May 222011

By Denise Mattia

Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsman from Italy to New York opened recently with a collection that represents masterpieces from several northern Italian classical schools, Neapolitan plucked instruments, and a significant group of stringed instruments crafted by luthiers.
In addition to the collection, Guitar Heroes celebrates the three men who have designed and made many of the stringed instruments played by famed musicians. John D’Angelico (1905-1964),James D’Aquisto (1935 – 1995) and John Monteleone (born 1947) are from the Italian American community in New York and are part of a tradition that spans three hundred years. They are the direct descendants of the Neapolitan luthiers, the Italian immigrants from whom the master American archtop guitar makers trace their lineage, who came to New York in the 20th century.From the late 18th through the 19th century, Naples was known as a center for music, especially opera, and its musical instrument makers were famous for their mandolins and violins, contributing significantly to the design of the guitar as well. Around the turn of the 20th century, along with millions of other southern Italians, Neapolitan luthiers emigrated to the areas of New Jersey, New York and Long Island.
The first Italian mandolin makers that can be documented in New York arrived in the mid-1880s.Angelo Mannello, from the northeast of Naples, set up his workshop in 1885, and by 1893 showed instruments at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, winning a bronze medal for his decorated mandolins and mandolas. (Two of his masterpieces on view were donated by the family to the Museum in 1972.)Among the many instrument manufacturers that followed included the Vinaccia brothers, descendants of the family that standardized the Neapolitan mandolin, Luigi Ricca, whose greatest influence was on the many luthiers who worked for him and then established their own shops and Nicola Turturro who patented a mandolin in the form of the classical lyre.

John D’Angelico
developed out of this flourishing culture. The son of a tailor who lived on Mott Street, D’Angelico worked with his uncle, Raphael Ciani. When Ciani died, 18-year old D’Angelico continued to build instruments and, by the 1920s D’Angelico experimented with making archtop guitars, although none of his instruments have survived.

Borrowing designs from the famed Gibson L-5 in the early 1930s, D’Angelico’s instruments gained a reputation among players for having a balanced, full tone and a smoother sound than most other guitars. Among his many designs, the New Yorker was a larger-bodied instrument that echoed the ‘30s Art Deco period. Inlaid on the headstock of the guitar was a mother-of-pearl profile of the New Yorker Hotel.

D’Angelico’s protégée, James D’Aquisto worked for him from the 1950s until his death in 1964. Left with the workshop but without a reputation, D’Aquisto went through a series of legal mishaps, which led to his closing the New York workshop and moving to Long Island.

D’Aquisto continued to repair guitars and experiment on crafting them, altering the shape of the f-holes, the design of the headpiece and varying the colors of the varnish. He ultimately became an established luthier. In the late 1980s and early 1990s he introduced what is now referred to as his modern series (the Avant Garde, the Solo, the Centura, and the Advance), which dramatically changed the world of guitar making. He died in 1995 of an epileptic seizure.

Unlike D’Aquisito, who had apprenticed and inherited the workshop and clientele of D’Angelico after his death, John Monteleone had to make his own path. Influenced by both D’Aquisito and another master of lutherie, Mario Maccaferri, whose enterprise had grown in the 1940s to one of the major plastic manufacturing companies in the United States, Monteleone built a reputation as one of the great mandolin makers.

Toward the end of the 1980s the market for high-end archtops experienced resurgence, and Monteleone met the demands of a new generation of players. Over the past twenty years he has continued to build the very finest of archtop guitars and mandolins. Like D’Angelico, Monteleone has included Art Deco elements on his guitars, drawing inspiration from such landmarks as Radio City Music Hall, the Empire State and the Chrysler Building.

As stated in the museum’s introduction, “Monteleone has an extraordinary ability to combine a creative visual aesthetic with an astoundingly full and balanced sound to produce a masterpiece with each new instrument.”

Since becoming director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Thomas P. Campbell has scheduled special exhibitions, which blend contemporary and modern works with ancient art and old masters. Last year viewers of every age and nationality were wowed by the Starn Brothers’ work titled Bambu, an interactive “Jungle Jim” created for the Met’s rooftop space and the American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity, an exhibit that focused on archetypes of the modern American woman from 1890 to 1940.

Currently, visitors are treated to more than a dozen special exhibits, among which are photographs from the 20th century (through April 10, 2011), ancient Roman mosaics from Lod (through April 3, 2011), 18th century treasures from the Forbidden City (through May 1, 2011) and Cezanne’s Card Players (through May 8, 2011).Open Sunday, Tuesday to Thursday 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., the Metropolitan Museum in New York continues to install special exhibitions that are educational, entertaining and challenging. Guitar Heroes, running through July 4th, 2011, is such a show.


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