The Serassi, one of the most famous dynasties of organ builders in Italy and Europe, devoted themselves to the organ building art for six generations, from 1720 to 1895; their name is a symbol and their inimitable, unique art is a cultural patrimony of Lombardy. The many facts which marked the Serassi's life didn't disturb their exceptional activity. Their living was governed by iron, ancient, family laws, which emphasized the elderlies' authority, the hierarchic relationship among the members, the great strength coming from the sharing of the same aims and from solidariety. Their steadiness and continuity of cohabitation were exemplary: hinges of their life were the culture (music, literature, mathematics, physics, mechanics), the laboriousness and the religiousness (five priests and a nun in their family). They were good-natured, and interested only in the work, even when they got rich and famous.
The many excellent organs built (almost a thousand), the praise earned everywhere, the famous masters' alluring tests, the precious gifts received, the Princes' favours, the Emperors and Pope's encouragement, the important legal recognitions, the many literary compositions dedicated to them (more than a hundred), besides the great richness and renown got by their workshops, prove their deserved success.
Giuseppe I (1693-1100%) and his family
The Serassi or Sarazzi's origin took place in the land of Como.
The founder of the family from Bergamo was Giuseppe, born in Cardano in Pieve di Grandola (Valmenaggio) on October 11th, 1693.
We don't know who taught him the art of building organs: such an art was already thriving in the zone of Como in the seventeenth century, and the Bossi, Prata, Reina, Rogantino's names appeared. Moreover, we don't know why the young Serassi went to Bergamo, where he was already in 1720.
Giuseppe lived in the S. Tommaso's ancient medieval suburb, an open gate to the trades of the populous valleys of Bergamo: here, in 1727, he bought a house at the cost of 300 silver scudi, thanks to his brother-in-law's warranty, Bonifacio Andreotti, who was a rich textile contractor.
Giuseppe (organist and builder), first worked at the maintenance and restoration of organs as well as at the addition of new "baroque" stops like Cornetti, in many towns in the area of Bergamo; in the sanctuary of Ambivere there is the organ that we consider his first one. For some decades, he used timbrical, constructive criteria common to other Lombard builders and in particular to the late Renaissance Po tradition, represented by the famous builders Antegnati from Brescia; but very soon he embarked on a new street and got very different from other contemporary builders. "Very skilful in the construction of organs", he extended his work also to other lands, such as Crema, Como, Brescia, Milan; he died in 1100% in Crema, (where he put many organs) because of the malarial fever.
Giuseppe had six children, three females and three males. In the Serassi family three things were important: music, literary culture and religion. The first-born Maria Cristina (1723-1756) was a jutting singer; the great musician Simone Mayr wrote about her: "nature was generous with her: she had a gentle, flexible, wide voice. Her father and her brothers competed in teaching to her the chant, harpsichord and organ rules. [...] Very soon she was admired by her fellow-citizens and by foreigners, since her musical value spread over Milan...". A portrait of her can be found at the Museum of the Scala Theatre in Milan; when Maria Cristina was nineteen, she became a Benedictine nun at Gandino: her father built an organ as a dowry for the church of the nunnery (1744), where she died when only 33.
All three male sons became priests (the last-born after being left a widower).
A figure of great intellectual, human value was the fifth-born Pier Antonio (1721-1791): he was a very learned Abbot, determinant for the fortune of the Fabbrica d'Organi Serassi". He started the studies about Torquato Tasso and was initiator of the most important collection about Tasso, which is at the Civica Biblioteca A. Mai, Bergamo; not only was he a man of letters and an historian, but even an excellent violin and harpsichord player. Thanks to his very great culture, Girolamo Tiraboschi, the Estensi's librarian prefect in Modena and a contemporary of him, considered him "one of the most learned, cultured man of his times" and Ugo Foscolo defined him as "a very cultured man, well-deserving of the learning of his Country". The Crusca Academy put many of his works among the texts of the Italian language; for instance, his valuable Vita di Torquato Tasso (1785) deserved praise by learned men; he got the cardinals Furietti and Calino's secretary, and the vice-secretary of the "Sacra Congregazione de Propaganda Fide" in Rome, where he died when was only seventy without satisfying his wish to come back to Bergamo.
