A violin maker discovers that bargains with the devil rarely turn out well
| The sky is grey with midwinter clouds. There will be no rain, just more cold wind from the north. The year is 1664 In the city of Cremona, Italy. The plague years have decimated the population of Northern Italy, 60 percent of the population have died from the dreaded disease. Times are hard and barely survivable. For three years fourteen year old Giancarlo Cruzzola has been apprenticed to Nicolo Amati, master violin-maker.
His father begged Nicolo to take him on as an apprentice, saying, "He is a hard worker and willing to do the dirtiest most demeaning jobs."
Even though he was just eleven when he became an apprentice he worked hard keeping the shavings swept and the glue pot clean. He hid the fact that his uncle who was a victim of the plague experimented with wood and made a predecessor of the violin, had taught him how to select wood for its resonating properties. For three years his gift of being able to select wood that has superior resonating qualities remained his own well kept secret. Then he made the mistake of sharing his knowledge with a fellow student. The scheming Antonio Stradivari learned from Giancarlo something that he knows will help him become the worlds greatest violin maker. His newly borrowed technique raises him further in the eyes of the master. From that moment on he relentlessly pushes Giancarlo toward the bottom rung of the ladder of success in the Amati school.
Business in the shop has been minimal for some months now and the master has singled out his youngest apprentice to be the recipient of his building fury. His age and size makes him easy prey. His slight build reflects the fact that meals in this shop are served to the apprentices according to their status on the ladder of success. He has a firm grip on the bottom rung now with no competition in sight. Stradivari, the favored apprentice makes sure to give him a chore to do just before mealtime thus ensuring that Giancarlo is last to the table. All that he ever gets to consume is what the others leave behind, usually the leftover crumbs of the meal.
Any wood that he might select from the drying stack of lumber in the shop is quickly snatched away by the jealous Stradivari so Giancarlo is left with only pieces that would best be utilized as glue blocks. He has spent much time attempting to bring out the best from the discarded lumber with which he can work.
He bows his head in deference to master Nicolo Amati. The apprentice shrinks into his raged shirt hoping for any protection that it might offer from the beating he knows is coming.
The master towers above the skinny lad holding the product of many hours of the cringing apprentice's best efforts to utilizing what was left for him to use. Nicolo waves the partially completed instrument like a club in his burly work scarred hands. "This is worthless! It is a complete waste of time. These materials could better have been utilized by someone with talent." He takes several steps circling his apprentice with his face showing the rage that he is barely containing.
"I don't understand why you persist in making expensive kindling, You've spent countless hours on this!" Nicolo Amati shouts, smashing the partially finished violin over the head of the cowering boy. The first blow cuts open the boy's scalp and disintegrates forever any hope of his being allowed to blossom in this shop. Giancarlo sinks to the floor in a shower of blood spatters. The angry Nicolo Amati leaves the skinny bloody-faced former apprentice lying face down on the filthy floor in front of him.
The master stares down at the boy, knowing there will soon going to be a serious shortage of food and wine unless some serious money comes into his shop, right away. He thinks, "Throwing this piss poor excuse for a human being back to the gutter from whence he came will have positive effects. There will be one less mouth to feed and to impress the apprentices by demonstrating beyond doubt just who is the boss." There is no mercy in his heart.
"Out, get out! You don't deserve to sweep up the shavings from fine apprentices like these," The master points to the door and then throws the broken remains of the apprentice's long hours of effort into the fire. The nervous laughter of the other apprentices stings Giancarlo like a shower of hot stones. Nicolo waves his hand over the huddle of now laughing boys crouching on the floor just out of his range."Do not ever drag your worthless flea bitten ass across this threshold again. He knows full well what the effect of watching him discipline this poor skinny wretch, was having on the other apprentices.
