Michele Deconet, the Traveling Violinist
Michele Deconet, son of Pietro, was born in Kel “in the lower part of Alsazia on this side of the river Rhine, in the dioceses of Argentina�, in 1713. From the reading of available documents, we can infer that his life must have been truly adventurous and rich in experiences. In 1743 he left a written description of himself: “Michiel de Connet, of 14 years of age, left his country to become a soldier, lived in Paris for about two years and then went to Venice where he lived until today, not continuously, since he also went in many cities of dry land because of his profession, that of a musician, and from these places (�) as from his own country, he left free as per his oath and testimony�.
As soon as he became an adolescent, Michele left home, which he never saw again, and embraced the career of soldier of fortune in the hope that this job would allow him to travel and to satisfy his enormous curiosity. His experience as a soldier, though, must have been really disappointing if after only two years � during which time he probably learned the fundamentals of playing the violin � he left Paris to arrive in Venice after a long pilgrimage through the lands of France and Italy by making a living as a traveling musician. At that time Venice was one of the most beautiful and vital cities of Europe, and the city’s exuberance and liberality must have greatly impress him since he chose it as his permanent base, even though he continued to travel.
Pietro Ligi �sonador di Aboe��, a Frenchman who came to Venice from Paris around 1713, was Deconet’s first friend once he arrived in Venice in 1732 at the age of 19. “I have known Michiel for 12 � 13 years because of his musical profession and we have traveled together in the dry land, that is in Brescia, Bergamo, Crema and Mantova�. On January 30, 1743 Michele Deconet married the forty-year-old Anna Chiaparota, widow of Giovanni Antonio Codr� in the church of San Giovanni alla Bragora � where Antonio Vivaldi was baptized.
On the subject of this wedding, Pietro Ferrari declared, “I have known them for about 14 years, the bride because I negotiated crops with her late husband, and the groom (�) because he played violin in the piazze, and I also saw him in Mestre, Padua and Treviso." After a few months a tragedy struck the family: Anna got immediately sick and died on November 10th of the same year. Deconet, without respecting the rules of mourning and widowhood of the time, remarried very soon to Paola Stecherle, a 20 years old girl from Vicenza who cooked for small restaurants for a living and who resided in San Marcuola in Venice at the house of Filippo Giusti, a butcher.
The wedding was celebrated at the church of San Marcuola on July 6th, 1744. Giuseppe Salbego, known as Mioli, a thirty-four year old tailor from Vicenza and a good friend of Deconet, was a witness at the wedding and said, “I have known him for four or five years because he lives in San Giovanni in Bragara where he has lived since his first wife’s death � seven or eight months. I have met frequently with him since his widowhood and I know he has not other marriage obligations or promises.�
After the wedding the couple moved into a house in San Zeminian, next to Piazza San Marco, in Corte Spinella. The house was composed of five apartments and in the fifth lived many people: Pietro Techela, a man from Genoa, with the family of Niccol� Losta, the shoemaker, and Zoanne Marsili, a copyist who sublet a room to “Michiel Deconetti a singer of songs of piazza.� It was in this house that Deconet’s first children were born: Matilda, on February 9, 1745 and Giovanna on April 3, 1747. He had other children after he moved in his new house at the Bragora, on the “Celsi stairs�: Teresa in 1753, Francesco in 1756, GioBatta in 1757, GioBatta Andrea in 1762, Antonio and Giuseppe (both born outside of Venice) who both would become violinists.
It is clear from available documents that Deconet was a traveling musician, often visiting other cities and therefore not always in Venice. It is therefore impossible to think of him as an apprentice in any Venetian violin maker workshop and precisely that of Montagnana: the apprentice and the giovane was required to be always present on the job, something which Deconet could not guarantee because of his frequent movements. At the age of 32 �33 (still registered as sonadore, player) Deconet had the responsibility to provide for his family therefore it is improbable that he could work as an apprentice at a liuter’s workshop where he would not have been paid according to the rules of apprenticeship according to which an apprentice would receive only food and lodging.
All the documents available on Deconet mention him as a sonadore, never as a violin maker. The Bragora was also the residence of Giacomo Codeghin, a liuter, and one of the many obscure workers of the main Venetian workshops active in the eighteen century (we can also remember Martin Laurigher, a student of Curci, Francesco Ongarato, Bernardo Guerra, etc.).There are no documents establishing Deconet as the owner of a liuter workshop, therefore the hypothesis that he was the most prolific Venetian violin maker from 1750 must be discarded. It would have been impossible for him, even if he was a self made man and worked out of his home, to compete in quantity with the violin making workshops of the city which, as we will see, could count up to five or six workers and a group organization of the work that could lower production costs and satisfy almost any request of quantity.
