Wednesday, April 15, 2015
M IS FOR GIOVANNI LEONARDO DA MARTINENGO (and a bonus M person!)
I'm afraid I can't give you a visual image for today's 16th-century personage. Or a birth date. Or a death date. That's because very little is known about him except for the bare-bones summary I'm about to share, but to me, that's fascinating enough.
The history of violin-making begins with the arrival of Martinengo, a luthier (lute-maker), in the northern Italian town of Cremona in 1499. Martinengo was a Spanish Jew who may or may not have undergone a more-or-less forced conversion to Christianity. He probably did, because Giovanni (Italian for the Spanish "Juan") and Leonardo are certainly not Jewish names. If he did convert, however, it didn't help his situation much, because he was expelled from Spain in 1492 along with all the rest of the country's Jewish citizens, and wandered through Europe and possibly northern Africa for the next seven years. No one knows where he stopped along the way, but Victoria Finlay, author of COLOR: A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE PALETTE, speculates that he began by heading east through the Mediterranean lands and spent time in Muslim North Africa, which at the time was more hospitable to Jews than European countries, although not reliably so. According to Finlay, he probably made his way through port cities like Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, from there to Alexandria in Egypt, and thence to Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey, "home of the lute." Finlay tells us that lutes originated in Persia and were brought to Spain by the Arabs in the ninth century. During his journeys, Martinengo would have doubtless picked up valuable and esoteric information about instrument-making that he would have brought with him when he finally settled in Cremona. He set up a lute-making workshop, and by the time of a census in 1526, he was employing the two Amati brothers: Andrea, who was 21 at the time, and Giovanni Antonio. And in the 1550's, "after a musician in nearby Brescia decided to take a bow to the lute-guitar and play it like an Arabic rebab rather than plucking it," Andrea Amati began making some of the world's very first violins. 'And two generations later, Andrea's grandson Niccolo would teach this new craft to both Stradivari and Andrea Guarneri." (See the image above for one of Niccolo's violins.) You've heard of Stradivarius violins, the finest instruments in the world, worth millions of dollars today?
Stradivari's knowledge can be traced directly back to the shadowy but essential figure of Giovanni Leonardo da Martinengo.
TODAY'S BONUS: Since I couldn't give you many historical details about Martinengo, I'll try to make up for it by including a second M person, Aldus Manutius (1449 - 1515) (mostly fifteenth-century, but still). Manutius was a printer and publisher who invented italic type, developed some elements of modern punctuation, and perhaps most importantly, introduced the idea of printing inexpensive volumes of books bound in vellum in "octavo" size - much smaller and more portable than the then-standard size - that were distributed and read much as paperback books are in modern times. Manutius, and the Aldine Press which he founded, had no less of an admirer than Erasmus (about whom you read, of course, in my letter E post), who worked at Manutius's press for a while during his stint in Italy, and had this to say:
However one may sing the praises of those who by their virtue either defend
or increase the glory of their country, their actions only affect worldly pros-
perity, and within narrow limits. But the man who sets fallen learning on its
feet (and this is almost more difficult than to originate it in the first place) is
building up a sacred and immortal thing, and serving not one province alone
but all peoples and all generations. Once this was the task of princes, and it
was the greatest glory of Ptolemy. But his library was contained between the
narrow walls of its own house, and Aldus is building up a library which has
no other limits than the world itself.
You can read a lot more about Manutius and his innovations, and also find out about a current New York City exhibition about him - you can still catch it if you hurry! - in this New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/27/arts/design/a-grolier-club-tribute-to-the-printer-aldus-manutius.html?_r=0.