Regardless of whether or not you’ve ever picked up a violin or had violin tuition of any kind, the name ‘Stradivarius’ will mean something to you.
‘Stradivarius’, the world-famous name given to the string instruments created by one of the finest luthiers in the history of violin making, Antonio Stradivari, represents the genius craftsmanship which is believed to have resulted in the sound of perfection.
But what exactly makes Stradivarius violins so remarkable? What is the history of the Stradivari family? Can you still buy an original Stradivarius musical instrument today?
Surviving instruments crafted by Antonio Stradivari sell for millions of dollars at auction, however, they are so rare that even if you have this kind of money in your back pocket, the chances of coming across an original 17th or 18th-century Strad are very small.
There is, however, a number of violin makers who work to recreate certain Stradivarius models as accurately as possible in the hope of bringing the trademark Stradivarius tone back to life once again. Thus, it is possible to buy a violin with a similar sound - but it still won't be a genuine Stradivarius.
If you’re interested in the rich history of string instruments and finding out more about why Stradivari pedigree is so prized, our guide is here to tell you all you need to know and Stradivarius violins.
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The Stradivari Family: A History
Stradivarius violins were made by renowned Italian luthier Antoni Stradivari and his family in the 17th and 18th centuries – but how, why and where did it all begin?
Although little is known about the details of Stradivari’s life, historians estimate that he was born in Cremona in 1644.
Before Antoni Stradivarius was born and made is way in the world as an expert maker of stringed instruments, the city of Cremona had long been regarded as the Italian capital of master violin craftsmen.
In fact, it is believed that Antonius Stradivarius (to use the Latin form of his name) was trained as a pupil of Nicolò Amati – a leading violin maker at that time who came from a long line of master luthiers who contributed to the development of the style of violin played today.
Towards the end of his apprenticeship, Stradivari was working to create his own instruments while he continued to work for Amati until he set up his own workshop in the late 1660s.
Stradivari experimented with the proportions of the violins, violas and cellos that he crafted in an attempt to produce the best possible tone.
It was Antonio Stradivari who devised the shape and size of the modern violin, as well as details such as the shape of the bridge.
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Stradivari’s contribution to modern violin making is perhaps one of the many reasons why his instruments are still regarded as the best of their kind in existence.
The Stradivari legacy lived on in two of Antonio Stradivari’s six sons, Francesco Stradivari and Omobono Stradivari, who continued to produce string instruments under the famous Stradivarius label, each one developing their own artistic signatures in the violins’ purfling.
So, the reason that the Stradivari name is so famous in the world of music is the contribution of the family to the development of the modern-day violin in all its forms, the viola, cello and even the mandolin.
What Makes Stradivarius Violins So Special?
The violins and other members of the string family crafted by Antonio Stradivari are regarded as the first modern violins in terms of their dimensions and proportions – but why exactly did this design become so successful after years of experimenting?
One New York Times article explains a study done by a researcher at Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri to determine how Stradivari’s pioneering design differed from the instruments that preceded it.
The Researcher, Dr. Dan Chitwood, used back and front photographs of a range of violins and compared them using a method for comparing the shape and form of plant species to statistically map the shape of Stradivari’s designs to those of other luthiers throughout history.
The findings of this research seemed to indicate that the shape of a violin does little to affect the sound of the instrument. Instead, other factors such as the wood from which a violin’s body is carved as well as the varnish, which is often disregarded as a ‘finishing touch’, can change the timbre significantly. No amount of violin tuning can replicate the Stradivarius sound on an inferior instrument.
However, Dr. Chitwood’s research did indicate that over time, the distinctive Stradivari design became widely adopted by other master luthiers in the 19th century as they strived to reproduce the Stradivari sound for themselves.
So, does this mean that the trend of replicating the Stradivari shape, which is still so prominent, was all for nothing?
This finding might debunk the legend of the magic craftsmanship of Antoni Stradivari, but other luthiers also recognised the importance of using certain materials in the construction of their string instruments.
So, while the focus on the general shape of the violin may have been unnecessary, the quest to use the exact type of wood used by Stradivari and unlock the Stradivari formula to varnish it was not completely fruitless.
Following in the footsteps of Antonio Stradivari and his family has led to a standard shape for the modern violin as well as the production of many high-quality copies which, when the violins are porperly cared for , are on-par with the original Strads according to blind sound tests.
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Original Stradivarius Violins: Where are They Now?
Antoni Stradivari crafted violins in the 17th and 18th centuries – that means that the existing original instruments are around 300 years old!
But how many instruments did Stradivari make? And how many have survived three centuries?
It is believed that during his life, Antonio Stradivari put his stamp on over 1,000 string instruments. These were mainly violins, but his work also included harps, guitars, violas and cellos.
Today, around 650 of these instruments bearing the original Stradivarius label are recorded as having survived the past 300-or-so years.
So, what happened to the missing 350 instruments?
300 years is a long time for anything to survive in pristine condition, and a lot can happen in that amount of time. Many of Stradivari’s creations have been stolen or lost in accidents such as floods, house fires and even bombings during the world wars.
Due to their reputation for being incredibly valuable, very few of them have not been accounted for or recovered.
In fact, there is a website dedicated to keeping track of each and every one of the remaining Stradivarius instruments, where visitors can track the whereabouts of each violin, viola and cello.
Although a Stradivarius pedigree is seen as priceless, original instruments can fetch eye-watering amounts of money at auction.
The highest Stradivarius violin price paid at auction is $16,000,000 (that’s £9.5 million!).
There was also an attempt to fetch even more in 2014, when a Stradivari viola was put to auction at Sotheby's with a minimum bid of $45,000,000 (£27 million), however, the minimum bid was not reached and the viola remains in private hands.
Who owns these legendary instruments anyway?
Many of Stradivari’s instruments are owned by professional violinists, collectors and aristocrats while some are on display in museums.
It is becoming increasingly common for owners of these famed instruments to loan them to professionals for a period of time.
For instance, one violin made in 1667 known by the sobriquet ex-Captain Saville is on loan to the famous virtuoso André Rieu, who regularly performs with a symphony orchestra.
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Another of Stradivari’s 1667 works is recorded as being sold to a collector by the name of Francis Aranyi in 1986.
So, the violins created by Antonio Stradivari for the art of playing violin music have grown in other types of value as symbols of the rich history of lutherie.
The Stradivari Legacy
Although the original Stradivari and his two luthier sons have long stopped creating string instruments and bows, their legacy lives on in the violins of today.
We’ve already seen how the Stradivarius violin shape has been adopted as the standard for modern violins, but did you know that to this day there are still violin makers who strive to exactly replicate these 300-year-old masterpieces?
Aside from the companies who mass-produce student violins using the same dimensions of the most famous Strads, there are also many luthiers who seek out the exact materials used by Stradivari in order to make their tributes to the famous craftsman as authentic as possible.
In China, master luthier Xue Ping Hue has created a series of replicas of Stradivari’s 1715 Il Cremonese, using only the finest materials in an attempt to create an instrument with the same tonal quality as the original. This limited-edition replica is on the market for £1,999. Fortunately, beginner violins cost a lot less!
So, even modern-day Stradivarius replicas come with a hefty price tag.
If you’re a budding violinist or music maestro (conductor or concertmaster), the fascinating story of the Stradivari family and their legendary string instruments is awe-inspiring – who knows? Maybe one day you could play a genuine Stradivarius for yourself.
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