Born in 1782, Niccolo Paganini was an expert Italian violinist, guitarist, and composer. The most celebrated virtuoso violinist of his time, his technique and abilities were thought to be “beyond a human’s capabilities”. His concerts left attendees entranced and wondering, “Did Paganini make a deal with the devil, or had Satan taken a human form?”
When Paganini’s father recognized his unique talents at age 7, he put him under renowned instructors such as Giovanni Servetto and Giacomo Costa but within months, Paganini’s talent progressed beyond that of his teachers. His father then travelled to Parma to seek the guidance of master violinist Alessandro Rolla. Rolla immediately referred him to his own teacher, Ferdinando Paer. Paganini continued to be passed from teacher to teacher until finally, Paganini’s skills surpassed all (which as a result, prompted intense rivalries between Paganini and other master violinists of the time).
It is difficult to adequately describe Paganini’s prowess on the violin – he was freakishly good. So good, people grew afraid of his talent, surmising that no mere mortal could possibly do what Paganini was capable of doing on his violin. In their minds, the devil didn’t go down to Georgia – he went to Genoa, Italy.
Paganini’s bizarre, near inhuman, abilities
Paganini’s technical ability and his willingness to display it received much critical acclaim and his fame spread throughout Europe. One story tells us that a rare and expensive Stradivarius violin was offered by a man named Pasini to anyone who could learn and play a piece that was so complicated, it was believed impossible to master. Paganini arrived and played the piece perfectly, by sight, on his first and only attempt.
At barely 20-years-old, he travelled to a concert in Livorno where a wealthy businessman lent Paganini a violin made by the master luthier Giuseppe Guarneri. During the concert, it has been reported that audience members made the “sign of the cross” to protect themselves from his “evil powers”. Even the wealthy businessman was afraid. After seeing Paganini play the violin, the businessman refused to take back the violin for fear of coming under Paganini’s supernatural spell.
In another instance, at a famous concert in Leghorn, Paganini was in mid-performance when a string on his instrument broke. The audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats – how would the great Paganini remove himself from this awkward predicament? To their astonishment, Paganini simply shifted his play, flawlessly, to the remaining three strings. Years after the incident, Paganini broke two strings during a concert and without pause, continued playing the remainder of the concert on just two strings.
Paganini’s physical appearance did nothing to quell the rumors that he was the son of the devil. Tall, thin, and pale with extraordinarily long fingers, his gait was stiff and mechanical, and his eyes dark and piercing. He always dressed in black and stumbled about bizarrely on stage as his spider-like fingers whisked up and down the violin fingerboard.
By 1830, Paganini’s phenomenal playing abilities, bizarre appearance, and unusual affect he had on his audiences brought more serious study to his “condition”. It was believed that his unusual finger length, which allowed him to play three octaves across four strings in a hand span, was due to Marfan syndrome. His uncomfortably long face, pale complexion, and unusual demeanor were attributed to other scientifically-explainable maladies. Still, rumors persisted that Paganini had sold his soul to the devil – or that he was Satan himself.
Stories spread throughout Europe that Paganini, known to be a great womanizer, had murdered a woman, entrapping her soul in his violin. It was even said that he strung his magical instruments using strings made from her intestines. Newspapers reported that before one concert, the establishment required he produce a birth certificate, to prove his earthly origins before he was allowed to play in the venue.
Paganini’s death sparks controversy in the Catholic Church
By the late 1830’s, Paganini’s vices grew beyond his well-known womanizing. In 1830 he lost a large part of his fortune gambling (afterward, the gambling house was named after him). Ten years later, his health began to suffer. Roiling from syphilis, tuberculosis, and depression, he died on May 27, 1840. He spent his final hours feverishly creating pieces on his violin.
After Paganini’s death, because of his refusal to take last rites and his widely rumored association with the devil , the church denied his body a Catholic burial in Genoa. It took four years and an appeal to the Pope before the Church let his body even be transported to Genoa, but it was still not interred in sacred grounds. His remains were finally laid to rest in 1876, in a non-Catholic cemetery in Parma, on the grounds his own estate. Twenty years after his death, Paganini’s body was finally reinterred in a newly-built cemetery in Parma in 1896.
Paganini in the movies
Paganini has been portrayed by a number of actors in film and television productions, including Stewart Granger in the 1946 biographical portrait The Magic Bow, Roxy Roth in A Song to Remember (1945), Klaus Kinski in Kinski Paganini (1989) and David Garrett in The Devil’s Violinist (2013).