The 1735 ‘Plowden’ violin by Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ has been talked about, pored over, and photographed time and time again, but there is still plenty more to discover about this celebrity of the violin world, as Sam Zygmuntowicz reveals in this article from 2011
This article first appeared in our July 2011 issue
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The ’Plowden’ Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ of 1735 is one of the most recognisable and acclaimed violins in existence. It is very much a player’s instrument: its sound is remarkably warm and seductive, and it is smoothly accepting of the bow. The Hills listed it among their top nine Guarneri instruments, and it was one of twelve selected for the ‘Violin Masterpieces of Guarneri del Gesù’ exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1994. When examining a violin as thoroughly documented as the ‘Plowden’, it’s hard not to be just another paparazzo angling for a revealing shot. However, I feel a very personal connection with it, and I will try to discuss aspects of the instrument that are not so easily seen, using some new resources and my own experiences.
I first encountered the ‘Plowden’ in 1980 when I was an assistant in the shop of René Morel in New York. Many of the shop’s rare violins appeared faded, and frankly rather worn out, but the ‘Plowden’ was overwhelming in its vivid freshness, with intense orange–red varnish on its stunning one-piece back. As well as being a player’s instrument, it is also very much a maker’s instrument, and the tool work itself is part of the appeal – it is not over-smoothed or hidden. In stolen moments, I would try to record and absorb the details of this remarkable violin, and those first hasty tracings and measurements became the basis for much of my own making. Thirty years later, I am possibly wiser and certainly visibly older, but the ‘Plowden’ remains the same.
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