Chapter Seven, Stradivari's Varnish

It is with considerable diffidence that we approach the much-discussed subject of the varnish used by Stradivari. It is a question which has absorbed, and continues to absorb, no inconsiderable amount of both our time and means.

Consequently we are constrained to admit that we feel somewhat reluctant to give open and full expression to our views as to what were the constituents of that incomparable varnish so much admired by all-a varnish which we see not only on the instruments of Stradivari, but also on those of many other Italian makers. We hope, nevertheless, to place the matter before our readers in a truer light than that in which it has hitherto appeared, and thus to dispel much of the mystery in which the subject has been involved by the everready pens and fluent tongues of the many self-constituted authorities.

Monthly-nay, weekly-we receive communications on this subject. All think, and some are absolutely convinced, that they have attained to perfect knowledge about the varnish. They have varnished pieces of cigar-boxes, bits of deal, strips of maple, or even a new German or French violin, invariably of the commonest kind, purchased for a few shillings in the white; and they are of opinion that the results reached justify the most sanguine expectations.

We are referred to the remarkable tone given forth by one or other of these newly varnished crudities by persons whose knowledge of tone is, to say the least, rudimentary -nothing, in fact, being more difficult than to correctly gauge subtle differences of tone.

Should one venture, however modestly, to dissent from the conclusions drawn from such experiments, or should one dare to suggest that the experimenter is endeavouring to grapple with a question of the A B C of which he is wholly ignorant, one is forthwith compared to Rip Van Winkle, or has addressed to him "a few plain words," such as these of a Scotch correspondent: "You will go on till the crack of doom, and even then you won't have made anything of it." Others, and by far the greater number, immediately discern "green-eyed jealousy" in any dissent from their views, and denounce you with withering scorn.

Now, it will come as good news to all lovers of our art to be told that the recipe of the varnish employed by Stradivari is still in existence. We cannot do better than give the following story, which is not without a touch of romance, in the words of the late Signor Giacomo Stradivari himself, who, in answer to the repeated requests of Signor Mandelli for information concerning his illustrious ancestor, wrote to him as follows:

"Little is the information I am able to give you, because very few are the documents preserved at home relating to my family. Here, however, is all that I can transmit to you in answer to your queries: Firstly, I send you a facsimile of the testimonial, the original of which I gave to M. Vuillaume, of Paris, who, in a letter dated January 3rd, 1860, wrote to me thus: 'I have placed under glass the original of the testimonial given to your ancestor, which you have so generously presented me with. I have exhibited it in my salon, where it remains an object of great interest to many admiring amateurs!'

"Secondly, the Bible, inside the cover of which was written, in the handwriting of Antonio Stradivari, the famous recipe for the varnish and the way to apply it, was destroyed. Previously, however, I made a faithful copy of the same, which I have jealously guarded, and which I have never been willing to part with, notwithstanding the repeated solicitations of M. Vuillaume and others.

A Stradivari mould"Thirdly, I have no datum to offer about the quarrel you allude to (Signor Mandelli had inquired whether he could throw any light upon the supposed ill-feeling said to have existed between Antonio Stradivari's sons and the town authorities of Cremona); but I recall the fact that one of my brothers gave to Signor Motta, Professor of Drawing, all the moulds and patterns which existed in the attic of our house, and which subsequently passed from Motta's possession to that of the violin-maker Enrico Ceruti.

"Fourthly, nothing else concerning my ancestor based on fact or tradition can I quote, because the family documents have undergone the inexorable ravages of time: I mean to say that by transmission from generation to generation they have gradually diminished in number and got lost."

In answer to Signor Mandelli's further entreaties, made with a view to obtaining for publication some inkling of the contents of this interesting recipe, Signor Stradivari again wrote to him thus:

"You make an impossible request, one which I cannot grant you, as I have never confided the secret of the varnish even to my wife or my daughters. You may consider it an eccentricity on my part; but nevertheless, until I arrive at a different opinion, I wish to be consistent with and remain faithful to the resolution of my youth never to reveal to anybody the contents of this precious recipe, holding steadfastly to the conclusions I arrived at when still a boy: that, if by chance other Stradivaris-my sons, nephews, grandsons, or grand nephews- should turn their attention to mechanics, more especially to the craft of our celebrated ancestor, they should then at least have the advantage of possessing the recipe of his varnish, the possession of which could not but be of material assistance to them. Let me prove to you the constancy with which I have kept to this fixed idea.

