Why is a violin by Stradivari called a Stradivarius? It seems to be an historically sanctioned affectation. Other Italian violin makers of the time used a Latin form of their name on labels, but do we call an Amati an Amatus? We do not, or a Guarneri, a Guarnerius, not usually. So a Stradivarius violin is simply a Stradivari by another name.
Antonio Stradivari was born c.1644 and died in 1737; he lived and worked in Cremona. His early works show the influence of Nicoló Amati though there is no evidence of a direct connection between them. His earliest label is dated 1666. In 1680 he moved to the Piazza San Domenico in Cremona and in the1690s developed the so called ‘long pattern’ model violin. His Golden Period runs from c.1700 to c.1720; his late stylistic period from c1720 until his death. Two of his sons and other workers assisted him for most of his working life and so he should be considered the head of a workshop rather than the sole fabricator of the instruments produced there. The violas are generally of a contralto size rather than the larger tenor. Many of the early large model cellos have been reduced in size but around 1707 Stradivari produced the smaller so called ‘forma B’ model of which about 20 examples exist with unchanged dimensions.
Most of the comments regarding his development of different models to improve the ‘tone’ of his instruments or their unique ‘tonal quality’ should be regarded as speculation as no documentary evidence exists to support such ideas. Equally imaginative comments about the special sound quality produced by his varnish should be treated with the same deprecation. Indeed repeated blind tests over the centuries have unfailingly shown the idea of a unique recognisable ‘Stradivarian’ sound to be imperceptible to the judging audience.
One of the most recent and most comprehensive studies states:
‘Old Italian violins are widely believed to have playing qualities unobtainable in new violins, including the ability to project their sound more effectively in a hall. Because Old Italian instruments are now priced beyond the reach of the vast majority of players, it seems important to test the fundamental assumption of their tonal superiority. A recent study found that, under blind conditions, violin soloists generally prefer new violins and are unable to distinguish between new and old at better than chance levels. This paper extends the results to listeners in a hall. We find that they generally prefer new violins over Stradivaris, consider them better-projecting, and are no better than players at telling new and old apart.’ 1
This said, Stradivari’s instruments remain, in many connoisseurs’ eyes, the supreme expression of the luthier’s craft to-date, both in their conception and their execution.
It is estimated that the Stradivari workshop produced around a thousand instruments of which around 650 survive.
The value of Stradivarius Violins has always been high and the current auction record for a violin stands at over 15 million dollars, some have change hands privately for a great deal more.
It takes considerable expertise developed by close scrutiny of other examples to pronounce on the authenticity, or otherwise, of a Stradivari instrument. There is no easy way and there are hundreds of thousands of violins bearing spurious Stradivari labels. Even among the leading experts in the field opinions can be divided. The most famous violin attributed to Stradivari, the ‘Messiah’ housed in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, continues to split opinion with regard to its authenticity.
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1. Claudia Fritz, Joseph Curtin, Jacques Poitevineau, and Fan-Chia Tao, Listener evaluations of new and Old Italian violins, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol.114 No.21, May 8, 2017.