Chapter Nine, Stradivari's Labels

1699 Strad LabelBefore entering upon the subject of the labels inserted by Stradivari in his instruments, we think a short statement on the much misunderstood question of the importance of those found in most old instruments will prove interesting. An impression largely prevails that the ticket found in a violin has little or no weight in deciding the question of the authenticity of the instrument.

It is unfortunately true that labels, especially in the past, have been much tampered with, and this evil practice is carried on even to-day. This knowledge justifies to a considerable extent the mistrust created; but, notwithstanding this, we assert that the majority of the productions of the famous makers still bear their original labels, and to him who would become a connoisseur, the study of them is indispensable.

They alone furnish us with the knowledge of the periods at which the different makers flourished, confirm in many cases the relationship between master and pupil, and inform us as to the length of time the various makers worked; in fact, they are the test by which we recognise an instrument as being the work of a given maker. Again, they tell us, particularly in regard to the Italian schools, the cities in which many of the makers were born and in which they worked; for they are the only sources of information concerning a number of minor makers, who were obscure citizens, of whose lives no record has been kept.

The Italians themselves were among the earliest to commence the practice of falsifying labels. Count Valdrighi, of Modena, in his work "Nomocheliurgografia," furnishes us with a very interesting instance. It is a petition to the Duke of Modena from one of his citizens in the year 1685, and runs as follows :-

"Your most Serene Highness,-

"Tomasso Antonio Vitali, your most humble petitioner, now at the service of Your Most Serene Highness, bought of Francesco Capilupi, through the medium of the Rev. Ignazio Paltrinieri, a violin for the price of twelve pistoles because this violin bore the label of Nicolo Amati, a maker of great repute in his profession. Your petitioner has, however, discovered that the said violin was falsely labelled, he having found underneath the label one of Francesco Ruggieri, called 'R Pero,' a maker of much less repute, whose violins at the utmost do not realise more than three pistoles. Your petitioner has consequently been deceived by the false label, and he appeals to Your Most Serene Highness for the appointment of a legal representative, who, without many formalities and judicial proceedings, and after ascertaining the petitioner's proofs of his assertions, should quickly provide, etc., etc. That God may long preserve Your Most Serene Highness's precious life, etc., etc.,

(Signed) "TOMASSO A. VITALI"

Vitali was a violin-player attached to the Court of Modena. He had a violin school there. Senaille was a pupil of his ("Nomocheliurgografia").

On the back of this petition the Duke wrote the following in Latin: "Councillor Gagliani has to provide in reference to the above statement as he may deem convenient.

" From the Fortress of St. Agatha. 19th day of December, 1685."

Here, then, is a proof that the practice of inserting false labels commenced in Italy, and at a very early period.

Now, without further explanation, the true significance of this incident of a violin made by Francesco Ruger being found bearing a label of Nicolo Amati as early as 1685 (a year after Amati's death) is apt to be lost sight of. It really tends to prove that which we have long recognised-namely, that certain pupils and followers of the great makers, who copied their masters' works, also in many cases inserted their masters' labels.

For instance, all the members of the Rugeri family frequently labelled their instruments with Amati tickets; Giofiredo Cappa almost invariably did so-in fact, only in one instance have we found his own label. Andrea Guarneri did likewise at times. The early Milanese makers and several members of the Gagliano family followed the same practice. These last copied not only the works of the Amati, but also those of Stradivari, and labelled them accordingly. Even the label "Sotto la disciplina d'Antonio Stradivari" was so inserted.

If we look at home, we find that as early as 1760- 1770 the same practice existed. Both Joseph Hill and Richard Duke used the tickets of the Amati and of Stradivari for their somewhat feeble copies. In Germany the number of eighteenth-century productions ticketed "Jacobus Stainer" is astonishing: in fact, various of this maker's followers rarely made use of their own labels.

Now, it must not be supposed that the object of this false ticketing was fraud. On the contrary, we are convinced that these old makers simply reproduced and offered to the world that which they considered to be a faithful copy, label included. That such was their view is proved by the fact of our having frequently found the true maker's own label inserted elsewhere than at the usual Place (n the interior of the belly, on the top block, and on the sides); sometimes, as in the case of the Ruger violin cited, it was covered by that of the master whose work was copied. (We have met with two other instances where Francesco Ruger covered his own label with that of his master.)

