Within the walls of a tiny shop on Via dei Leoni sits a woman who’s passion and purpose cannot be contained by the little space. Jamie has dedicated her life to music and art in a perfect cross section of her two passions. Her violins and other instruments are handcrafted with an excellence that only she can achieve. In a modern world solely focused on mass production she stands out amongst the crowd as a true craftsman.
Jamie Lazzara sits on a small stool in the center of the shop with one lamp facing over her workspace. A partially crafted violin rests on her lap as her hands slowly carve away the excess wood on the outer edges. Her fingers effortlessly slide over the wood smoothing the edges into perfection.
Stepping into the 6-square meter storefront of Via dei Leoni is like entering the wardrobe to Narnia, only to come out surrounded by violins and not snow. The busy streets of the main historical center of Florence are left behind, replaced by thin stacks of wood and a workbench.
There is just enough space to turn around; the walls are covered with handcrafted instruments and images of their owners. Signed portraits and little notes are tacked to the dark walls. On the large shelf behind Jamie’s work space her sits centuries old wood and below that hangs saws and other tools.
Her accomplishments are immediately clear. An image of former president Barack Obama in the window display shows a hand signed thank you note for the violin Jamie made for his daughter. Hanging from the ceiling is a certificate from the society of artisans in Florence that recognizes her craft and shop as authentic. The city of Florence provided her the historic shop where she has lived and worked for almost 40 years.
Jamie has been playing the violin since age 8 and has always had an interest in the arts. However, when taking her violin for repairs she began to questions the process and techniques. Thus she discovered violin making, the perfect intersection between her love of music and art.
At age 19 Jamie came to Italy from California to attend The International School of Violin Making in Cremona. At the time women were not allowed to make violins and she was barred from the school. She then traveled to Florence and studied at a fine arts academy. In Florence, Jamie excelled academically and began working extra hours to make money to support herself.
After two years in Florence she was finally accepted into The International School of Violin Making. Her hard work and talent made way for her to become the first American woman to graduate from prestigious institute. She returned to Florence and has been crafting violins since.
Every new skill she acquires can in some way translate back to her work. Her identity revolves around a love for her craft, music, and art. Her vast knowledge of many art forms and music combined with her dexterity different techniques makes her truly unique; and throughout her time in Florence she was able to study with and learn from a variety of different artists.
It all begins with a single piece of wood. From there each piece is built individually, with a precision that only human hands can have. She carefully drags the base of the violin across a block of sand paper, testing the length of every side after a few strokes. She ensures that each side is perfectly even to guarantee perfect alignment. There is a determination in her hands; it is not rushed at all but rather precise.
Today, most products are mass produced to be exactly the same for the vast and ever-growing consumer market. The art of craft has been sacrificed for industry and speed. Jamie takes on a different mindset; each instrument can take three to four months and only produces four violins a year while also working on repairs and other projects.
This quality over quantity mindset has led Jamie to craft instruments for many famous musicians throughout Italy and the world. Most notably Itzak Perlman, who was the first to acquire Jamie’s replica of the Stradivari of 1714.
Jamie moves on to the top piece of the violin. She uses the base to trace the shape onto another piece of wood. With a hand saw she brings the real shape to life, at this point it is only a rough cut out that will be worked and molded into the instrument. The process takes time and dedication something that is slowly being lost in the present.
Being a musician from a young age gave Jamie a leg up. She taps the wood with the back of her knuckles listening to the way the material responds. It is as if she can already hear the beautiful notes the instrument will produce. When the violin is finished, she will be able to test the instrument and ensure the quality is upheld to the highest degree.
In Florence Jamie has been able to continue to pursue her passions for crafting and music, learning whatever she can from the artisan culture that lives behind hidden walls of Florence. For 15 years she played and worked with Catrina Bueno, an Italian folk singer. More recently, she has been participating in The Harvest Festivals throughout Tuscany where groups play traditional folk music to welcome in the start the season while wearing traditional clothing as well as sharing history and stories of Tuscan culture.