MUSEOWEB dell'economia varesina

Famiglia Vincenzo Mascioni srl

Historical Profile

Craftsman Giacomo Mascioni and the tradition of mechanical organs

The Mascioni family’s organ building business dates back to 1829 with Giacomo Mascioni (1811-1896), who had his own workshop in Comacchio, within the hamlet of Cuvio.

As a boy, Giacomo carried out his apprenticeship in Varese, where he was trained in the art of cabinet making and also acquired an in depth knowledge of sacred music. Two of his uncles played a fundamental role in his training: Pasquale Antonio and Giuseppe Antonio Mascioni, both conventual fathers and Meistersingers who, in 1803, after the suppression of the religious orders, had returned to live in Azzio (VA). Following his apprenticeship in Varese, Giacomo was encouraged by his uncles to continue his practical training with Gaspare Chiesa from Milan, a renowned craftsman and organ repairman who, at the time, was also working in Valcuvia.

By combining his craftsmanship training with his musical knowledge, Giacomo was soon able to consolidate himself within a sector that was largely dominated by family-run boutiques with ancient traditions.

During his first twenty years of work, he refined his skills and built his first five organs, including one commissioned in Switzerland.

During the second half of the 19th century, Giacomo dedicated himself to training his three sons, Anacleto (1837-1893), Bernardo (1844-1890) and Gaspare (1848-1893), all of whom made great contributions to the expansion of the business.

Over the years, the house of Mascioni established a reputation for excellent manufacturing and its sphere of influence extended in three main directions: Switzerland, Lombardy and Piedmont-Liguria.

In the 1880s, Bernardo’s son, Vincenzo (1871-1953), began working alongside his father and uncles, thus marking the arrival of the Mascioni business’s third generation.

All three of Giacomo’s sons passed away during the early 1890s, and young Vincenzo had to prepare himself to take charge of the family business.

The company’s succession from grandfather Giacomo to grandson Vincenzo was quite traumatic, and was rather representative of the changes that were taking place in the Italian organ-building industry towards the end of the nineteenth century. At that time, in fact, while organ builders in other European countries were experimenting with new techniques that made use of the pneumatic combination action system, most Italian craftsmen remained faithful to the canons of the seventeenth and eighteenth century manufacturing techniques, which were based on mechanical tracker action. Vincenzo recognized the potential of such technological innovations, but this mentality conflicted with that of his grandfather Giacomo, who had been trained to imitate the classics and instead advocated the use of mechanical tracker action. Vincenzo was also more aware of the innovations in the industry that would change the way the work was carried out, such as the use of machinery, while for Giacomo the profession continued to be based exclusively upon the manual skills of the craftsman himself.


Industrialist Vincenzo Mascioni and his pneumatic and electric organs

In 1895 Vincenzo decided to separate from his grandfather Giacomo and establish a sole proprietorship company in his own name.

The production facility was set up in Azzio, where it can still be found to this day, in a location that was selected due to the presence of a waterway which, via a pipeline, allowed the water's force to be exploited for the mechanization of the carpentry work.

In an early twentieth century advertisement, the Vincenzo Mascioni company appeared as a highly technological enterprise that boasted modern equipment for producing “all of the mechanical components for the construction of church organs”.

The exploitation of water as a source of energy, which allowed the company to adopt the use of machine tools from early on, became fundamental further ahead when it would guarantee the continuity of production during the frequent blackouts of the First and Second World Wars.

While Vincenzo moved to a residence at the factory itself, his two brothers left the Valcuvia area for Milan: Enrico (1867-1936) went on to manage the Grand Hotel, while Tullio (1868-1920) opened a popular bottle shop.

Thanks to his brother Enrico’s vast network of contacts in Milan, Vincenzo eventually met his future bride, Rosa Ronchi (1873-1958), who was the daughter of an Italian entrepreneur that had moved to Switzerland from the Valcuvia region. The couple went on to have twelve children, seven of whom would eventually join the family business: Giacomo (1897-1975), Ernesto (1898-1980), Giovanni (1905-1979), Angelo (1907-1969), Vincenzo (1910-1975), Maria – known as Mariuccia – (1911-1977) and Tullio (1914-1999). Rosa’s skills and education rendered her a qualified companion for Vincenzo, even with regard to the company's administration. The bond with the Ronchi family, which had been further consolidated by Enrico’s marriage to one of Rosa’s sisters, allowed Vincenzo to strengthen the company’s relationships in Switzerland, a country that had become increasingly receptive to the Mascioni family’s work.

