by Barbara Palladino
The Stradivarius violin is renowned as the perfect musical instrument. Playing one is a dream come true for any musician, and only the best in the world have had the wonderful opportunity to get close to one of the 450 that still exist.
Their creator was Antonio Stradivari, a luthier who lived in Cremona from 1644 to 1737 and was famous for the particular techniques he used to make violas, violins, cellos, haps and guitars – the details of which are still not completely known to this day, making it impossible for anyone to truly replicate his work.
Stradivarius instruments owe their fame to their quality and impeccable sound. Experts estimate the famous luthier made approximately 1,116 instruments – including 960 violins – in his long career, until he was 93 years old.
A number of theories have emerged about the secrets these precious collector’s treasures might hold. A team of researchers at Cambridge University analyzed fragments of a 1711 cello, coming to the conclusion that the type of varnish used – made with volcanic ashes from the Cremona region – was a crucial element. Scientists at the Texas A&M University, College Station, instead, focused on the microscopic mineral crystals that coat the instruments. At Boston’s MIT, the unique and impeccable sound of a Stradivarius was associated to the elongated f-shaped openings on the front of the violin.
What we know for sure is that Stradivari used a mix of potassium carbonate, silica and coal to strengthen the structure of the wood, granting the natural material a glass-like composition and extraordinary resistance. “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” has published studies conducted at the National Taiwan University and by Hwan-Ching Tai that used spectroscopic analysis to prove that legendary Stradivarius wood contains aluminum, calcium, copper, sodium, potassium and zinc.
To make his instruments, Stradivari used European spruce from the Fiemme Valley for the top and maple for the back, neck and other parts. Researchers have noted that the wood coming from plants growing between 1645 and 1717 was particularly fit to make musical instruments, because the drop in temperatures and rains in that period probably caused a reduction in plants’ photosynthesis, making the wood more robust, compact, and devoid of imperfections.
According to legend, Stradivari rolled tree trunks on the ground to hear the sound they made, and dedicated his work to the goal of creating an object with the same acoustic quality of the human voice.
The efforts made in scientific research as well as the number of traditional stories recorded point to a true fascination with Stradivarius instruments, which are indeed rare and valued at extreme price ranges today. Think of the “McDonald” viola, assessed at 45 million dollars and named after its first buyer, Baron McDonald; or the “Lady Blunt” violin, auctioned off in 2011 for 15.9 million dollars; or the “Duport” cello, named after cellist Jean-Pierre Duport and tied to another unique anecdote: when Duport allowed Napoleon to play it, in 1812, the French emperor’s clumsiness resulted in his boot making a dent in the instrument. Today, it is worth about 20 million dollars.