They each secretly wonder, "Am I next?" as they witness Nicolo's demonstration of his superiority over the half starved fourteen year old lad laying on the floor. The boy sobs, blinded from the blood running from his scalp wound unaware that Nicolo Amati is preparing to use the sole of his boot to push him out the door. The force of the kick skins his knees, bangs his already bloody head, and tears the skin from his elbows on the rocks and offal that form the surface of the street. He lands face down in a pile of fresh dung. Nicolo's favored apprentice, Antonio Stradivari, casually tosses the ragged little cloth bag containing all of Giancarlo's few worldly possessions into the street. He laughs hysterically.
Deep inside the disgraced boy is a well of anger that he calls on now, with no fear of reprisal. They have done their worst. He shouts in an uncharacteristically strong voice, "I will repay your kindness, you bastard," to Nicolo's favorite apprentice, Antonio Stradivari.
Giancarlo will not disgrace his parents by returning home. His family has nothing they can spare him, not even a few bites of food. They have only enough food to take the edge off the pangs of hunger experienced by the four remaining children in the home.
With no food with which to fill his empty stomach, he survives on a few edible bits of garbage served with a desert of a helping of hate. His thoughts are, "some day Nicolo will receive his just deserts, and there is a special place in Hell for Stradivari and the other apprentices who mocked and scorned him leaving him only a few crumbs at meal time."
He becomes a street sweeper, cleaning up piles of horse droppings before they are squished by the wheels of a wagon. What doesn't get cleaned up right away will turn into a cloud of choking airborne particles in just a short while. Some members of the privileged class enjoy tossing a penny into a fresh pile of feces just to see him scramble to dig it out with his bare fingers. He finds a coin, now and then in fresh sweepings, as he transfers them to a waiting dung cart. Working as hard as he can, he earns barely enough to keep his worst pangs of hunger at bay. He sleeps with the animals in the stable when it rains. Sometimes all he can find to eat are scraps destined to feed the pigs.
One morning he hears someone call out to him. He turns to see a Gypsy Cart slowing to a stop. The driver is a shriveled old man who motions for him to come and sit on the seat beside him.
"You look as if it has been a long while since you had a square meal and a decent place to sleep."
In quiet desperation he turns to the forces of darkness to seek revenge upon those who ridiculed his efforts and forced this way of life upon him.
On occasion he takes advantage of the opportunity to remove a coin or two from the pocket of an inebriated vagabond. He keeps his head down knowing that being caught meant either a quick death by blade or a slow one of starvation and abuse in a filthy prison cell.
On rare occasions when he has the money, he rents a room for a night above the stables summoning the Prince of Darkness to aid him in his quest for vengeance upon the violin makers of Cremona. A long while later after six-hundred and sixty-six tries, a crack in the floor of the tiny room out-gasses a thick cloud of choking sulfurous smoke. The one he seeks appears in flickering red light half shrouded by the noxious cloud.
“At Last!” Giancarlo shouted with glee, dancing in the center of the pentacle that he had scraped into the floor of the tiny hovel. He had bloodied his finger when he tore the nail while scraping the image which would allow him to cast the spell he needed. Drops of his blood outlined the image he had carefully drawn in the dust and ashes covering the floor of the tiny hovel.
“Who has summoned me from the depths of Hell?” The thunderous voice shook Giancarlo’s bones and made his hair stand on end, charged by the powers of evil.
The nature of what he had summoned was so overwhelming that he was almost unable to speak. A mixture of fear and the acrid fumes of burning sulfur paralyzed his voice. He finally squeaked out “It is I, Your servant Giancarlo Cruzzola; I need your help to avenge my honor.”
"Piss ant, you have no honor to avenge." Satana, il diavolo, laughed as he spoke. "But you are filled with pride, jealousy, and hate, we can work with that." He seemed to be waiting for something as he looked around the room and took one step closer. "If you want me to work with you to wreak havoc on the lives of those who wronged you just clean yourself up. Get a bath and some decent clothes. You must eat to increase your strength. Get yourself some food and rest I’ll see you in six days.” A stream of coins trickled to the floor finally accumulating into a fair sized pile. The devil vanished rather quickly after. It was an anti climax to what had just happened.
