Stradivarius, the man behind the violin

Many luthiers often remain unknown to the general public, but there is one name that everyone remembers: Stradivarius. Indicative of excellence and prestige amongst luthiers, the name has almost become legendary...but who was Antonio Stradivari?

Stradivarius, the man behind the violin
Stradivarius, the man behind the violin, © Getty / ullstein bild Dtl.

A world renowned violin-maker, Stradivarius also created countless other instruments of equally exceptional quality: cellos, violas, guitars, citterns, viols, and lutes… Despite their advanced age (approximately 300 years old), many of these treasures are still in existence today, with over 650 across the globe.

But unfortunately, not everyone can afford a "Strad". The famous luthier's creations are highly sought after both by musicians and collectors, and their prices often reach the millions!

What secrets are hidden in a Stradivarius instrument? And do we truly know the man behind the legend?

An incomplete portrait

A hard worker, Stradivarius spent his days in his workshop and had little time to pose for painters. We have therefore only a vague idea of the luthier's appearance. The portraits depicting Stradivarius were painted after his death, and are thus but faithful reflections of the truth, much like the description by François-Joseph Fétis in 1856, told indirectly from third-hand information: a tall and thin man, wearing a white bonnet and a white apron. These little clues are the only traces left for us to imagine the legendary luthier.

Stradivarius dans son atelier.
Stradivarius dans son atelier. , © Getty

A mysterious childhood

We know little of the childhood of Antonio Stradivari, Stradivarius's real name; even his birthdate is unknown. It is placed sometime around 1644, a time when thousands of people were in exile after fleeing a terrible epidemic of the Plague that had ravaged Italy only several years earlier. Amongst these people were undoubtedly Antonio's parents, a probable reason why there is no trace of the young child's birth certificate.

Cremona, birthplace of instrument makers

We know only that the young Antonio ended up in Cremona, the birthplace of the violin, with his mother and his two brothers, and was placed in an orphanage at the age of ten. Though a widely believed hypothesis, there is no proof to the idea that he was adopted by the Amati family, another highly-respected name amongst luthiers.

"Amatised" violins

Was Antonio a student of Nicolo Amati (1596-1684), as the young luthier himself indicated on the label of one of his first instruments? There is no mention in the archives of the master luthier of such a relationship. Nonetheless, given the fact that Stradivari's instruments conceived between 1660 and 1680 bear a striking resemblance in their construction to those of the Cremonesi luthier, this hypothesis is not unlikely.

During this time, the young luthier studied greatly and honed his craft, soon reaching the level of the country's greatest artisans, gradually making a name for himself. However, his reputation struggled to reach beyond the borders of the city of Cremona, overshadowed by the impressive Amati.

"Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis faciebat anno 1666". In 1666, Antonio Stradivari began signing his instruments with the Latin form of his name, one which would eventually come to describe both the creator and his creations.

The early days of glory

In 1680, Antonio bought a large house on the San Domenico square, where all the other luthiers were situated, in order to open his own workshop.

Despite this latest acquisition, he was not yet rich enough at the time to procure for himself the highest quality wood for his instruments, and was thus forced to build the backs of his instruments by combining to separate elements. What seemed initially to be an inconvenience proved to be a fascinating and useful technique, allowing for a perfect symmetry of wood fibers on each half and, as a result, a better sound from the instrument. However, his reputation was still behind that of his rival Amati, and it was only after the latter's death in 1684 that the public attention finally turned to Stradivarius. He began receiving orders and commissions from many of Europe's greatest monarchs, notably the Duke of Savoy and the King of Sardinia in 1685, and the Duke of Modena in 1686…

Development of a new model

Over the course of ten years, Stradivarius developed and changed the design of his instruments, giving them a more robust appearance and a more powerful sonority.

By the end of the 1680s, he subtly changed his own design by reducing the thickness and by redesigning the f-holes, the sound holes carved into the face of the instrument which determine the air pressure within the body of the instrument. These changes resulted in a slightly longer and thinner violin, an instrument with an exceptional sonority referred to as "longuet".

The end of the century ushered in a period known as the "golden age". The luthier had mastered a precision of proportions shy of perfection, one that afforded his instruments a rich, warm and melodious a word? Ideal.

Family struggles

Though professionally Stradivarius may have found great satisfaction, his personal life was shaken by the death of this wife, Francesca, which pushed him into a deep depression. Less than ten years later, he also lost his first daughter, Giulia-Maria.

Stradivarius managed nonetheless to overcome these hardships and eventually married Antonia Maria Zambelli, with whom he fathered five children.

Fruitful encounters

Stradivarius rarely travelled and met very few musicians. Instead, musicians often came to see the famous luthier, attracted by the legendary quality of his instruments.  The greatest violinists of his time rushed to meet Stradivarius in his workshop: Pietro Locatelli, Francesco Geminiani, Giuseppe Tartini, Antonio Vivaldi and even Arcangelo Corelli, with whom he developed a great friendship. The close collaboration between the violinist and the luthier greatly contributed to the evolution of the violin, influencing both its construction and the music composed for it. It is far from a coincidence that the peak of Stradivarius's career coincides with that of Corelli, with the publication of the magnificent collection 12 Sonatas Opus V in 1700.

The myth of the varnish

Of the many secrets surrounding the creations of the Cremonesi luthier, the varnish is one that has undoubtedly caused the most intrigue. Many believe that this little detail is what gives the instruments their extraordinary sonority: fascinated by the subject, the luthier Simone F. Sacconi (1895-1973) published The Secrets of Stradivari, a work of great importance to this day.

However, scientific progress has allowed to better understand the mystery surrounding the luthier's famous varnish. In 2009, a study lead by the Musée de la musique in Paris revealed the composition of the varnish's different layers. No trace of a preparatory undercoat, propolis, or amber fossil, as many luthiers believed, but rather... a simple oil-based varnish!

More precisely, a coat of oil under a second coat of the same oil mixed with pine resin. Various pigments were then added, varying according to the period: iron oxide (also known as ferric oxide), cinnabar (mercury sulfide), and cochineal. Though Stradivarius's excellent varnishes undeniably contributed to the flawless sonority of his instruments, the ingredients used had a primarily visual purpose.

A discovery which, far from disappointing those fascinated by the luthier's techniques, only furthered the interest and curiosity surrounding his instruments. Stradivarius, the legend, lives on!

Violon stradivarius ayant appartenu au virtuose Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840).
Violon stradivarius ayant appartenu au virtuose Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840). , © Getty