There's a point on a violin, about two-thirds the distance from the top of the fingerboard to the base of the tailpiece, where violinmakers place the bridge, the wooden strut that supports the strings. If the bridge sits anywhere else, the strings won't feel true to the fingers of violinists.
If you were to ask Alfredo Primavera about the bridge of his life—his moment of truth, as it were—he might say it came on a fall day in 1971. Primavera is a product of the hardscrabble Italian-American neighborhoods of South Philadelphia. His father, Adolph, made violins in a shop just off Walnut Street, serving clients and holding court with friends who ranged from Ricardo Muti to Jack Benny.
Alfredo would play bass in a rock band to distance himself from the guys who ran with local gangs, but he need not have bothered. He was 6'2" and 240 pounds as a high school junior, so no one was going to mess with him much, at least not until he became an All-Public linebacker at South Philadelphia High. Then college football coaches started disrupting his life.
But Alfredo had already begun helping out in his father's shop, learning about diapasons and bridge heights and the rudiments of pegboxes and varnish polymerization. In the midst of his senior season, he was polishing an expensive violin, holding it in his hands—firmly, as one should—when its neck cracked. "It was from all that work in the weight room," Primavera says. "I'd lost all sensitivity in my fingers."
When that violin broke, Adolph forced Alfredo to choose between football and the family trade. So the guy they knew at the corner of 18th and Mifflin as Big Al quit the South Philly Rams at midseason and enrolled the next fall at his father's alma mater, the International School of Violinmaking in Cremona, the city on the Po River in Italy where the master, Antonio Stradivari, lived and worked. The school has conferred the title of maestro liutaio, or master lute-maker, on barely 200 people in its 46 years. Alfredo blitzed through the school in three years, married in 1977 (he and his Italian wife, Piera, have a son, Andrea, 4) and settled in Cremona.
Today Primavera is 30, a broad framed man with a soft manner and a wide, hospitable face. He still speaks English with long, puckered Philadelphia "o's," and his Italian has American cadences. But go back to the 17th century and you'll find a Primavera who conducted at La Scala. In the mid-19th century, Peter Primavera, a furnituremaker from Abruzzi, dabbled in violins. Since then, six generations of Primaveras have fixed or fashioned fiddles on both sides of the Atlantic. The most recent is Alfredo himself, whose workshop is said to be one of the most respected and prosperous in Cremona.
While Alfredo was establishing himself in Cremona, football began catching on in Italy. Not soccer, paisans, but il football americano or, as it's also known, spaghetti football. Primavera has become the sport's Giovanni Appleseed, introducing the game to countless kids and coaching the Cremona Steel Tigers, a lovably inept team in Italy's fledgling B league. "Violinmaking is like a religion," he says. "Fortunately there was no football here when I came over, so I could dedicate myself to my instruments."
Primavera still does, taking three months to complete a violin, from cutting the wood to applying the last of 35 coats of varnish. He won't use wood unless he has seasoned it himself for at least five summers in Lombardy's invigorating sunshine. In an average year he'll turn out 25 instruments, selling them for an average of $5,000.
And he's at the center of a lively debate about his craft that has divided Cremona's 50 or so violinmakers. On one side are the proponents of il metodo classico, the classical method of violinmaking that Stradivari used. Perhaps 15% of the town's fiddles are produced this way, in which wood is molded around a form. It's a painstaking process, but gives each instrument a distinctive character. One classiciste vows he'd sooner take up plumbing than change his ways.
But most of the maestri di liuteria in Cremona and elsewhere use the so-called metodo francese, or French method, which emphasizes precision over individuality. Backs and fronts are cut from exact patterns and carefully fastened together. Adherents of the French method can turn out twice as many instruments as their classico counterparts.