Meeting Franco Merlo: Artisan of Musical Instruments

“There is a piece of me in every work”

Last weekend I went to fair in Ferrara where I met Franco Merlo, an international award-winning artisan and artist of rare musical instruments. He lovingly handcrafts every piece, and specialises in antique and unusual designs. But he works alone and cannot find apprentices, so his extraordinary works are the last of their kind. He talked to me about competitions he has won, his specialised woodwork techniques and a very special harp…

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Artistic Beginnings

Franco began working with wood at the age of 9, in a carpentry near Verona. At the age of 23 he was able to begin working alone making furniture. In his spare time he took an evening course in music theory and played the guitar and mandolin. Stringed instruments became his particular passion and he began to restore old lutes found in flea markets. As such he also learned how to build lutes from scratch, along with other instruments. The quality of his work began to be recognised and praised by internationally renowned musicians.

The Instruments

The first instrument I spotted, the one which grabbed my attention, was a small celtic harp with ornate carving and different tones of wood. Being a harp player myself, but sadly bereft of a harp here in Italy, I was eager to talk to the craftsman behind this treasure. Franco seemed delighted to explain his creation to me, beckoning me to inspect closely. I gradually realised it was a harp like none other I’d seen, not just for the complex woodwork. Normally a celtic harp features a line of levers above the strings which are used to sharpen the note. Franco’s harp, however, had no levers, and instead had two or three strings for each note to create semi-tones. The strings were slightly staggered in rows of three, so that in order to play the ‘normal’ note you have to reach past another string. My first question, therefore, was whether it is difficult to play. Of course the answer was yes, a particular technique is needed and even special arrangements of music. Franco’s instruments are not just complex aesthetically but also in terms of playing techniques. Thus his one of a kind instruments must also be played by ‘one of a kind’ musicians.

Other usual designs include a chitarra-arpa, a guitar with a mini harp integrated into the design, which was popular in the second half of the 1800s, and a chitarra-lira, a guitar-lyre, invented in 1780. Both are now relatively rare instruments.

The Techniques

It is astonishing not just how many different craft techniques Franco can perform, but also how he excels in each one. Franco took me through the sculptural decoration of the harp. “A harp is an instrument for angels, no?” he said, “so I carved an angel in the front”. Indeed a small wooden angel sits on the curved front like a figure-head on the bow of a ship.Then he pointed to the soundbox, which he explained was made from alternating strips of different toned wood: cherry and ash. Just at the top of the soundbox was a section of delicate marquetry in a diamond pattern. “I like these little details”, was his understated comment.

Dragging myself away from the harp, I was confronted with a display of instruments that seemed more like individual sculptures. The back of one violin had been carved into a design of entwining leaves, coats of arms and putti, leaving little gaps between. Franco explained that of course the gaps in the back of the violin are detrimental to the acoustics, and so this particular instrument was more for show, with good reason.

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The ‘Rebecca’, or rebec in English (of course my favourite) is a stringed instrument similar to a lyre but played using a bow. It was used in Arab classical music and came to Europe in the 13th century. On the front it seemed relatively normal compared to Franco’s other works, but it was staggeringly beautiful on the back. The round body was completely covered in a dazzling mother of pearl image, a 18th century scene of lady and young man seated in an elegant italianate garden. In a way it is sad that it’s relatively hidden when playing, but it shows again that Franco’s works can also become autonomous pieces of art appreciated separately from their function.

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Franco produces every part of each work, with no other help. Although he would like to have a workshop, he also believes that you can’t have several people working on the same instrument: “one hand must start and finish the same instrument”, he told me. As a result his instruments are not cheap, but they are also not extortionate considering the skill and individuality of each work. As Franco sadly pointed out, you can now buy a Chinese violin that costs 50 euros, while for 50 euros he buys 4 strings.

International Competition

Franco’s work has had international recognition. In 2011 he participated in the Concorso Internazionale di Liuteria di Pisogne, a competition with competing artists from as far as China and Japan. He was awarded second prize in the category of ‘reproductions of instruments’ for his copy of one of the most famous violins ever made: Ole Bull’s Gasparo da Salo. It is considered one of the most beautiful violins ever produced, with delicately engraved patterns and a cherub’s head on the scroll.

Franco’s copy excelled in both categories of aesthetics and sound, and was narrowly pipped to first place by a Japanese craftsman Nose Noriko. Franco had the prizewinning violin there with him, and it certainly was exquisite. Moreover, the difference between the antique decoration of this violin and Franco’s other creations was clear. Franco’s work is more experimental, and includes not just surface decoration but also a manipulation of the form and materials of the instruments.

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Franco’s Motto

“Il massimo che si può fare con il legno è farlo suonare attraverso il violino e farlo entrare nell’anima della gente”

The most that can be done with wood is to make it play through a violin and make it enter into the soul of the people.

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