On the floor where Satana materialized lay the pile of coins, enough for him to feast for several days, and to ease the pain of living with copious amounts of wine to slake his thirst for justice. Giancarlo ate his fill twice a day, and purchased a new wardrobe. He stayed in a clean, comfortable, well-furnished room for a few nights. He even spent a coin twice for female company to indulged in sins of the flesh.
On the sixth day just as promised, Satana il diavolo answered the summons on the first try. This time there was very little smoke but a blinding light the color of blood.
The devil stood before him arms open to embrace the startled Giancarlo. “How would you like to be rich and famous beyond your dreams?” he asked with Giancarlo tightly held captive in his arms.
“What must I do, Master?”
“Follow the instructions on this pergamena.” The devil placed a small rolled parchment into the shaking hand of the wretched little man who knelt before him. “There is a horse and cart at the stable down the street. I have paid the boarding fee. You will be expected first thing in the morning." He put his long pale fingers into his coat, "here is the key which will open the violin shop of Nicolo Amati. There are nine unfinished violins in his shop right now. Go, take them all and bring them here to me tomorrow. The apprentices will not be in the shop when you get there. I have taken care of that. When we get where we are going I will teach you how to finish those violins in a way which no one will ever duplicate. Use the cloak of darkness; it is your friend, now GO!”
The former apprentice went to his room invigorated by the opportunity to square things up with Nicolo and his band of ruffians. The loss of nine violins would mean he would have to beg for patronage to keep his shop open. The thought of Nicolo Amati, the great violin maker on his knees begging for patronage made him laugh out loud. The ones who had deprived him of food would learn what it meant to be hungry. He smiled to himself and went to his room.
Explaining to the concierge that he would need oil and a lamp to work by he was charged two more coins for his accommodations. He struggled for hours by the light of the lamp trying to glean usable information from the pergamena. His language skills were somewhat limited and the task was arduous. By morning he had not slept a wink all night. But His chest pounded with enthusiasm. He had deciphered the pergamena and was looking forward to accomplishing the task written in blood on the ancient parchment.
He learned a lengthy ritual would prepare him to obtain the most important ingredient in the power-infusing slow-curing red varnish that took its color from the “virgin’s blood.” One girl would have to be sacrificed for each instrument. If he performed the ritual perfectly the soul and the voice of the virgin girl would become a permanent part of the violin. He was a little hesitant to have to kill a young girl for each violin. Then he decided that he could do anything necessary to make a violin that would sound better than any ever made by Stradivari.
Giancarlo set off, timing his arrival at the gates of the walled city, just before dusk. The trip was long and monotonous and he kept nodding off. Luckily the horse kept on the road. Cremona had been decimated by the plague years before when Northern Italy had lost sixty percent of its population to the dread disease. The guards would still be vigilant and check his incoming wagon thoroughly.
When he arrived, he was met by two armed gate guards, who brandished swords and lances. They lifted the tarpaulin and checked every corner of his wagon.
“What is your business?”
“A stop for rest and food sir,” said Giancarlo. "Do you know of a place nearby to get a bed and fill my poor empty stomach"
"Go down this street then take the third alley to the left. It isn't far to the square. There is an inn on the corner where you can get bed and board."
"Thank you kind sir I appreciate your directions." said Giancarlo dropping a coin into his outstretched hand.
The guard seemed satisfied with their exchange, and waved him through and lowered the gate for the night behind him.
“Just made it in time,” he said to himself. When he reached the inn on the square he made arrangements with a stable-hand to care for his horse. He told him he had to load some lumber before dawn and be on the road home by daylight so he would need a wake up call before dawn.
The pocket full of coins Satana had given him had grown much lighter. He hoped there would be more soon to replace what he had spent. Then Giancarlo went into the inn, where he was fairly sure no one would know him. He took a place in a corner out of the path for mainstream traffic.