"In the year 1848, after going through the whole campaign as a volunteer (Signor Stradivari was one of the followers of Garibaldi.), I settled in Turin awaiting better political times; and as the Austrian Government did not permit her subjects (Austria was in occupation of the Milanese provinces.) to send by the post from their native towns any pecuniary assistance to the refugees, I was compelled to get my living by accepting a place as copyist at the Council of State, thankful for the chance of earning my bread. Well, a Frenchman, whose acquaintance I made at the house of the bookseller, Signor Pomba, and who was travelling in Italy in search of old instruments, offered me for the recipe at first twenty-five napoleons (500 francs), and then increased his offer to fifty (1,000 francs).

"Bear in mind that, at that time, fifty napoleons would have been as many brothers to me; still I had the courage to resist the temptation. Again, in later years M. Vuillaume and Count Castelbarco made offers to me, but I still remained determined to stand by my resolution of earlier days. Have I done wrong? Never mind; I see no reason for repentance."

We have seen and conversed with the late Signor Stradivari on several occasions, and we have no reason to doubt the sincerity of his statements. In answer to our inquiry as to the reason why he destroyed the original recipe in the handwriting of his ancestor, he gave the following explanation:

" I was a boy when my father died, and a few years later it was decided that our family should remove to another house. As a consequence, all our belongings were turned over. In the course of looking through our old books, my eye was arrested by this Bible, and, opening it, I read the writing inside the cover. I had heard repeated mention made of the skill of my famous ancestor, and of the fame of the varnish he used. Here, then, was the prescription for the same. I grasped the importance of my discovery, and determined to take possession of the book without mentioning the matter even to my mother. But how to hide this bulky volume I knew not; so I forthwith resolved, firstly to make a faithful copy of the prescription-it was dated 1704-and then to destroy the book, which I did."

Signor Stradivari very naturally perceived the foolishness of his act in destroying the only absolute proof of the veracity of his story; but, as he truly remarked, "Young people cannot possess the wisdom of their elders."

We cannot claim for Stradivari the possession of a varnish superior to all others, but we do unhesitatingly say that his greater capacity gave him a power of manipulation which furnished results that, looked at as a whole, surpass those of all his competitors. It is one thing to have fine varnish, and quite another to apply it with the perfect success of Stradivari. Many of the Italian makers, departing occasionally from a mere system of routine, created and bequeathed to us some admirable instruments, which, especially in point of varnish, leave little to be desired-examples differing greatly from their every-day work.

But with Stradivari we are accustomed to a more uniformly high standard of excellence, though even he at times somewhat failed in respect to the colour, the texture, or the transparency of his varnish. We are not disposed to agree with the generally accepted belief that the ingredients composing the varnish of the old masters and the process of making it were secrets jealously guarded and treasured by the few; but we are of opinion that it is very probable that each maker had his own views as to the best proportions of gum, oil, and colouring-matter, as well as to the best method of mixing them and applying the resulting varnish.

So far, then, we may admit that every man had his secret; but that the ingredients of the varnish and the ordinary methods of applying it were processes open to all who sought to learn is clearly proved by the works left by the various Italian makers. Not only was "all about the varnish " known to the Cremonese and their immediate pupils, but also to their followers scattered throughout Italy: men, for instance, such as David Tecchler of Rome, originally from Augsburg; and Matthias Albani, an Italian working at Botzen, in the Austrian Tyrol, neither of whom seems to have been taught his calling at Cremona, or even by the Cremonese. Even Jacob Stainer possessed the open secret of this varnish, and he certainly never-if we trust to facts, and not to fiction-worked or lived at Cremona.

Again, consider some of the Salzburg makers, some of the early French and Dutch makers, and some makers among our own countrymen: all these men had, and at times used, a quite superior varnish, the constituents of which were similar to those employed by the Italians. And it may well be asked, How could such a matter have remained a secret in a small city like Cremona, where fiddle-making, especially in Stradivari's youth, was a flourishing industry? The ingredients, too, for composing varnish were in demand, and apparently easily obtainable; hence the improbability, nay, impossibility, of any secrecy.

