The Milanese master luthier Carlo Chiesa is one of Italy’s finest craftsmen. Trained at the Civica Scuola di Liuteria in Milan, he constructs modern and baroque bowed instruments in his renowned workshop. He combines this practical activity with the study of antique instruments and historical research into various questions regarding Italian instrument makers and their techniques. He also carries out an intense teaching activity and takes young people who want to improve their skills under his wing: in particular he welcomes the apprentices of the ‘A School, a Job. Training to Excellence’ project promoted by the Fondazione Cologni, facilitating the transmission of his expertise to new generations.
Why did you decide to become a craftsman and a luthier?
I’ve always liked working material and the possibility of being the creator of something: I’ve always loved the idea of the kind of work that commences with conception, passes through the process of design and ends with the realization of something, all by hand and ‘to measure’. Personally choosing the materials and working on them physically to arrive at the end result. A satisfaction that has no equal. I decided to become a luthier because I’ve always loved music and this craft is the perfect synthesis of conception, design and creation of a finished product.
Was there someone who influenced your choice to become a luthier? Or the course you took in training and work?
In the first place my parents, who allowed me to become what I wished, supporting me in my educational and training choices, even though they were very perplexed at the outset. Many teachers have given me important guidance in my professional development: Renato Scrollavezza taught me how to work, while Charles Beare helped me to learn about the instruments and Jürgen von Stietencron showed me how to look at instruments in a different way, to mention just a few. But every day I run into great figures, for I still have a lot to learn. You never stop finding out new things.
What do you mean by ‘looking at instruments in a different way’?
Violins are not all the same: we are constrained by standard measurements that have to be strictly respected and by the idea of the instrument’s sound that the client expects. In spite of these preconceived schemes, however, we have a lot of freedom. So it is a matter of finding ways of doing it well, of doing it better and doing it personally. Being able to find solutions within these schemes is fundamental for a luthier, because making violins does not at all mean reproducing systematically the same product every time, in a sort of alienation.
Can the scroll be considered the luthier’s signature?
The scroll, that is to say the volute at the end of the neck, is the most sculptural part of the violin, so the luthier can intervene to a greater extent. In reality the carving of the arching, and thus the swelling of the belly and the back, is equally important, becoming the trademark of the craftsman. A luthier’s individuality is evident from these two elements, but also from the form of his instruments, which is a matter of mere millimetres, but produces a completely different acoustic result.
What kinds of wood are used in violin making?
The types I utilize are the same as were used in the 16th century, but each piece of wood has a shape, precise characteristics of its own, and it’s up to us to give it the ideal form and thickness for the violin. For the tonewood, for example, you go directly to the places in the mountains where the spruce grows, you choose the material with care and attention and then you wait while it seasons for 10/15 years before using it. Luthiers are crazy about wood, it’s our element.
How do you choose the ‘perfect’ wood?
The luthier’s experience is fundamental: you look at the macroscopic characteristics of the wood, whether the grain is straight, crooked, coarse, fine; how the tree has grown. Then you get an idea of its density, of the quality of its structure, of the stiffness of the wood, from which you can work out the end result and how the instrument is going to sound.
You are training the next generation of luthiers. For the Fondazione Cologni you’ve already taken three young apprentices on in your workshop. What does the transmission of know-how mean for you?
It’s demanding, arduous, but important work and something to which a teacher has to devote himself body and soul, knowing that it’s going to take a lot of time. The luthier knows that he has to accompany his pupils, but he mustn’t limit himself to staying by their side. He also has to be able to pass on much of his expertise in as short a time as possible. This is something that needs to be done with extreme honesty. As Bernard of Chartres said: ‘We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants.’ Each of us is good at what we do because we have been able to learn from our teachers and turn what we have learnt into something better. I see my best results in my pupils: two years ago one of my pupils came second in the international violin-making competition, a moment of great satisfaction and much greater than if the violin had been mine.