Paganini and Genoa
The narration of a journey
Paganini does not repeat, he plays in cemeteries, he plays on one string, he has made a pact with the devil. Niccolò Paganini was the most ‘talked about’ musician in history. Of course he never made a pact with the devil, but there was some truth in the other rumours.
Paganini was the first “rock star” of instrumental music, the first artist to understand the importance of self-promotion. He was his own manager and understood how to amaze crowds: he dressed in black and wore his black hair long, he had an intense gaze and his face always palid. However, if these were the only reasons for his success, his fame would have faded with his death.
In reality, Paganini was the greatest violinist of all time, an excellent composer and an equally fine conductor. It is no coincidence that he was able to astound many colleagues who would go on to dedicate compositions to him, often drawing on his most famous themes.
This page, therefore, aims to celebrate a Genoese who, with his incredible European concert tour, is rightly considered the first European star instrumentalist.
The man and the musician
If you have the opportunity to read any of the various English public papers, you will see what sort of unheard-of enthusiasm, or rather frenzy without precedence, I have aroused in the cold Britons […] The whole theatre, stalls, boxes and gallery, seemed like a stormy sea, as much from the clamour of voices and hands as from the waving of handkerchiefs and hats tossed into the air. […] The enthusiasm did not remain within the walls of the theatre: wherever I appear, in the streets or elsewhere, people stop, follow me and crowd around. I will repeat a phrase from the Times: “You may not believe half of what I’m telling you, and I am not telling you half of what there is to be told” […].
This is what Niccolò Paganini wrote to his Genoese friend Luigi Guglielmo Germi in June 1831, commenting on his triumphant performances in London. The cold Britons, as well as the Germans, the Poles, the French, and before them the Italians, had allowed themselves to be conquered by the Genoese composer’s inspiration, abandoning themselves to an extravagant enthusiasm. Paganini was the first star instrumentalist and was also the first to understand the importance of ‘self-promotion’, of publicity: he was his own manager and knew well how to amaze an audience.
Born in Genoa in 1782, Niccolò Paganini was the son of a ligaballe (packer) in the port of Genoa. When his father discovered his talent, he immediately set out to teach him the rudiments of music, first on the guitar and then on the violin. Niccolò learned quickly and in 1805 was hired by Elisa Baciocchi (Napoleon’s sister) at the court of Lucca. He held this post until 1810 when, after leaving Lucca, he toured Italy extensively, giving concerts everywhere to great acclaim. In 1828, he left Genoa by carriage for Vienna as he began his unique and hugely successful concert tour covering most of Europe which lasted until 1834.
If Christopher Columbus was Genoa’s greatest navigator, Paganini can rightly be considered its greatest overland traveller, the first great ‘European’ in the history of music. His tour took him to Austria, Germany, Poland, Belgium, France, England and Ireland. The scenes of enthusiasm recounted by Paganini in the letter were regularly repeated in each country and in every theatre.
On his return to Italy, Paganini accepted a commission at the court of Maria Luigia in Parma. There, he attempted an interesting reform of the orchestra, which was thwarted by court intrigues. Leaving Parma in 1836, after various journeys, in an increasingly precarious physical condition, accompanied by his son Achille, he settled in Nice where he died in 1840. In his will he entrusted his precious violin, the Guarneri del Gesù, nicknamed ‘Il Cannone’ to the city of Genoa.
Paganini, nomadic musician
The cities of Paganini: journeys and memories
Paganini, born in Genoa, might more properly be described as a citizen of Europe.
He was, in fact, the first instrumental star to hold rapturously recieved recitals in hundreds of cities, throughout Italy, France, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and England.
A ‘nomadic’ artist, he declared that he wanted to put down roots and it is no coincidence that he often planned to buy houses in the various cities he visited. Of course, some cities were more important than others both in his artistic and personal life.
