The Italian Almanac
Countess of Castiglione
Lorenzo the Magnificent
Antonio Stradivari (1644 - 1737)
Even the most straightforward biography of Antonio Stradivari, the virtuoso instrument-maker whose craftsmanship to this day baffles scientists and musicians alike, would make for a gripping read. The mystery surrounding his wife's involvement in the 1664 murder of her first husband; the unlikely emergence in the 17th century of plague-ravaged Cremona as the capital of violin innovation; the intense rivalries that arose between celebrated luthiers such as Giuseppe Guarneri and Francesco Rugeri; and Stradivari's inspired experimentation with shape, size and materials (not to mention his fretful search for a suitable successor) would have been enough to keep most biographers busy. Italian violin maker Antonio Stradivari (c. 1644-1737) created instruments that are still considered the finest ever made. The new styles of violins and cellos that he developed were remarkable for their excellent tonal quality and became the basic design for all modern versions of the instruments.
Antonio Stradivari, also known by the Latin form of his name, Antonius Stradivarius, was a master craftsman who revolutionized the design of the violin. The instruments that he crafted in the late 1600s and early 1700s are considered to be the finest ever made because of the unsurpassed quality of their tone. Of the approximately 650 of his violins known still to exist, many continue to be played by musicians today. Stradivari also accomplished a similar redesign of the cello, setting the standard for the styles of violins and cellos used in later centuries. But the exact qualities of Stradivari's creations have never been able to be reproduced, making the stringed instruments that bear his name the most valuable and sought after in the world.
There were no records of Stradivari's birth, but based on the documentation of his age that accompanied his signature on some of the instruments he created late in his life, it was assumed that he was born in 1644. There was also little that is known about his youth. He was probably born in Cremona, Italy, the city where his family had been established for five centuries, and he was the son of Alessandro Stradivari. Cremona was a town that had been renowned for its master violin makers for nearly 100 years. Its leading craftsman during Stradivari's early life was Niccolo Amati, who represented the third generation of his family to contribute to the development of the traditional violin style popular at that time. Stradivari was probably apprenticed to Amati by the early 1660s and under his direction learned the craft of violin making.
By 1666, Stradivari was producing instruments independently as well as continuing to work at his mentor's shop, which he probably did until Amati's death in 1684. In 1667, he was married to Francesca Feraboschi and set up his own household and shop; the couple eventually had six children and two of their sons would follow in their father's footsteps as violin makers. In the decade or so before 1680, Stradivari created a wide variety of stringed instruments, including guitars, harps, lutes, and mandolins. He continued to follow Amati's basic design for violins, but during this time he began experimenting with improvements in tone and design. The small number of instruments he created were primarily sold in Cremona, and he was not well-known outside the city in these years.
The Stradivari family moved to a new house at No. 2, Piazza San Domenico in 1680, and the building would serve as the violin maker's home and workshop for the rest of his life. Here he matured in his art and created his greatest works, most notably the violins that set the standard for perfection in the music world. In the 1680s, he continued to develop his own style, deviating from Amati's design to create a more solid-looking violin that used new materials and finishes. The resulting instruments during this time created a more powerful sound than earlier violins, and musicians from outside Cremona began to seek out instruments from his workshop as his fame grew. Upon Amati's death in 1684, Stradivari was considered the city's greatest violin maker.
Despite his considerable success with his designs, Stradivari continued to look for ways to improve his violins. In the 1690s, he experimented with the length of the instrument, creating what was known as the "long pattern" or "long Strad"—a violin that was 5/16 of an inch longer than the traditional pattern. The result was a deeper, fuller tone that was quite distinct from the lighter sounds of other Cremona instrument makers. Stradivari's wife died in 1698, and she was honored with a large funeral. In the summer of the following year, the craftsman married his second wife, Antonia-Maria Zambelli. He had five more children from this marriage, but none of them ever entered the instrument-making business.
The years from 1700 to 1720 were the greatest of Stradivari's career and the era was often referred to as the "golden period" of the artisan. It was during this time that he perfected his violin design and created his finest instruments. He discontinued his work with the long pattern during this time, instead creating violins that blended the qualities of the dark, rich tones of his earlier instruments with the brighter, sweet sounds of the traditional Cremona violin. Not only was his design revolutionary, but the materials he used also helped to create his unique effects. He selected excellent wood, such as maple, for his violins and developed the orange-brown varnish that became a trademark of his work. His works from this period were so magnificent that some violins created at this time have developed individual identities and reputations. Some of the most famous include the 1704 "Betts" violin, now in the United States Library of Congress, the 1715 "Alard," which is considered the finest Strativarius in existence, and the 1716 "Messiah," an instrument that Stradivari never sold and is now in the best condition of any of his surviving pieces.
After 1720, Stradivari continued to produce violins and other stringed instruments, but the number of items decreased through the years. And while his work maintained a high level of quality, it began to show the effects of failing eyesight and a less steady hand. His sons, Francesco and Omobono, had become assistants of their father in his business, and they began to collaborate with him and another employee, Carlo Bergonzi, to produce instruments that bear the inscription of being created "under the discipline of Antonio Stradivari." But Stradivari also produced instruments on his own until his death at the age of 93 on December 18, 1737. His second wife had died just nine months earlier. They were both buried in a tomb located just across the street from their house at the Chapel of the Rosary of the Church of San Domenico. By the 1800s, the chapel had fallen into disrepair and was eventually demolished. All that remained of Stradivari's final resting place was the stone bearing his name that had appeared on his tomb; it was now located in the Cremona Civic Museum, which also housed personal items belonging to Stradivari, including original drawings and designs for his instruments.
Although Stradivari is best remembered for his exceptional violins, the patterns that he created have become the basis for instruments used today. Some of the secrets of his craft have never been completely unraveled, however, despite investigations into the materials that were used in Strativarius violins. While his accomplishments may never be duplicated, it was generally assumed that the beautiful sound of his instruments was due to the unique combination of design, materials, and workmanship that Stradivari had developed during his long and successful career. Many people felt that his instruments were the best ever produced, and their use by leading musicians hundreds of years after his death were a testament to the genius of Stradivari.