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A Violin Maker
Words by Ana Vidosavljevic
Image by Gretchen Gales
In a small town, Cremona, in the northern Italy, a boy was born. They named him Paolo. He was born deaf.
For a deaf child, there were no many prospects. There were five children in the family and only the two oldest ones were sent to school. When he was 10, Paolo was sent to the local violin maker to help him and learn the craft of violin making. No one expected anything more from him.
The old violin maker became very fond of Paolo. He liked the boy's inquisitive mind, hard work and persistence. Even when the dark surrounded the city and the candle light was not enough to continue working, the boy would not stop. Paolo also rarely talked. There were days when the two of them didn't exchange a word or sign. And the teacher loved it. He had his own peace which was not disturbed by the boy's presence. And what was even more important, Paolo showed a great talent for violin making. As the months were passing by, the teacher noticed that his student's violins were getting better and better and he knew that one day, Paolo would be better violin maker than him. He had that rare talent for details and as if he hadn't been deaf, he could feel the wood and strings as if he had been the one to play the instrument. He would carve scrolls in the most unusual ways. Rarely would he make them curly. He preferred carving leaves and flowers instead on the top of violin. And an f-hole was something he did even better. This small hole that he was making helped the sound go through it so smoothly and beautifully that it seemed as if it had been a nightingale's voice. The way he was choosing the maple wood was extraordinary. He would stroke gently the piece of maple wood, and hold it in his hands for a while as if checking its pulse to see if the piece was alive enough to produce the magnificent sound. Then, he would place it on the working table, explore every corner of it, as if looking for an unacceptable deformity, and finally when he made sure there was no such a deformity, he would boil it. And he would always boil it a little bit longer and at a lower temperature than his teacher. At the beginning, his teacher was angry because Paolo didn't follow his instructions but then he let him do it his own way. After boiling the wood, Paolo did what his teacher showed him. He would use potassium silicate as a ground and then he would cover it completely with vernice bianca. This strengthened the inside and outside of a violin and the beloved tones later came out of it. It was a pleasure to watch him work. His hands were sliding over the wooden surface and his eyes were fixed on one specific spot, undisturbed by the noise outside. He seemed a kind of transfixed by the beauty of an artifact that he produced. He was in love with the craft of violin making. And his teacher's heart was full.
When Paolo was 18, his teacher, who was already old, got a bad fever which knocked him down. He didn't suffer for a long time. After a few days of fighting the illness, he passed away. After his teacher died, Paolo had to deal with so many things. All the remaining work, negotiations with customers, payments, wood supply. And he was not as good in these tasks as he was in violin making. Violin making was the only thing he knew to do very well. The teacher's cousin, Giovani, a sturdy young man, with a very red face and a lot of pimples on it, took over all the financial things and customers. But he knew nothing about violin making. The teacher used to carefully chose his clients, avoiding those new rich who had nothing to do with music but wanted to have all musical instruments displayed in their houses in order to show off. They usually had some very strange requests. They wanted the violin to be bigger or smaller than it was normal, and decorated in a ridiculous way, and made from the tree that was growing in their own garden. The teacher would just ridicule this kind of people and he would not care about how rich or powerful they were. Violin making was an artistic craft and those people didn't know anything about art. However, the teacher's cousin was greedy and sleazy and he knew that those people don't hesitate to spend a lot of money for things they wanted. And he wanted money more than anything. Paolo was not in a situation to quit what he was doing. First of all, he loved his job, and as long as he didn't have to deal with people's demands but just focus on the very process of violin making, he felt fine. And second, his family couldn't help him. They didn't have enough money sometimes, not enough even for food. He often brought them food and whatever they needed. Therefore, he decided to continue doing what he only knew to do.
In the middle of summer, when the sun was mercilessly burning the ground and heating the air, a famous rich man from Rome came to Cremona. He had heard about the deaf man who was making some of the best violins. He wanted to order one violin for his younger sister. The two of them, a brother and sister, arrived in Cremona one sunny day. They rented a house in the center of Cremona and planned to stay there for a few months, as long as it took a violin to be ready. The young man was a bit snobbish and uptight. But his younger sister, who was 16, was a lovely creature. She was not only physically beautiful, but very well-mannered, always smiling, and wishing “good day” to everyone whom she saw on the street. She was curious and loved talking with Cremona's flower sellers and people at the local market. In a few days, she got fans from all over Cremona. Everyone talked about a lovely young “signorina” Rosanna. When the brother and sister came for the first time to the Paolo's workshop, Giovani, anticipating a lot of money coming, made the workshop sightseeing tour and special speech for them. They didn't seem impressed or interested in hearing so much about the place, which was pretty simple and dirty, or about his cousin, Paolo's teacher, who was famous all around Italy. They were more eager to meet Paolo and order a violin for Rosanna. They ignored Giovani and went directly to Paolo who looked at them calmly and waited to hear what they wanted. But Paolo didn't fail to notice how beautiful Rosanna was. And how kind and polite. She was smiling all the time, looking Paolo directly in the eyes, and letting her brother talk. Paolo blushed and pretended to look at what the brother was drawing on a shabby piece of paper. But actually, he was stealthily looking over his shoulder and trying to see what Rosanna was doing. Rosanna was looking around and touching some of violins that Paolo worked on. She was investigated them, and admired them with a smile and eyes wide open. And Paolo, seeing her excitement, knew that she was one of his kind. She loved violins and probably, she loved music. He was almost sure that she would be, if she already wasn't, a great violin player. When the brother drew everything he wanted and had to show Paolo, the two of them wished him good bye and left. Paolo's heart was beating fast. For the first time in his life, a woman, instead of a violin, impressed him and made a turmoil of his emotions.
