Tuesday May 26, 2020
Silvio Dalla Torre
Guest Articles / Sundries

Francesco Caffi on Domenico Dragonetti

English summary of a letter of 20 September 1846 from Francesco Caffi to Dott. Tommaso Locatelli, in the Venetian language.

(from Lisa Ceselli, Berlin)

Caffi, who ran the "Istituto Filarmonico di Venezia" from its foundation in 1811 until its closure in 1816, wrote a letter on 20 September 1846 to his friend Dottor Locatelli, the editor of the "Gazzetta privilegiata di Venezia", which was published in London. The occasion for this was an anonymous letter which had appeared in Locatelli´s "Gazzetta" on 7 April of the same year remembering the recently deceased Domenico Dragonetti, under the title "The Venetian Double Bassist Domenico Dragonetti". Caffi wanted to correct certain inaccuracies in this concerning the life of Dragonetti, who he had known personally. In addition, he wanted to present more accurately Dragonetti´s skills as a performer and his artistic career.

He contradicted the assertion contained in the letter that Dragonetti – a native of Venice – did not develop his marvellous artistry until his time in London. The truth was very different, he said: Dragonetti brought his art with him from Venice. (Caffi´s pride in Venetian artists, his own countrymen, clearly points to the climate in Italy at that time, before the unification in 1861.)

Caffi recognised in Dragonetti a unique combination of moral and physical gifts. He said Dragonetti had possessed an extraordinary sensibility for music (espressione, genio, maniera, buon gusto) and had had a monstrous left hand ("mano mostro") which had astounding power, like the bench vice of a blacksmith." His fingers were "so long, so thick and so supple that all five, even the bent thumb, could glide over the great fingerboard (of the "Violone") to create the notes". Other double bass players, he wrote, restricted themselves to "playing one note with the index finger and another with all three of the other fingers (with all three together), with little expenditure of force". Dragonetti had with his technique richly deserved the nickname, the "Paganini de’ contrabbassi".

Caffi wrote in more detail about the set-up of Dragonetti´s violone and about the fate of this instrument. He also reported further on Dragonetti´s artistic contribution to the "Cappella Ducale di S. Marco" and in the orchestra of "La Fenice", mentioning his duo concerts with Viotti. Finally, he expressed doubts about the authenticity of the concerti and solo pieces allegedly composed by Dragonetti, and about the existence of a double bass tutor written by Dragonetti. To his knowledge, Dragonetti had been an astonishing performer – he had been able to improvise his "passi di bravura" wonderfully – but was not fluent in writing music down. For his arrangements, wrote Caffi, it could be proved that he had had recourse to the assistance of other Venetian "maestri".