By Riccardo Mordeglia
I am writing this article at Michael’s request following some of our discussions on the birth of the Maccaferri guitar inserted in its historical, geographical and sociocultural context. It is a summary of my twenty-year research as a luthier of gypsy guitars, a resident of Maccaferri’s home of Ferrera, and as a sociologist.
In every creation myth, things always arise from nothing. However, we know from history that there are always precedents. In reality things never arise from nothing but are the result of the evolution of some preexisting thing. Musicians know this process well.
To begin, let’s contextualize Maccaferri in his geographical context. It is often said that Maccaferri was from Bologna, but this is not correct. He was from Cento, a town in the province of Ferrara. Certainly Bologna is the largest city in the vicinity and for those who are not familiar with the area it is easier to identify but technically it was in the Ferrara district and, beyond parochial or bureaucratic nonsense, this is very important for reasons that we will see later.
Maccaferri was therefore born in Cento, in the province of Ferrara in 1900, in an old mill of which his family was the custodian. Coincidentally, the mill was demolished in 1990, the year of Maccaferri’s death. It was replaced with, in my opinion, a horrible looking structure for residential and commercial use.
Cento is located in the culturally rich region of Emilia Romagna. Music from Emilia Romagna has always had a leading role in Italian culture and society. Important composers from Emilia Romagna include Corelli, Verdi, Frescobaldi, and Toscanini. Many top perfromers also hail from the region, but not only in the classical field but also in the field of musica leggera, which includes everything that is not classical (i.e. rock, pop, jazz, etc.) The most important singers, musicians and orchestral players in Italy are from Emilia. From all over Europe they come to our Riviera for the discos. In short, Emilia Romagna has always had a profound musical culture.
In Emilia Romagna, and to be precise in the Pomposa Abbey, in the province of Ferrara, modern musical notation and solfege was invented. Antonio Vivaldi would have liked to present his four seasons for the first time in Ferrara because of the importance it had, but he was prevented by the local bishop.
There is also a musical genre typical of Emilia Romagna, the liscio, a dance music in ¾ that includes waltzes, polkas, mazurkas, performed in an Italian key, for which it contains distant classical, operatic, medieval and Renaissance references. Liscio was born in the second half of the nineteenth century. In that period, and this is very important for our discussion, there was an important Austro-Hungarian military presence in the Ferrara area. This greatly influenced the culture of this area, including popular musical genres, which as we have said they were precisely the waltz, the polka and the mazurka, all of Austro-Hungarian origin. Musical instruments constructed in Emilia were also influenced by Austro-Hungarian culture.
At that time Italy was in the process of unification and in conflict with Austria, which controlled nearby Veneto, on the other side of the Po river, and saw this area as a borderland to be controlled militarily. In this period traditional music was born in Emilia Romagna. The first musicians, as in any folk musical context, were basically farmers and artisans who played in popular festivals, anniversaries, weddings and where there was a need for musical dance entertainment. These early ensembles were typically composed of a trio made up of double bass, violin and guitar. Subsequently some professional musicians dedicated themselves to this music, such as Carlo Brighi, the first violin of Toscanini’s orchestra, who introduced the clarinet.
Unfortunately today there are few testimonies of the so-called old liscio, just a couple of ethnomusicological collections and little more. This was due to fact that the musicians were generally not professionals, but rather were peasants, artisans and workers so they had no interest in recording discs. Furthermore, ballroom dancing was opposed both by the Catholic Church, which considered it too lascivious, as well as the Fascist regime which did not deem it to be purely Italian music. Liscio was also strongly associated with a communist political agenda. In the 1960s it had a kind of revival due to the “new liscio” by the Casadei family who hybridized it with pop music. Regardless, it continued to be looked down upon by the art music world. In fact, I remember in the 1980s a music teacher of mine, who had a classical music background, defined it as the pornography of music.
