Cremona is one of northern Italy’s less interesting cities. It has a dull aircraft hangar of a Romanesque cathedral and its enormous civic art gallery is noteworthy only for the sheer volume of undistinguished crusts stacked on the endless walls. The place, however, had its moment, ‘one far fierce hour and sweet’, when, during the mid-16th century, the violin maker Andrea Amati established a workshop in the town, initiating an enterprise that, over the next two hundred years, made the name Cremona forever synonymous with some of the loveliest sounds produced by human brilliance and virtuosity.
Amati’s extended family nurtured a succession of gifted apprentices, among them Andrea Guarneri, who set up on his own in an area of the city known as Isola, which, by the 1650s, twanged, scraped and thrummed with artificers of stringed instruments. One of these was Antonio Stradivari, most famous of them all, whose fiddles are nowadays purchased as investments to diversify the portfolios of hedge fund managers, banks and charitable foundations. By no special irony, it was Stradivari’s buccaneering business techniques that forced his rivals to shift elsewhere – to Venice, Brescia, Bergamo or Turin – and killed off the industry in Cremona for good, as it then seemed.
Amid this world of people doing clever things with spruce wood, sheep gut, resin and horsehair, Helena Attlee’s ‘Italian Adventure’ begins. She has proved already, in her superb The Land Where Lemons Grow, the strength of her empathy with the moods and pulses of Italian culture, moving across the peninsula’s