Antonio Stradivari was an Italian luthier from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. In his workshop in Cremona he started making unusual violins. With an exceptional sound, these violins were more narrow and elongated than normal. His fame spread throughout Italy and it is estimated that he manufactured around 1200 violins, cellos, violas, basses, some mandolins, guitars and a harp. More than 600 copies have been preserved today, most of which are violins. Of these, some are so famous and recognised that have they have names such as Lady Blunt, which was auctionined and reached the highest price for a Stradivarius of $15.9 million.
But what is it that makes these violins so exceptional?
For starters, the hands that created them. The craft, the detail, the painstaking work, the experience of a life, which is dedicated to the manufacturing process and of course, the wood.
There are numerous theories about this. One of them argues that the maple and spruce wood used in the construction was dried for 60 years. However, it has been determined that the actual drying took 25 years which is still a lot!
Another theory is based on the varnish used by Stradivari. It is said that the varnish was made by Stradivari himself and created with a magic formula that was taken to the grave after his death. However, this theory has lost stream in recent years in favour of another due to research carried out on the thin wood of a Stradivarius.
This research found that insecticide was applied to the violins in order to kill pests, termites and woodworm that were common at the time. The craftsman could have also used borax; this too acts as an insecticide and hardens wood, mixed with fungicides (such as the resin of some trees) and crushed glass powder.
Another line of research suggests that the secret lies in the wood, which is used. Between 1645 and 1715, Europe suffered a climate change known as the Maunder Minimum and characterised by an intense cold, which is called Little Ice Age. According to this theory, the long, cold winter of that era favoured the slow steady growth of the trees with narrow rings in their trunks, therefor creating a greater sound value.
And finally, for romantics, there is also a hypothesis. Legend has it that Stradivarius instruments have a unique sound because of the vibration created by sea and rivers. This legend is based on the concept of acquiring vibration in materials over time. Perhaps a young Stradivari found a tree submerged in a river and built his first work of art with the trunk. Or maybe he used the hulls of sunken ships, capturing the vibration of the sea.
We will probably never know the real explanation but we will certainly continue to marvel at the perfection of the instrument and the sound it creates due to the triumph of a craftsman who knew how to turn a simple piece of wood into a beautiful work of art.
Intellect and emotion under the signature ” Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Faåciebat Anno … ”
Image: Stefan Elf