Vincenzo’s new business expanded rapidly and helped to consolidate the Mascioni family name within the industry: a name that was being increasingly cited by master organ builders for the quality that the company offered in terms of both construction and phonics. In 1904, the company’s newfound fame helped it obtain the project for the restoration work to be carried out upon the organs of the Cathedral of Milan.

The new century even provided for a significant increase in production quantities, with the modern facility allowing the company to meet the increasing demand: in just a few years time, the company’s annual production went from two/three units to more than ten, with destinations that included Milan, Venice, Genoa, Bologna and Pesaro. During these years, Vincenzo’s cousin Virgilio Mascioni was also employed at the company, working as a designer up until his death in 1946.

Between the 1920s and the 1930s, the use of electric tracker action became widely diffused within the organ building industry: this technology even made it possible to position the pipe registers quite far from the keyboard, and organs of colossal dimensions began being constructed.

One example of this new phase was the new organ for the Milan Cathedral, which was built in 1938 by Vincenzo Mascioni in collaboration with the company Tamburini. The great distance between the player and the registers, however, proved to be counterproductive due to the sound delay, a factor which would eventually limit the development of electric organs.

In 1937, Vincenzo decided to build a large new villa in Comacchio di Cuvio, where he would often accommodate his business guests.


The transition from Vincenzo to his children: the fourth generation

On the eve of the Second World War, while retaining the form of a sole proprietorship, Vincenzo changed the company’s name to “Famiglia artigiana Vincenzo Mascioni”, thus drawing attention to a fundamental aspect of the Mascioni family. In fact, the company was organized in a manner quite similar to that of a traditional family, in which each member was aware of his/her own role, and each recognized the leading role of the strict pater familias. Vincenzo inspected the workshop “with the conduct of a Prussian officer”, while his children waited to report to him on the progress of their individual departments.

During the Second World War, the company did not suffer any serious damage and the business activities were able to proceed without interruption, despite being slowed down due to difficulties procuring energy and raw materials. A 1942 government inspection showed that the company employed 43 workers and required 35-40 tons of lead on an annual basis.

The post-war reconstruction period also involved the replacement of many organs that had been destroyed during the conflict, and Mascioni, which had retained a workforce of nearly 40 individuals, ended up producing an average of 20 organs per year during this period.

In August of 1950, the production facility was damaged by a serious fire, which blocked the company’s production activities for several months. With the combined effort of Vincenzo, the family and the employees, however, the work activities were able to be continued in the rebuilt factory as early as October.

In 1953, Vincenzo passed away and the sole proprietorship came to an end: his six children would continue their father’s business under the de facto company “Famiglia artigiana Vincenzo Mascioni dei figli del comm. Vincenzo Mascioni”. The head office was relocated to Cuvio, while the production activities continued in Azzio. The company’s future – as well as that of the family itself – had already been partially established within Vincenzo’s will: the company was left to his sons, who were to be supervised by their mother and cared for by their unmarried sisters.

Thus began the third phase of the development of the company, which would be guided by the fourth generation (with a number of defections) up until the 1970s. Vincenzo’s third-born child, Giovanni, was given the authority to legally represent and sign on behalf of the company (together with another one if his brothers); Ernesto, his second-born, was specialized in tuning and toning the instruments; his fourth-born, Angelo, on the other hand, was in charge of installing the organs on site. The work of the other three children was mainly carried out at the Azzio facility: the eldest son, Giacomo, was in charge of the mechanical department, while the younger two, Vincenzo and Tullio, were respectively in charge of the carpentry and electrical work.

Their sister Mariuccia, who was not a partner in the company, worked as a secretary in the offices of both the Cuvio and Azzio facilities.

Vincenzo’s approach to the production cycle allowed the company to carry out all of the operations necessary for organ production, from the construction of the pipes and wood components, to their final assembly.

Craftsmen, who were often bound to the Mascioni family by various generations, were regularly trained at the factory and helped to render Valcuvia a highly specialized region.

