Italian violinist; generally considered the greatest violin virtuoso that ever lived. He was born at Genoa, where his father, Antonio, was a tradesman and an amateur mandolin player of some ability, who, perceiving his son's talent, early began to cultivate it. Niccolo was naturally delicate and the unremitting practise to which his father forced him was most injurious to his health. Niccolo's mother, however, greatly encouraged him by the story of a dream in which an angel had promised her that he would be the greatest violinist in the world, and this encouragement coupled with his own passion for music led him to persevere. At six years of age he had become a remarkable player, and soon after, having learned all he could from his father, he was placed with Servetto, violinist in one of the theatres, and then under Giacomo Costa, chapelmaster of the principal churches of Genoa. In 1793, then but nine years old, Niccolo made his debut at a concert, playing original variations on La Carmagnole, to the great delight of the audience. He also played regularly at church, but in 1795, his father thinking that further study would make him of greater market value, decided to take him to Parma. The necessary funds were raised by a benefit concert, and father and son arrived at Parma to find the noted musician, Rolla, sick in bed. While waiting in an adjoining room Niccolo saw a violin and a new composition on the table, and taking the instrument played it at sight so perfectly that Rolla inquired what master was in the house. On seeing a mere boy he could hardly believe his eyes and protested that he could teach him nothing. However, he did direct Paganini's studies for a short time, and then the boy took three lessons a week in counterpoint and composition from Ghiretti. So rapidly did he advance that on his return to Genoa he composed works which he himself had to study hard to execute. After a period of ten or twelve hours a day practise he set out with his father on his first tour through Lombardy, making so great a success that instead of returning home he went on to Pisa and neighboring towns, and being no longer under parental restraint he fell to gambling and leading a dissolute life. The money from several concerts would be lost in a night and he once had to sell his violin, arriving at Leghorn, where he was to give a concert, without an instrument. M. Leyron, a kind French merchant, lent him a fine Guarnerius, and then refused to take it back, saying that he would but profane the instrument which Paganini's fingers had touched. Again he was almost compelled to sell this gift, which he held so dear, and in desperation staked his last money. He won, but the experience led him to give up gambling for good.
From 1801 to 1804 he devoted himself to the guitar and to agriculture, living in retirement. He then returned to Genoa and studied the violin compositions of Locatelli and others, composing at this time his three grand quartets for violin, viola, guitar and cello. In 1805 he began touring again, and was made Court violinist to Napoleon's sister, Elisa Bacecocchi, Princess of Lucca. It was at her court that he began his astonishing feats on two and on one string, which he accounted for in the following manner: He wished to express his affection for a certain lady of the court, and accordingly devised a Scene Amoureuse, a duet on the E and G strings, representing the lady and her lover. This clever invention pleased the Princess, who asked if one string would not suffice for his talent, and at that suggestion he wrote his sonata for the G string, called Napoleon, which so captivated his hearers. His roving disposition did not allow him to remain long in one place, and in 1808 he obtained permission from the Princess to make a tour. Leaving Florence about 1812 he took up his residence in Milan, where in 1816 he played with Lafont, worsting him, as far as popular applause was concerned, though he himself said that the Frenchman's tone was probably better. He spent most of the year 1816 at Venice in rather poor health, but in 1817 he was traveling again, being at Rome during the Carnival. In 1818 he toured Northern Italy, later visiting Naples, where opinion was inclined to be adverse, but he played so perfectly the difficult piece prepared to stagger him that the enthusiasm became as great as in the rest of Italy. His first visit to Sicily, about 1819, was not a very great success, but on again appearing at Palermo he was well received. The same year he had been in Rome and Naples, and the next he spent largely in Venice. In 1823 he was prevented by sickness from making a tour of Germany, but on recovering he appeared in the principal Italian cities including Milan, where in 1820 he had founded the Gli Orfei Society, and Rome, where on a later visit in 1827 Pope Leo XII. decorated him with the order of the Golden Spur. From Milan in 1828 he made his long looked for journey to Vienna and there created intense excitement.