A tired looking waitress asked him, “What do you want for dinner?”
“Wine, bread, a slice of cheese and some of that,” gesturing toward a steaming bowl of chunky vegetable stew sitting in front of the nearest patron.
When he was almost finished with his meal, a group of young men came in. The clamor of their voices raised above the background noise. His heart did a leap as he realizes he knows them. They are the other apprentices of Nicolo Amati. Antonio Stradivari’s voice rises above the others betraying his obvious drunkenness. Giancarlo wonders what they are celebrating. They have not looked in his direction so he used the remainder of his bread to mop up the broth from the stew, He wadded the bread and stuffed it into his mouth. He took the last swig of wine to wash it down. their distraction as cover for his escape. He pressed his next to last coin into the out-stretched hand of the concierge, who led him to a small room with a lumpy mattress. He still had no trouble sleeping for a few hours.
It was still dark when was awakened by the lad from the stable. When he placed his last coin into the hand of the stable hand, He held the reins and led his horse and wagon from the stable, He walked the horse slowly to avoid rousing any suspicion. The key fits the lock and the door opens with a gentle push. The slight creak of the door makes Giancarlo’s heart pound so loudly that he feared it would waken Master Nicolo. The apprentices sleeps upstairs. When he stumbles over an unfamiliar object on the floor he decides to light a small whale oil lamp. He makes two quick trips removing two violins from the gluing jigs at a time. Five others have been carefully scraped with special sharp blades in preparation for finishing. He placed them on top of his load and covered them with a tarpaulin. The fury he felt threatened to explode his chest. He took the lamp and smashed it on a stack of thin curly maple boards which were curing in preparation to become violin backs. He watched the flames gain purchase and his face filled with glee. He was three blocks from the shop when he heard the first alarm. He didn’t care if Nicolo made it out of the fire or not. Anything which happened to the mean old bastard was well deserved.
The city gate was open. Only incoming traffic was being inspected. Giancarlo stopped on top of a hill a long way from the gate. When he looked back he could see the top of the plume of smoke from the fire he set. The violins in the back may never be missed; it might be assumed they burned in the fire. He smiled to himself feeling smug. Revenge was sweet.
As the sun rose overhead he was sweating and wishing for a drink. Water would be fine but wine would be better. His stomach grumbled in protest that it was empty. The horse plodded slowly around a stand of Lombardy Poplars undoubtedly planted by the Romans. A figure clad in a hooded cloak was standing in a patch of shade. When he drew alongside he realized it was .
“I admire the initiative you showed burning the shop. Nicolo was not home for the fire, too bad, but I’ll have his soul soon enough. You show great possibilities my young protégé.” Satana stepped up into the wagon. “Are you ready for a change of place and time?” He raised his arms in the cloak and a patch of the heaviest fog Giancarlo had ever seen enveloped the wagon. The fog lifted as suddenly as it had come. The horse’s hooves made a clop-clop sound on the cobblestone street. It echoed off the stone buildings on either side. He had never seen architecture like this before. His eyes grew wide with wonder. The sun was just beginning to rise in the grey area between the buildings. “Turn right here.” The way grew narrower and at the end of the street was a stable which was the back of a business.
Satana handed him another key. The doors opened revealing plenty of room for the horse and wagon. A roomy stall took up most of the left wall. Giancarlo unhitched the horse and put him into his stall without being told. It was like a dream, he expected to wake at any moment. “It is not a dream, my young protégé.” Santana led the way through the rear doors into a workshop the likes of which Giancarlo could only dream. “Come out front.”
The two went out the front door and looked back. A sign above the door and display windows read “Giancarlo Cruzzola, Master Violin Maker.”
Il diavolo spoke, “You are in New York City in North America. The year is 1880, and you will make the violins that you dreamed of. You must remember to use the recipe I gave you for the finish. Everyone who hears the sound from strings reflected off the virgins blood finish will be opened to my advances. You will win me many souls, my young protégé.” He laughed so deeply the reverberations seemed to come from a well beneath his feet..
