Born in Genoa (Italy) on 27 October 1782 as the third of six children of Antonio and Teresa (née Bocciardo) Paganini. Antonio Paganini was an unsuccessful ship chandler, but he managed to supplement his income by working as a musician and by selling mandolins.
At the age of five, Paganini started learning the mandolin from his father and moved to the violin by the age of seven. His musical talents were quickly recognized, earning him numerous scholarships for violin lessons. The young Paganini studied under various local violinists, including Giovanni Servetto and Giacomo Costa, but his progress quickly outpaced their abilities. Paganini and his father then traveled to Parma to seek further guidance from Alessandro Rolla. But upon listening to Paganini’s playing, Rolla immediately referred him to his own teacher, Ferdinando Paer and, later, Paer’s own teacher, Gasparo Ghiretti. Though Paganini did not stay long with Paer or Ghiretti, the two had considerable influence on his compositional style.
In 1797, accompanied by his father, he toured Lombardy, where with each concert his reputation grew. Gaining his independence soon after, he indulged excessively in gambling and romantic love affairs. At one point he pawned his violin because of gambling debts; a French merchant lent him a Guarneri violin to play a concert and, after hearing him, gave him the instrument.
Between 1801 and 1807 he wrote the 24 Capricci for unaccompanied violin, displaying the novel features of his technique, and the two sets of six sonatas for violin and guitar. He reappeared in Italy as a violinist in 1805 and was appointed director of music at Piombino by Napoleon’s sister, Élisa Bonaparte Baciocchi. He later gave recitals of his own compositions in many towns in Italy and about 1824 formed his long attachment with the singer Antonia Bianchi.
In 1828 Paganini experienced great success in Vienna, and his appearances in Paris and London in 1831 were equally sensational. His tour of England and Scotland in 1832 made him a wealthy man. In 1833 he settled in Paris, where he commissioned Hector Berlioz to write his symphony Harold en Italie.
Following the failure of the Casino Paganini, a gambling house in which he had invested, he went to Marseille at Christmas of 1838. After a brief stay, he traveled to Nice where his condition worsened. In May 1840, the Bishop of Nice sent Paganini a local parish priest to perform the last rites. Paganini assumed the sacrament was premature, and refused. A week later, on 27 May 1840, the 57-year-old Paganini died from internal hemorrhaging before a priest could be summoned. Because of this, and his widely rumored association with the devil, the Church denied his body a Catholic burial in Genoa. It took four years and an appeal to the Pope before the Church let his body be transported to Genoa, but it was still not buried. His body was finally buried in 1876, in a cemetery in Parma. In 1893, the Czech violinist František Ondříček persuaded Paganini’s grandson, Attila, to allow a viewing of the violinist’s body. After this episode, Paganini’s body was finally reinterred in a new cemetery in Parma in 1896.
Paganini is mentioned in Kate’s song Violin.