Antonio Stradivari, the great master luthier, died in 1737 at the age of 94. His sons, Francesco and Omobono continued his workshop.
Between the years 1774 and 1776 the great violin collector Count Cozio di Salabue bought many violins made by Francesco Stradivari, as well as many of Antonio's violins that were still available in the Stradivari workshop, from Antonio's youngest son, Paolo, who was a cloth dealer. One of these violins, purportedly made by Antonio Stradivari in 1716, later became known as the "Messiah" or "Messie."
In 1827 the traveling Italian violin dealer, Luigi Tarisio, acquired the violin. Tarisio constantly boasted to his acquaintances of the beautiful violin he had discovered, but he never brought it forth to show anyone. The French violinist Delphin Alard (son-in-law of the famous French luthier, Vuillaume) exclaimed, "Your violin is like the Messiah...One always waits for him, but he never appears!"
When Tarisio died in 1855, Vuillaume, the great Parisian luthier and dealer, realizing that Tarisio had a large stock of valuable Italian violins laid away somewhere in Italy, traveled to a farm near Milan, belonging to Tarisio, where he found and purchased over 140 instruments, including the fabled "Messiah," which apparently had never been used. Even though it was already nearly 150 years old, it looked as new as if it had just come from Stradivari's hands.
Vuillaume opened the violin and changed the bass-bar and modernized the neck angle. He displayed it in a glass case in his home, and made several very fine copies. It was his delight to challenge visitors to tell which violin was his, and which was Stradivari's. In 1872 he exhibited it at the Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments in London. Vuillaume died in 1875, but the "Messiah" remained in the possession of his family, until it was purchased by Alard, his son-in-law.
The Hill family, a famous family of luthiers and collectors in England, bought the "Messiah" from Alard in 1890. The price was a record £2000, and they purchased the violin on behalf of a wealthy collector from Edinburgh. The Hills opened the violin, and changed the bass-bar again. They wrote about the "Messiah" in their famous work on the life of Antonio Stradivari, and also wrote a monograph just about the "Messiah." They repurchased the violin in 1904, sold it again in 1913, and repurchased it again in 1928. (Since then, the value of the instrument has been estimated to be £10,000,000 by the well-known dealer, Charles Beare.)
In 1940 the Hill family donated the legendary violin to the British Nation, in order to see it permanently preserved in pristine condition. It is housed at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, in the Hill Room. Access to the instrument is strictly limited.
Click here to see audio/video movies about the "Messiah" violin.
A debate is presently raging amongst experts as to whether or not the violin was actually made by Antonio Stradivari, as some scientific authorities have dated the wood of the instrument as coming from the year following the death of the master luthier. See this article for more information on dating problems. And this article, too. And a third article.
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