S5, E3: A Poet’s Pilgrimage to Italy’s Violin-Making Capital

On this week’s episode of Travel Tales by AFAR, a family travels to Cremona, Italy, to learn how violins are made—and take home much more than memories.

On the third episode of Travel Tales by Afar, season five, we head to a small Italian city renowned for its violin-making.


Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, and this is Travel Tales by Afar. Every week, we hear stories of life-changing travel from poets, scientists, authors, entrepreneurs, and more. And this week, we’re going to hear about a family’s musical pilgrimage to a small town in Italy with a big reputation.

Tess Taylor will be our guide. She’s a poet and a gardener—her latest book is a poetry anthology she edited called Leaning Toward Light, Poems for Gardens & the Hands That Tend Them. She’s also a musician and a parent, and as you’ll hear, her 12-year-old son Bennett has been fascinated by the violin since he was 3 years old. So last summer, she took Bennett, her daughter, Emeline, and her husband, Taylor, to Cremona, Italy, one of the most famous places in the country for violin making, or lutherie. They found outdoor concerts, and luthiers, and ancient bell towers. So they returned home with musical memories—and also something that will, likely, last a lifetime.

Tess Taylor, poet: It’s about 5 p.m. on a mild June afternoon just after the solstice. As if on cue, the streets surrounding Cremona’s main piazza fill with lovers and friends, wanderers in search of an afternoon gelato or Aperol spritz. This might happen in any small town in Italy, but today the cobblestone alley we’ve turned onto is filled with something else: music.

As my family and I walk up the tiny diagonal Via Ceresole heading towards Cremona’s central cathedral, we see that our route is nearly blocked by the presence of an enormous black baby grand piano. Sitting on a small bench are not one but two pianists pounding out first a Beethoven sonata, then some Spanish folk tunes, then a spirited rendition of a Brahms duet.

Notes ricochet off terra-cotta walls. A crowd fills the alley, and we pause too. High above, at the end of the street, the sun glints off the rust-colored Torrazzo of Cremona, the soaring bell tower of Cremona’s cathedral. It’s a gorgeous moment in this city, which I am learning is bursting at its seams with song.

To be sure, we knew we were coming to Cremona for music: for violin music, in particular. We had been making our way up Italy’s Adriatic coast: We examined mosaics and visited Dante’s tomb in Ravenna, ate astounding ravioli in Emilia-Romagna. Now we’ve crossed over into Cremona, a small bustling town in the south of Lombardy, between Venice and Milan. Stunning pop-up piano concert aside, Cremona’s longest claim to fame is as a center for violin making.

Cremona is where Andrea Amati lived in the 16th century. He was the violin maker most credited with giving the instruments in the violin family—the cello, the viola, the violin—their recognizable contemporary forms. A century later, Antoni Stradivari was born here. He made instruments of legendary beauty that haunt audiences to this day. To many violin aficionados, Amati and Stradivarius violins still offer Platonic ideals of violin sound. Cremona has a number of Stradivarius violins in its violin museum, and even better, it offers a daily concert where you can actually hear a Stradivarius played.

I’ve been wanting to visit Cremona since I read about it maybe five years ago. At the time, my son Bennett was about seven. He’d already been playing the violin since he was three, when he fell in love with it on a different trip. We’d been in Nova Scotia, listening to traditional fiddle music. After seeing those fiddlers, he asked for a violin every day, for so long that I finally relented. It turned out Bennett knew what he wanted: He’s got a clever ear, a fast way with songs—he’s the sort of kid who hears a folk song or movie soundtrack and can almost immediately noodle it out. Bennett’s almost 12 now, and I can’t remember a day when he wasn’t tinkering with something: the theme song to a movie; a folk tune or hymn; bluegrass tunes, and increasingly, complicated classical pieces. My 8-year-old daughter Emeline started young as well, as if she assumed that violin was just a necessary part of one’s childhood.

It’s been fascinating to follow the kids down the violin rabbit hole. I, too, have studied music seriously. I sang in a serious chorus as a young person, and once thought I’d be an opera singer. Even so, I never played an instrument. Now the violin, something neither my husband, Taylor, or I knew much about when Bennett first asked for one, has become a constant companion in our lives. We’ve grown fascinated by the nuances of fingering and bowing. We nerd out about bow hair and strings. We love the varied ways that violins sing, too.