Carro (a small village in the Val di Vara not far from La spezia) is the “native” town of Paganini’s family. Niccolò’s paternal grandfather, Giovanni Battista, was born there in 1720. He moved to Genoa and in 1745 married Maria Angela Teresa Gambaro, with whom he had two sons: Giovanni Francesco Maria and Francesco Antonio Maria. The latter, born in 1754, married Teresa Bocciardo and had six children, including Niccolò.
Genoa, Paganini’s birthplace, is also where he received his early training and it was here that he wanted to return in his old age. It is to this city that he bequeathed the Guarneri del Gesù, known as “il Cannone”, now displayed in the Palazzo del Comune.
In 1795 the 13-year-old Niccolò went to Parma to study with Alessandro Rolla. In 1834, he accepted a position at the Court of Maria Luigia. There he bought Villa Gajone, it was here that he was buried twice, for the first time in 1853 and a second, final burial in 1876.
Between 1805 and 1810, Paganini worked in Lucca at the court of Elisa Baciocchi.
With the rise of Milan as Italy’s cultural capital in the early 19th century, Casa Ricordi printed the first edition of Paganini’s Capricci in 1820, and it was also in Milan that the Genoese composer achieved his “official consecration”, holding much applauded recitals at La Scala.
Rome was also of great importance, where in 1827 Paganini was awarded the order of the Speron d’Oro, the most coveted honour granted by the Pope. Today, in Rome, the Casanatense library still houses most of Paganini’s manuscripts.
Paganini’s Europe is a continent to be crossed in the footsteps of his concerts.
In 1828, Paganini left Genoa by carriage to embark on his European tour.
His first stop was Vienna, where the Genoese artist held 14 concerts between 29th March and 24th July 1828, attracting crowds of admirers and the principal musicians then active in the city, from Schubert to Strauss the senior.
On 4 October 1828 he reached Prague, where he gave six concerts. The year 1829 saw him engaged in a long journey through Germany: his first important stop being Berlin where the young Mendelssohn heard him. After the German capital, he moved on to Frankfurt and then Warsaw, where he impressed the young Chopin who composed Souvenir de Paganini.
But the German tour also included 25 other cities and around 100 concerts. In Weimar he met Goethe, while in Leipzig he made the acquaintance of Friedrich and Clara Wieck, Schumann’s future wife. And then, again in 1830 in Frankfurt, he was heard by the 20-year-old Schumann.
But it was Paris, which Paganini reached in 1831, that was the true European capital of music and it was here that the composer achieved his most extraordinary success, counting Rossini, Berlioz and Franz Liszt among his listeners.
In mid-May 1831, Paganini reached London from where he embarked on a tour of England, Scotland and Ireland.
Finally, he took refuge in Nice where he died on 27th May 1840, after becoming seriously ill.
Genoa: Paganini itineraries
An itinerary through old Genoa in search of places that were the sites of important events in the artistic and personal life of Niccolò Paganini.
Unfortunately, the house in which he grew up no longer exists, sacrificed, together with the entire working-class neighbourhood called “a Cheullia”, to the urban development that redesigned a large area of the city centre in the 1960s. Where the house used to be (in the Gatta Mora pass) there is now a memorial plaque (in the Giardini di Baltimora), written by the Genoese poet Anton Giulio Barrili, it reads:
GREAT FORTUNE FROM A HUMBLE PLACE
IN THIS HOUSE ON THE XXVII DAY OF OCTOBER IN THE YEAR MDCCLXXXII WAS BORN TO THE GLORY OF GENOA AND DELIGHT OF THE WORLD
NICOLO’ PAGANINI IN THE DIVINE ART OF MUSIC UNSURPASSED MAESTRO
Not far from where Paganini was born stands the Church of San Salvatore, founded in the 12th century and modified many time over the centuries, in 1942 it was seriously damaged by bombing. It was restored in 1992 and is now used as part of the university of Genova, but it also hosts concerts. Niccolò Paganini was baptised here on 28 October 1782.
While Paganini’s baptism took place in San Salvatore, it is the Church of San Donato, one of the most important examples of Genoese Romanesque architecture, which houses the baptismal record of the young Niccolò.