It may be there was some druggist in the town who supplied all the makers with the requisite materials; and he may even have mixed the varnish and sold it ready-made; for certainly some of the workers, as their instruments show, were rare sluggards, and not fired with Stradivari's zeal. No! Fine varnish was in the hands of fiddle-makers long before Stradivari was born. The Brescians had it, and it no doubt came to Cremona on the introduction into that city of the fiddle-maker's art by Andrea Amati, and we see its development keeping pace with the improving principles of instrument-making. The lute-makers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had already in use varnishes made from standard gums, oils, and vegetable colours; and we believe that these pioneer workers were probably indebted for their knowledge of the subject to the many great painters who had preceded them, and had created a certain demand for the purest and best materials.

We are indebted to the late Count Valdrighi for an extremely interesting document found by him in the Archives of Modena, and published in his work "Nomocheliurgografia," which throws some light on this question of secrecy.

It appears that the Duke of Ferrara desired to obtain a recipe of the varnish then in use among the Venetian lute-makers, and accordingly wrote to his correspondent in Venice-one Jacopo de li Tibaldi, who, under date - January 20th, 1526, replied as follows: "The celebrated lute-maker Sigismond Maler has promised to give me in writing by Monday next the recipe of the varnish he uses, as well as the manner of putting it on the lutes. This master also tells me that he has two kinds of varnish, and that it is his assistants, not he himself, who make it."

We learn in this way that at that period the matter was not regarded as a valuable secret, otherwise the master would hardly have deputed the task of making it to his assistants or pupils; and we see no reason to doubt that the practice which then ruled also obtained in later years. Pique, the well- known French maker (1758-1822), who employed Nicolas Lupot, whilst at Orleans, to make violins in the white for him, writes as follows to Lupot under date April 14th, 1792: "I would ask you to be good enough to let me have some of your oil varnish, sufficient for several violins, as I have run out of my own and have not the time at present to make any."

We may thus fairly assume that Stradivari was at an early stage of his career initiated into the traditions and methods practised by his master and predecessors. Once freed from his connection with Amati, we see him seeking, by changes effected in the colours of his varnish, to give a different appearance to his instruments, as is evidenced by his departure from the hitherto conventional Amati yellow. We say conventional, because, throughout the four generations of that remarkable family, every member of it kept, with rare exceptions, to the same tint of colour.

That Stradivari used solely a pure oil varnish, the composition of which consisted of a gum soluble in oil, possessing good drying qualities, with the addition of colouring ingredients, is, we think, beyond controversy.

Charles Reade, in his excellent articles on Cremona fiddles, written in 1873, at the time of the Loan Collection of Instruments exhibited at South Kensington, contends plausibly enough that the varnish was not wholly of oil-that, in fact, the colouring- matter, contained in a solution of spirit, formed a distinct body from the varnish used for the groundwork or for filling up the pores of the wood. In support of his contention he instances the chippy appearance of certain instruments of Stradivari there exhibited.

Had Reade put his theory to the test, he would soon have discovered that it was unsound, and that a spirit solution over a ground-varnish of oil is infinitely less homogeneous than apparently is the varnish of Stradivari. We say apparently, because we consider that Reade was mistaken in stating that Stradivari's varnish was wanting in homogeneity. Various reasons could be given to account for the tendency to chip at times. It was due most probably to the introduction of an extra quantity of colouring-matter, or possibly to an increased proportion of gum. Either cause would suffice to bring about the result in question, and we recognise that the texture, as well as the colour, of Stradivari's varnish varied considerably, though its essential nature was always the same.

Most gums suitable for fiddle- makers' varnish are, in their pure state, of a chippy nature. The tendency to chip must be overcome by the judicious adjustment of the medium wherein they are dissolved, and by the addition of other ingredients: it is needless to add that considerable judgment has to be exercised in fixing their relative proportions.