The note on Deconet talking about him as a “singer of songs of piazza� refers to his participation as a street musician at fairs and markets in Piazza San Marco, because it was the only “piazza� of the city in the nineteenth century: all the other piazzas were called “campo.� Fairs and traveling markets were held twice a week in Venice, on Sunday in Piazza San Marco and on Thursday in Campo San Polo. The documentation available on these markets does not show the presence of violin makers or sellers of instruments. From the available data concerning Deconet and a careful examination of the instruments attributed to him, it can be safely concluded that he was a street musician who, gifted with the spirit of the entrepreneur, traded instruments created by others during his frequent travels.
If we exclude Venice and Verona (place of work of the violin maker Giacomo Zanoli who also worked in Venice around 1742 with the brother Giuseppe who was a bass singer in the Choir of San Marco until 1765), all the other cities of the Veneto area did not have violin makers who could satisfy the instrumental needs of the local musicians. Deconet would probably take with him on his travels a number of instruments bought in Venice which he would then sell at country fairs where he played and where there was a request. This would also explain the number of different labels (some handwritten) that Deconet or his buyers placed on the instruments at the moment of sale to remember the instrument’s origins and therefore guarantee publicity. We are obviously not taking into consideration the labeling done at later dates intended to falsify instruments' origins.
The instrument’s trade by the hand of traveling musicians must have been positively seen by the Venetian violin makers, who were always ready to expand their activity to other cities and states adding to their profits. This was a way to reach markets and musicians who would have otherwise not faced the hardships of a trip to Venice to purchase a musical instrument. Moreover, during this period of time (1753), a new form of taxation was introduced which calculated the sum to be paid on the amount of instruments produced and not on the number of employees in the workshop (this tax was later eliminated and the “ad personam� fiscal regime was re-introduced).
Venetian violin makers must have been very pleased with the possibility to expand their market outside of Venice with the sale of unlabeled instruments which could not be traced back to their own workshop. This author believes that this type of taxation was the primary reason why Venetian violin makers omitted to place labels or back-date their instruments in order to avoid paying paying taxes on the newly produced instruments. This activity was another source of income for Deconet, the street musician, with advantages for all parties involved. Deconet could have never sold instruments in the city of Venice: the controls on abusive street vendors who could damage the activity of shop owners were very strict, as evidenced by the many law suits brought against them by trade associations.
An analysis of the instruments attributed to Deconet also seems to confirm this theory. Even though all his instruments are clearly of Venetian school, huge stylistic differences still persist, both in form and workmanship, with great range in the quality of execution, revealing the hand of different authors. The presence of a limited number of instruments by him between 1750 and 1760 only reveals a privileged source of supply rather than his direct involvement in the art of violin making. The instruments bearing his name produced during the second half of the eighteenth century do not witness the evolution and stylistic coherence typical of any artist, but rather seem to be the product of a heterogeneous production with contradictory characteristics which can only be explained the fact that that the source (or rather, the sources) kept changing during the years.
The entire work of Deconet should be reviewed in the light of this new information. Some of his instruments bear features that are typical of Pietro Guarnieri’s workshop, or that of his friends. Others appear to be from the workshop of Giorgio Serafin. Not all instruments made in the Venetian workshops were in fact the work of the maestro, or the owner: sometimes the workers made the cheapest instruments. This is the case of many of Deconet’s instruments, who most likely dealt with cheaper pieces because of price concerns. He also purchased instruments from Venetian sonadori when and if they retired from their profession and resold their instruments at good prices. We should not forget that Deconet’s neighbors were Domenico Garlato, “a violin maker with a workshop in his home and three sons�, and Giacomo Codeghin, “a violin maker without a family living in Calle della Morte� near Campo della Bragora.
In 1757 Deconet left for a long journey, probably outside the Veneto region, bringing with him his whole family. Traveling among fairs and markets of the north of Italy kept him out of Venice for about three years. Upon his return in 1760, he found lodging at the Bragora, the area of Venice most familiar to him, at the house of GioBatta Lucatello, a strazzariol � dealer of household items and clothing � where he stayed with his family for over 10 years. Deconet still traveled near and far, particularly joining country fairs of the Venetian state, often in the company of other travelers.