Between the late 1800s and early 1900s there was a strong musical development in Emilia Romagna both in the folk and cultured fields, and therefore there was also a demand for instruments. The Centese area was in some way strategic and attractive for the builders because it was geographically located between Bologna, Ferrara and Modena and was also developing economically. In fact, it is here that Lamborghini will be born years later. Luigi Mozzani, one of the greatest geniuses and innovators of guitar lutherie, as well as a great musician, then moved to this area from Faenza and after having traveled throughout Europe for his concert activity. Mario Maccaferri received his training in Mozzani’s workshop.
This area also has an important ethnic history to take into consideration: Ferrara, before the Second World War, was “the most Jewish city in Italy.” There was a strong Jewish presence here dating back to the 1500s. After the Jews were expelled from Spain, many were welcomed in the Ferrara area. The nobles of the time, in opposition to the Pope, allowed religious freedom. The Jewish presence was very substantial and culturally important in all areas of Ferrara’s life, from cuisine to language to art, so much so that it is said that Ferrara in the 16th century was equivalent to contemporary New York. In the universities of Bologna and Ferrara, Hebrew was also taught as a learned language in addition to Latin and Greek.
It is interesting to note that the presence of stringed instruments in the Ferrara area dates back to the 1500s, probably brought by Jews from Spain. The same dialectal term for guitar is ghitara, with the g, in the Spanish manner. This could actually be due to the Ferrara phonetics which preserves some elements of the Lombard language, of Germanic origin, which favors the g sound, or it could also be due to a contamination between the languages, also considering that there is only one “r.” Some Ferrarese luthiers of past centuries had names of Jewish origin, as indeed many Ferrarese, given the widespread mixing of the Jewish and gentile populations. At the beginning of the 20th century, an artisan workshop of carpentry and lutherie of stringed instruments is located in the Jewish quarter near the synagogue. This doesn’t mean that the Jews made guitars or that it was their prerogative, as we don’t have any documentation. However, considering the history of Jewish instrument makers in this ares, it’s likely they had in influence in guitar making. Some have also theorized the same process of Jewish influence for the birth of the violin in the Lombard area.
Returning to the Austro-Hungarian soldiers, it must be said that these two cultural elements, Austrian and Jewish, somehow came together and created a kind of partnership since in 1700. Following revolts against the French who had occupied the city, some of the people wanted to take advantage of the confusion to go and plunder the Jewish quarter. The Jews were defended by the Austrians, who were then later hired by the Jews for protection.
We have therefore arrived at a first summary, we have these cultural elements that coalesce: a cultural predisposition of the population to music, an Austrian influence on genres, and a Jewish history of instrument building.
However, there is also another element that will influence Maccaferri, which is the centuries old Italian tradition of guitar making. Luthiers from Salerno also moved to this area at that time (unfortunately this is something I read in a document many years ago and I was no longer able to find it so I can’t cite the names and the source,) and clearly they also brought their building techniques and traditions with them.
The typical instrument of the southern Italian tradition is the chitarra battente, also called the Italian guitar by the Germans, precisely because it is a characteristic instrument of the southern Italian tradition. It is a folk version of the baroque guitar and retains some features of the baroque guitar such as the decorated rosette on the sound hole and the typically elongated shape. However, it differs from the baroque guitar in its use of metal strings, a heat-bent soundboard, and a floating bridge, all elements that we will later find in the Maccaferri guitar. These features evolved as a way to increase the volume of the guitar which were required in the folk ensembles for which it was primarily used.
The bending of chitarra battente’s top is usually achieved, as with the mandolin, by notching the inside and applying heat. However, chitarra battente from Salerno differs in not having this engraving and therefore has a softer curvature, similar to that of Maccaferri’s guitars.
So when Mozzani settled here he built guitars modeled on Austrian designs, thanks to the fact that he himself also lived for a short time in Austria. However, the timbre was influenced by the Jewish musical sensibility that wanted a brilliant sound. In fact, from his notes we read how his research was aimed at increasing the treble response of the instrument.