Vuillaume, the greatest of modern copyists, frequently inserted Stradivari and Guarneri labels in his instruments; yet nobody who knew the man would suggest that he did so with a fraudulent motive. He invariably dated his Stradivari label 1717, and took no trouble to produce a really correct facsimile of the original-nor did the Italians; and the labels are very often misspelt. In most cases Vuillaume, who numbered his productions consecutively, marked the number of the instrument in the centre of the back.

In justice to the earlier makers we have thought it right to deal at some length with the custom of inserting labels other than their own in the instruments they made. It is plain from the facts cited that they were entirely innocent of any wish to deceive. Their practice, injudicious and also objectionable as it was, was perfectly distinct from that of the unscrupulous dealer who inserts and withdraws labels for a very different reason. With this later and indefensible practice we will now deal.

Tarisio, the celebrated Italian dealer, who had more fine instruments passing through his hands than any other man of his time, must be credited with having resorted to this practice in a very fair number of cases; that is, if we are to judge by various instruments seen by us which were brought from Italy and sold by him bearing other than their original labels-labels, observe, which could not have been put in by the makers.

The temptation for such evil-doing is not far to seek. At the beginning of the last century the Italian instruments most sought after were those of the Amati and Stradivari. The demand was an ever-increasing one, and the supply was not always equal to it; consequently it paid well to re-label the works of the lesser-known makers, and sell them as those of the above-mentioned masters.

To the inexperienced buyers of those days the subtle distinctions existing between the works of master, pupils, and followers passed either unrecognised or unheeded. Again, the prices asked and given were exceedingly modest in comparison with those of to-day; hence the incentive to deeper research had not yet sprung up. That English and French dealers were not behind in following in the footsteps of Tarisio cannot, we fear, be denied, and so there ensued confusion worse confounded. When these facts are borne in mind, the difficulty of ascertaining what is an original instrument and what is not will be readily understood. To the casual observer, who has not the advantage of constantly examining instruments, the task is an impossible one.

We find, strangely enough, after long and careful observation, that it is quite the exception to meet with a genuine old label in a spurious instrument, and we account for this apparently singular fact in two ways : firstly, the principal sinners formed collections of labels, which are far from being without interest, and did not see fit to part with them when they could substitute a copy which would do equally well secondly, the removal of a ticket from an instrument (unless the instrument be in pieces) is a delicate operation, and in many cases the label, in the attempt to remove it, would be obliterated and destroyed.

Count Cozio di Salabue left a small collection of labels -amongst others, those of Stradivari, Amati, and Bergonzi; and that they were removed from specimens of the works of these makers is certain. The Count also left a number of copies of genuine labels, especially those of Amati. It seems impossible to believe that the Count, who was such an enthusiastic admirer of old instruments, could have been guilty of taking the original tickets out of the instruments himself. Possibly Tarisio, who was in frequent communication with him, supplied them, and the copies were probably printed to the order of the dealers and makers living in Turin and Milan at the time. The Count's correspondence shows that he was particularly intimate with the Fratelli Mantegazza of Milan.

Charles Reade, who at one period of his life was an amateur fiddle-dealer, also left a small number of labels. He was intimately acquainted with Tarisio and had dealings with him, and from him some of the labels appear to have come, one of them being glued on part of a letter addressed by Reade to Tarisio.

Nicolo Bianchi, a fairly well-known dealer and repairer who worked at Genoa, Paris, and Nice, at which latter place he died in 1880, formed a considerable collection of such labels. In connection with them an amusing incident was related to us by an English gentleman (an amateur violoncellist), who, when passing the winter in Nice, became intimate with Bianchi, and at his request arranged the collection in a book. In the course of time the Englishman confided his Ruger violoncello to Bianchi for repairs, and great was his surprise on its return to find that the label had been purloined-to aid, doubtless, in completing this collection.

Let us now return to the subject of the labels used by Stradivari himself. It is gratifying to be able to state that only a relatively small percentage of the tickets found in the master's instruments are other than those placed there by his own hands. The explanation is a simple one. The object generally aimed at in changing labels is to pass off the works of an inferior maker for those of a superior or more favoured one. But this could not apply to Stradivari, who represents the ne plus ultra; hence in most cases the original tickets have been suffered to remain, though we cannot add unscathed, for another phase of falsification here presents itself. Erroneous ideas and exaggerated statements have been disseminated with regard to the comparative merits of the various periods of Stradivari's work, and consequently an undue importance has often been attributed to the productions of certain years.