The next few weeks, Paolo was focused on making a violin for Rosanna. He felt light-headed and was sweating every time she came to see the violin progress. She would spend an hour, sometimes two, watching Paolo working. And in her eyes, one could see that she admired his work. He wanted even to help him but he refused that. Her presence was distraction and he couldn't really stay focused on what he was doing but he loved to have her around, no matter that he was only productive when she was not there. But she was his muse and inspiration. Thinking about her, he made the perfect shape and arching of the violin. He knew that this violin would be his masterpiece. Rosanna was happy to come by almost every day and watch Paolo working. She liked the way this young man created violins. He seemed kind of talking to them in some alien and silent language that only he understood. He treated violins as if they had been alive and he touched the wood as if he had petted a dog. His movements were slow and steady. And he always seemed so focused no matter what happened around him. In some strange way, she grew very fond of him. And he let her spend time in his workshop and even communicated with her, once in a while, in his own sign language.They shared a love for violins. If he was from her own world, she would easily fall in love with him, but she avoided thinking about this because she knew that there was a world of difference between them.
The violin making took a bit longer than expected, since Paolo, on purpose, didn't hurry to finish this special violin. And Rosanna didn't complain, since she enjoyed Cremona and all its peculiarities. And she enjoyed spending time with Paolo in his workshop and watching him working. However, Rosanna's brother started getting anxious to go back to Rome. He missed parties, heavy drinking, social life that Crermona didn't offer him. He started pushing Paolo to finish the violin as soon as possible. And Paolo had no choice.
The masterpiece was ready, and both Rosanna and her brother were happy. They praised Paolo and the violin and were very generous when paying for it. Paolo didn't care about money but Giovani certainly did. Paolo was sad since he knew he might never again see Rosanna. Before they left, Rosanna came to the Paolo's workshop to say good bye. She wanted to hug him but found it inappropriate. Instead, they shook hands good bye and she gave him her white handkerchief with a small red rose flower in one corner of it. Paolo's hands were trembling and he felt as if the ground beneath him will open and swallow him. His heart was pounding fiercely in his chest. He didn't want her to go. But he had to let her go.
The next few weeks he couldn't make himself eat anything. He got sick and had to stay in bed for some days. Giovani was not happy. The clients were waiting for their violins and he wanted their money. So as soon as Paolo started feeling better, he started working again. And work helped him not to think too much about Rosanna. Or at least he thought so.
Years passed. Paolo was already in his thirties but he never met a woman that triggered his heart like Rosanna had done. He didn't think about getting married. Anyway, there were no many women who wanted a deaf husband. And he suppressed his physical desires somehow. Only he knew how he managed to do that.
One day, very early in the morning, Giovani opened the door of the workshop and entered the room where Paolo was working. He was all excited. Some strange happiness and excitement radiated from him, and Paolo knew that money must have been the reason for that. He told Paolo that “signora” Rosanna was coming to make another order. She wanted another violin. Paolo was taken completely by surprise when he heard the news. It had been so long...His heart started pounding fiercely. He touched his chest, there were he kept the handkerchief that Rosanna had given to him, in a small pocket. It was his greatest treasure. He started remembering her face, lips, eyes, cheeks, eyebrows, hair. He could see them clearly as if she had been standing in front of him. He didn't forget any part of her. He had a vivid picture of her in his mind.
The day when she arrived was one of the most exciting days in his life. A river of emotions flooded over him. However, she didn't come alone. She visited his workshop the very same day when she arrived. She came with her husband and a little girl. Like mother, like daughter. Paolo was looking at the little girl and remembered the first time Rosanna had come to his workshop. She was a bit older than her daughter now, but she had the same elegance, curiosity, smile as her mother. Paolo was happy and sad. He realized, even though, he had somehow suspected before, that she was married and not anymore that young girl who had taken his heart. But she was still gorgeous and he couldn't help noticing that he was still deep in love with her. But his heart started aching. He didn't want to see her with another man and he wanted to always keep an image of her as a young free girl.
Rosanna was very excited and honestly happy to see Paolo. She introduced him to her husband and daughter and called him a “genius”. Her broad smile and shiny eyes showed Paolo that she was happy. And he felt sad that he didn't make her happy instead of someone else. But soon enough, he discarded these thoughts and told himself to stop behaving silly. He always knew that what he felt for her would never be enough. They were as different as chalk and cheese. Anyway, Rosanna wanted Paolo to make a violin for her daughter. She didn't want to draw anything or write anything. She didn't give him any instructions. She let him make the violin however he wished. He was satisfied. She trusted him.
