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The Giovanni Minieri Mandolin Mystery

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Story

When I was given this Neapolitan mandolin, my grandfather told me the story of our family at the same time. To the best of his recollection, as accurate or inaccurate as that may have been, my grandfather’s Giovanni Minieri mandolin story is also a story of an immigrant’s journey to America.

In 1901, my great-grandfather, Antoni Rzepiejewski, turned 16 years old. He took a train trip from his little village in Poland down to southern Italy with his family. Along the way they stopped in Naples (Napoli), where Antoni bought a new Neapolitan mandolin in a luthier’s shop. (My great-grandfather actually met Giovanni Minieri!) These instruments were gaining popularity in Europe and America and Antoni became interested. On the way back home to Poland, the mandolin case received a large stamp for export in Munich, Germany. During the next five years, Antoni joined the Russian Army and fought in the Russian Revolution of 1905 against the Polish insurgents. He became wounded and was discharged. Afraid that the Polish insurgents would find him and discover he was a Russian sympathizer (even though he was discharged from the Army), Antoni fled his Polish village in fear of reprisal for safety in America. He brought only a suitcase and his Giovanni Minieri mandolin on the ship with him.

On October 12, 1906, when Antoni Rzepiejewski arrived in Ellis Island, New York, the mandolin case received its second (now barely legible) export stamp. Antoni also "anglicanized" his name to Anthony to become more anonymous. Soon after, he landed in Tariffville, CT somehow (my grandfather dodged the questions of how and why). Anthony found and married Catherine Kules, another Polish immigrant who left to escape the poverty and famine in her village. They had a son, Joseph, my grandfather, who was born in 1911. In 1930, at the age of 45, Anthony died (again, my grandfather did not tell us why or how). The mandolin was passed to his oldest son, Joseph, when he was 19. Joseph learned to play the instrument and actually became quite good at it. In 1934, Joseph met Stella Gutowski as he was walking home from work. Each day for nearly two months, 16 year old Stella would sit on her front porch waiting for Joseph to pass by, wave and say “Yoo-hoo!” to her. After Joseph finally gathered enough courage to date her, Stella, recalled that he “wooed” her by playing, or in my grandmother’s words “plucked away at” the Giovanni Minieri mandolin. They married in 1935 and soon, by seven years later, had three children. My mother, Janet, and uncle, Joseph Jr., can “barely remember” him playing when they were very young. For some reason in the mid to late 1940s, my grandfather stopped playing the mandolin and tucked it away and forgot about it. The family moved three times before ending up in a house they built in Torrington, Connecticut.

Let us fast forward to 1978 when my brother and I were playing in our grandparent’s attic over their garage. We noticed this very dusty instrument case and brought it downstairs. We cleaned it off and opened it to find this very ornate, strange, little guitar-like instrument. The mandolin’s sound board was slightly caved in because my grandfather did not de-tension the strings when he set it aside. We asked my grandmother about it and she could not tell us much information but then told us to ask our grandfather when he came home from work, because after all, it was his. He sat with my brother and me in his breezeway and told us this story.

Since I have been the steward of Giovanni Minieri’s mandolin, the story does not stop there. In 1998, my wife and I brought the mandolin to Hartford, Connecticut when the PBS series “Antiques Roadshow” was coming through. I wanted to know more information on the luthier rather than getting an appraisal on the instrument. But fate worked out backwards. Kerry Kane and Frederick Oster thoroughly examined the mandolin for about five minutes, told me it was “beautiful”, but found no information on its maker in their three inch thick reference books and relatively infant internet linked computer. They estimated that it was worth $1000, which I laughed to them “C’mon! For this broken old thing?!” I still disagree with that estimate because now you can hardly give these things away on eBay!!

