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Heavenly Strings

For Centuries, Experts Have Struggled--Unsuccessfully--To Duplicate the Perfection of Antonio Stradivari's Violins
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

(continued from page 5)

That he was a continually experimenting workaholic and perfectionist is evidenced by the incomparable beauty of his instruments, the precision with which they were put together, the large number he is estimated to have made, and the minute variations in each one.

That he was a poorly educated but savvy businessman is evidenced by the few surviving letters he wrote to patrons. The handwriting is clumsy; the sentences full of errors, omissions, transpositions, and words of Cremonese dialect; yet also replete with expressions that reveal Stradivari to be a surprisingly obsequious tradesman, as probably befitted the period: "I beg you will command me, and kissing your hand, I remain," or "not wishing to weary you further, and kissing your hands and making obeisance."

That he was close with a lira can be deduced not only from his persistent use of all-purpose, sometimes typographically flawed labels, but from his quibbling over the expenses for his first wife's funeral ("Deducted altogether 8 lira from the present bill," he wrote at the bottom of it), and the fact that at the age of 85, he had no qualms about buying a used grave to serve as his own--and even appropriated its original owner's tombstone. He simply had the previous family's name and coat-of-arms partially effaced and his own name carved on it.

That he desired female companionship is shown by the fact that he waited little more than a year after the death of his wife of three decades to get married again--to a woman 20 years his junior. He fathered 11 children, two daughters and nine sons, two of whom, Francesco (1671-1743) and Omobono (1679-1742), also became violin makers but left little of their own work to posterity.

When he died on Dec. 18, 1737, Stradivari was interred in one of the small chapels in the Church of San Domenico, across the plaza from his home, in the plot he had purchased from the descendant of a family of minor Cremonese nobles. By 1869, the church had fallen into such disrepair that it was demolished. Whatever bones were found in its crypts, presumably including Stradivari's, were gathered up in a jumble and dumped in an unmarked plot outside the city, thus rendering his final resting place unknown.

Stradivari's narrow three-story house, with its rooftop seccadour, or flat terrace, where he had hung his newly varnished violins to dry, remained intact until 1888. Then it was converted into a cafe and billiard parlor. It was torn down in the 1920s. Cremona, which remains a center of violin making, has sought to make amends for these indignities by naming a major thoroughfare for Stradivari, proudly preserving one of his wonderful violins and a few meager artifacts from his workshop in city museums, and holding an annual violin festival.

Without actual documentation, the generally accepted birthdate for Stradivari is 1644. The Hills deduced this from the fact that during the last decade of his life, Stradivari evidenced pride in his vigorous longevity by stating his age on some of the labels he inserted inside his violins. The first time he probably did this, in 1727, he wrote on a label that the instrument was "d'anni 83," or made during his 83rd year, and all subsequent notations of this sort point to 1644 as the year he was born.

It is these small labels, most of them pasted on the inside of the instruments' backs, directly under the f-hole, to which are attributed the first documentary evidence of Stradivari's presence in Cremona, his training, and some of his personal characteristics. The Hills once saw a 1666 label on which Stradivari identified himself as an "Alumnus Nicolai Amati," or as a pupil of the celebrated Niccolò Amati (1596-1684), whose fame as a master violin maker he soon would surpass. Since children between the ages of 12 and 14 usually were apprenticed to such masters, the Hills deduced that Stradivari's parents (whoever they were) handed him over to Amati between 1656 and 1658. The 1666 label is the only one on which Stradivari ever associated himself with Amati, and as to how--or even if--the young Stradivari ever demonstrated an interest in violin making, nothing is known.

Between 1660 and 1665, however, when Stradivari was 16 to 21, he had his own labels printed, evidently having so excelled as a pupil in just a few years that he was ready to seek patrons and sell violins on his own. Yet, since few Strads from the 1660s and 1670s survive, it is presumed Stradivari probably remained an employee of Amati for nearly 20 years, striking out entirely on his own only after his teacher died in 1684 at the age of 88.

Stradivari's parsimony in using all-purpose labels has bedeviled collectors for centuries. When he started out, he shortsightedly listed the date of manufacture as "166_," to which he would add the appropriate year of the decade in ink; in the 1670s and 1680s, he simply scratched out the second "6" and wrote "7" or "8" over it. Even though he had new labels printed in 1690, he continued to use the "166_" labels as long as they lasted, simply changing the last "6" to a "9." When he did use the new 1690s labels he did so even though the printer botched up his first name, "Antonius" on some of them, putting in the "u" upside down so it read "Antonins." Once the eighteenth century dawned, he had new labels printed that simply said, "1___," and then filled in the rest by hand.


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