The Historical Abruzzi’s stringmaking

The reasons of our research

The research we are going to present started almost unconsciously in autumn 2006, when we went in Acerra (Na) to interview one of the last old stringmakers from Abruzzo, heir of the tradition of his father who was working in Naples. Our intention was to gather some general information about the history of Italian stringmakers.

After a minutes we realized that we were face to face with a direct witness of the historic production cycle as it was practiced since the late Sixteenth and follow up to at least the late 70s of the Twentieth century: in was indeed in that period that the last stringmaker in Abruzzo stopped making gut strings following the historical procedure handed down for generations (Roberto D’Orazio in Salle).

Mr. Astro Di Russo indeed, even if with some understandable memory deficits, began to use a jargon familiar to us going back directly to the distant past, documents of the eighteenth century. Indeed, he still called by the term ‘ Tempra’ [hardening] the alkaline solution of potassium carbonate, ‘Scodelle‘ [Bowls] containers in earthenware for the gut,’ Pirone ‘ the wooden stick to which are attached to the chassis guts after twist,’ ‘Cannucce‘ [Straws] half-reeds used for degreasing and so on. But what seemed far more interesting was the fact that he was able to describe in practice what he did as a boy of 8 years (and then forward) in the stringmaking of his father. A very interesting world was opening.


The stringmaker Astro di Russo


Astro with his son Nicola

Until then, the only way to try to re-establish the historical production cycle was based solely on written documents. The limitation of such a source in the field of craftsmanship is evident, for example the world is full of books that explain how you should work for a furniture polish with shellac, but from this actually do know the way is very long, not to say impossible. For example in ancient documents it is described the so-called ‘passing through the thimble’ of guts. How it was done manually remained a mystery, however, as well as as how the thimble was realized, and so on for all remaining phases of construction. This until our meeting with Mr. Di Russo.

But why is it so important to know the historical process of manufacturing of the strings?

We shall disgress a bit : nobody today can make gut strings by taking all the ancient steps (the examination of documents and their subsequent comparison led to the conclusion that the way to achieve the strings of gut, from the mid-seventeenth century, followed a highly standardized procedure, which we call just ‘Historical Method’).

This is due to the fact between the two worldwars appeared an industrial method of gut working (first introduced by the Germans then followed by the French) which significantly lowered production costs and the problematic uncertainties on the final quality. We understand that this was an incredible advantage for those who had to produce strings: an entire month of heavy manual work constantly passed with rotten smells and hard work was replaced by a string making process based on machines used for strings smoothing, alkaline solutions consisting of pure chemicals instead of the usual grapevine ashes dissolved in water (‘liscivio’) and even more.

The introduction of metal strings for string instruments (from 1920’s onwards) and Nylon for plucked instruments (from World War II) was the final blow for the production of musical strings in gut. After World War II the technique of industrial processing of wires or gut strings, however, worked well for the manufacture of strings for Harp, sutures and tennis strings. Finally, it was the same one that allowed the restarting of Early Music.

But at this point of historical method did not survive practically anything, both because there was no more awareness ( typical in the past) of how to distinguish a string of good quality from another (the strings are now manufactured to be perfectly smooth and hard, appear almost as polished steel wire and without any criteria of quality) and because there was no point for string makers to use a method obsolete, long and expensive: once invented a car why going still riding?

The modern way of making gut strings quickly took over everywhere: most of the industry thus bought the gut from butchers already cleaned, separated from unnecessary membranes, cut into strips and stored in salt. In practice, about 50 % of historical phase was removed, the rest (the manual sanding) was replaced by fast and accurate sanding machines. A production cycle that once needed at least 10 specialized professionals was now reduced only to two: one that prepared the strings twisting and one assigned to final sanding. Now they could produce in a single company a few million surgical threads per year and tens of thousands of musical strings at cost significantly reduced, especially for the end users.

The conclusion was that already around 1970’s there was no one still able to rebuild (or even remember!) all manufacturing stages typical of the past. Something definitely seemed indeed lost forever, until our meeting in 2006 in which, however, we quickly came to several conclusions:

1) maybe it is not true that we have come too late to save the historic production cycle: maybe there a
re still a few old string maker , who when were young realized musical strings according to the historical criterion.

2) if point 1 is true then we must move quickly before the last old heir of string makers disappear altogether.

After an exchange of views with the son of Astro, Nicola, we came to conclusion that in the entire Italian peninsula remained only a limited territorial area of the ancient tradition where something could still be remembered: Abruzzo, namely the villages of Salle, Musellaro and Bolognano: there we are concentrated our efforts hoping not to have come too late.

We were lucky.

Mimmo Peruffo & Daniela Gaidano 2010