In spite of the variety of his engagements, the Abbot Pier Antonio carried out a very important role in the Serassi's cultural training, to such a point that it was himself the keystone of their fortune, since he was a constant model for them, and a stimulus to cultivate their cleverness. As a matter of fact, the Serassi builders were very different from their contemporary colleagues for their deep culture and their broad-mindedness: such a thing let them convey their strength with method, rationality, historical awareness and insight towards new, clever, even daring experiences and goals never tried before.
An other priest, musician and organ builder was Giovanni Battista; at first he was organist in S. Alessandro della Croce's parish church in Pignolo, the residential church of Serassi, then he worked only as an organ builder in his family. He had a very thick correspondence, very precious to us, with his brother the Abbot Pier Antonio "who sent letters to Bergamo during thirty-seven years".
But their organs got famous thanks to Andrea Luigi (1725-1799), the last-born, who decided to became a priets too, when was thirty-one. He inherited his father's clever inventiveness: he grew the Serassi family's notoriety thanks to the mechanical, timbric inventions hailed enthusiastically even in poetic compositions dedicated to him. He is thought to have invented: the adjustable combination, a type of mechanical free combination functioning by means of a pedal which engages pre-positioned stop levers; the enlargement and the improving of the mechanics; the increase of the timbric, sound strength of the organs both through the increase of the Principal chorus by means of more Principals, and through the addition of new, improved reed and flue pipes. His organ building activity was so intense and widespread that Andrea Luigi and his brother Giovanni got the exemption to the daily prayer of the Office. In the meanwhile in Rome the Abbot Pier Antonio laughed when he knew that Andrea's first-born, his favourite nephew Giuseppino, built small altars in every part of his house, and commented in such a way: "It is natural that this little child regards as a church this house where everyone is a priest".
Giuseppe II (1750-1817): the most importan organ builder of his time
It was the very Giuseppino, that's to say Giuseppe Antonio, the Serassi family's genius; he became so famous that he was considered the biggest organ builder of his time since his clever inventions led the Italian organ to the highest level. For instance in 1781, when he was only thirty-one, in S. Alessandro in Colonna's church, Bergamo, he carried out the ecxeptional invention, the only experience in its way in the world, of the famous subterranean 33 metre long mechanism hanged from pendula which connected two opposite organs: so, the organist could play the organ on the right even if he was on the left at the opposite side. It is due to him the great development of the organ building art and "every contemporary builder considered him as a Master and imitated him like a model" (G.B. Castelli).
Later, in the organ building art many of his clever inventions were used by other builders. The main are:
Giuseppe II was not only a clever organ builder, but even a learned historian and writer; he was the first builder to write about Italian organ building history and to discuss about its problems, and the first to publish the Graziadio Antegnati's unpublished documents; moreover, he was author of the booklet Descrizioni ed osservazioni di Giuseppe Serassi pel nuovo organo posto nella chiesa del Crocifisso di Como (1808) and of five Lettere sugli organi (1816), where it is possible to know about his wide deep knowledges regarding organ building art and about the human, social musical world where he lived. Finally, he published the Catalogo degli organi fabbricati dai Serassi di Bergamo (1816).
He intended to publish other writings but didn't bring them to an end, like the reprint of Costanzo Antegnati's Arte organaria (1608) and a work Sopra gli organari illustri. His family's library confirms his deep culture: it was provided with important classical, modern, Italian and foreign treatises, not only about organ building art, like the famous Dom Bedos's L'art du Facteur d'Orgues published in Paris a few years before (1766), but also about music, literature, philosophy, mathematics, mechanics, architecture, fine arts...
He was happily married to Maria Monaci, procreated fourteen children (only seven survived; they were six males and a female): he was aware of the important role that his family had had in the Italian organ building history. His masters belonged to the past; the criteria which guided him in the construction of organs, taken by the famous Roman architect Vitruvio, were that the works should be lasting, valuable, perfect. That is lasting for the solidity of planning and building, valuable for the very selected quality of the materials, perfect for the manual skill in the realization; indeed his aim was to leave no stone unturned. During his active life, he built majestic instruments, as he proudly wrote: Bergamo, S. Alessandro in Colonna's church (1781), a three-manual organ with 3,854 pipes; Colorno (Parma), ducal church (1792-96), two manuals, 3,144 pipes; Como, SS. Crocifisso's church (1808), two manuals, 3,120 pipes; Urgnano (Bergamo), parish church (1808), 2,820 pipes. To these wonderful organs, many others must be added, which have much more than two thousand pipes and rise for their beauty, timbrical variety, solidity in construction, easiness of use...