One of the delights of this trip is that, town by town, we’ve been celebrating how one craft, one art form, can indelibly shape a place. The legendary mosaics we just saw in Ravenna date from the 6th century, but mosaic-making and mosaic schools persist there to this day. It’s like this in Cremona, as well: Violin maker Andrea Amati died 500 years ago, and Stradivari passed 300 years ago. Yet Cremona is still a critical center to build, trade, study, and discuss violins. The art of making violins in small studios persists here.

For centuries, Cremonese craftspeople built the instruments that made their way to the musicians of almost every royal court. These days, there are violin makers and factories worldwide. There’s even a very good one down the street from our house in California. Despite that, the slow art of building violins by hand continues undiminished in Cremona. There are at least 500 masters and apprentices, who build violins, violas, and cellos from scratch. You can see their shops down almost every alleyway: The town is as lined with violin studios as Sonoma, California, is with wineries.

This afternoon, we’re on our way to meet one of them. Robert Gasser, a master craftsman, is going to show us his workspace, his violins in progress. We walk from the central piazza up a quiet sunlit street, where Robert’s shop occupies a narrow, bright first-floor studio. Violin molds hang on the yellow walls and fine tools and brushes are scattered on worktables. On the walls, the partially carved wooden bodies of unfinished instruments hang alongside the ribs and molds of instruments to come. The kids are fascinated—as am I. We admire the various jars of resins in one hutch. There are piles of wood shavings everywhere. “The dust smells good,” says Bennett. We feel the accreted centuries of craft.

Each violin takes about a month to build. And Robert, an expressive-looking Swiss-born man, has been building violins, month by month, for more than 40 years. The first thing he reminds us is that he is not a “violin maker” but more properly a “luthier.” The word reminds me that not so long ago, violins didn’t really exist, and most string instruments were called “lutes.”

That word, as well as the lute itself, descend from the Arabic stringed instrument l’oud. The “oud” is gourd shaped with frets. Its earliest forms date to Mesopotamia, and from there, it traveled with both Arab and Jewish tribes. Some oud were bowed, others were not. The stringed instrument’s histories and possibilities span the world, span culture, and history. Even so, Robert points out that amid many migrations, we don’t know precisely when, in the late Renaissance, the shape of the violin we now recognize was born.

Robert tells us that sometimes historians imagine that the violin began with Jewish musicians who were banished from the Spanish court of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Cremona would have been at a crossroads, switching between the influences and power of Venice and Spain. Perhaps these expelled court musicians fled and resettled in Cremona, perhaps closeting their identities to pass as Catholics. Perhaps one of them taught Amati.

Whatever the story, in Robert’s shop, for the first of what will be many times this week, I’m reminded that the violin is a creature of long travel, across the globe, across time. We’ve only been in Cremona for a few hours, but already I have the uncanny sense of being on the trade route of a mystery. I think about how instruments accompany our lives, as well as our songs, how they journey with us so we can pass their music down.

“Do you know what this is?” Robert interrupts my reverie by lifting a core of tree trunk and showing it to the kids. “It’s where the violin begins.” These are sections of spruce trees Robert has carefully sourced. He even harvested some of them himself. We all peer at a stumpy triangular cut of spruce he harvested from a German forest in the 1970s, shortly after he began his life as a full-time violin maker. He explains that blocks like this must sometimes cure and age for decades. Only then will he pick one out and begin to sculpt it with the many tools that line the desks and walls. We admire the tools that lay splayed and hung around him—finger planes, clamps, gouges, chisels. He picks up a plane and, like a master chef dicing an onion with speed and ease, casually hews a few shavings off the rough-hewn body of a violin in progress.

“I don’t cut my own trees anymore,” Robert tells us, adding that it was important for him to learn to read trees, to listen to them, to see their grain. He talks about learning to knock on the wood, not unlike the way a chef might tap a watermelon for ripeness. He talks about learning to imagine echoes, and reverberation, how each segment of a tree might ring. He explains that the classic Cremonese violin he makes is a combination of maple and spruce. The hard maple creates the structure of the neck and hard echoing wall of the back; the softer spruce vibrates with the song. The oldest violins are held together with rabbit bone glue, their strings made with animal guts. A well-cared-for violin, like a wine, deepens with age, opening in the presence of its own vibration. One fact particularly strikes us: that the unglued post which inwardly supports the body, and helps the whole to vibrate, is called the soundpost, at least in English. But in French and Italian, this critical piece, which allows the resonance of song, is called the “soul.” Each violin has a soul. A soul is what allows the whole to ring. “That just feels so true,” Bennett says. “Violins do have souls.” He is rapt.

