For more than two centuries, Antonio Stradivari remains the greatest violin maker of all time. Many Stradivarius violins sell for millions of dollars these days. By combining excellent materials and superb craft, the luthier’s violin design produced stringed instruments that have never been surpassed aesthetically and tonally. Stradivari is thought to have made 1,116 instruments, of which 960 were violins of which approximately 450-512 violins survive.
In a career that spanned over seven decades, Stradivari, with the help of his two sons, Omobono and Franchesco, produced almost a thousand instruments, most of which still survive today. He identified a decent vocation at an early age, pursued it through with an all-absorbing commitment for decades, and was genuinely contented about it. His craftmanship alluded to a man who was undeniably happy with what he did. His whole existence was bound up with the musical instrument, and Stradivari will be revered as long as classical music lasts.
Antonio Stradivari’s early life is little known, including the exact city of birth and birthdate. However, it is deduced that he was born in Cremona, Italy, in 1644, to Alessandro Stradivari. Cremona was renowned for its leading violin makers for over a century (The Rise and Fall, 2009), possibly because of the nearby Paneveggio forest which produces excellent spruce wood for making violins. It is recognized that Stradivari was an apprentice of Nicolo Amati, Cremona’s master luthier and the third generation of makers in his family. In the 1680s, after three decades of apprenticeship under Amati, Stradivari started to develop his model and style for the stringed instruments.
During that period, he relocated to a new house, that is now known as No. 1 Piazza Roma, where he lived until his death. This house, located a few doors away from other famous violin-making families including the Amatis and Guarneris, was paid for entirely by 1684 and Stradivari probably worked from the attic and loft.
Stradivari slowly shifted from Amati’s influence, experimenting with the ‘Long Pattern’ and becoming more robust. It was indeed an attempt to match the tonal richness achieved by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’ makers of Brescia. In 1699, the craftsman finally discovered the ideal model he had been experimenting with, ‘Lady Tennant’ being the best case of the supposedly ‘Golden Period’ (The Rise and Fall, 2009).
During this period, Stradivari was at his peak, developing instruments that were easily identified. Stradivari instruments during this time featured an increased flatness of the arch and breadth of the model, merged with superbly flamed backs, and the magnificent, trademark varnish. The Rise and Fall (2009) indicates that he produced his greatest works between 1709 and 1717 at the pinnacle of his career, with the ‘Lady Blunt’ being the finest instrument to ever feature at an auction.
However, it is believed to be the second-best after ‘Messie’, a marvel piece that has not been recovered yet. Omobono and Francesco, Stradivari’s sons, were active participants in their father’s workshop and helped develop many instruments. Their father’s influence was so powerful, although details about their involvement before 1720 remain scanty. After 1729, there was a shift in design, with the instrument developed after that having fuller arches and less wood. The ‘Red Diamond’ and ‘Inner; Loder’ of 1732 and 1729 are fine examples of his works during the period.
Stradivarius instruments are rare commodities, and only 650 of the almost a thousand made are believed to exist and are hid from public view by private collectors. Nearly all of them are built on a contralto model of roughly forty centimeters in length. The 1690’s ‘Medici’ is the sole exception, having a back of 47.6 centimeters, and it is the only inviolate Stradivarius instrument that exists today. Moreover, the Cello design was also a beneficiary of Stradivari’s quest for new ideas.
The craftsman’s earliest instruments, such as ‘Bonjour’ of 1696, were initially more pronounced, but they subsequently saw a reduction in size to produce ‘forma B,’ a novel cello model. The model enjoyed equal status with the Golden Period’s violins, and only Montagnana’s can rival it. Of all cellos, only twenty survive, with ‘Gore Booth’ being one of the best pieces. The luthier fashioned new models that were seemingly smaller, squarer, and thinner than forma B during these years. The most notable example is the 1732’s ‘Pleeth,’ and the cello associated with 1732 circa that was smaller in dimensions.
The design and shape of the contemporary violin largely mirror the influence of Stradivari, and his teacher, Andrea Amati. Despite the extensive research on Stradivari’s construction methods, the acoustic qualities that spurred him into fame are little understood. His instruments rivaled an ideal human voice with reduced height and backness.
The distinct format properties that Stradivari’s violins displayed mirror the acoustic correlate of their unique brilliance. These violins’ complex structure and geometry are somewhat different from the preexisting instruments and set new heights for acoustic and vocal appeal. Despite the numerous attempts to alter these creations’ fundamental geometry and structure, they have been unsuccessful because of their adverse effects on acoustic performance. The significance of his work rests on the quality of his materials, craftsmanship, and surface finish. Stradivari’s contribution to violin-making art will surely outlive our existence.
Stradivari is thought to be Nicolo Amati’s apprentice. The maker’s early instruments do not mirror the latter’s influence but being the principal makers during his formative years; it is natural that Amati influenced his ideas and work. Similarly, San Faustino and San Matteo, the top figures in violin making in Cremona, could have been instrumental in the direction he took career-wise. He experimented with the arching and shape of the violin and developed instruments based on various proportions and dimensions. Unlike his predecessors, he employed relatively flatter violins that were powerful in tone.
- The Rise and Fall of the Cremonese Art of Violin Making Antonio Stradivari (1644c–1737). (2009). Cremona Violins, 13-28. doi:10.1142/9789812791115_0002