Matteo Gofriller 1725

Cello made cirka 1725 by Matteo Gofriller in Venice, Italy. The instrument is plaied by Torun Sæter Stavseng.


Matteo Gofriller was the founder of the great Venetian school of violin making, and in particular he is recognised as one of the greatest cello makers of all. Through his own innovation and the work of his successor, Domenico Montagnana, he built the matchless reputation that Venetian cellos maintain to this day. As a teacher, he was at the very least a strong influence on Domenico Montagnana, Francesco Gobetti, and his own son Francesco Gofriller amongst several others. He died in Venice in 1742.

Born in the southern Tyrolean town of  Bressanone in about 1659, he came to Venice in 1685, almost certainly already trained and well-experienced as a luthier, to work at the shop of Martin Kaiser. In the space of five years, he married Kaiser’s daughter and took over the running of the shop himself. Kaiser had been a maker of lutes and viols, but Gofriller quickly adapted to the new demand for violins, and at first took as his models work by the Cremonese Amati family, and also elements of the northern Tyrolean Jacob Stainer, a strong influence in his native Bressanone. He also very quickly adopted some of the forms and mannerisms of his contemporary Antonio Stradivari, and Gofriller was probably the first maker outside Cremona to do so. Gofriller’s cello models are quite original and entirely his own, however. There may even have been some influence in the other direction; one of Stradivari’s own cello templates from the period 1710bears the inscription ‘violoncello di Venetia’, and Gofriller would have been the only source for this at that time.

Gofriller’s work is generally robust, the workmanship brisk and not highly finished. Tool marks are plentiful, providing texture, light and shade to the varnish.  Most of his cellos were built on a very large scale which predates the modern form, and many have since undergone conversion to make them manageable for today’s players. Pablo Casals played on perhaps the most famous of these, a remarkable Gofriller with which he will always be associated, but nevertheless much reduced from its original size and shape.

The cello in the Dextra collection is remarkable in many ways, but not least because it is one of the few examples that remains as Gofriller made it; one of several smaller models he produced, possibly for the benefit of the young orphaned  women of the Venice Ospedale della Pieta orchestra which was conducted by Antonio Vivaldi at just this period in the early eighteenth century. The back length of 71.3 cm is actually slightly under the accepted  modern  size, which was determined in fact by the great ‘Forma B’ cellos Stradivari developed in 1709, but this smaller model has great width, a full volume of resonant airspace, and an ideal string length.

The charm of the instrument comes in part from this petite model with its diminutive scroll, but also from the vivid varnish. Possibly Gofriller’s most significant contribution to the great Venetian school of violin making was this intensely coloured and textured varnish, which he probably acquired in his home town of Bressanone, where similar preparations were already in use by local luthiers. In Venice, this deep red varnish almost became a trademark, appropriate to the sumptuous reputation of the city itself. On this beautifully preserved example, the varnish retains its brilliance and depth, and also its complex surface structure, free from most of the interventions of restoration and constant wear and polishing.

Gofriller’s varnish seems to be so loaded with pigment that it has split and crazed the soft oil medium, offering a wonderfully detailed and three-dimensional appearance. Barring the natural darkening of the wood beneath the varnish, in the colouration and beautifully even and undisturbed coating, the appearance of this instrument is much as Gofriller intended it. There is an interesting contradiction  at work however, in that despite the luxurious varnish and the beautifully figured maple used, the instrument was obviously quite quickly worked. The interior still bears deeply ripped gouge marks, and the back is not purfled in the usual way, the lines being merely scratched and inked in. 

These are common traits of Gofriller’s work, unusually well-preserved on this cello, but indicative of Gofriller’s aims in instrument making. The finest materials, quickly worked to maximum visual effect, and today still prized for their great tonal depth and range.  This exceptional instrument is a definitive example of this great maker’s work, and the magnificent eighteenth century Venetian school in general. 

Torun Sæter Stavseng

The Norwegian cellist has a broad musical approach and is an active soloist, chamber musician and orchestral leader. She has worked as a principal and co-principal cellist of numerous orchestras in Scandinavia. (Photo by: Bilge Oner)