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Antonio Stradivari

Antonio Stradivari

Mention the word Stradivarius and you know that we’re talking about the highest levels of music. What is the story behind the legend? Who was the father of the greatest violin of all?

Antonio Stradivari was the creator of violins, cellos and violas. His patterns have been copied by generations of instrument makers, and his name is known across the world by musicians and non-musicians alike.

Antonio Stradivari

Antonio Stradivari’s life story is surprisingly sparse for such a famous figure. We think he was born in Cremona somewhere around 1644 and died in 1737.

For years, he was thought to be an apprentice of Nicolò Amati, whose style and influence is heavily evident in Stradivari’s work. However, when census documents were found, a glaring omission was spotted. Stradivari is not recorded as a garzone (shopboy) in the Amati household. Stradivari's early instruments are modelled on Amati, but as Girolamo II and Nicolò were the names in instruments in his time in Cremona, so it’s not unusual that Stradivari was influenced by them.

At this point, we have to close our eyes and imagine a little boy peering through the windows at the great masters as he scurried past. Did he gaze longingly at their instruments? Did he examine them, looking for their secrets, was he burning candles late into the night, studying the workings of the magic of music? We may never know, but one thing is certain, young Antonio started off in the styles of his idols, but he soon blazed his own path and his talents quickly burnt brighter than their light.

Young Antonio was either apprenticed to the master violinist Niccolo Amati, or he was employed by Amati as a woodworker. This is further supported by the delicate woodworking designs on many violins.

He began affixing his name to his creations in 1666, following the styles of his time, short violins with thick varnishing. By 1684, Stradivari was experimenting. His violins were bigger, the varnish was thicker, and we start to find small differences in the detailing of the violins. This was the beginning of Stradivari’s revolution of the violin form. By 1690, Stradivari was redefining what a violin looked like with long, broad violins.

In 1700, after returning for a few years to an earlier time he continued to innovate and experiment. Stradivarius violins began to change the way music sounded, with his model changing the way violins have been made, by devising the modern violin bridge. He also came up with what is now the standard proportions of a violin, a shallow body creating powerful, penetrating tones.

Stradivarius violins are tonally perfect. It has long been debated whether this was due to the unique varnish, or the shapes and thickness of his violins with wooden tops and back plates. He also crafted his violins with microscopic pores within the wood of the violin. His varnishing formula has never been successfully replicated, and even today we don’t know what’s in it. We only know that his violins are still masterpieces that collect millions at auctions because they still sound fantastic.

Antonio Stradivari

The name Stradivarius conjures immediate images of fine violinists but Stradivari also crafted cellos, violas, harps, guitars, and even mandolins. Historians believe that he made over 1,100 instruments in his life, 650 instruments still survive, including somewhere between 450-512 violins.

Since Stradivarius made so many instruments, it has long been alleged that his sons must have worked alongside him, his sons Francesco and Omobono continued their father’s legacy.

The Stradivarius instruments are so special, so precious, that each has its own name. Some are named after a previous owner or famous player of the instrument for example, “Le Sarasate" after the great violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, “Leonardo da Vinci” the “Wieniawski” after the famous composers, or sweet names like “Sleeping Beauty.” The “Molitar” Stradivarius violin is said to have been owned by Napoleon. The musician Yo Yo Ma owns one of the most famous cellos of all the time, the “Davidov” Stradivarius, previously owned by Jacqueline du Pre.

The peak of Stradivari's career, his so-called Golden Period began in 1700 and lasted until 1720. These instruments were formed after much experimentation and represent the perfected musical quality that Stradivarius was looking for. After 1720, the influence of Stradivari’s sons can be seen. His materials changed, and the arches became less broad. Although these pieces are still beautiful and masterful, they are not as lauded as his golden era pieces. They still fetch a pretty penny at auction though!

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Antonio Stradivari

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