1835 Gaetano Vinaccia

Naples, Italy

During the Spring of 1862, the French composer Charles Gounod was on holiday in Northern Italy when on the evening of April 24th, he wandered alone by the picturesque shores of Lake Nemi. He was attracted by the sound of gentle music floating in the air off in the distance, and looking in the direction from where it came, saw an Italian peasant passing by, singing his native melodies to the accompaniment of his guitar. Gounod’s attention was immediately arrested, and so enchanted was he by the music that he followed the singer for some distance. Gounod later described his experience to a close friend: “I was so enraptured that I regretted I could not purchase the musician and his instrument complete; but this being an impossibility, I did the next best thing: I bought his guitar and resolved to play it as perfectly as he did.”

Date 1835
Location Naples, Italy
Length of Guitar 915mm
String Length 630mm
Upper Bout Width 230mm
Waist Width 160mm
Lower Bout Width 296mm
Side Depth at Waist 85mm
Soundboard: Spruce | Back: Maple | Sides: Maple | Details: Ornate, hand-cut ebony appliqué applied to the soundboard.

So great an impression did this incident make on Gounod, that upon returning to his hotel he immediately inscribed in ink on this guitar – an 1834 Gaetano Vinaccia – “Nemi 24 Aprile, 1862” in memory of this happy occasion. Naples was the third largest city in Europe behind London and Paris during the eighteenth century. There was a large artisan community crafting stringed instruments focused mainly on violins and mandolins, but also guitars. Highly ornate, but often crudely made models were waiting to be purchased by British tourists on their Grand Tours.

Antonio Vinaccia (active 1763–1784) belonged to a Neapolitan family who made and developed highly sought-after mandolins. The “Neapolitan” mandolin, popular at both ends of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was featured in the works of Beethoven and Verdi. Very little is known about the life and work of Antonio’s son, Gaetano Vinaccia (1767–1849). Nearly all current literature states that Gaetano was indeed the son of Antonio Vinaccia, but in the absence of scholarly research into the Vinaccia family, we must accept this with some caution. Furthermore, since Antonio’s workshop seems to have been on Via Constani, while that of his brother Giovanni’s was on Rue Catalana (the same street Gaetano worked for the whole of his career), perhaps he apprenticed with Giovanni, and even took over his workshop. From extant labels we can see that Gaetano worked at 85 Rue Catalana from around 1779 until around 1801, then briefly at number 50, and for some time at number 46 in the 1830s and later.

To complicate matters, some literature states that there were two Gaetano Vinaccias, I & II. This assumption, however, may be due to misread and doctored dates on labels making the guitars look older. A Vinaccia guitar from 1801, for example, had the date on its label clearly changed to 1761, which would have him around two years of age when the guitar was made.

Gaetano’s son, Pasquale (1809–1885), continued the family tradition and was described by Harrison as an “inventive genius” who evolved the mandolin by substituting wire for gut, applying mechanical tuners, and increasing the compass of the fingerboard.

The Vinaccia guitar in the Austin-Marie Collection was made by Gaetano during the latter part of his career and is labeled, “Gaetano Vinaccia, Napoli, Rua catalana, No.46, 1835.” Like the guitars from his fellow Neapolitans, the Fabricatores, the elaborate bridge mustachios are made of hand-cut ebony appliqués of twisting vines. The back and sides are of solid maple. The ebony fingerboard is only slightly raised, extending over the soundboard with the neck meeting the body at the octave fret.

While modern historians cannot precisely determine if Gaetano Vinaccia was indeed responsible for creating the first guitar with six single strings, there is no doubt that his  early pioneering work made a significant contribution to guitar design.