Il Cannone del Gesù; also known as the Guarneri Cannon, this is the violin for which Niccolò Paganini sold his soul to the Devil, along with the notes to the Capriccio called No. 24 — which an ordinary man can only play if he has six fingers, or a tail to help in fingering the neck...

One night in Genoa — so it is told — Paganini had gambled away his violin, an Amati, a valuable instrument in its own right; at this time he was young, a rising star, but that night he felt his footing slip away under him; the whole brilliant career he had imagined for himself appeared to fade away like a mirage. In such dejected thoughts he wandered the streets alone, when of a sudden, he heard someone playing, with incredible speed and facility, a violin of unearthly clarity and power; he followed it, not even daring to run, fearing, like the instinct in a dream, like the listener to a bird, that in so doing he should startle the music away. When he reached the square before the Palazzo San Giorgio, the moon broke forth between lambent clouds, and the music stopped.

At that moment, he saw the Devil in the dark, under the glow of a streetlight, clothed in his common habit: the slender goat's horns rising like a coronet from his brow, the yellow eyes throwing him a lazy glance, the thin tail licking the ground; blowing smoke with no cigar... In his left hand, he held a bow, and in the right, a fiddle — for the Devil, as everyone knows, is left-handed.

In young Niccolò's favor it must be said that he did not hesitate an instant. The Lord hates a coward. That night, he signed a sanguine contract, and he went home satisfied; the next morning and all the mornings after, there was no more talk of a rising star.


A more prosaic tradition records that it was made by the Cremonese master violin maker Antonio Guarneri, in 1743, the year before his death, one of the last instruments he ever made, and that it was first given in loan to the young Paganini by a family friend in Leghorn so that he could play a concert. After the concert, this man refused to take it back, because he felt for the sake of Paganini's skill that it was rightfully his.

Whatever may be the truth on that point, it is certainly true that it was Paganini who named the violin Il Cannone, The Cannon, because of the crisp and booming notes he could draw out of its titanic timbre. Although he eventually owned many exceptional instruments, this was supposedly Paganini's favorite, and it stayed with him for his entire life.

When he died, Paganini bequeathed the Cannon to the city of Genoa. It rests now in the Palazzo Doria-Tursi in that city; every month, its keeper takes it out and plays it, to keep it in tune. The sound of it really does have a blasting quality to it; like the horns of Jericho, or the blast of the bugles that will rend the seals on the utter day, when the Lord and Paganini will dispute between themselves if damnation was too high a price to pay.

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