Antonio Stradivari - A Portrait

Still today Antonio Stradivari (1644 - 1737) is the most famous violin maker ever lived. He optimized the violin's tonal qualities to achieve a firmer sound and "beautified" the outline which had been prosumably designed by Gasparo da Salo and finally sized to its nowaday's measures by the Amati family. He foresaw the need for a firm sound as concert halls grew steadily.

During his lifetime violins of his teacher Nicolo Amati and those made by the Austrian violinmaker Jacob Stainer were thought of as the best. They were well-balanced and sweet in tone but the firm sound suitable for being heard distinctly even in the most distant corners of large concert halls was missing. Amatis and Stainers are first choice for chamber music still today.
During his ripening period he made to combine the beautiful sound of the Amatis and Stainers with the increasingly demanded strength and loudness. The quality of this combination is said to be unreached until now, although there is proof of instruments of excellent modern violin makers which truely withstand a comparison to a Stradivari instrument.

Prices for a genuine Stradivari can be worth millions of DM and so it is not surprising that since the 19th century until today Antonio Stradivari's instruments are the most copied and faked ones. There is an anecdote, that for some decades a fake was mistaken for a genuine Stradivari. Finally the instrument was taken for a violin made by the french master Vuillaume who is thought of as the "French Stradivari". Nevertheless, Vuillaume had become famous as an ingenious cheat after he presented his "Tiefenbrucker-Fakes".


Stradivari was born in 1644 as a child of Alessandro Stradivari (* 15. Jan. 1602 + ?) and Anna Moroni (* ? + ?). There are no recordings on the exact date of birth, the year of birth was calculated back through Count Cozio de Salabue's handwritten remarks like "d'anni 89" found on some labels in Stradivari's instruments. New investigations favour the year 1648 so that the collector Cozio let the master age 4 years older.

Stradivari married Francesca Ferraboschi (born 07. Oktober 1640). He had 6 children with her:
1. Giulio Stradivari (23th Dec. 1667 - 07th Aug. 1707)
2. Francesco Stradivari (06th Feb. 1670 - 12th Feb. 1670)
3. Francesco Stradivari (01st Feb. 1671 - 11th May 1743)
4. Catterina Stradivari (25th Mar. 1674 - 17th Jun. 1748)
5. Alessandro Stradivari (25th May 1677 - 26th Jan. 1732)
6. Omobono Stradivari (14th Nov. 1679 - 08th Jun.1742)

After Francesca's death on May, 25th 1698 he married Antonia Zambelli (born 11th Juni 1664) on Aug. 24th 1699. He had 5 children with her:
7. Francesca Stradivari (19th Sep. 1700 - 11th Feb. 1720)
8. G. B. Giuseppe (06th Nov. 1701 - 08th Jul. 1702)
9. G. B. Martino (11th Nov. 1703 - 01st Nov. 1727)
10. Giuseppe (27th Oct. 1704 - 02nd Dez. 1781)
11. Paolo (26th Jan. 1708 - 14th Oct. 1776)

Only two of his children worked as a violin maker in his workshop, Francesco und Omobono. From the year 1700 on the master's ripening period begins. At this time his helping sons are 29 and 20/21 years old. The golden period ends after 1720, Antonio is more than 70, his sons 50 and 40 years old.

There are not many instruments of the sons, which are seen as genuine. Perhaps they had to do the "lower" parts like cutting scrolls and similar works. Besides, Antonio was in his ripening period and a man with a high reputation so that the workshop could only stay in this state by doing the tonal adjustments only by Antonio himself or by glueing his labels into the instruments not those of his sons.

Francesco and Omobono died a few years after their father had died. Unfortunately this was the end of the workshop Stradivari. Not only this, around 1750 the flowering time of the Cremonese high quality production of violins ended. It seems that shortly after this decline no-one knew why instruments of the time before 1750 were having this tonal superiority.
So it is a common thing up to day, to lend the best playing artists instruments made by Stradivari or Guarneri del Gesu for the lifetime of these artists. Many experts (and non-experts) think the extraordinary tonal qualities can be explained by a lost secret in the composition of the varnish. This argument even strange could contain a certain portion of truth:
During the 19th century and even until today there were highly emotional debates on the "true" Cremonese violin varnish. The arguments had filled lots of books and magazines. Obviously, there were many maniacs who like searching for the "Holy Grail" until going insane wanted to reveal the mystery of the true violin varnish. Others tried to discover arithmetic proportions in Stradivari's constructions. Some of these experts put the tonal qualities down to a meticulous tuning of the belly and the back, the air in the violin and so on and wrote books on their experiences. There were authors who explained the sound by watering the woods for violin making in rivers. Others said the used woods are of an extinct species of trees.

A big problem is that recordings on the process of violinmaking occur some decades after 1750. As an early example there was a prize-winning theoretical essay on the proportions of the violin at the end of the 18th century. The first book on violin making was written by Jacob August Otto in 1809, a master which said of himself having invented the sixth string on the modern guitar which is constant in its tuning (guitar) until today.

J. A. Otto takes it for granted that "the old masters" would have used amber varnish. This is a position of many american violin makers of today although it is very doubtly.

Back to Stradivari: His date of death is undoubtly the 18th December 1737. He enjoyed a long life and prosumably was still working in his workshop until shortly before "the end". The works of his last years lack the quality of former years. In his time he made it being well-off which does not happen very often to an artist during his lifetime.

His violins are said to sound cleanly, well-balanced, firmly and dynamically. Paganini, one of the earliest true virtuosos and composers in one person and a man characterized as the "devil player" did in fact not use a Stradivari.

After his death Paganini made the name "Guarneri del Gesu" famous to the world, a master forever standing in the shadow of his famous neighbour Stradivari, part of his time living in jail and making violins unter adverse conditions. Guarneri del Gesu died impoverished and was accepted decades later through Paganini. Today his rare instruments are absolutely top class. The quality of craftsmanship is not as superb as of Stradivari but his instruments do have "undescribable tonal passion" which even is not present in Stradivari's instruments.

Stradivari's and Guarneri del Gesu's violins are the most worthy instruments today.
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