A cash box that never grew empty financed everything a violin maker could want. He gathered materials for the first batch of finish. That morning he went hunting very early. He kept a sharp knife and an earthen jar to collect the blood under his cloak. His early morning stroll took him by the entrance of a catholic girl’s school next to a huge church. A sign read St. Theresa’s School.
The girls, around fifth grade age, were filing from early Mass to the school. He crossed the street at the end of the block as if he were going to visit the church. He climbed the stone stairs and opened the heavy oak door. It took a while for his eyes to become accustomed to the dim light. A faint trace of incense laced the air. He looked around slowly, and then he saw twelve year old Lucia Angelotti, kneeling and illuminated by a dozen lit candles on the pedestal of a life sized marble statue of the Virgin Mary. He sucked his breath through his teeth carefully looking for any clergy lurking in a dark corner. He carefully approached her. When the time was just right It was over almost before it began; He knew exactly how to bleed her rapidly and how to cut out her voice box. That part of the ritual only went rapidly. In a few seconds he had cut her jugular and caught a cup of her blood in his jar covering her resonator. When he had what he needed he let her collapse and finish bleeding out on the smooth marble floor. He took the a small silver locket from her throat when the ritual began and now he dropped it into his pocket. He knew the blood and resonator he had removed would need a touch of familiarity to keep them comfortable. When the ritual was finished and he had the essence of what he needs for the special violin. He had never before thought about the gift he was giving to the girl, Her voice will fill a concert hall with the message Giancarlo hurried out a side exit door without the slightest prick of conscience.
That day he applied the secret red finish to the first violin resulting the very best he'd ever heard. The ritual he had learned from the pergamena captures the girl's soul and her voice inside the blood red finish. Soon he would string this beautiful instrument and slowly let the tension equalize in the instrument. When the conditions were perfect he mixed the special oils and the virgins blood which contains her voice and her soul. As the finish dries coat after coat he finishes scraping other violins until they too are ready for their first coat of finish to establish the bond with the voice of the soul trapped within the deep red layer of stain. The process involved a strenuous polishing ritual which keeps her soul trapped, bound to this instrument and Satana il Diavelo
He walked farther that day looking for prey. One thing he liked about this city was the number of churches. He finally saw twelve-year old Aurora Bucchi coming out of a neighborhood grocery store with a large bag of groceries.
“Posso aiutarvi a trasportare i generi alimentari?” (May I help you with those groceries?)
She looked up at him with a smile. Her large innocent brown eyes widened with pleasure that a stranger had offered to help her. “Per favore, se non vi dispiace.” (Please, if you don’t mind.)
“This is too easy” he thought as he pushed the shocked little girl into a narrow alley. Again it was over almost too soon. He would have liked to stay to watch the life drain from her big brown eyes, but eight priceless violins called for him to finish them. He took a dainty pearl ring from her finger, dropped it into his pocket and walked calmly away with an earthen jar full of virgins blood tucked carefully inside his pocket.
Over the next few weeks he hunted seven more times. Three more of his victims were found in churches. Satana could not do anything in a church, but his human protégé could do whatever he wanted. The police were going crazy. “What kind of animal is killing our young girls in broad daylight in our Churches, yet?
While he was hunted on the streets Giancarlo spent his time patiently scraping the violins to the perfect surface to accept il diavolo’s secret finish. When all nine violins had set, Giancarlo went to other musical Instrument shops looking for the best bows money could buy. He found only one bow worthy of these violins.. He asked the shop keeper for eight more. “You have got to be kidding,” he was told. “Bring it here so that I can hear this great violin. Perhaps then I might find someone willing to make eight bows.”
Giancarlo said, “I’ll be here after lunch.”
