There's a point on a violin, about two-thirds the distance from the top of the fingerboard to the base of the tailpiece, where violinmakers place the bridge, the wooden strut that supports the strings. If the bridge sits anywhere else, the strings won't feel true to the fingers of violinists.
If you were to ask Alfredo Primavera about the bridge of his life—his moment of truth, as it were—he might say it came on a fall day in 1971. Primavera is a product of the hardscrabble Italian-American neighborhoods of South Philadelphia. His father, Adolph, made violins in a shop just off Walnut Street, serving clients and holding court with friends who ranged from Ricardo Muti to Jack Benny.
Alfredo would play bass in a rock band to distance himself from the guys who ran with local gangs, but he need not have bothered. He was 6'2" and 240 pounds as a high school junior, so no one was going to mess with him much, at least not until he became an All-Public linebacker at South Philadelphia High. Then college football coaches started disrupting his life.
But Alfredo had already begun helping out in his father's shop, learning about diapasons and bridge heights and the rudiments of pegboxes and varnish polymerization. In the midst of his senior season, he was polishing an expensive violin, holding it in his hands—firmly, as one should—when its neck cracked. "It was from all that work in the weight room," Primavera says. "I'd lost all sensitivity in my fingers."
November 12, 1984
When that violin broke, Adolph forced Alfredo to choose between football and the family trade. So the guy they knew at the corner of 18th and Mifflin as Big Al quit the South Philly Rams at midseason and enrolled the next fall at his father's alma mater, the International School of Violinmaking in Cremona, the city on the Po River in Italy where the master, Antonio Stradivari, lived and worked. The school has conferred the title of maestro liutaio, or master lute-maker, on barely 200 people in its 46 years. Alfredo blitzed through the school in three years, married in 1977 (he and his Italian wife, Piera, have a son, Andrea, 4) and settled in Cremona.
Today Primavera is 30, a broad framed man with a soft manner and a wide, hospitable face. He still speaks English with long, puckered Philadelphia "o's," and his Italian has American cadences. But go back to the 17th century and you'll find a Primavera who conducted at La Scala. In the mid-19th century, Peter Primavera, a furnituremaker from Abruzzi, dabbled in violins. Since then, six generations of Primaveras have fixed or fashioned fiddles on both sides of the Atlantic. The most recent is Alfredo himself, whose workshop is said to be one of the most respected and prosperous in Cremona.
While Alfredo was establishing himself in Cremona, football began catching on in Italy. Not soccer, paisans, but il football americano or, as it's also known, spaghetti football. Primavera has become the sport's Giovanni Appleseed, introducing the game to countless kids and coaching the Cremona Steel Tigers, a lovably inept team in Italy's fledgling B league. "Violinmaking is like a religion," he says. "Fortunately there was no football here when I came over, so I could dedicate myself to my instruments."
Primavera still does, taking three months to complete a violin, from cutting the wood to applying the last of 35 coats of varnish. He won't use wood unless he has seasoned it himself for at least five summers in Lombardy's invigorating sunshine. In an average year he'll turn out 25 instruments, selling them for an average of $5,000.
And he's at the center of a lively debate about his craft that has divided Cremona's 50 or so violinmakers. On one side are the proponents of il metodo classico, the classical method of violinmaking that Stradivari used. Perhaps 15% of the town's fiddles are produced this way, in which wood is molded around a form. It's a painstaking process, but gives each instrument a distinctive character. One classiciste vows he'd sooner take up plumbing than change his ways.
But most of the maestri di liuteria in Cremona and elsewhere use the so-called metodo francese, or French method, which emphasizes precision over individuality. Backs and fronts are cut from exact patterns and carefully fastened together. Adherents of the French method can turn out twice as many instruments as their classico counterparts.
Primavera, an adherent of the metodo francese, thinks both techniques have merit. "We work from the best Stradivarius we can find," he says of his method. "I'm not interested in making a 'personal Primavera' violin, but I'm as proud of my workmanship as they are. The classicisti are guessing. There's no such thing as a bad modern-method violin, and now and then you get a super one."