It is this question of colouring varnish which has proved the stumbling-block in the way of so many makers of the last century. If players would be content with instruments treated with colourless varnish, the difficulty of producing fine tone would be very greatly diminished, as the addition of many and various injurious colouring substances, or the artificial staining of the wood (at times accomplished by the use of acids) in order to please the eye, in the one case mars what would be a varnish favourable for tone, and in the other adversely affects the material from which the instrument is made. In fact, tone is, and has been, though often unintentionally, sacrificed by many through seeking to gratify the taste for mere outward appearance.

The great effect wrought by gradual exposure to subdued light, and by the influence of time, is not sufficiently taken into account when the ordinary observer compares the newly varnished work with the old. As well try to change quickly new wine into old as try to obtain in a short time the richly matured and soft-toned appearance which age alone can impart to perfectly varnished violins.

Could we have seen the most brilliant works of Italian violin-makers fresh from their hands, we should have been not a little surprised by their bright and unsubdued aspect; nay, in many instances, notably with regard to some of the violins of Joseph Guarnerius, we should have been struck by their positively crude appearance. The conditions for ultimately ensuring a fine appearance were certainly there; but to the wonder-working effects of time and use, and to these alone, we unhesitatingly attribute all that charms us now.

That the more ambitious of modern makers should have sought to rival the productions of the old masters in external appearance is readily conceivable-however injudicious at times their procedure-when we bear in mind the popular demand for a thing of beauty. An ugly or even plain instrument, though excellent in tone, is again and again rejected. Many may view this statement with incredulity; it is nevertheless strictly true, and the statement is the outcome of innumerable experiences.

How fascinating is the appearance of the varnish as now seen on fine examples of Stradivari's instruments! Lightness of texture, and transparency combined with brilliant yet subdued colouring, and above all, the broken-up surface, more especially that of the back, form a whole which is picturesque and attractive in the highest degree. Our illustrations admirably portray these features. It has often been asked whether this broken-up or chipped-off aspect of the varnish is solely the effect of usage, or whether Stradivari so treated it in order to lend additional charm to his work ; for it cannot be denied that this appearance is more pleasing than the absolutely smooth surface presented by an instrument evenly varnished all over.

That it is possible to attain this result artificially is conclusively seen by examination of the instruments of Vuillaume; and admirably he succeeded. We are of opinion, however, that in the case of Stradivari and the other Italian makers the appearance can only be ascribed to usage. Many a knock and rubbing against hard and gritty substances have the vicissitudes of time brought about; and then, in addition, must be borne in mind the effect of putting in and taking out of the old cases, especially of those opening at the end.

It may also have been caused by contact with buttons and other articles of personal adornment. The use of oil varnish, which was employed for so many generations, was gradually abandoned as the art of instrument-making declined in Italy. Prior even to the death of Stradivari, several makers had strayed from the true road; and the reason is not far to seek. New and easy methods of dissolving gum by means of spirit were being introduced, and they apparently fulfilled the conditions desired by instrument-makers, enabling them to varnish their works more speedily, and, above all, ensuring quick drying.

That drying was at times tedious and troublesome, even under the favourable conditions of the Italian climate, is shown by the testimony of Stradivari himself. In one of the only two letters of the master known to exist, he apologises for delay about his work, because of the non-drying of the varnish. Very instructive is a letter written from Cremona in 1638, wherein we read, "The violin cannot be brought to perfection without the strong heat of the sun."

With Stradivari's death, the decay of the higher standard of instrument- making rapidly set in. Very probably the waning prosperity of the Church in Italy, coupled with the large number of fine instruments then existing, was the principal cause. Consequently circumstances favoured the use of varnishes which could be cheaply, and therefore quickly, put on. The spirit of artistic emulation which existed in Cremona in Stradivari's youth had died out. The two workmen, sons of the master, evidently enriched by their father's death, were content to rest; while Carlo Bergonzi and Joseph Guarnerius, though the only serious workers left, gave but few signs of industry.

Elsewhere the craft was still actively carried on, notably at Milan and Naples; but works cheaply produced, rather than those of finished workmanship and fine varnish, seem to have been what the age required throughout Italy.

The demand, therefore, for slower-drying varnish no longer existed; to use it meant extra cost, and its supreme importance passed either unnoticed or unheeded. To these causes, therefore, and to them alone, do we attribute the gradual disuse of the old varnish, and the final disappearance of the recipes for its concoction and for applying it employed by the great Italian violin-makers.