The Serassi Brothers
Giuseppe II's sons who went on the organ building activity were Andrea (1776-1843), Carlo (1777-1849), Alessandro (1781-1870), Giuseppe III (1784-1849), Giacomo (1790-1877), Ferdinando (1792-1832); after their father's death, they formed the Fraterna Serassi (the Serassi Brothers), that is to say that they lived together, left undivided their patrimony and ran the business together.
The money they earned, were rationally managed; they invested very much in houses, lands, woods, loans; in such a way, thanks to the first-born Andrea's flair, in a few years the Fraterna could make a fortune, which allowed the Serassi to have considerable founds. They bought imposing mansions like the Zanchi palace, sold in 1843 to the Petrobelli count for the enormous amount of 140,200 Austrian liras. Between 1837 and 1846 they built a stately mansion, one of the most beautiful in town, and wonderful workshops too, which were considered almost the best organized and equiped in Italy. At the same time they had a textile activity in the silk, which carried out fot long time. In 1831 the Serassi's fortune was esteemed by the Law Courts of Bergamo in 523,780 Milanese liras; in order to understand such a richness, you can think that a good horse cost 200 Milanese liras, and a worker gained few liras a day.
Carlo was the Serassi brothers' artistic, ingenious mind; he was bachelor, like his brothers Giuseppe III and Ferdinando were. Carlo attended to the assembling and tuning of the instruments, so he often was out of town; Giuseppe III and Giacomo, both very clever, lived and worked in the workshops; moreover, Giuseppe III co-operated with Carlo in assembling and tuning. All three brothers were leading characters in the organ Fabbrica.
Carlo the Great (1777-1849): "industrious, patient, successful genius"
Carlo, one of the most illustrious organ builder of every time, who even got the appellative of "the Great", deserves a particular attention. He led the Fabbrica Fratelli Serassi to the highest level and reaped the fruits of an unequalled fame. As a sign of the attained prestige and nobility, he built the majestic palace mentioned above: there, not only were there their workshops, on the first floor, but even a concert-hall which gave hospitality to public music schools. The Serassi's workshops, well-known even in Europe, were visitated by the Princes of the House of Austria and in 1825 by the very Empress.
Carlo built his first organ when he was only twelve, and when he was twenty, he had already built more than thirty organs. He was a good musician, and thanks to his extraordinary memory could play whole organ pieces by heart. He had an inquiring, perfectionist spirit, so he could steadily overcome the hardest troubles. He had two importan faculties: swiftness in conceiving and patience in bringing to the perfection. The workshops established by his apprentices were well-known and very qualified, like Giudici, Camilo Bianchi, Sangalli, Perolini and many others again.
He received ceremonies from all Italy; he was fellow of many academies as the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna, of Florence, the Ateneo di Scienze Lettere ed Arti of Bergamo. He had the honour to be encouraged by the Emperor Francesco I; as a reward of his merit, the Emperor Ferdinando I through the Order in Council of 5th December 1846 of the Imperiale Regio Governo Lombardo, allowed the Serassi Firm to use the Aquila Imperiale with the title of "Imperiale Regia Fabbrica Nazionale Privilegiata". He received many other honours, the main were: the bishop of Ajaccio (Corsica) defined him the Napoleon of the organs; the Spanish Infant Ferdinando II, Duke of Parma, was a friend of him; the Royal Family of Savoia wanted to know him, and so did the Pope Gregorio XVI.
The gifts and the literary compositions for him were innumerable; some medals were striken with his portrait, and at the moment a street in Bergamo is dedicated to him. In 1830 the "Giornale di Genova" wrote about the Serassi Firm: "the Serassi Brothers firm is surely one of the most wonderful in the world, so many foreigners fallen for its fame, come to see it"; Cremonesi in the above-mentioned Biografia said on purpose: "we can honestly affirm that if in Italy an organ workshop can be taken as a model, that is the Serassi's one in Bergamo"; moreover: "they spent so much that their workshop is beyond comparisons".
Carlo died when was seventy-two: during his working life (sixty years) even 324 wonderful organs came out from their workshop. Chronicles of his time mention him as a "marvellous talent in building organs, so that his firm and his family got famous in Europe, and our Country obtained great glory".
