detailed measurements and photos

Go to Related Checklists

Checklist of Bowed Stringed Instruments Made Before 1800

Checklist of 16th- and 17th-Century Instruments

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Front of pegbox Front of viola Upper bouts Upper bass corner Upper treble corner Lower bass corner Lower treble corner Upper bouts Soundholes Soundholes Lower bouts Bottom rib Front of viola Front of viola Pegbox, treble side Treble side of neck Neck/fingerboard Treble side of body Bottom rib Pegbox, bass side Bass side of neck Neck heel Neck/fingerboard Bass side of body Bottom rib