Mozzani also took up the design of Austrian guitars, especially from Austrian harp guitars and wappenguitars. It is from these guitars that comes the characteristic design of the cutaway typical of gypsy guitars. Mozzani also opted for a wider body than is typical of classical guitars. This was the result of harp guitars requiring a wider bout to support more strings. The bracing also had to be reinforced to be able to withstand the strain of the additional bass.
However, Mozzani did not limit himself to imitating Austrian guitars. He made countless experiments to improve the tone and projection of his instruments. He experimented with bracing and pioneered revolutionary techniques such as double soundboards and double backs. To improve playability for the player he invented the bolt-on neck so that the height of the strings could be adjusted by the screws on the neck.
An amusing anecdote concerns Mozzani’s studies on bracing: he lived in a country house and, like all country houses around here, it had bars on the ground floor windows for safety reasons. In an attempt test bracing patterns, he cut and bent the window bars to have different patterns similar to guitar bracing, then hammered them to see which had the most resonance. We don’t know if this experiment led to any great acoustical insights, but there’s no doubt it angered his wife to no end! Many of these experiments were not successful but served as ideas for the work of Maccaferri who was inspired by Mozzani.
Going back a bit in time, another important thing must be mentioned for the development of the instruments which then led to the manouche guitar: the Gino Neri mandolin orchestra which began in Ferrara in 1898 and is still active today. At the time, the mandolin was considered the classic instrument for amateurs. The members of this orchestra were all craftsmen or traders with little or no musical knowledge but who enjoyed replicating an operatic repertoire with the mandolin. Mozzani collaborated deeply with this orchestra, arriving at the creation of a new type of flat or chiselled bottom mandolin which combined low production costs with excellent sound performance. He also designed a mandocello and a mandobass to complete the orchestra. Today this type of mandolin, despite having been invented in Ferrara, is also known as the Bolognese mandolin due to it’s popularity in Bologna. Bologna is full of arcades and, as in the narrow streets of Naples or Genoa, where the mandolin has found more fame, the arcades form a reverberant space in which the mandolin finds its optimal acoustics and natural sound amplification. The mandolin was used in the streets of Bologna to accompany liscio bolognese, a virtuous and almost acrobatic variant of liscio dancing.
Bologna is famous for its taverns were wine can be imbibed while enjoying music. These taverns typically have instruments on the walls that anyone could spontaneously use for an impromptu musical performance. Much of Bologna’s musical culture centered around the taverns which served as meeting places for musicians. Many local performers learned their trade and gained notoriety in the taverns.
In Mozzani’s era there was also another important guitar maker in this area, Masetti, in Modena.
Among these three, Mozzani, Maccaferri and Masetti, there were some mutual good natured accusations of plagiarism. However, the similarities of their instruments were due more to mutual influence, so much so that it is not easy to understand who copied from whom.
Maccaferri opened his own instrument factory in Cento from 1923 to 1927. In this period he built violins, mandolins, and guitars, including harp guitars, and other models that he defined as “normal” and “normal cutaway.” His instruments won numerous prizes and awards in national and international competitions. Despite his success, business probably wasn’t going so well because Maccaferri then moved to Paris in August 1927, apparently on the advice of Mozzani himself. Maccaferri had an uncle in Paris who was an accordion dealer that employed him to do guitar and accordion repair as well as build violins. Alongside this work he also took guitar lessons and undertook a promising career as a musician. Having previously studied with Mozzani and at the Sienna Conservatory, Maccaferri became known as one of the leading exponents of the classical guitar, often spoken of in the same breath as Segovia. He made various records for Columbia and Odeon. His fame brought him to London where he was able to devote himself entirely to concerts and lessons.
Despite his success as a performer, Maccaferri continued to pursue his interest in lutherie, with a keen desire to improve and modernize the guitar. A friend of his who worked in a furniture factory got him wood and tools and he began to make various experiments until he perfected his now legendary Concert model. The Selmer corporation was impressed with the design and, while they had no previous experience with string instruments, decided to put it into production. To meet the increasing demand for an instrument suitable for jazz, Selmer asked Maccaferri to reconfigure the Concert model for steel strings which gave birth to the steel strung Orchestra model.
