This post is the first in a new series on my blog that features stories about people doing unique and unconventional things (or regular things with a unique passion and purpose) around the world, because it is these people that make the world a more interesting place and inspire me to travel in search of better stories. At the end of this post, I’ve asked you for a quick favor, that I promise, will take less than a minute and does not involve voting of any kind.
With a warm demeanor and a smile that instantly puts me at ease, Bruno Stefanini, dressed in a crisp white shirt under a brown apron, is well coordinated with the color scheme of his violin shop in Bologna, in a way that is both impeccable and effortless. I have to admit, he is nothing like I’d imagined. I’d walked into his shop expecting someone with a greater air of self-importance. After all, there is nothing ordinary about his profession; he makes music in the literal sense of the word, as one of only four professional violin-makers in Bologna, a decade after the city was appointed UNESCO Creative City of Music.
I’m curious about Bologna’s musical heritage and its illustrious relationship with music through the ages, and have spent the entire morning at the Muzeo Internazionale e Biblioteca della Musica di Bologna, looking at important manuscripts, letters, musical instruments, paintings, and a collection of portraits owned by Father Giovanni Battista Martini, an important 18th-century scholar, collector, and composer, of the most distinguished musicians of the time. Great music personalities such as Mozart, Rossini, and Farinelli, among others have lived, studied, and worked in Bologna at some point. Modern-day Bologna hosts many music and cultural festivals through the year featuring established, indie, and emerging artists from around the country and the world.
It’s only my second day in Bologna, and I’ve already heard, more than once, that music is an important part of the cultural identity of the city. In its most accessible form, it’s everywhere on the streets of Bologna; in the captivating sound of the violinist on Via Ugo Bassi, her curly locks swaying to the mellow music, in the passionate love song of the singer on Piazza Maggiore who has a huge audience on a bright Sunday afternoon, and in the easy jazz that floats from the porticoes around Piazza Maggiore into my apartment, through the open glass windows overlooking the grand façade of the Basilica di San Petronio.
But as someone who is forever looking for stories about people, here’s what I’m more curious about:
How does someone decide to become a professional violin-maker and what does a career path, as unconventional as this, look like?
Furnished with simple wood furniture, and tools, violins, and violas, placed against off-white walls, his laboratory is a fitting backdrop for a candid interview that soon becomes a friendly, easy-flowing conversation.
You can watch the video below or read the full interview just after the video.
How long have you been in the same tradition (that of a professional violin-maker)?
About 35 years, including the years of tuition and the years of school.
Is this a family business?
Family business, no, it’s not. I had the opportunity to enroll in a violin-making school, here in Bologna. Violin-making school was not a regular school, it was a special project. It was a four-year program for selected students. In fact, we had an audition with our violin-making teacher. Originally, there were 14 people and this went up to 16 because it was a high-demand project.
The idea of this project was to preserve the violin-making tradition in Bologna. Everyone knows about Cremona and Stradivarius and all those names but very few know of the long and strong tradition here in Bologna.
So, I went to this audition, got through the test, and enrolled in violin-making school. The project was supported by the local government and the Commune. As I said, the idea was to preserve the violin-making tradition and the program was for free. We didn’t have to pay anything- the tuition was for free for four years.
So we were very lucky, very lucky program we had.
Yes, and I think that it’s only in Italy that something like that would be encouraged, and they’d see the value in doing that.
It was, but not anymore. Unfortunately. Because at that time, there was a project, a future project. The aim is to think in the future so the idea was to preserve the tradition. At that time, there were only two violin-makers left, coming from the old tradition. The old tradition comes from the passage- from teacher to pupil.
Today, there are violin-making schools that you can enroll in and it’s almost like a regular school. So you have your class and you do the violins, violas, guitars, and everything. But the way it’s set up is not like it used to be- when you go to a teacher’s shop and you sit with him and he just, he doesn’t teach, he just passes on his knowledge. And that was the idea of the school.
So it used to be like that, like you said, but not anymore. Now everything has to be according to rules and of course, the money.
Are people still, even now, interested in following the same career?