On February 17, 1771, his daughter Teresa, born in 1753, married Gaspare Soranzo, a young widower, astrologer and fortune-teller, who also left home, at times for years, on long journeys. “I know Gasparo thanks to my friendship with his father. He began traveling the world since his childhood making a livelihood as an astronomer. On April of last year we met in Genoa: here his wife Orsetta (her real name was Orsola Croce) took ill and died at the end of that month. After his wife’s departure we traveled to fairs in Alessandria�..Milan, Bergamo, Brescia, Verona, Vicenza, Padua, and in the month of November (1770) we arrived in Venice�. Gaspare Soranzo was the son of Michele, traveling musician, who resided at the Bragora, and who was a friend and companion of Deconet, of whom it is recorded:
“Over the stairs of the Scoazzera (lives in 1750) Michiel Soranzo, a street musician with four children, poor. He pays 12 ducats for rent.�
The friendship between the Soranzo and Deconet is also evidenced by a document where young Gasparo declares the following in the occasion of the wedding between Matilde, the daughter of Michele, and Francesco Vecelli on March 1764: “I know the newly weds since they were young because they always lived in the neighborhood and have frequented them till today.� Thome Vecelli, Francesco’s father, also used to travel by ship on the “lands of the East� and died during a shipwreck on the S.Ignazio ship on his way back to Venice from Corf�. Michele Deconet is cited in the same document as the father of the bride and as a violin player who arrived in Venice for the first time a few years after 1732.
Deconet’s friendships bear witness to his nomadic and adventurous spirit. He most likely set out on his longest travels in the company of others: musicians, actors, fortune-tellers and the like, in order to provoke the curiosity of common people attracted by distractions and amusements. This adventurous group could count on each other’s help in difficult situations such as encounters with bandits. On June 2nd, 1777, Paola Stecherle, Deconet’s wife died “surprised by a strong accident on the public street� making Michele a widower for the second time. He would remarry on March 6th, 1780 at the age of 58 to Maria Briganti, a widow of Nicola Celega.
The wedding was celebrated at the groom’s house. Girolamo Zanchi, a servant of the nobleman Marin Badoer, was a witness to the wedding and said: “I am here at the request of Michiel Deconet and Maria Briganti, widow of Celega, to testify their freedom. I have been familiar with the Bragora area for fifteen years, and I know Michiel (now 58) since I take violin lessons from him at his home where I have met Maria, and we all became friends…” This documents paints Deconet as a violinist who later in his life gives lessons for a living rather than traveling to distant places. This image of him is consistent with the profile sketched earlier.
Padua, a flourishing center of musical production easily reachable from Venice, was one of Deconet’s favorite destinations. This would justify the existence of a number of instruments indicating on the label this city which lacked violin maker’s workshops: Bagatella was the only notable violin maker in Padua from 1750. The famous violinist Tartini purchased instruments from a low quality craftsman because of the lack of good violin makers in the city.
Only towards 1790, in an effort to raise funds, Venice made it mandatory that all traveling musicians � even those who did not read music but played by ear � be registered with the guild. Since Michele Deconet could not read music, he was never included in the guild’s lists of Venetian sonadori before 1790. From 1775, the guild’s list sees the names of Giuseppe � born in 1754 outside of Venice, probably during one of the father’s journeys � and Antonio Deconet � 1749-1804 � traveling violinist who most probably helped the father Michele in his dealings, especially when he reached old age.
It is in fact unlikely that Michele Deconet continued the difficult journey to Padua, where instruments to his name are found that are dated about 1790, when he was in his eighties. Giuseppe Deconet, who lived in Castello in Calle Erizzo 2195 with two children and his wife Angela who contributed to the family’s living carrying out the humble job of impiraperle � beader, increased his income by being a landlord. From these documents, verifying the humble living conditions of Deconet’s children, we can infer that he never produced sufficient profits from his activities � like Montagnana and others - to grant his children an easier life: his daughter Caterina, living in Corte del Cagnoletto 3635 in the Bragora neighborhood, was also a humble beader. On June 1799, "Michiel Deconet, father unknown, age 88, bed-ridden for four months by cause of a scorbutic cachexy with strong dyspnoea, dies at the seventh German hour; he will be buried at the second German hour."