Violinmaking is a fusion of woodworking, music, chemistry, geometry, business and art. "It's very complex," Primavera says. "If there's a parallel between violin-making and coaching football, that's it. Football is the most complex game there is. When we started, there were 40 or 50 enthusiastic players, and all had to be given roles. You tell one, 'You're a running back,' and he says, 'Good! What's a running back?' The real challenge has been to get the whole team functioning as one.
"And that's really gratifying."
On an ugly, raw October Saturday, Primavera has shoehorned eight restless Steel Tigers into the VW bus he normally uses to deliver cellos. He has taken them to suburban Milan for a game with the Bollate Vikings.
"I can't believe you guys fumbled four straight punts," Primavera says when Cremona trails 7-6 at the intermezzo, after a half in which officials have called touchdowns back like defective Fiats. Primavera is delivering a sort of anti-pep talk. "In the U.S., coaches try to get their players emotionally up," he'll say later. "Here the players are already so emotional you have to be careful."
With the Steel Tigers gathered around him, he continues his serenade in the key of low. "You have to start concentrating," he says. "You're playing too recklessly. Use more effective blitzes and put more pressure on Bynum. A hundred thousand lire [about $55] to the guy who puts Bynum out of the game!"
Rich Bynum is Bollate's American mercenary, a $500-a-month halfback who first played in Italy for the U.S. Army Blue Knights of Vicenza and then in the Italian league while on leave. Two seasons ago he was named MVP of what's ambitiously called the "Super Bowl," when the team he was then selling his services to, the Milan Manin Rhinos, won Italy's A title. But Primavera has erred in putting a bounty on Bynum's head; it only serves to pump the Steel Tigers full of more brio.
Late in the third quarter, Cremona's Curzio Bertazzoli sticks Bynum on a sweep, knocking the ball loose. Bertazzoli is typical of Primavera's players: By day he sells ads for the Yellow Pages from behind horn-rimmed glasses; after hours he doubles as a 232-pound Steel Tiger defensive tackle and the club's president. A teammate recovers the Bynum fumble, and in short order Cremona scores the touchdown that seals an 18-13 win. Bynum flings his helmet in frustration and stalks off the field, accusing his line of not blocking for him.
"He took himself out of the game," Primavera says. "I should send him the 100,000 lire."
Primavera has become inured to the slipshod play, loose lire and—as we'll see—outright cheating that are all part of spaghetti football. On a fundamental level the Italian game is like mediocre American high school ball, only most of the players are in their 20s and hit accordingly. "You get guys knocked unconscious, stretchers brought out—a lot of good, physical action," Primavera says. "That's what the people want to see."
As far as anyone knows, Italian football took root about seven years ago in Piacenza, a city in the north not far from Cremona. Restless kids, inspired by the movie The Longest Yard, which starred Burt Reynolds as a football player in a Georgia prison, began showing up at soccer fields on Sundays, cradling soccer balls to their chests. Some wore motorcycle helmets and motocross gear. Others simply pulled pots over their heads.
Enter a shrewd Milanese hotel owner named Giovanni Colombo, who had become fascinated by pro football during frequent visits to the U.S. Come to Milan, he told the kids. Play the teams from the U.S. military bases, wear the colors of my hostelry, and I'll buy you helmets. The Milan Manin Rhinos' first few games were atrocities, but today Italy's top two divisions have 24 teams each, and another 57 are awaiting word from AIFA, the Italian Association of American Football, that they've been mustered into a C league that's set to begin play next year. Football ranks a solid third among team sports in popularity in Italy, behind soccer and basketball.
AIFA registers every player, issuing each a laminated ID card called a cartolina. Problem is, the B league season follows on the heels of the A, and the A players, being older, bigger and more experienced, are banned from B ball. Yet most are worthy and willing ringers, so coaches of B teams enlist them, matching the cartoline of legit B's to those of look-alike A's in case a ref becomes curious.
Primavera has no qualms about using illegal players, partly because they accelerate the game's improvement, but mostly because everyone else uses them. "I'll say 'Hi!' to the Bollate coach," he says, "and he'll tell me how I won't believe the number of ringers the coach he played last week used. And I'll tell him sympathetically, 'I'll bet it isn't more than the number the coach I played last week used.' And next week we'll both be saying the same thing about each other."
