Portrait of Niccolo Paganini

On this day in history: Niccolò Paganini born

History of Italy News

On 27th October 1782, Niccolò Paganini, the virtuoso violinist, and composer, was born in Genoa. His mastery of the strings set him apart from all his contemporaries. Long fingers, a memory that rendered sheet music obsolete, and the astonishing ability to weave up to 12 notes in a second left audiences in awe.

Clad in black, his towering, emaciated frame, hollow cheeks, and penchant for extravagant gestures during his performances kindled wild speculations. Some believed he was a devil incarnate, possessed by infernal forces. His extravagant lifestyle, drowning in drink, gambling, and countless love affairs, only fuelled these rumours.

The shadow of diabolical association would linger throughout his life. Even in death, the Catholic Church withheld a Christian burial for four long years, partly due to his refusal of the last rites. Only in retrospect did experts attribute his unique traits to genetic conditions: Marfan syndrome for his elongated fingers and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome for his lightning-fast playing and eccentric movements.

Early Life of Paganini

Paganini, the third child of a struggling trader, Antonio, took up the mandolin and later the violin at the tender age of seven. His precocious talents soon outgrew local instructors, propelling his father to take him to Parma in search of better tutelage.

Yet, in 1796, the invasion of northern Italy by the French disrupted his journey, compelling his family to move inland to Bolzaneto. There, Paganini dabbled in guitar, achieving remarkable proficiency, though he reserved this skill for private amusement and close companions.

At the age of 15, he embarked on his inaugural solo violin tour, showcasing his talents across Italy. The rigors of touring took a toll on his mental well-being, driving him toward vices. After his recovery, he assumed the role of first violin in the Republic of Lucca, later annexed by Napoleonic France, and continued his musical journey in the court of Elisa Baciocchi. It was during this period that he composed his renowned “24 Caprices for solo violin.”

With time, he resumed touring, gaining prominence in Italy and gradually beyond. It wasn’t until Pope Leo XII honoured him with the Order of the Golden Spur in 1827 that he achieved widespread fame in Europe. Subsequently, he graced Vienna, followed by an extensive tour encompassing Germany, Poland, and Bohemia, with later stops in Paris and London.

The devil incarnate?

Nonetheless, Paganini’s extraordinary prowess aroused suspicion. In Vienna, some claimed they saw the Devil onstage beside him. Rumours even circulated of a woman’s scream emanating from his violin, purportedly the consequence of a grisly murder and the crafting of strings from a victim’s intestines.

These outlandish tales left him with few friends, though he found solace in Gioachino Rossini and Hector Berlioz. His most enduring romantic association was with singer Antonia Bianchi. They performed together throughout Italy and had a son, Achille Ciro Alessandro, born in 1825. They never married and parted ways around 1828.

Paganini’s health was perpetually fragile, plagued by syphilis and a host of other ailments. In 1834, tuberculosis struck him in Paris, rendering touring impossible. He returned to Genoa, imparting his knowledge to a select group of pupils, including Camillo Sivori, who would inherit his legacy.

Restlessness drove him back to Paris in 1836, where he made an ill-fated investment in a casino. Financial ruin forced him to auction off cherished instruments, including Stradavari violins and guitars. He journeyed to Marseille in 1838 and eventually to Nice, where he succumbed to internal bleeding from laryngeal cancer in 1840. In his last days, he rejected the last rites, a stance that troubled the local church.

The church’s refusal to consecrate his burial delayed his resting place for four years, until Pope Gregory XVI heeded the pleas of his son Achille. Finally, Niccolò Paganini found eternal repose at La Villetta cemetery in Parma.

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