Now something surprising happens—Robert puts down the violin he’s been tinkering on while he talks to us and offers Bennett a chance to play some finished violins. There’s a very fine one that he’s made for the professional market, and a special one that he crafted with a student he’s been teaching lutherie. We stand in the studio in the late afternoon sun, hearing Bennett play a few scales and a bit of the “The Swan” by Camille St. Saëns. Bennett plays each a couple of times on each violin. He’s deeply absorbed. “This one has a robust sound,” he says, of the student violin, suddenly focused, with the far-off look of a connoisseur in his eyes. We linger in the sunlit store. Both the boy and the violin are young, though the city, the songs, and the craft, are far older.

“To make a violin is an act of hope for the future,” Robert says. “You’re making something you hope will last beyond anyone who might play it now.” Somehow, at his urging, we leave with the student-made violin in tow—not to buy, but to practice on while we are here this week. Bennett seems nervous, terrified, delighted, and proud, all at once.

Outside, the light is golden. After buying apricots, eggs, prosciutto, melons for tomorrow’s breakfast, we head home to change and head out again. We’ve arrived in the middle of the city’s annual Monteverdi festival, and we have tickets for a number of rather wonderful 10-euro concerts held in the courtyards of palazzi around town.

That evening there’s a concert that reimagines Renaissance music as jazz. The next morning, there’s a baroque soloist playing at the city’s violin museum. By afternoon, after some well-deserved pizza, we’re back in a palace courtyard hearing three tenors singing madrigals together with a lute. The concerts are about an hour each, in such lovely settings that it’s easy to bring the kids and daydream a bit. Bennett delights in watching one of the tenors play something like a zither. Emeline draws pictures of fantastic instruments in her notebook.


The next day, we make our way to the town art museum: Like everything in Cremona, it’s lovely, manageable, untouristed. It’s got one haunting Caravaggio, which is just enough to linger on with attention and delight, and several upstairs rooms devoted to unusual historic instruments. There are fat-bellied lutes that troubadours would have used to sing old madrigals. We see porchettes, or pocket violins used by dance instructors to accompany their pupils in an era before recorded music. There are posh-looking violas and hurdy-gurdies, antique miniature guitars. I lose track of the variations. “It’s amazing to watch the shapes change from a carved-out gourd with a neck, to this wavy thing with a bow,” says Bennett. Emeline is zoning in on lacy patterns and beautiful shapes of a blond guitar with ebony and ivory inlay. Her pictures seem to have gotten more intricate, even in these few days.

I can see why. Even in their silent glass cases, I can feel the instruments around us, calling our attention to some spritely, musical conversation. I imagine delicate runs of notes, long somber tones. I imagine their players traveling through time, carrying a bit of song inside them, ready to send that song into the world, so that we all can laugh, dance, lament, or love. Beside me, Bennett mimes rocking out beside an old lyre, one with strings between enormous horn-shaped spires.

After the museum, we sit in the shadow of the Torrazzo. I have read that it is the third highest brick bell tower in the world, if you’re interested in rating the height of brick bell towers, which I am not. Instead, we admire the way the antique clock is deep blue and painted with enormous signs of the zodiac. It’s all so Italian, but not at all harried. I realize I am delighted not to be in Florence or Venice or Rome, but rather in Cremona, whose pace allows us to attend to this focused pilgrimage. My husband and I have also made the happy discovery that at 5 p.m. in Cremona, when you order an Aperol spritz, it appears with a few slices of pizza and a bowl of potato chips. This combination of drink and snacks keeps us mellow. Pigeons wheel through the square. We all wonder why there aren’t more stateside piazzas where you can enjoy Aperol spritz and potato chips in the shade of a magnificent cathedral.

After our afternoon feast, we see one more a cappella group. It’s a quartet of singers, performing madrigals by Orlando di Lasso. The kids are entranced. Each song is a little scene: dramatic, sometimes quarrelsome, formed in delightful trills and chases. “I never knew music could be so funny, Emeline says. “I know,” Bennett replies. Even though it’s in Italian, we get the jokes. I realize that we all feel nourished by this city, by the ongoingness of song.