The next day he took the first red violin with him to the shop. Massimo Pietro the proprietor had invited Ignazio Calandrelli over to taste an exceptional wine made in his own vineyard and to play this wonderful violin. From the first second Ignazio touched it he seemed in a trance. The music that poured from the strings was visceral and so powerful that Massimo dropped to his knees with his eyes full of tears. When he finished playing it Ignazio stood speechless as if he had been stricken by a lightning bolt. Giancarlo gently took the violin from his shaking hands.
“Well,” he said, “do I get my bows?”
“Si, Si.” Both other men were still under the power of the voice within the violin.
“How long?” said Giancarlo. “I have eight more violins that need bows.”
“Eight weeks” said Calandrelli.
A handshake followed, and Giancarlo walked out the door carrying the violin.
Word of such an unusual instrument began to circulate. Neither of the men at Massimo’s shop had thought to get the man with “THE VIOLIN’s” name.
Word traveled quickly about the violin, and rich men hatched plans to get their hands on it. Musicians dreamed of playing it. An air of anticipation settled over the music world of New York City.
Giancarlo worked on more violins. He scraped and shaped the resonators as he had learned from his days as an apprentice to the great violin maker. Before he had the secret RECIPE. He did not need to harvest more blood for finish. That could wait until he was ready. It is not good to harvest too many voices and souls in one area because missing young girls draw attention. He was overcome with anticipation and emotion from wanting to do it the first time and he was careless. He harvested the first virgin only three blocks away. Now he avoided showing his face to anyone who might have seen him the day he put Lucia's voice and soul into the first red violin.
He planned for a grand opening, only the most influential and the most famous musicians would be invited. He hummed as he worked. He felt better than he could ever remember. It was his time now.
If only Stradivari and the others who had heckled him could see. He guessed he would have to take solace that they are all dead now. With that thought a smile crossed his face.
By the beginning of fall, the time for delivery of the bows drew near. He became tenser and walked more to work it off. One of those walks took him by St Theresa’s School just as the girls were coming to school from Mass. He was not aware of it, but one little girl said to another, “That man looks just like the man who was here the morning Lucia Angelotti was murdered.”
At dinner that night she made a remark about it. “He looked just like the man who was going into church the morning Lucia Angelotti was murdered.” By the next evening most of the parents of the girls from St Theresa’s knew about the man Carla Di Bella had seen.
The next morning two hundred pairs of eyes watched for the man. After three days a man named Nunzio Angelotti was about to give up when Giancarlo walked up the street. Carla Di Bella waved at him, letting him know this was the man she had seen that frightful morning. He decided to follow the man at a discreet distance. Nunzio took up a good position to watch when he entered the shop. After an hour or so he left his shop with the gait of someone on a mission.
Nunzio went to the back of the shop. The horse in the stall seemed happy to see someone during the day. It was child’s play to open the back door and let himself in. It took a while for his eyes to grow accustomed to the dim light. He walked around looking at the violins in various stages of completion. Then he took a good look at the row of nine finished violins on a stand. At the bottom of each was a piece of little girl’s jewelry. The violin on the end had a small silver heart shaped locket hanging below it. Nunzio’s calloused fingers opened the locket. When he looked at the pictures inside Lucia looked at him from one side and her little sister Daria looked from the other. He let out a sob which told of the horrible pain of losing your daughter in such a violent way.
Nunzio looked out the window, waiting for Giancarlo to come up the street. He held an iron bar which was part of a violin jig in his hand.
Giancarlo walked up the street with a bounce in his step. Things were finally going his way.
The key rattled in the lock and Giancarlo stepped inside his shop two steps carrying eight bows in a bundle.
“Recognize this?” said Nunzio holding his daughters locket where Giancarlo could see it. His eyes widened with the approach of death. “Thunk," went the sound of skull bones being crushed.
Nunzio grabbed a five gallon can of lamp oil and soaked everything starting with the violins.
The entire building was reduced to ashes. Laughter sounding as it came from the depths of the underworld echoed down the street.
Since the fire no virgin girls have been sacrificed.
The horse from the stall in back was found wandering several blocks away.