One of the most prized musical instruments in the world is the Stradivarius violin.
These violins were made in the late17th and early 18th century by members of the Stradivari family, Antonio the father and Francesco, Omobono and Paolo the sons. Together they made more than 1,000 violins, some 500 or so that still exist. You can probably purchase one if you have anywhere from several hundred thousand to eight or nine million dollars lying around.
During Antonio’s lifetime (1644-1737), the Stradivari violins became world-famous for their sound and craftsmanship. The first of these violins began to appear in the 1660s, but the “golden age” of Stradivari production occurred between 1700 and 1725.
Today, whenever a Stradivarius violin is found, bought, or sold, it’s big news. But the name we should know is not Stradivarius but Cremona. That’s the town in northern Italy where for the past five centuries the best violins in the world, including those made by Stradivari, have been made.
Beginning with the Amati and Rugeri families in the 1500s, and later the products of the Guarneri and Stradivari, Cremona craftsmen and women did much to develop the shape, style, and sound of the modern violin. Andrea Amati was the founding father of the earliest prominent violin-making family, and his skills and techniques were passed on to his sons.
They attracted to their workshop Andrea Rugeri and Francesco Guarneri, both of whom eventually left to set up their own violin, viola, and cello operations. Third generation Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri produced some of the best and most highly prized violins ever made. Although it is unclear whose workshop he trained in, Antonio Stradivari followed the local traditions and started what became the most illustrious violins of them all.
One of the factors that gave the violins of Cremona their special quality, particularly with their sound, was the spruce trees found in a forest near the town.
Cremona today is still a center for violin production of the highest quality. The men and women who work in these shops may produce fewer than 10 violins a year, but they are sought after by musicians and collectors who are willing to pay top dollar for them. Cremona has recently celebrated its tradition by building a museum, the Museo del Violino, that not only collects and displays violins but also does research on the qualities that give them a unique sound.
“Each instrument is handmade and assembled with more than 70 different molded pieces of wood. Every part of a new violin requires a particular technique, continuously adapted according to the different acoustic response of each piece of wood: for this reason, it is impossible to get two violins exactly identical. Every part of the violin should be made with a particular kind of wood, carefully selected and naturally seasoned, so that its preparation can be neither forced or artificial. … It is not possible to use any industrial or semi-industrial part, and spray painting is prohibited. Many of the elements of the musical instrument appear merely ornamental, but in reality they are highly functional in order to get the force and the sound amplification, or to protect the instrument from accidental breaks: this is a double characteristic of the first violin’s creation.”
Illustration: This caricature of Antonio Stradivari is based on the romanticized 1893 painting by Edgar Bundy, shown here.
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