This is one of the city's "historic" sacred complexes, built in the 17th century and decorated with important art works. Paganini performed here for the first time as a soloist on 26 May 1794.
Lazzaro Tavarone, Domenico Piola, Bernardo Castello: these are the great artists of the Genoese school who embellished the Church of Nostra Signora delle Vigne, founded in the 10th century but radically transformed in the 17th. Paganini gave a concert there on 1 December 1794 that delighted his fellow citizens.
Before Genoa possessed a prestigious and elegant theatre such as the original Carlo Felice, the main opera season took place in the Teatro Sant'Agostino, next to the Church of Sant'Agostino, where today the Teatro della Tosse stands. Niccolò Paganini held a famous concert at the theatre on 31 July 1795, organised to raise funds for his studies in Parma with the famous Alessandro Rolla.
Palazzo Ducale is one of the city's most significant buildings: its original political role as the seat of the Genoese government was superseded several decades ago by its new cultural "mission" as home to various kinds of events (from exhibitions to concerts, from major debates to a variety of educational activities). The Palazzo is overlooked by the Grimaldina Tower, which was once the city's prison. It was here that Paganini was imprisoned for a few days in May 1815, accused of abducting and seducing a young Genoese girl (Angiolina Cavanna) who had been lured by the more mature maestro and had fled with him to Parma, where she was soon abandoned. It was this episode that inspired the legend (repeated also by some illustrious writers) that Paganini had perfected his technique during his 'long' imprisonment!
In the 16th century a short distance along the road to Sampierdarena and the western part of Liguria, there were a number of inns that welcomed travelling merchants. Among these was the Hostaria sub signo falconis, which in the 17th century, encouraged by a noble Genoese family, became the city's first public theatre, one of the first in Italy to stage operas. On November 9th 1827, Paganini performed here in the presence of King Carlo Felice and the royal family (the building no longer exists as a separate construction, but now forms part of Palazzo Reale in Via Balbi).
When in March 1828 Paganini got into a carriage and left Italy for Vienna to begin his incredible concert tour, preparations were in full swing for the inauguration of Genoa’s new Teatro Carlo Felice, which took place on 7 April 1828. The elegant theatre with its 2,500 seats and excellent acoustics no longer exists, having been partially destroyed by bombing during the Second World War and, although it was partially restored and returned to activity after the war, it was later demolished to make way for the new Carlo Felice with its postmodern architecture. Paganini performed for the first time in the old theatre, designed by the architect Carlo Barabino, on 30 November 1834, following his return from the aforementioned tour.
One of Paganini's greatest supporters in Genoa was the Marquis Gian Carlo Di Negro, who was impressed by the musical talents of the young Niccolò and helped him with his early training. In 1802, the Marquis had an elegant villa built in a large park. The Villa – where today stands the 'Edoardo Chiossone' Museum of Oriental Art - was a meeting place for artists from all over Europe. On 28 July 1835, a marble bust dedicated to Paganini by the sculptor Paolo Olivari was inaugurated with a sumptuous celebration in the presence of the city's highest authorities.
Not far from the Carlo Felice stood the Pammattone Hospital, built in the 15th century and rebuilt in the second half of the 18th. Devastated by the bombings of 1942-43, in the following decades the area was used to construct the Palazzo di Giustizia (Palace of Justice), within it however, the original 18th-century courtyard and monumental colonnade of the old hospital are still visible. On 27 August 1835, Paganini, accompanied by his son Achille, went to Pammattone to visit the victims of cholera. On that occasion, confirming the generosity he had already shown on other occasions both at home and abroad, he made donations to help those in particular need
A visit to sites related to Paganini must end - or, if you prefer, start - from Palazzo Tursi, the seat of the Municipality of Genoa and faithful custodian, in the rooms dedicated to the great violinist, of “il Cannone”, the legendary Guarneri del Gesù that belonged to Paganini and was donated by him to his native city. Alongside the Cannone, the rooms contain: two of his guitars, he was also a talented player on this instrument (those on display are the property of a private individual who has made them available to the Municipality); the Vuillaume violin, a copy of the Cannone, which belonged to Paganini and was given by him to his only known pupil, the Genoese Camillo Sivori; and various objects which belonged to the musician, including a chessboard and glasses. But the star is undoubtedly the Cannone, a unique instrument, built in 1743 and for many years played exclusively by Paganini who, despite trading all his life in instruments (Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati) never parted with his favourite violin.
