For four generations, the Rivoltas of Milan have harvested tone woods
By Patricia Kaden
Based in Desio, in the Brianza area north of Milan, the Rivolta family has been dealing in wood for nearly a century. The fourth generation, the twins Andrea and Stefano and their sister Marta, are now buying and selling wood—tone wood—to violin makers in Italy and around the world.
"Our great grandfather Pietro Rivolta started the activity by selling wood for carpentry and furniture making," explains Andrea. "Here in Brianza, furniture making has been a traditional activity for one hundred years. But around 1960, our father, Gianpiero Rivolta, decided to specialize in tone woods, and his trips took him to various countries in the tropics, where he was able to buy mahogany, teak, ebony, rosewood, and cypress. He also used to cut a large quantity of Indian rosewood, then India decided to close the export of logs, so our father purchased pieces already sawed. Some customers began asking for spruce to make instruments, so that’s how he became involved in the sale of tone woods for instrument making."
Every year, the Rivoltas cut about 40–50 cubic meters of spruce for instruments of the violin family, and about the same amount of flamed maple for the instruments’ backs and sides. A good source of spruce is found in the Italian Alps -in the Val di Fiemme- in the Northeastern region of the country, along the border of Austria. Marta remembers, "As children we used to take long walks with our father in the forests of the Val di Fiemme. We would go over cut trees looking for perfect logs—finding the ones with no defect was our favorite game."
"Most of the wood that Stradivari used to make his instruments came from this exact valley."
The Rivoltas select spruce very carefully. They make a rule of only harvesting red spruce (Picea Excelsa) from the Italian Alps, particularly in the Paneveggio forest in the Val di Fiemme, in the Trentino region. Until the end of World War I, Paneveggio was part of Austria. That region always has been state property and therefore a protected area—both under the Austrian kingdom and the Italian Republic. There the trees grow at a high altitude (4,200 to 5,400 feet). The growing season is 100 days a year, and the winters are long and cold, so the trees grow slowly and steadily, yielding a fine and regular grain. "The Forest Department operates on two levels," explains Andrea. "First, the conservation of this beautiful area, with its mountains and extraordinary landscape; then, the commercial aspect as the ‘Forestale,’ can also sell some of the wood cut each year."
"This activity was instituted in 1874, and the forest was already protected by a plan then."
The park covers about 4,000 acres, of which 2,500 are forested. Each year, the forest increases its volume, but only 57 percent of the annual growth is cut. That means that what is cut is much less than what is grown. The amount of harvested tone wood is a small percentage (one-half to one percent) of the overall timber yield. The Forestale tries to protect the old growth as long as possible, to maintain the balance and natural evolution of the forest.
"We select logs one by one, and we never buy the auctioned lots in quantity offered by the Forestale," says Andrea. "We select the logs right in the forest, just after the tree has been cut, or when the logs are brought to the Forestale sawmill." The logs must be perfectly round with narrow and regular rings. There must be no branches or twists in the log, otherwise there will be knots in the grain, which can be unsightly and cause acoustical problems. And there must be no visible resin pocket.
"These ‘musts’ do not guarantee that the wood will be fine," Andrea continues. "We can only be sure when the log is cut."
Logs are selected between fall and the end of winter. As soon as the snow melts, the logs are floated down the river to the valley then taken by truck to the Rivolta family mill. In spring, the Rivoltas begin cutting the logs, first in quarters and then in wedges. The lumber is then organized based on the final shapes for guitars, violins, harpsichords, cellos, and so on. For violins and cellos, the blocks are cut after about a month and allowed to dry naturally. "We definitely never dry wood in an artificial way!" Andrea says. "If we sell wood that is still fresh (about one or two years old), each piece of wood is stamped with a date; then we know that the best way to dry the wood will be in the violin maker’s workshop."
While modern scientific research has helped to explain why spruce from the Italian Alps possesses such good acoustic qualities, the Rivoltas rely on their instincts and old-world skills—no scientific meters or machines are employed to select the wood. They depend on family tradition and information passed down through the generations, and they know that the wood coming from that area is the best in the world for the instrument-making trade. "Probably the great makers of the past had knowledge inherited from previous generations of craftsmen who came to those conclusions after years of experiment," says Andrea.
Instrument makers agree. American luthier Joe Grubaugh, a frequent visitor to the Rivolta mill, once told Andrea, "You know, the choice of wood is very important, and the choice of the wood for the top is probably the most important. It is far more important that the model and arching. In my opinion, Italian spruce is very strong and very light and these factors together make for the best soundboards. Some of the maple from Bosnia is extraordinary in appearance because of its deep flame and small grain, and the acoustic qualities when married with an excellent top and a great varnish are penultimate."
Strings, April 2002, No. 101. © 2002 String Letter Publishing.
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