From time to time generous patrons caused the old traditions to be revived, and we thus catch glimpses of the true recipe for Cremona varnish still now and then in use; but as years rolled on these instances became rarer and rarer. They occurred at Milan until about 1760. We meet the true recipe again, and for the last time, at Turin, used occasionally by J. B. Guadagnini, no doubt under the auspices of Count Cozio, up till 1780-84; but by the end of the century it had died out of use and remembrance.

If we of modern times really wish to regain the knowledge possessed on this subject by the old makers, we must begin by retracing our steps. Leaving behind us this very commercial age, we must seek to work under conditions more resembling those of the period when the grand old masters of violin-making flourished. Success will only come to those who, mindful of the old traditions, unhesitatingly return to them. The popular idea that somebody will some fine day shout "Eureka," and forthwith quickly produce instruments which, in point of varnish, will equal those of Stradivari, is in the nature of a dream. The materials he used exist now, as in his day; but it will prove one problem to make the varnish, and quite another to utilise it with the perfect success of Stradivari.

We may here, before concluding our remarks on this subject, appropriately add a few words as to the influence of varnish. We think it is not either sufficiently known or recognised that in a great measure Stradivari instruments owe to it their distinguished quality of tone; in reality the future of any perfectly constructed instrument is determined by the coat it is clothed in. Fine varnish will not compensate for bad material or faulty construction; but that it makes or mars the perfectly formed instrument is, in our opinion, beyond dispute.

It should be remembered that a violin must vibrate freely, yet not too freely,--as would be the case with a new unvarnished instrument when first in use. Now clothe it too thickly with even a good varnish, and the tone will be deadened, or with one too hard in texture, and the result will be that the tone will prove hard and metallic. Or again, cover it with a too soft oil varnish, and you will mute the tone of your instrument for a generation, if not for ever. Age and use will no doubt to some extent modify these effects, but never entirely.

Many are the instructive examples of the influence of the varnish which could be furnished by comparison between various instruments of the different old masters of the craft. It is, for instance, known to not a few that Stradivari violins give forth a character of tone perfectly distinct from those of his great rival, Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu. Why? The answer to the question is not to be found in the construction alone, as there exist Guarneris and Stradivaris built practically upon the same lines, yet each retains its own quality of tone. If construction alone is to account for peculiarity of tone, why do not respective copies of the one and of the other made by an experienced maker such as Vuillaume possess each the distinctive timbre of the original?

It appears to us that those who are really competent, and in a position to make comparisons, can give only one answer. The methods of varnishing as practised by Stradivari and Guarneri were different. In some specimens the nature of the varnish also was different; and the tone was influenced accordingly.

Carlo Bergonzi affords us another example. He was a pupil or assistant of Stradivari, and carried out more or less his master's principles of construction; his varnish, however, is much more like that of Guarneri, and consequently the tone of his violins more resembles that of this master's works. Vuillaume varnished all his violins alike, whether they were copies of Stradivari, Guarneri, or Amati, and accordingly the character of their tone varies but little. Again, take the violins of J. B. Guadagnini and the finer specimens of the various members of the Gagliano family. They are constructed on the principles of Stradivari, the material used is in many cases acoustically equal, yet they have by no means the same character of tone as a Stradivari. And why? Because their varnish and their methods of applying it were in most cases very different.

Lupot, the French violin-maker, who is justly celebrated for his fine copies of Stradivari, furnishes yet another instance in support of our view, and it is all the more instructive in that he was the earliest maker who con- tinuously, earnestly, and closely followed the models of the great master. His varnish is, with certain exceptions, of a soft texture and laid on heavily, and the tone is consequently of a stiff and veiled character.

Let us now look at home, and we find the very interesting fact that one of our most meritorious makers, Daniel Parker, produced copies of a "long Stradivari" as early as 1720. Form, construction, and material are often excellent; but the varnish is of a hard texture, and consequently the tone of his copies is of a more metallic timbre than that of a Stradivari.

Many other equally striking facts could be cited, but we think sufficient has been said to show that our views are well founded.

The following varnish-related links will be of interest:


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