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Information about Mandolin

Mandolin measurements and specifications

Length…………………….25” (63.3 cm)

Depth……………………...5 ½” (15cm)

Width……………………...8 ¼” (21cm)

Neck………………………10 ½”(26.5cm)

Nut width………………….1” (2.6cm)

Sound hole …………………3”x 1 ½” (7.5 x 4cm)

Scale length from fret side of nut to bone saddle..... 13 7/8"

Neck and headstock are ebony with mother of pearl inlay. Star diamonds at each tuning hole, pegheads are abalone or ivory. Wood for bowl back is fluted rosewood for body, spruce for top and inlaid with all different kinds. Missing one “dot” at the bridge and its original bone saddle. There are 31 fluted strips that make up the bowl back and there are 23 frets
Label (in Italian) as it appears:

CASA FONDATA NEL 1870

CONSTRUTTORE DI LIUTI

RIDOTTA DA COGERTO

NOVITA IN MANDOLE CASSA A RISONATORE

GIOVANNI MINIERI

NAPOLI

PREMIATA FABBRICADI DI STRUMENTI ARMONICI

(1901) VICO CAPPUCCINELLE 27

Five awards

MOSTRA DEL LAVORO

PEP PROGRESSO NELL ARTE

CAMERA DI COMMERCIO

ESPOSIZ NAZIONALE

LOTTO PADROMATO

Translated (In English) (Thanks to the fabulous guys on the Mandolin Cafe...and their friends worldwide!!)

WHICH WAS ESTABLISHED IN 1870

MANUFACTURER (OR VENDOR) OF LUTES

REDUCED BOX FOR CONCERT (LUTE)

the luthier built MANDOLAS INCLUDING THE RESONATOR BOX (called a "NEWS")

GIOVANNI MINIERI

NAPLES

REWARDED FABRICATOR OF HARMONIC INSTRUMENTS

(1901)

Five awards

EXPOSITION OF WORK

PROGRESS IN ART

CHAMBER OF COMMERCE

NATIONAL EXPOSURE

(un-translated)

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Questions of mystery (what I still would like to learn).

1: What is the name and model number of this particular instrument?

2: What other kinds of instruments did Giovanni Minieri make? Does anyone have any other pictures of his mandolins or other instruments he made?

3: If Giovanni Minieri is such an awarded luthier, how come it is so hard to find information on him?

4: When was he born? When did he die?

5: How much did this mandolin cost when my great-grandfather bought it? In today's money?

6: Does Vico Cappuccinelle 27 still exist? Does anyone have a picture of the store or address in Napoli?

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Please help solve this family mystery.

I finally did manage to find a 1908 liuto cantabile made by Giovanni Minieri located here. I thank them very much for sharing their link!! There must be more out there in this large world of ours.

What I have learned so far:

This particular mandolin is a high quality instrument and it has very strange features. One is that its scale (length of the strings from the nut to the bone saddle) is 13 7/8”. Most Neapolitan bowl backs are between 13” to 13 ½”. It has 31 fluted rosewood strips that make up its bowl back, which the average is about 21 strips. Other Giovanni Minieri mandolins and instruments have surfaced. Here are two as examples.

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Example 1 and Example 2.

The first two are from the image library of Jim Garber. The third one has been restored by David Hynds and can be viewed here. Both fellows were very generous to share their pictures on this site. Giovanni Minieri probably learned his craft by learning from the Vinaccia school of luthiers. The label inside the bowl is probably a generic one, the same one he used for all his instruments regardless of what model they were. Vico Cappuccinelle 27 still exists in the old section of Napoli. If anyone has a picture of the actual address including the doorway, that would be fabulous.

Answers to questions that website viewers asked me.

I would like to get this instrument restored. It wants to and deserves to be played. I do not know what it sounds like since it has not been playable in my possession. My son will get it from me as soon as he grows old enough to appreciate what this instrument means to me and my family. I have had two offers, even though both were a little low, the mandolin is priceless to us unless a museum wants it or something special like that.

If you have any information regarding this particular mandolin or Giovanni Minieri, or other instruments he made, please email me to send me a message and hopefully some pictures to post on this web site. I will update this web site as information is received. Thank you for helping to solve this family mystery and sharing valuable information about a forgotten luthier in Napoli.

Thanks to the folks at the Mandolin Café. I have learned so much by lurking and reading their site!

This site is dedicated to my grandparents, Stella and Joseph Rzepiejewski, Sr., and great-grandfather, Anthony Rzepiejewski, whom I never met. Without them, I would not be here.

Todd Russo