There are a lot of people that would love to become a violin-maker. But there are some difficulties nowadays. For example, if you come in and you want me to teach you to make a violin, it would be almost impossible because of the law and regulation. That means I would have to hire you and pay you of course, and it is impossible- you don’t know anything. So I’d have to invest my time on you and teach you and go through mistakes and everything.
As well as money.
As well as money, yes and I have to pay. So it’s not so easy. There are violin-making schools all over Europe that you can enroll in and have a pretty good tuition. But it is not like in the old-fashioned way.
And what made you want to become a violin-maker? What was your motivation or your inspiration?
At this point, a wide smile plays up on Bruno’s face.
I played the violin, I picked up the violin when I was fourteen, something like that. I already played some music, like guitar. But I picked up the violin, bought a very very inexpensive violin in a music store and it sounded horrible. And I sounded horrible and it sounded horrible, didn’t help any.
So I had about three to four years of practice after trying to figure out how the violin is played, by myself. Sort of self-taught in a way, but, I wasn’t very good I have to admit, and the violin wasn’t very good either. And I had the possibility to join the school. One of the requirements to join the violin-making school was the knowledge of playing the violin- you’re supposed to know how to play the violin. So I said, “Well, I’ll try” and I got in.
From the very first day, when I met the teacher, it was clear from the very beginning that I wanted to become a violin-maker. First of all, being a violin-player isn’t easy, I started late and I wasn’t very good, I have to admit. So I thought, maybe I’ll become a better violin-maker than a mediocre violin-player.
When did you start playing the violin?
I think maybe 16. I picked up music when I was a teenager, 13 or 14. I played the guitar a little bit. I remember one day I went to a music store and bought a violin.
And the switch to becoming a violin-maker, happened at what age?
I enrolled into the school at age 19.
How many years does it take (with the program and school)?
The school was a program of four years and another three including the tuition, so altogether it was seven years. The first thing my teacher said on the very first day of school was, “This is a four-year program, it is not even enough to become a violin-maker. It will take you ten years to become a violin-maker if you practice. It’s like studying music, it will take you ten years to become a professional violin-maker.” And he was totally right.
And was it challenging? Was it very competitive?
Not very competitive. The majority of the students were about the same age. There were a couple of younger ones and a couple of older ones but the core group was of the same age and we were sharing the same experiences- music and artistry. I’m a sculptor and I graduated in art school and so there were others in the program that had also graduated from art school- painting and different trades. So it was very exchanging and also the teacher didn’t want us to be competitors. It was a very good setting for the school.
And like you said, you’re also a sculptor.
Do you still do that?
No, I work with wood, which is like sculpting, but working on a different material. I worked on marble and stone when I was in art school, never on wood. And I switched to different tools and a different material. But the idea of developing a shape, a form is very close to sculpting. But, there is one more thing, which is sound, and that is a different challenge.
But that, for you, well, that must be the reason why one of the requirements to get into violin-making school is to know how to play the instruments, so you can understand what you’re making.
Yes. Also, as part of the program, there was a special agreement with the music school and we had free tuition for violin playing. So for four years, I went to the music conservatory and studied violin playing in the proper way, not self-taught.
Very nice. Do you only make violins or also other instruments?
I build violins, violas and cellos. It’s the same family, technique, and material, just the proportion is different. And time of work is different, of course.
How long does it take you build each instrument? Of course, it depends on the size, but say for the smallest one and how long would it take you to build the biggest one?
A violin, for a professional maker like me, it takes about a full month of work to make one violin from scratch from wood. Viola, just about the same time, it’s just a little bigger, maybe one more week- so let’s say five weeks. Cello is a different business; it’s about three months of work, working eight hours a day.
Is it just you in the workshop or have you hired someone?
No it’s just me. And my wife who helps me to do all the paperwork.
Can I have a look into your workshop?
He gestures to the space we’re already in and smiles, “That’s it.” Somehow, I’m still thinking of the image I associate with the word ‘laboratory’ and imagining a back door in the shop that leads to a secret facility with complex looking tools and machines.
This is my workshop.
So for eight hours a day, this is where you do everything?
Yes, this is the table where I work and that one for varnishing and retouching. I also do repairs. My work is to build instruments and make new ones. But musicians break their instruments. They bring them in and I have to fix them. Let’s say fifty percent of my time is repairs and fifty percent is building, when I can manage it.