Thanks to Carlo the Great, the Serassi organ got its highest expressive potential; it was the natural development and improving of the organ-orchestra started by Giuseppe II; timbre, sonorous characteristics were polished and exalted through clearness, power, sweetness and solidity in the sound; the organ got more and more a proportioned, wonderful work of art even with majestic sizes and endless opportunities in the performance. A month after Carlo the Great's death, his brother Giuseppe III died too; Cremonesi wrote that his devotion to work was so total that "it was clear that his joy came much more from the workshop than from the wold"; Cremonesi described him as a good, virtuous, modest, blameless man; he was a skilful builder and, on occasion of the placing of the organ he built for the church of the Charity in Tivoli (1844), an epigraph in his honour says: "an organ of a supreme finesse/ work of a classic mastery/ a worthy monument of the history of our Country".
Regia Fabbrica Nazionale Privilegiata d'Organi
Giacomo remained as a manager of the Fabbrica helped by his three nephews, the Alessandro's sons: Giuseppe IV, Carlo II and Vittorio. In the meanwhile, the Serassi organ "reaches such a perfection and richness in devices to offer the more different, pleasant harmonic effects".
The organs which came out from their workshops were always numerous, majestic and important. In 1863 it was built the organ of the S. Lorenzo's Royal Basilica, Florence: it was a three-manual sumptuous, colossal organ; each keyboard had a seventy-note compass and there was a rückpositif with sixty-four stops. Thanks to this wonderful work (still in good conditions), put by the very skilful Giacomo Locatelli, the King Vittorio Emanuele II appointed Giacomo Serassi "Cavaliere dell'Ordine dei Santi Maurizio e Lazzaro", and allowed the firm to use the Royal coat-of-arms.
The building of the organs was made by many specialized workers; in 1863 a research edited by the Ministero di Commercio e Industria revealed that the staff of 33 workers was so formed: 1 agent, 3 tuners, 4 in charge of the metal pipes, 6 of the wooden pipes, 4 of the chests and bellows, 2 of the mechanics, 3 blacksmiths, 2 foundrymen and wiredrawners, 8 shop-boys; all of them were from Bergamo. To them other 40 hardly fourteen-year-old boys must be added.
The manager of the firm was the accountant Giambattista Castelli, a skilful, clever managing director and an amateur organist. In 1858 he edited a new Catalogue of the organs adding the family's genealogy and important documents about the Serassi's work, up-to-date till 1868. In 1862 he published the method of the organ Norme generali sul modo di trattare l'organo moderno enclosing the famous organist Vincenzo Petrali's musical examples. In such a way he codified the model of the Serassi organ also from a theoretical point of view: this method was officially used by the students of the Regio Conservatorio of Milan.
By then, the Serassi organ was the Italian nineteenth century organ par excellence. In 1868 the Catalogue of the Serassi organs listed even 704 organs. Two years later the foreman Giacomo Locatelli (who was awarded a golden medal by the Ministero d'Agricoltura, Industria e Commercio after building the mentioned Serassi organ in S. Lorenzo's Basilica, Florence) together with some of the best workers and with the manager Castelli broke off the working relations with the Serassi Brothers and established the Giacomo Locatelli Firm.
Although this sorrowful division, the Serassi Brothers didn't leave their activity off, in fact they went on in Sicily: unfortunately we haven't got any catalogue of the organs built after 1868, so it is difficult to have a right picture of the situation. Anyway, the firm Serassi Brothers built again other majestic instruments as that built in 1881 in S. Giorgio's church in Ragusa Ibla called "organum maximum"; this work was marked with the number 833, so we can deduce that from 1868 to 1881 the firm Serassi Brothers built other 126 organs.
In 1881 the "Regia Fabbrica Nazionale Privilegiata d'Organi" was under the direction of the twenty-six year old Ferdinando II Serassi, and of Casimiro Allieri. The information about other their organs built in Sicily are many, and up to the moment the organ which is recognized as their last one is that for SS. Salvatore's church in Ragusa, 1893.
Ferdinando II died when was only thirty-nine and so the Serassi's organ workshop came to an end.
In 1895 the only representative of the firm, Vittorio Serassi, with a notaril certificate allowed Giacomo Locatelli to add to his trade name the title of "Successore della vecchia ditta Fratelli Serassi" which formally died out.
The equipments of the Fabbrica went to the Locatelli firm, so, a long human, artistic story finished.
During almost two centuries, the Serassi reached important, majestic goals for the Italian organ building history, with very high quality works. The inimitable sounds of their intruments enchanted musicians, poets, believers, men of letters and of science, that's to say, a whole society.