Unscrupulous dealers have therefore sought to pass off examples of the early and late dates as those of the middle period of the maker's life, and the necessity of altering Stradivari's figures thus presented itself,-here, the figures to be entirely changed; there, but partially. As usual, this has generally been done by bungling hands, and a careful study of the various reproductions of Stradivari's labels and groups of figures will enable even the uninitiated to decide for himself whether or not any given specimen has been tampered with in this respect.

We were for some time in doubt as to the exact way in which Stradivari printed his labels, and examination of the still extant contents of his workshop did not enlighten us-the plates, blocks, or type which he used having evidently been cast aside as devoid of interest. Continued observation at last furnished the information. We had noticed the somewhat inexplicable fact of "Antonius" being occasionally spelt "Antonins" (i.e. with three n's), and finally the explanation dawned upon us that the third n was produced owing to the u being turned upside down, thus showing that the labels were printed from movable type. This third n was therefore the result of error, and Stradivari does not appear to have thought the misspelling of his name of sufficient consequence to justify the label being wasted.

We have met with a number of instances of this curious mistake, which occurs, however, only in the tickets of pre-1700 date. These remarks do not apply to the label dated 1666, printed in small type, the use of which seems to have been quite exceptional; in fact, we have only met with this one instance.

Stradivari's first label was set up in the sixties-we believe 1665 and 1666 to be the earliest years on record- and, as we shall see, he apparently committed the mistake of having the three figures, 166, cut and printed from a single block, adding the fourth with his pen as required.

The monogram by which the date is accompanied was also on a separate wood block, and Stradivari appears to have invariably impressed it at approximately the same position on the label, as will be noted; it is not found on the repairing tickets. It is frequently most irregularly formed, and one can at times easily discern whcre Stradivari completed with his pen those parts which the stamp failed to mark.

(We have met with two instances in which Stradivari omitted the monogram altogether, and both were violins of his earliest period.)

On reaching the seventies, the difficulty of the three joined figures, 166, presented itself. It is strange that he should not have had the superfluous 6 removed from the block; but he may not have considered it worth while to do so, seeing the small use he made of his labels during these years. Instead, he simply erased the 6 (probably with a fine knife), and wrote in the 7 and the next figure.

labels from the '80'sIn the eighties his ingenuity came into play, for, instead of erasing the second printed 6, he formed it into 8 by adding the necessary top part only. (We have seen several labels where he inked the printed part of the 6 over.) In the nineties he followed the same plan, removing the top part of the 6 and adding a tail to the lower part. As 1700 approached, he decided to make a change-possibly his prosperity had had effect-and we meet with a new type of label printed from letters of a coarser character than those hitherto in use; the difference is very perceptible. He also decided to print henceforth only the figure 1, adding the remaining three figures with his pen; and from this rule he never again deviated, if we except his repairing label. We first find the new label in use in 1698, though he did not yet discard the old one, but used both contemporaneously until 1700.

This ticket did service till 1729, and during that year and in 1730 came the third and last change. (We have met with one exception, that in which a violin, dated 1727, bore the last type of label.) The label is now printed with a still coarser type of letter, and Stradivari spells his name with a Roman V instead of a cursive one, as had hitherto been his practice. We believe that in one or two instances the maker did utilise the previous label during the years 1730 and 1731, but after that we invariably find the last type of ticket.

It is curious to note that the type of the labels followed the same course as his work: the finer is found in the early work, the coarser in that of his old age. To some extent this may be attributed to the fact of Stradivari's hand losing the necessary steadiness for printing; the very shaky monogram found on the labels of the late period affords striking evidence of this.

It is also not without interest to note that Stradivari, with extremely few exceptions, placed his labels- i.e. those of violins and violas-in position against the lining of the side.

In the reproductions given of labels and groups of figures, the following points are worthy of special remark:-

1.-The groups (of figures) dated 1698, showing both methods of forming the figures.

2.-The label dated 1717 has an inked line above the inscription, caused, we think, by the inking of the box which contained the type; we have noted this on several occasions. It will also be seen that the letters, when compared with the label dated 1699, are coarser.

3.-The label of 1719 is interesting as showing that the master repaired instruments. He states that "he made the belly."

4-The explanation of the writing on the labels dated 1732-36 and 1737 will be found at the end of Chapter 11.

5.-The Francesco Stradivari label comes to us from the Marquis Dalla Valle. It was most probably taken from one of the two violins purchased by Count Cozio in 1775 from Paolo Stradivari. We may add that not a single authentic example of Francesco's work has been hitherto identified by us.

STRADIVARI HOME

Internet Edition 2001 Marshall C. St. John
Free Service of Cello Heaven