Did you grow up in Bologna?
Well, I grew up in a little village about an hour out of Bologna, between Florence and Bologna. When I was in high school, I moved to town with my brothers. So I’ve been living in Bologna since I was 16 years old.
Does being here in Bologna, just, fit together? It’s said that this is the city of music and it has a very important musical tradition. I was at the Museum of Music and it seems like Bologna is where you’d be or live if you loved music so much.
Yes, Bologna has always been a very musical city. Of course, when you relate it to violins, violas, cello, you think of classical music. But I grew up listening to rock and roll and punk music. In the 70s, Bologna was the hub of rock and punk music. I wasn’t a real fan of punk music but rock and roll, yes. There were hundreds of local bands formed by youngsters like myself when I was a teenager. It was very very active music wise. And then, I switched to the more classical tradition and discovered a new world that I didn’t know of like Teatro Comunale and Accademia Filarmonica (one of the most important music schools of all time).
Meeting with my teacher was, he was sort of a guru. He was a classical violin player and he introduced me to and taught me a lot about classical music, which was a new world for me. Of course, in my family, there was music all the time. My father was an opera fan, which I hated at the time, as you can understand (laughs) and now I understand better the quality and the meaning of what he loved. I could not stand any opera at all but I heard it all the time because he played records.
So after moving to town, I was exposed to a different kind of music and then I discovered the classical world, which in Bologna, has always been very active. If you think of violin-making, as I said before, nobody knows about the violin-making tradition in Bologna but here it is very old, one of the oldest probably in all of Europe, even older than in Cremona.
In the 1400s, there were, probably at the Museum of Music you have seen, there were parts of the lute, you know that it’s an ancient instrument and is not played much anymore and comes from the Northern African tradition. That’s where the name comes from, oud- laud- luto, and my trade is liutaio. But that is a little incorrect because the term liutaio has been generalized by the Enciclopedia Francese when they listed the instrument makers as liutaio. Everybody who makes musical instruments in Italy is a liutaio. But in the old times, I was a violin-maker and in Italian, that is a violinaio and a guitar-maker is a guitaraio.
So going back to the tradition, Bologna was very active in instrument making and the best lutes in the world were made here. All the courts and musicians in Europe wanted a lute made in Bologna. So what you’ve seen, these are just a couple of parts of probably the most ancient instruments made in Bologna from that time.
Then, the music changed its form and its instruments. So the violin and the bowed instruments took over. The success was in Cremona and other cities in the north of Italy. But, Bologna was not left behind; there were a lot of makers that were active. Bologna is, as far as I’m concerned, the only city that never lost its tradition. What I’m talking about is the knowledge passed from teacher to students. And with the special program, it was a very easy situation with the violin-making school.
And that is good for the tradition.
Yes, and it has been kept alive, until now.
But now, it’s difficult to become a violin-maker.
And it’s difficult for the reasons I mentioned, but there are some possibilities. There are regular violin-making schools such as the one in Cremona, and a couple private ones in Parma, and there’s one in Germany, one in France. So if you want to become a violin-maker, there are some possibilities to start with regular school tuition. Then you have to build your own reputation and choose style.
Are there many violin-makers now in Bologna?
We’re about five, no, four professional makers in Bologna. It’s the kind of trade that you can embrace as an amateur if you want to. I know a lot of people that enjoy making instruments but they’re not made in the professional way. I mean, with the professional approach, so you need to choose the right material, you need to have of course, professional results, because the instruments that I build are meant to be played by professional players. So you can make a violin if you want to, but I’m sure the result is amateur.
So it’s very important then, that this tradition be passed on to continue in Bologna. As you said, there are only four professional violin-makers in Bologna today, so it is extremely important that it should not be lost.
It is. So in some way, we have to solve this problem of tuition. It is not possible for me to have, as I mentioned there are some laws and regulations that are meant to protect the worker, but on the other hand, it’s difficult for me (to hire an apprentice). A good idea, probably, would be to have a course or program like the one I attended but I don’t know how it can be done.
Well, thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
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This post was made possible with the assistance of Emilia Romagna Tourism through my participation in Blogville Italy 2016. A big thanks to them for hosting me for the duration of the program and for helping me write the kind of stories I love to create.
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