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The craftsmanship and precious trade secrets of Antonio Stradivarius

Posted in Arts and Crafts, Famous artists, Historical articles, History, Music on Monday, 16 December 2013

This edited article about music first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 495 published on 10 July 1971.

Stradivarius, picture, image, illustration
The violin: Stradivarius in his workshop

On a bright March day in 1783, Father Ascensio, a violin maker and friend of the Spanish King Charles IV sat down at his desk and opened his diary.

“The Keeper of the Royal Musical Instruments,” he wrote, “has brought me a violin today asking me, by order of His Royal Highness, to Improve the tone. The instrument is dated 1709, and bears the name of Antonio Stradivari.”

Father Ascensio looked at the violin which lay on the table beside him, then closed the diary. It was a magnificent instrument, this Stradivarius, with a deep lustre made even richer by the morning sun which flooded in through the windows.

“It’s almost a crime,” he told himself. “This instrument is perfect. The tone is mellow, but powerful, and the craftsmanship is superb.”

The violin that had so impressed Father Ascensio had been made by Antonio Stradivari, one of the greatest violin-makers of all time, and a painstaking perfectionist.

Stradivari was born in the Italian town of Cremona, although the exact date of his birth is not known. At the age of 12, he had been apprenticed to the violin maker, Nicolo Amati. But Amati soon realised that the boy needed little tuition. He had a genius for his trade.

At first, the young man made violins which closely resembled those of Amati, but soon he began to develop his own designs. He married young, and soon had five children. With a large family to bring up, Stradivari could not afford wood of the best quality to make his violins. But he compensated for this with his superb craftsmanship. Given any kind of wood, inferior or otherwise, he could make a violin that sounded magnificent.

In 1685, he was commissioned to make a set of two violins and a ‘cello for Cardinal Orsini, who later became Pope Benedict XIII. The Cardinal was so pleased with the result that he recommended Stradivari to others of the nobility, and soon commissions began to pour into his workshop.

For the next ten years, Stradivari experimented with the structure of his violins to give them a better tone, and his painstaking craftsmanship soon became famous throughout Italy.

By now he was a rich man and could afford to purchase the finest wood for his instruments. At the same time, he made up a formula for the varnish which made the violins gleam so richly. But the secret died with him, and no one has yet discovered how he mixed the solution.

“If you want the finest violins in Europe, go to Stradivari!” the noblemen told each other. The master’s workshop became the meeting place of the richest families in Italy, for although a violin cost ¬£4 to ¬£5, that was a great deal of money to the Italians of 200 years ago. Today, a Stradivarius can be worth more than ¬£30,000 and others have changed hands for over ¬£17,000.

Like all great craftsmen who strive for perfection, Stradivari worked hard. He would sit in his workshop from sunrise to sunset, only joining his family for supper. Hardly a week passed without a new violin leaving his bench. These superb instruments, mighty as they are in tone, weigh no more than ten ounces.

On Sundays, Stradivari would go to the cathedral, where all the violin makers of Cremona met. There, they arranged church concerts at which new instruments would be tested.

One man, however, hardly attended these sessions. He was the craftsman Giuseppe Guarneri, and although he did not begin to make great instruments until he was 38, he became, next to Stradivari, the finest violin-maker in Italy.

Stradivari died in 1737, a rich and famous man, leaving behind him a name that has endured through two centuries. With the master’s death, Giuseppe found himself snowed under with orders, for Stradivari never ceased to recommend him.

Born in 1687, Giuseppe was a wild boy of uncertain temper. Although he learned the trade of violin-making early in life, it was not until middle-age that he showed signs of that superb craftsmanship that was to make him famous.

Chaffed with being a failure, he decided to prove his critics wrong. He shut himself up and began to work. He did not model his violins on those of Amati or Stradivari, for he was too much of an individualist. Instead, he studied the structure of the violin in great detail, and then began to put his own ideas into practice.

Nowadays, we can see from the great number of models and shapes of instruments, exactly how this perfectionist experimented with violins in order to find the shape which gave the perfect tone.

Today, the work of all these masters lives on!

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