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12 Reasons Why Stradivarii Sing in Celebration of National Violin Day

By Beth Clark • December 13, 2018

Who was Antonio Stradivari?

Antonio Stradivari was a northern Italian luthier and maker of exceptional stringed instruments who lived in Cremona province in Italy's Lombardy region from 1644 to 1737. Stradivari specialized in violins and crafted 960 of them between 1666 and his death. He also made 166 other instruments, including violas, cellos, guitars, mandolins, and harps.

Stradivari's beginnings are vague, and census reports conflict on when he was born, but it's guesstimated as "1644" based on later clues. It is known that his Cremonan ancestry went back to the 12th century, and his parents were Alessandro and Anna. He had at least three older siblings, probably more, but war, famine, and plague led to a 16-year gap in parish records.

In 1667, Stradivari married a young widow named Francesca Ferraboschi with two children. They had six children together, including a son who only lived for a week, and sons Omobono and Francesco, who later worked for Stradivari. The family eventually lived in the large house that Stradivari purchased at No. 1 Piazza Roma, which was where he set up shop and worked from for the rest of his life. A year after Francesca's death in 1698, Stradivari married second wife Antonia Maria Zambelli and had five more children with her, including a son who died before his first birthday and Giovanni Battista Giuseppe, who died when he was 24.

Stradivari was extremely successful during his lifetime and quite wealthy. He died at the age of 93 in 1737 and is buried in the Basilica of San Domenico in Cremona. His career spanned 70 years – impressive considering the wars, famines, and plagues he endured. His son Francesco inherited his shop, tools, finished violins, patterns, and a portion of his estate after a lifetime of working for his father, but opted to take his inheritance and retire at the age of 62, so the last Stradivarius violin, Le Chant du Cygne (The Swan Song) was created in 1737.

The rest of Stradivari's estate was divided among Antonia and his other six heirs, but interestingly, he had zero grandchildren in spite of being 93 and having produced a total of 11 offspring. In fact, of his seven surviving children, three were priests/a nun, but only ONE of the other four went on to marry and have a child…after Antonio died. Pretty weird for that time.

How Stradivari's Violins Became Stradivariuses

Who Stradivari apprenticed with is debatable, but Nicolo Amati, a talented craftsman from an established family of luthiers in Cremona, is the most logical answer; a hypothesis supported by the label of the first known violin made by Stradivari, which reads "Alumnus Nicola Amati, faciebat anno 1666" (translation: former student of Nicolo Amati, made in the year of 1666). Unlike Amati's other students though, Stradivari didn't continue putting Amati's name on his labels, so no one knows for certain.

It's equally possible that Stradivari started out as a woodworker since he lived in a house owned by woodcarver and inlayer Francesco Pescaroli from 1667 to 1680. He could have been hired to decorate some of Amati's instruments, without being a true apprentice, which is a theory supported by the elaborate decorations and purfling of a few later Stradivariuses, including Ole Bull, named for the Norwegian violin virtuoso and composer who first played it.

Regardless of where he learned his craft, the only name Stradivari needed was his own, according to Grazia Rondini's 2006 "Brief History of the Classical Period of Cremonese Liutery (1505-1744)" essay. Translated from Italian, she says that "Almost simultaneously with the work of the last exponent of the Guarneri family, and precisely in 1680, the unknown Antonio Stradivari acquired a huge and luxurious building in the same block in which the Amati and Guarneri worked and lived. This is the reason why it is said that he appeared almost suddenly on the Cremonese market, where in a short time he acquired supremacy in the field of high-quality instruments." In other words, Stradivari showed up almost out of nowhere and took over the violin business of Cremona like a boss, especially after Amati's death in 1684.

Italians were the master luthiers, by the way…the most expensive musical instrument ever (Guarneri, $16M!), the oldest surviving violin (Amati, ca. 1560), and the most famous violin (the Messiah Stradivarius) are all Italian-made. They're also the most stolen instruments.

The Golden Ratio and Stradivarius

And now for the fun part. Also called the golden mean, golden number, golden section, golden proportion, section aurea, and divine proportion, if it's beautiful to the ears and eyes of humans, it involves the golden proportion. It exists in nature in things like nautilus shells, the human body, and pinecones, but Notre Dame, the Pantheon, and the Great Pyramid of Giza also utilize it. Mathematically, the golden ratio (≈0.618) is "the relationship between two segments such that the smaller segment is to the larger segment as the larger segment is to the sum of the two segments" (≈1.618). The geometric relationship between the elements of a Stradivari violin's form, i.e. height to width, all use the golden ratio. In fact, the violin bridge position is located in the same proportion to the instrument's body as the belly button is to the human body.

Speaking of bodies, the violin is the only instrument that emulates the human voice…one reason why Stradivariuses have the ability to evoke powerful emotions and are said to "sing." Which is where quantum physics comes in (yes, really). Unified string theory, specifically, which says that the tiniest particles at the core of all matter (electrons and quarks) resemble vibrating strings. Violins are made to maximize all aspects of vibrating strings, theoretically enabling them to touch the core of everything within and around us. So, a singing Strad becomes a sort of dog whistle for your cells, your brain, and your soul.