That evening, over dinner at the lovely, classic restaurant Il Violino, our talk turns to the strange task ahead of us. We are due to return Bennett’s borrowed violin to Robert. Yet somehow, I don’t want to. I realize that, somehow, I’m hoping we will purchase this student-made violin Bennett has been playing. On the one hand, I did not come here to go violin shopping. We weren’t systematic; we hadn’t expected to do such a thing; it’s more extravagant than I had planned to be. On the other hand, there’s a beautiful clear sound rising out of it, and there’s a precision to each pitch, and it’s bringing us joy. Even though he doesn’t have the sheet music, even though his memory of the piece is imperfect, it is lovely to hear Bennett exploring “The Swan,” working out the resonance of the ascending notes. I realize I am hopeful that he’ll carry this time into the future too.

On our last morning, we’re standing in our rather spartan rental Airbnb apartment, deliberating. Bennett has been playing a few final scales, a bit of Bach in G minor. “There’s so much space in the sound,” Bennett says. “I feel like I can really hear each note.” He’s not asking us for the violin. In fact, he seems aware that something like this is a big responsibility for someone who is not yet a teenager.

Taylor and I think for a moment. I have a sense that if we don’t do this now, I’ll regret it. We make a decision: We’ll hold the violin here and Taylor will come back for it in the fall, when he has to travel again, and we have less luggage. We make arrangements to purchase the violin. It’s actually quite reasonably priced, among Cremona’s many extremely valuable instruments—more than a factory-made violin stateside, but surely in a reasonable range for a serious young player.

I know I don’t know enough about violins to know if this is the right choice. I have a pang: What if it’s too serious a thing to give a young person, who hasn’t made up their mind about music? Is this the right thing to do?

As it happened, as soon as we were home from Italy, Bennett fell and broke his wrist in two places. It wasn’t an easy recovery. Even walking and running were painful for a month. He couldn’t write for two months. He couldn’t play the violin at all for nearly four months. For a moment it wasn’t even clear that his wrist would heal properly, which became a heavy worry we all bore. Yet the time seemed to give him a chance to reflect, to think about what he wanted and hoped for. When Taylor picked up the Cremona violin that November, Bennett was finally out of rehab, hungry to lean into new music. The violin arrived home just at the moment he could celebrate being better at last.

All winter, far from Cremona, I hear the new violin open up under Bennett’s playing. He plays Bach and Corelli, figuring out new ways to shift his fingers, new ways to leap and land. We can all hear how this violin’s high notes are lighter and clearer, more spritely than the fiddle he’d begun on. “This violin is like a new voice,” he says. “I can sing new songs with it.”

I ask Bennett what he remembers from those days in Italy. He tells me that he remembers thinking about the variations and possibilities in instruments, about the songs that range from strumming to bowing, about the many shapes of the music that people have always seemed to need to carry with them. He’s also curious about the rich beauty of the sounds we heard last summer. “I want to learn Italian,” Bennett says one day. “I want to know how to use a baroque bow.”

I don’t know the path of my child, or of his instrument, but I feel so honored to be in the unfolding present of his songs. I feel like I’ve given Bennett something he can carry with him into whatever future he chooses. I feel like I’ve given him a way of accompanying his life. “A violin is a way to practice hearing,” Bennett says. “It’s a way of making music everywhere.”

Aislyn: That was Tess Taylor, who continues to hear the sound of Bennett’s Cremona violin every day. You can hear more about that evolution, as well as her thoughts on Cremona in my YouTube chat with her. We’ll share that link in the show notes, as well as links to her books and website and some (more) Cremona inspiration.

Next week, we’ll be back with a story about crossing the United States on a bike—with no food or money.

Ready for more Travel Tales? Visit afar.com/podcast, and be sure to follow us on Instagram and X. We’re @afarmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find Travel Tales by Afar on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to rate and review the show. It helps us book amazing guests like the one you heard today, and it helps other travelers find it.

This has been Travel Tales, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composed and produced by Strike Audio.

Everyone has a travel tale. What’s yours?

Follow Travel Tales by AFAR
Episode Hosts