How a college prank turned into a public art tradition
Why this Italian violin travels with its own security
Nick Schifrin: Finally tonight, a story about a violin that tugs at the heart and purse strings.
Jackie Shafer of WOSU in Columbus, Ohio, reports on the beautiful sound and serious security that comes with one of the world's most valuable instruments, part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jackie Shafer: The Paganini violin is considered an Italian national treasure. It's insured for about $35 million, and the only person normally allowed to handle it is conservator Bruce Carlson.
Bruce Carlson: It's mostly that the instrument is so special to the Genovese that they absolutely do not want anything to happen to it.
Jackie Shafer: On the rare occasion that the Paganini violin does travel from its home in Genoa, Italy, it requires its own seat on the plane and an armed security escort.
Bruce Carlson: It's still there.
Jackie Shafer: In its nearly 300 years of existence, the instrument traveled to the United States on only four occasions, to San Francisco in 1999, to New York City in 1982 and 2003, and this spring to Columbus, Ohio, where it was displayed for one week only at the Columbus Museum of Art.
The Paganini violin was owned and played by the celebrated 18th century virtuoso Niccolo Paganini, often referred to as the Devil's Violinist. Upon his death in 1840, he bequeathed his violin to the city of Genoa, where it lives on permanent display in City Hall under tight humidity and temperature controls.
Today, tourists from all over the world travel to Genoa to view, but not hear the renowned instrument.
Bruce Carlson: The violin itself is made by one of the two most famous violin makers of all time, and both were from Cremona.
There was Antonio Stradivari, and there was Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu.
You put these two things together with the aura of Niccolo Paganini and then Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu, the violin maker, then it's the perfect combination.
Jackie Shafer: Back in Ohio, Columbus Symphony concertmaster Joanna Frankel was given only a few precious hours to rehearse on the violin before a one-night-only performance.
One of the things we try to do, which is part of the conservation thing, is to make sure that who is playing the instrument is, you know, really qualified to play the instrument, because I think we'd have a line outside the door if we said that anybody could play it.
Joanna Frankel: It does feel very sacred to kind of live up to the history of such a fine antique.
Jackie Shafer: Paganini named the violin Il Cannone, meaning The Cannon, due to its explosive sound.
Joanna Frankel: You just feel like, with the slightest touch, the sound reverberates all over the room, into the hall, down the street. You just feel this unbridled power.
Jackie Shafer: And that unbridled power graced the audience as Frankel finally performed on the Paganini violin in a Columbus Symphony Orchestra program featuring Italian composers.
Rossen Milanov: It's just designed to showcase the uniqueness of the instrument, and also to showcase the beautiful, versatile function that the violin could have in the context of the orchestra, both as an orchestral instrument and also as a solo.
Jackie Shafer: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jackie Shafer in Columbus, Ohio.