Inmates Make Violins Out of Migrants' Boats

Prison in Italy begins an unusual project
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 17, 2024 3:35 PM CST
Inmates Make Violins Out of Migrants' Boats
Prison inmate Nikolae (last name not available) works on a violin made from the wood of wrecked migrants' boats at Opera prison near Milan, Italy.   (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

The violins, violas, and cellos played by the Orchestra of the Sea in its debut performance this week at Milan's famed Teatro alla Scala carry with them tales of desperation and redemption, per the AP. The wood that was bent, chiseled, and gouged to form the instruments was recovered from dilapidated smugglers' boats that brought migrants to Italy's shores; the luthiers who created them are inmates in Italy's largest prison. The project, dubbed Metamorphosis, focuses on transforming what otherwise might be discarded into something of value to society: rotten wood into fine instruments, inmates into craftsmen, all under the principle of rehabilitation.

The boats arrive at Opera prison as they were seized, still containing remnants of the migrants' lives, and with them a reminder of the 22,870 migrants that the UN says have died or gone missing on the perilous central Mediterranean crossing since 2014. Originally, the boats were being transformed into crucifixes and nativity scenes, but the inmates who were already trained luthiers thought: why not instruments? So they now look for the prime pieces for the instrument workshop, removing rusted nails in the process. They send the more damaged wood to another prison in Rome, where prisoners make crucifixes for rosaries. In a full-circle moment, the rosaries are assembled by migrants at a Vatican workshop.

Each instrument takes 400 hours to create, from disassembling the boats to the finished product. While a classic violin made in the famed workshops of Cremona, an hour's drive from Milan, will use fir and maple, the instruments of the sea are assembled from a softer African fir, the sun- and sea-drenched hues of blue, orange, and red left as a reminder of the journey. The veneer of paint influences the instruments' timbre. "These instruments, which have crossed the sea, have a sweetness that you could not imagine,'' says cellist Mario Brunello, a member of the Orchestra of the Sea. "They don't have a story to tell. They have hope, a future."

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