He worked hard and didn't want to waste time. He wanted to finish his work as soon as possible. It was not that he really wanted her to leave Cremona, but her staying there also made him suffer. She had a family and her own life and he was stuck in a moment. He still loved her the way he had so many years ago. However, She would come every day to his workshop to see the progress of the violin. Sometimes she would come alone but often with her husband and daughter. One rainy day, she came to the workshop alone. Paolo tried to ignore her and didn't move his eyes from the violin he was working on. But he was not focused. His hands trembled and he couldn't calm his pounding heart. She came close to him and sat in a chair just a meter far from Paolo. He couldn't work like that and he stopped, went outside for a moment, took a deep breath and when he came back he saw her sitting in the same chair with the half-finished violin in her hands. She told him the violin already looked amazing. He didn't react to this remark. Then she left the violin where she had found it and took his hand. She told him she was sorry if she did something wrong. She told him she admired him and if the circumstance were not as they were she would fall in love with him. He didn't want to hear this. For him, she was an angel, with pure heart and pure thoughts, who didn't care about material and social differences between people. He knew that they couldn't be together, and they never could. He knew that she knew this but he didn't want to hear her telling him that. He still wanted to have the illusion of not being sure what she thought. He wanted to believe that she had got married and never showed him that she had cared about him because of the pressure form her family. He wanted to believe that they had pushed her to get married to another man. But now he knew that it had been her will. Some strange anger overcame him. He opened the door and showed her that he wanted her to leave. He couldn't work while she was there. She didn't say anything. She just left.
Paolo finished the violin in record time. He told Giovani that he would like to stay at home for few days since he didn't feel well and therefore, Giovani was supposed to deliver the violin to Rosanna and her family. Paolo didn't want to see her.
Rosanna was sad when she realized that she would not see Paolo to thank him personally. He made an absolutely beautiful violin for her daughter. But she had to accept his wish. She had no right to request more than that from him. When the day of their departure arrived, she came one more time to the workshop, which was empty and somehow sad without Paolo. She sat in a chair and breathed the air filled with the scent of maple wood. She touched the wooden pieces scattered around and finally after half an hour, she left.
Within the next few decades Cremona got few more violin making factories. But Paolo was known as the best violin maker even though he was getting old and he couldn't keep up the same pace of work he had had when he had been younger. But clients didn't complain. They respected him and knew that his violins were worth waiting for. Paolo's health, however, started to decline dramatically.
Rosanna was a well-known violin player and violin teacher in Rome. Her daughter was a famous violin player as well and she traveled all around Europe until she finally settled down in Paris. Rosanna's husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Rosanna lived alone for many years. Her only companions were violins and her students. She was pretty happy but there was something that bothered her deeply. She often thought about Paolo and wondered if he ever forgave her. That thought disturbed her. And she decided to travel to Cremona and visit him.
Rosanna arrived in Cremona one beautiful April day. Cherry blossoms colored this charming city and she, for a moment, felt like a 16-year-old girl who used to talk and laugh with locals, play her violin for her brother and watch Paolo making violins. The same day she settled down in a hotel in the very center of Cremona, she decided to visit Paolo's workshop. When she came in front of it, she noticed that the outside building didn't change much since the last time she had been there. But she noticed that the workshop was closed. She walked around the building and didn't find anyone. Since she didn't know where Paolo lived, and even if she knew she was a bit shy to go directly to his house, she decided to visit Giovni and find out why the workshop was closed. When she arrived to his house, first, he couldn't recognize her but when she mentioned her own name he remembered and apologized. Many many years passed since he had seen her. He and his wife invited her for a cup of tea. Rosanna told him that she had been to the workshop and that she was surprised to find it closed. And the man told her that it was hard for him to find an appropriate violin maker after Paolo's death. When she heard that Paolo had died, Rosanna for a moment stopped breathing. The shock left her out of breath. Her hands started trembling and the cup she was holding fell down and broke into pieces. Giovani and his wife approached her asking if she was alright and if they should call the doctor. They laid her down on a sofa and after few minutes Rosanna started feeling better. They were surprised and a bit scared. Once she managed to sit up again, she found out that two years ago, Paolo had died of pneumonia. He had been in bed for almost a month before he had passed away. Rosanna didn't speak a lot after. She was mostly listening absent-mindedly her hosts and when she felt ready to walk again, she thanked them for hospitality and asked them to come and visit her violin music academy. She left them her card.
Giovani and his wife walked their guest to the door, and once they returned to the living room, Giovani looked at the card. The card was white with golden edges and in one corner of it, the rose
 A scroll is the decoratively carved the beginning of neck of certain stringed instruments, mainly members of the violin family.
 An F-hole is a sound hole in instruments from the violin family. It is an opening in the upper sound board.
 Vernice bianca is a type of sealer varnish used in violin making. It is mainly prepared with a mix of egg white and gum arabic.
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