These revolutionary new guitar designs make use of all the elements of guitar lutherie that Maccaferri had learned while in Ferrara. We have a guitar that, in terms of design, derives from Austrian guitars, with a fingerboard that extends like a mandolin. A resonator that was an evolution of Mozzani’s experiments with guitars with a double bottom or double soundboard. Even the bracing was an evolution of Mozzani’s experiments. For example, the model produced by Selmer with the name of Espanol was not because it was a Spanish guitar, but because that name indicated, at that time, a guitar capable of supporting both nylon and metal strings due to the reinforced bracing.
The steel string model included pliage (i.e. a bent top) and a floating bridge, as in the chitarra battente. Years ago I had the opportunity to see a guitar built by the young Maccaferri in the Mozzani workshop, owned by the master luthier Guerriero Spataffi, founder of the Gubbio lutherie school, which had the typical elongated shape of the battente guitar, without a pliage, but with an elliptical sound hole and the classic cutaway typical of Maccaferri guitars. The pliage, even if it was used in the battente guitars of southern Italy, was not used in northern Italy for guitars, however it was used in the Ferrara countryside by non-professional builders to make cheap double basses for liscio orchestras. Also similar to Maccaferri’s guitar, these basses used ladder bracing to support string tension and shape the top.
Maccaferri’s innovative guitars produce the projection and bright tone required for playing at festivals or noisy clubs. It’s no wonder that Django Reinhardt immediately chose a Selmer Maccaferri as his primary instrument, later leading to its adoption by the gypsy community as a whole.
In 1933 Maccaferri left Selmer over a contractual dispute, and wanted to devote himself to the construction of reeds, but also resumed his career as a musician. However, an accident occurred on the set of the film La Folle Di Lac in which he broke his hand. The accident ended his performing career. Although, he may have had other reasons for wanting to retire from performing. His right hand was injured so he could have reinvented himself as a plectrum guitarist. Maccaferri held the title of “professor of plectrum” at the conservatory, so the skills were there. Regardless, it seems that he was simply tired of that life and wasn’t interested in adapting to the ever more popular style of jazz, a style that he didn’t like and didn’t understand, even though it’s success was partially due to the guitar that he himself designed.
There is one last point I would like to address: the characteristic D shaped soundhole design and the pointed shape of the headstock. They are so distinctive and so different from any other guitar that you have wonder “why?” A larger soundhole was necessary for the internal soundbox’s reflector. There are a number of shapes that could have worked, so why did he choose the distinctive D shape?
I have a theory why Maccaferri made this unusual choice. There was an ancient tradition, now in disuse, in Italian violin making of incorporating some of the architectural motifs of their region into their instruments in order to indicate the provenance of the maker and in some way the history of the instrument. In Baroque guitars, for example, the builders inserted elements of the stain glass window of the church of their own city in the soundhole. In the curl of the Cremona violins it is said that the curls of the facade of the city’s cathedral are referenced.
I have always suspected that Maccaferri’s guitars were at least partially inspired by this tradition. I studied the architecture of Ferrara for years looking for design features that may have served as inspiration. One day, after many years with no success, I was walking absentmindedly in front of the Verginese Castle, one km from my house, and I turned around and it was all there! The building which most resembled the aesthetics of Maccaferri’s guitars had been sitting under my nose the whole time and I had never noticed it: the spires have a very strange D shape and the door and windows have pointed decorations! The Verginese castle was the country residence of the nobles of Ferrara and is still used today as a logo for local artisan products. We’ll never know for certain, but perhaps Maccaferri, like the Italian violin makers of old, was paying tribute to the land of his birth by imprinting the architectural aesthetics of his region onto his instruments.
For more information about Riccardo Mordeglia’s instruments, visit his site at https://www.mordeglia.com/