The Orchestra del Mare gives voice to those who lie at the bottom of the Mediterranean after trying to flee wars or famine. Their instruments have the particularity of having been made with the wood of the boats of migrants from Lampedusa, paying homage to the drowned in exile.

All made by prisoners with faded wood recovered from their makeshift boats, these multicolored “violins of the sea” perpetuate the memory of those who died, having failed to reach this Italian islet off the coast of Tunisia.

Rich in emotion, the concert by the “Orchestra de la Mer”, which brilliantly performed works by Bach and Vivaldi, was applauded for long minutes on Monday by visibly won over spectators. Unprecedented fact, two inmates from the high security Opera prison near Milan, master builder of the “violins of the sea”, followed the concert from the “palco reale”, the prestigious royal box generally reserved for dignitaries of the state.

“Being invited to La Scala for something we created is magical,” marvels one of them, Claudio, 42, in an impeccable black suit and white shirt. Sentenced to life in prison for double homicide, he is one of four apprentice luthiers in the prison. Under their hands, the cracked and diesel-soaked wood of the migrants’ boats, destined for the scrapyard, was transformed into violins, violas and cellos, while waiting for the “Orchestra of the Sea”, formed for the occasion, to breathe life into them. a new life.

“We give voice to everything that is usually thrown away: the wood from boats that is shredded, the migrants who flee war and poverty and are treated like trash, and the prisoners who are not given a second chance,” explains Arnoldo Mosca Mondadori, at the origin of the project. President of the Maison de l’Esprit et des Arts foundation, he aspires to have the “violins of the sea” played in other theaters in Europe, “to touch the souls of people facing the tragedy of poverty”.

The central Mediterranean is the deadliest migratory route in the world: 2,498 deaths or disappearances were recorded there last year, or 75% more than in 2022. In an enclosure at Opera prison, dilapidated boats piled up on the wild grass, in the middle of a collection of planks. A white and pink baby shoe, a bottle, diapers and a tiny green T-shirt recovered from their holds bear witness to the presence of newborns on board these former migrant boats.

These clothes petrified by salt, empty water bottles, cans filled with sand and inner tubes as life jackets, abandoned before disembarkation, evoke images of migrants crammed into makeshift boats that are too cramped, whipped by the sea. “You can smell the sea here, its smell is very strong and transports you very far. Even in instruments, it remains present, but it is lighter,” says Andrea, 49, busy dismantling boats and sorting the wood used to make violins.

With a round face and a laughing eye, Andrea, who is serving a life sentence, also for double homicide, believes that the profession of luthier discovered in a remand center constitutes “redemption” for him. “In prison, time does not pass. But there, we feel alive and useful.”

A little further away, in the violin-making workshop, a small dark room with barred windows, Nicolae, a 41-year-old Romanian, incarcerated since 2013, is busy cutting a piece of wood with a saw and taking his measurements. before carefully carving a soundboard. “By building violins, I feel like another Nico, I feel reborn,” confides this bearded man with an imposing build.

Gouges, penknives, chisels, saws and small wood planes are lined up on a tool panel, attached to a wall decorated with a cross. So many potential weapons which are scrupulously listed at the end of the day by the guards. Standing in front of his workbench, master luthier Enrico Allorto explains that he had to resort to an ancestral method from the 16th century allowing “bending the wood instead of digging it” in order to keep the varnish on the boats intact.

Far from being Stradivarius, these violins have “a more muted timbre, but they have their charm and reproduce the entire range of sounds,” he assures. “They generate emotions in the musicians who in turn transmit them to the public.”