Stradivari's Golden Period

In the 1680s, Stradivari experimented with innovative sound hole shapes, a softer varnish, wider purfling (the inlaid border of the violin's front and back edges), and a stronger tone, deviating from the traditional Amati style. In the 1690s, he worked on perfecting a narrower and longer violin with a darker tone ("Long Strads").

Around 1700, Stradivari reverted to a shorter, wider design (his "grand pattern" that utilizes the golden ratio) and with the help of sons Francesco and Omobono, employee Carlo Bergonzi, and an apprentice, he proceeded to craft some of the most exceptional violins ever made in the next 25 years. La Pucelle (The Virgin) is considered the 'pilot model' and got its name from the mid-19th century Parisian dealer and luthier who disassembled the instrument for maintenance and discovered it hadn't been touched after leaving Stradivari's hands. To honor La Pucelle d'Orléans—the virgin warrior—he added an elegantly carved Joan of Arc tailpiece. Interesting side note: La Pucelle was given to eclectic heiress Huguette Clark in 1956 by her mother as a 50th birthday gift, and she never played it once in the 45 years she owned it. Even more interesting side note: Huguette owned ANOTHER Stradivarius —The Kreutzler—that no one knew about until one of her closets was cleaned out in 2014...three years after she died!

The Wood that Makes a Stradivarius a Stradivarius

Stradivari hand-picked the spruce trees that would become his famous violins from the Fiemme Valley of the Italian Alps, inside the Dolomites' Paneveggio-Pale di San Martino Natural Park. A unique combination of altitude and microclimate gives the wood exceptional sound transmission qualities and makes the trees' lymphatic channels act like tiny organ pipes that create top-quality resonance.

Skilled selection by experienced woodsmen and musicians who can observe foliage, bark, trunk, and position to know which trees are best for 'playing' and centuries of strategic forest management have kept Foresta dei Violini (the Forest of the Violins), also called Il Bosco Che Suona (The Musical Woods) healthy and productive. Some of the world's greatest violinists and cellists have played their instruments in the forest as a show of respect to the source of their fame and success.

The ecomusical spruce (and Bosnian maple) that Stradivari used is only part of the equation since attempts to replicate his creations using wood from the Fiemme Valley have all failed. He also treated the wood he used with various minerals and varnishes, including "bianca" (egg white, gum Arabic, and honey). Other elements found in shavings from two Strads included aluminum, copper, and calcium…common in 17th and 18th century chemical treatments no longer used by modern luthiers.

Stradivari changed the varnish he used to an orange-brown one and included vermillion and red iron oxides with some violins, but possibly the biggest factor contributing the exceptional clarity and brilliance of his instruments may have been the one he had the least control over…the weather. The "little ice age" (1300-1870) would have altered the mechanical properties (elasticity and strength) of the spruce and maple he used since climatic conditions experienced during growth directly impact the structure of wood.

Cells added as a tree grows in girth in the spring (earlywood) are short and thin-walled, with a large inner diameter to facilitate water transport. Latewood cells, on the other hand, are long, narrow, and thickened with a secondary wall to fortify the wood. If summer is cold and moist, the annual rings that form are narrow and composed of mostly large inner-diameter earlywood cells since the resulting latewood shows only thin secondary walls.

Stradivari was extremely lucky that his wood came from trees that grew during the Maunder Minimum—a prolonged period of low mean summer temperatures characterized by extreme sunspot inactivity. The minimal latewood growth caused narrow rings and exceptionally elastic wood that was also light…the ultimate vibrational characteristics.

Surviving Stradivarii

Of the 960 violins he made, 512 still exist, and are documented by the individual names they've acquired in connection to their provenance. Some of the more famous Stradivarii still in play (pun intended, and many of them are) include the four Strads played by the Vienna Philharmonic's first violin section and the Baransky Stradivarius owned by Julian Lloyd Webber.

Copies and Forgeries

In the 19th century, violin makers created thousands of inexpensive copies of Stradivari's designs. It was perfectly normal at the time for copies to be labeled with the model they were designed after since buyers were clear on the fact that they were purchasing a budget instrument, not a 17th century masterpiece. Referencing the name of the master was considered normal, not a deceptive practice, especially after the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890 was passed and the country of manufacture had to be included on the label. Anyone shopping for a violin would have known that if it was made in Germany, it wasn't a Strad.

Fast-forward to people discovering those copies stashed in attics, secondhand stores, and under the beds of now-grown band geeks, and things can be misleading. Deliberate forgeries make them even murkier. A violin's authenticity can only be determined by someone who is experienced in design, wood characteristics, and varnish textures, but if you find one stashed in a closet that's labeled in English or was made in a country that didn't exist before 1900, it's not a Strad. If you find something that can't be ruled out by the obvious, treat it like it's real and call an expert, just in case…there are still a tiny number of unaccounted for Stradivarii out there.

In the meantime, Happy National Violin Day, and remember to follow us on Facebook and Instagram!

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