In October 2020, on the initiative of the “Amici di Paganini” and thanks to an agreement with the Municipality of Genoa, the Paganini Centre for Research and Education was established in Via Garibaldi.
The goal of the Centre, which aims to take up the legacy of the Institute of Paganini Studies which was active many years ago, is to promote research and musicological activity around Paganini, to launch an educational project aimed at children, primary and secondary schools and to offer young musicians opportunities to deepen and develop their artistic training. The Centre is supported by a scientific committee for research and by a group of young teachers and musicians for the educational aspects.
Discover Paganini in Genoa
The appointments with the maestro in his city
The number 27 has a particular resonance in the life of Paganini, in fact he was born on the 27th October and died on the 27th May. So events in Genoa associated with him generally revolve around these two dates.
In spring, the “Amici di Paganini” organize a program of concerts and events entitled “Gems a la Paganini” focused, above all, on emerging young talent, both from Genoa and elsewhere. The highlight of the event is usually held on 27th May, with a concert at Palazzo Tursi.
Similarly, it is now many years, that the “Genoa Paganini Festival” is held around the 27th October, this year the event is linked to the (Tri-annual) “Premio Paganini” and the competition performances will form part of the Festival program, ensuring a month of prestigious events for lovers of music and culture.
The Paganini Prize
1940 marked the centenary of the death of Niccolò Paganini. Various initiatives were organised and for the first time there was talk of an International Violin Competition named in his honour. It wasn’t until 1952, however, that the Municipality of Genoa established what has become a renowned Prize.
In 1954, only two violinists took part in the first edition and no prize was awarded. The following year, however, the number of entrants increased, and in 1956 the top prize was awarded for the first time. Since then, the competition has gradually gained international recognition and prestige. In 1956, a series of preliminary meetings in Genoa laid the foundations for the establishment, the following year in Geneva, of the Federation of International Music Competitions, of which “the Paganini” was a founding member.
Initially, the preliminary rounds were held behind closed doors, more recently however all performances were public. Since 2002, the competition has been held every two years, and in recent years it has been held every three years.
The severity of the juries and the structure of the tests have ensured the extremely high quality of the event over time. It is no coincidence that the first prize has not been awarded on sixteen occasions and that the violinists who have been awarded it have all gone on to enjoy prestigious international careers.
Paganini Genova Festival
Founded in 2017 following an initiative of the Associazione Amici di Paganini, the Paganini Genova Festival has an Organising Committee which includes, together with the Friends, the Liguria Regione, the Municipality of Genoa, the Conservatorio “Niccolò Paganini”, the Fondazione Teatro Carlo Felice and the Fondazione Hruby. Its primary objective is to celebrate the greatest violinist of all time, highlighting his multifaceted personality that never ceases to attract the curiosity of the public, thanks also to the many elements that have fueled his “legend”, giving him an appeal unsurpassed in the history of music.
The four editions of the Festival that have taken place so far, that is from 2017 to 2020, with programmes filling almost the entire month of October, have offered a wide range of musical offerings aimed at an extremely varied public: concerts, conferences, meetings, Paganini themed walks, educational activities, theatrical performances and study days. A fundamental aspect, that is close to the organisers’ heart, is the promotion of young talent. For this reason, alongside artists of unquestionable fame, the concert programmes also includes up-and-coming artists, such as violinist Giuseppe Gibboni and guitarist Carlotta Dalia.