The Mascioni family’s fifth generation, represented by Ernesto’s sons, Eugenio (born in 1932), Enrico (born in 1934) and Mario (born in 1937), and Tullio’s son Giovanni – known as Gianni (born in 1946), underwent their training during the 1950s and 1960s. Their cousins Enrico and Gianni, who were gifted with a great musical inclination, followed in Ernesto’s footsteps and became organ tuners, while Mario specialized in organ assembly and Eugenio indulged the passion for design that he shared with his grandfather Vincenzo.

In 1960, the eldest of the brothers, Giacomo, ceded his shares to the other five and left the company to help his own children start up a thriving textile printing company in Cuvio. Angelo passed away nine years later and his shares were split amongst the remaining brothers: Ernesto, Giovanni, Vincenzo and Tullio.


The fifth and sixth generations of the Mascioni family: the return to mechanical tracker action and the restoration of historic organs

The liturgical reform brought on by the second Vatican Council decreased the use of the organ outside of the church’s solemn functions and resulted in an inevitable reduction of the market. The musical culture of the parish community began to evolve toward less dignified forms, while musical education began to gradually disappear from the seminars and simpler (and less costly) musical instruments were made available, such as electronic organs.

After decades of employing the technical innovations of various European and American manufacturers, during the 1960s the organ-building industry began to re-evaluate the classical organ with mechanical tracker action.

The rediscovery of the traditional construction methods was closely linked to the development of the field of antique organ restoration, which had become increasingly popular over the last three decades of the twentieth century.

In fact, the decrease in demand resulting from the loss of emphasis upon sacred music was compensated by an increased historical-artistic awareness that favoured restoration work over the construction of new organs.

Thanks to the efforts and the decisive business choices of the fifth generation, Mascioni managed to succeed in this difficult transition, whereby it began producing mechanical organs like those that were manufactured by the company’s founder Giacomo more than a century earlier. The restoration work was carried out separate from the production work, in a dedicated department.

The organ that was built for the Cathedral of Muggia (Province of Trieste) in 1972 marked the Mascioni family’s return to the use of mechanical tracker action, even if the transition itself would prove to be slow and the production of electric organs would still continue for a number of years.

The 1970s also bore witness to a number of changes in the company’s structure: the fourth generation began stepping aside and the fifth generation officially began to take charge. In January of 1973, the de facto company was transformed into the limited partnership “Famiglia Vincenzo Mascioni srl” and Tullio was appointed as company president.

In 1974, Ernesto ceded his own shares to his sons Enrico, Mario and Eugenio, who became the company’s new president. Vincenzo passed away the following year without leaving any heirs to the company.

Upon Giovanni’s death in 1979, the company was left to Tullio along with his son, Gianni, and nephews Eugenio, Enrico and Mario.

The head offices were moved to Varese from 1972 to 1980: after this date all of the company’s functions were centralized at the Azzio facility, with only a representation office being left in Cuvio. The first representatives of the sixth generation joined the company during the 1990s. These were Eugenio’s son, Andrea (born in 1965), and Enrico’s son, Giorgio (born in 1966). Tullio, on the other hand, withdrew from the company and his son, Gianni, started his own organ restoration business. In recent years, Mario’s daughter, Maria Teresa (born in 1978), also began working for the family business.

In the interests of flexibility, Andrea is in charge of the design department, as well as the company’s relationships with customers and musicians. Giorgio, on the other hand, is in charge of the production department and the warehouse, while Maria Teresa curates the company’s historical archive and also deals with administrative matters.

The company, which is run by a board of directors with representatives from both generations, has continued to maintain its traditional production techniques while perfectly adapting to the international market.

The business of restoring historic organs is now flanked by that of maintaining the more than 1200 instruments that have been manufactured by the Mascioni family over the years. Due to the symbiosis that inextricably binds an organ to its builder, the Mascioni family does not carry out work upon instruments that have been manufactured by contemporary organ builders.

Although restoration has come to play an important role within the scope of the company’s overall activities in Italy, its main business remains that of manufacturing new instruments that are in tune with today’s complex aesthetic and structural requirements.

In 2011, the Mascioni Family was included within the Registry of Historical Enterprises created by Unioncamere to mark the 150th anniversary of the Unity of Italy.