The Hidden origins of "Il Devastatore"

The mystery of the origin of Giovanni Bottesini's bow, Il Devastatore might have remained obscure forever had I not tracked it down to its current owner, a Japanese industrialist who collects musical instruments, and, while distracting him with my most recent recording, "Bottesini's Greatest Hits," removed an almost invisible sliver of the wood from its shaft. I slipped the sample into an airtight vial, and when I got home to New York I looked up the best archeochemist in town, who performed rigorous tests on it.

The results, unfortunately, were not entirely conclusive, but in all probability the bow was made around 1790 (give or take 17 years) from a virgin-growth spruce harvested from a west-facing slope in the Alps of Italy or France. The finish is much like that used by luthiers throughout Lombardy, Piemonte, and Savoy in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Given this information, I began scouring the area in question -- a triangular region bounded, roughly, by Geneva, Nice, and Milan -- for all possible luthiers, past and present. After many interviews conducted in incomprehensible Alpine dialects and hours spent in libraries and town archives, pleading the assistance of incompetent and rude bureaucrats, I have been able to narrow down the possible place of manufacture to three shops in Italy and one in France, only one of which is still in operation.

Ultimately, I feel comfortable eliminating two of the three candidates -- I'll just say here that they were indistinguished, temporary enterprises of dubious value; the kinds of shops that produce disappointing souvenirs for tourists and visiting Vice Presidents.

I am now reasonably sure that the true maker was Statini's, in Masserano, a village in the Lombard hills some 80 kilometers west of Milan, because of a number of circumstances. Statini's opened in the 16th century, an outgrowth of a small weapon-manufacturing operation that specialized in all kinds of bows (both military and musical), and is mentioned in a number of area monastic records as a trustworthy supplier of quality goods. The shop, however, went out of business in 1798 or 1799 when the local economy collapsed due to a complex political struggle reminiscent of the Guelph-Ghibelline conflicts. I can only speculate that one of the Statinis fled to Milan with a supply of bows, including that which would end up in Bottesini's hands.

Bottesini himself reported in an 1861 letter to a student that he purchased Il Devastatore in 1838 from Fiando (not the same who sold him the Testore bass, but his brother, also a bassist) for ten lire (surely a marvelous bargain even in the 1830s!). How many hands it passed through before it reached Bottesini will probably never be known; given the sorry record of the Fiando brothers, it may well have languished unused in a cabinet (much as it does today) for many of those years.

"We all must learn where to place our fingers."
© 1997, Jeff Brooks (