In a year and a half, Primavera has built two teams from scratch: the Steel Tigers and the Virgilio Mantova Eccetera, an A league club 45 minutes to the east. It supplies most of Cremona's ringers. Compared to most teams, which have hundreds of cartoline to choose from, Cremona and Mantova struggle to make do, drawing green players from the sparsely populated Po Valley. "It's like taking a junior high team and sending it up against Overbrook," Primavera says, reaching back to his Philly youth for an analogy. "We have maybe 20 good players. When they're in, the team moves. When they're out, we're in trouble."
So he invites kids to practices, trying to instill in them what he calls a vivia for the game. Around his team, however, Primavera is a Lombardian Lombardi. "He's quiet," says linebacker Giorgio Galvignani, "but he teaches well, especially on defense." Primavera and Giorgio Gandolfi, a Cremonese journalist, have collaborated on a text, Manuale di Football Americano.
The team's nickname is just as makeshift as some of its plays. Among Cremona's exports are violins, steel, torrone (a crunchy, almond-based candy) and the sultry torch songs of a woman named Mina, who bills herself as the Tiger. Steel Tigers sounds better than Torrone Violins, so a tiger—borrowed from Esso—graces each Cremona helmet.
The cats—those on and off the field—could fill out the cast of a Fellini movie:
•Quarterback Marco Remondini is an accomplished cellist who can fling low spirals 70 yards. He denies that his arm strength comes from practicing the cello eight hours a day and ringing the church bells in his village, Ceresi.
•Primo Rossi, a 6'4", 305-pound former rugby player, just showed up at practice a couple of weeks ago, explaining how he'd seen football on TV and wanted to play. "We can't find a pair of shoes that fit him," Primavera says. "But if he's Primo, I hope there's a Secondo and a Terzo."
•Paolo Bernardelli is the brakeman on Italy's top four-man bobsled team, which placed second at the most recent world championships. A brakeman must have a blend of speed, power and weight that any defensive lineman would envy, so Bernardelli drags his 230 pounds over 40 yards in 4.6 seconds, plays noseguard and averages five sacks a game.
•Bamouri Touré is an agricultural student from the Ivory Coast. He ran back kicks for Mantova but is too conspicuous to be a ringer for Cremona. "When we first showed him a football, he wondered whether he should eat it," Primavera says. Touré's teeth are so strong that before a recent game when his teammates forgot to bring an opener, he bit the caps off 12 bottles of mineral water.
•Carleton Bond, an exchange student from Boston University, plays in the offensive line. "Football's something to do besides going to a bar and having a glass of vino," he says. He's taking courses in dental technology, but there's no truth to the rumor that he wants to do his graduate study on Touré's teeth.
•Virgilio Capellini, Primavera's 56-year-old associate in the violin shop, serves on the club's board. He attended violinmaking school with Adolph Primavera, but went into other craftwork after graduation. Alfredo took him on soon after opening his shop, when there was more work than one man could handle. Capellini has carved an extra-high objet d'art of a kicking tee from a block of oak. It's no coincidence that the Steel Tigers' kicker, Franco Bernardino, is among the most successful in the league.
•Pietro Manfredini won the Italian kayaking championship three times but quit the sport shortly after Italy boycotted the 1980 Olympics, when he would have been a medal favorite. Now he's an impassable pass blocker, to whom football is a way to "have some fun and stay in shape."
After the Bollate game, Manfredini, who works for the state as a forest ranger, had to go off to helicopter pilot school, Remondini was laid up with a bad knee, Bond had to sit out a one-game suspension for fighting with a Bollate player, and Bernardelli was in the army, grounded by an unsympathetic commanding officer who doesn't consider football worth a weekend leave. These are the kinds of problems the Steel Tigers, who were 2-4-1 through last week, are used to. "I've often wanted to say to hell with it," Primavera says. "And then I see the enthusiasm on the faces of little kids at our games."
More than anything else, Cremona needs a spendthrift sponsor—an Exxon to take in its forlorn Esso tiger like a long-lost pet. Any takers? Your money might go for ringers. Then again, it might go for bounty. But either way it's tax deductible. "Give us $30,000," Primavera says, "and we'll even write you out a receipt for $40,000."
And you can probably get a pretty good deal on a violin.