Paganini: life of a prodigy.
His childhood in Genoa (1782 – 1796)
Niccolò Paganini was born in Genoa on 27 October 1782, in Via Gatta Mora 38 (the building no longer exists), to Antonio Paganini and Teresa Bocciardo. At the age of seven his father, a port worker and amateur musician, encouraged him to study the mandolin, a very popular instrument in Genoa. This was followed by the violin and the guitar. His father imposed a hard study routine, hoping to turn his son into a musical phenomenon(!).
Paganini suffered privations and days of intense study. From 1792, Paganini studied under the violinist Giovanni Cervetto, the composer Francesco Gnecco and later under Giacomo Costa. On 31 May 1794, the eleven-year-old Niccolò performed for the first time as a soloist at the San Filippo oratory.
His formative years (1796 – 1805)
In 1796, together with his father, Paganini was having lessons in Parma from Alessandro Rolla and, in 1799, he went to Livorno (Leghorn) for concerts. After holding two academies in Modena in December 1800, in 1801 he returned to Genoa and furthered his study of the guitar; acquiring – according to many witnesses – absolute mastery, although Paganini never played it in public. During 1801, he also went with his brother, Carlo, to Lucca where his concerts were beginning to arouse wonder and amazement. During his performances he would often improvise, managing to reproduce animal noises or other sounds never previously heard on that instrument. The legend of Paganini’s “secret” technique spread, although no trace of it remains today. It is, however, certain that the violinist was an absolute innovator of brilliant technique. During this period Paganini led a degenerate and licentious lifestyle, several times finding himself in financial difficulties after spending his savings on frivolous pleasures.
Success (1805 – 1828)
That did not stop him from being, from 1805 to 1807, the principal violinist in the Republic of Lucca court orchestra, where his brother Carlo also became a member, and later joining the court of Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, Napoleon’s sister.
During the first decade of the nineteenth century, Paganini joined the Freemasons, and the first rumours circulated of his possible connection with the devil and with the “arts” of witchcraft, attributing them to his superhuman playing skills. In 1814, Paganini fell in love with twenty-year-old Angela Cavanna and, against the will of her parents, the two lovers moved to Parma, where they lived for a few months. The young woman became pregnant (later suffering a stillbirth) and the girl’s father accused the violinist of the exploitation of a minor. In May 1815, following this accusation, Paganini was imprisoned in the cells of the Doge’s Palace. Thanks to his acquaintance with the lawyer Luigi Guglielmo Germi, who subsequently became a sincere and affectionate friend, his stay in prison lasted only a few days. However, rumours then spread – both in Italy and abroad – that he had learned the secrets of the violin “during his long years of imprisonment”.
A few years later, with various adventures and love affairs behind him, Paganini met the singer Antonia Bianchi, with whom he had a son, Achille, in 1825. He is mentioned in a famous letter to Donizetti: “Achille, my dear Achille is pure joy to me. He is growing well and handsome; he speaks German very well and serves me as an interpreter; he loves me dearly and I adore him.”
The great European tour (1828 – 1834)
In 1828, following an invitation to Vienna by the Austrian Chancellor Clemens von Metternich, Paganini succeeded in carrying out a project that he had thought about for over a decade. He went on a long tour abroad, which lasted six years until 1834, during which time his fame grew to make him a living legend. It is not exaggerating to say that an artist’s personality cult started with Paganini. He took personal care of every organisational and promotional aspect of his business, showing excellent managerial skills and earning incredible sums, equivalent to several million euros today. During the years of the tour (at the beginning of which Paganini separated from Bianchi, although he kept his son Achille with him), his health worsened until, from 1837, he was ill and completely voiceless.
Epilogue (1837 – 1840)
Rather unusual events happened in Nice, shortly before his death. A priest, Father Caffarelli, believed that Paganini had intended to refuse the last sacraments although, as he was completely voiceless, he was probably unable, and didn’t feel up to, conversing with the priest. The priest reported the circumstances to the bishop, who subsequently denied Paganini burial on consecrated land. Paganini died in Nice on 27 May 1840, at the age of 57. After various experiences and repeated requests by his son to find a place in a Genoa cemetery, his body has rested since 1876 in the “Villetta” cemetery in Parma.