Chapter Twelve

A Supposed Portrait of Stradivari

Supposed Strad (actually Monteverdi) Some twenty years ago our attention was drawn, in Paris, to a photograph which passed as a reproduction from a portrait of Antonio Stradivari. The photograph greatly interested us, and we obtained it from the possessor; but in answer to our inquiries as to the whereabouts of the original picture, he could tell us nothing.

The photograph had been presented to its then owner by J. B. Vuillaume. So matters rested for ten years, when in 1891 we made the acquaintance of the late Signor Giacomo Stradivari, and, in the course of conversation, learnt that it was he who had years previously presented Vuillaume with an old portrait, which he stated had been one of the relics of his family, and which represented his famed ancestor, Antonio Stradivari.

In order to clear up any doubt as to the identity of our photograph, we sent it to Signor Stradivari; at the same time we ventured to touch upon certain doubts which had arisen in our minds as to this portrait really representing Stradivari. In replying to us Signor Stradivari stated that the photograph was a faithful copy taken from the original painting, which had always been accepted by his family as undoubtedly a portrait of his ancestor; banknoteand, as further proof of the correctness of his belief, he sent us a small bank-note of the face value of fifty centesimi issued by a Cremonese Bank in 1870, on which the said portrait was reproduced. So far, then, we had gathered the family history of the portrait; but these mere assertions of Signor Stradivari could not settle the authenticity of the portrait. The question again rested for some years.

Nobody in Paris knew what had become of the original oil painting, nor could the descendants of Vuillaume give us any assistance, until we submitted the photograph to the surviving daughter of J. B. Vuillaume, an elderly lady who lives retired in the country. She immediately recognised it as taken from a painting in her possession. Not attaching particular value to it, to our great satisfaction she most willingly consented to our becoming its owners. We are indebted to Lady Huggins for the following discussion of the portrait.

It was extremely natural there should have been doubts as to what personage is represented in this picture. Everything about the portrait not only points to a date considerably earlier than the time of Antonio Stradivari, but to an original who was a musician. In short, it seems absurd to suppose the portrait could represent Stradivari.

The reproduction gives a good idea of this most interesting picture in everything except the colouring. This has been injured by unwise cleaning, and some very valuable details have unfortunately been quite obliterated.

The costume of the figure is that which was in use among the upper and professional classes in the west of Europe from the latter part of the sixteenth to the earlier part of the seventeenth century. A portrait of Michael Prxtorius of the year 1614 shows a costume strikingly similar; and so does the portrait of Galileo Galilei attributed to Sustermans in the Pitti Palace at Florence, painted, one may suppose, when its subject was about fifty, and therefore about the year 1614.

The artist of our picture, following a custom common among early portraitists-one which is well worthy of being kept alive-tried to indicate by the accessories of his picture the calling of his subject. On the wall we are shown an alto viol with its bow. A viol-da-gamba is being used; while on a table is displayed a piece of vocal music, an ink-bottle with a quill pen in it, and a case for music. All these things indicate the latter part of the sixteenth century, or a little later.

The painting represents a young man of about twenty-five, with light brown hair somewhat curly, a promising moustache, and indications of whiskers and beard. The well-opened brown eyes have a thoughtful, far-away look very characteristic of great musicians; the complexion has a pleasing ruddiness; the mouth is slightly open, as if the musician were in the act of singing. The dress consists of a close-fitting doublet of a dull greenish cloth-probably brighter once. The doublet has a number of small buttons close together down the front, and its short skirt is tabbed. The sleeves are cut close, and have a line of decorative braid down the inner sides. On the shoulders there are epaulet pieces tabbed to match the skirt. The neck of the doublet is cut rather loose, and there folds over a broad, stiff white collar rising almost ruff-wise behind, which has evidently been edged with lace-work of an early kind, though unfortunately injudicious cleaning has removed most of it. The cuffs have white ruffles of softer material than the collar.

Returning to the accessories, which are important, the body of the viol on the wall is obviously that of a sixteenth century instrument- suggestive of the Brescian school. The sound-holes are vigorous and well defined, the fingerboard has a geometrical (probably) inlaid pattern, and below this is a lozenge-shaped geometrical quatrefoliate ornament. The belly is double purfled. The body of the viol-da-gamba in the hands of the player is almost wholly hidden by the table; but the pegs are sixteenth-century pegs, except the highest one, which has been badly repainted. It is difficult to feel certain whether the instrument had six or seven strings; apparently it had seven.

The bows of both viols seem to be of pre-Corelli type, but in neither case can the tip be seen. The music represents the first line of a song apparently in the ut clef. It is written in black and white notes, is unbarred, and has a direct at the end of the line. The hands deserve attention, for undoubtedly they are the hands of a musician, not of a craftsman. The picture is painted rather thinly in oil, on canvas, and measures 2 ft. 5 in. by 1 ft. 9 1/2 in.

The costume, the personnel of the portrait, its accessories-all tell that the picture represents not Stradivari, but some musician who lived towards the close of the sixteenth or the earlier part of the seventeenth century. Three names at once suggested themselves-Claudio Monteverdi, Giulio Caccini, and Bardello (Antonio Naldi). Peri was not considered, because his long hair was a well-known peculiarity.

Caccini was a performer upon the lute, but the instrument which he used for accompanying his recitatives was the theorbo. The theorbo it was, too, to which Bardello sang. As the instruments in the picture are certainly viols, they point to some musician who was not only a composer, but an accomplished performer on them. "It must be Monteverdi!" I exclaimed. He began his musical life as a violist, and indeed was very young when he showed ability enough to become one of the Duke of Mantua's violists. Born at Cremona, what more likely than that a painting of him as a young man should be there? though after a time its identity, as has happened in countless cases, was forgotten. All the details of the costume would fit the last decade of the sixteenth century, when he would be about the age of the subject of the picture.

It remained to prove in some way that the above conjecture was well founded. A copper-plate engraving of Monteverdi is given by Caffi in his work ("Storia della Musica. Sacra nella gia Capella Ducale di San Marco in Venezia dal 1318 al 1797."); but it represents the great musician as a middle-aged man, and although there is some resemblance between the engraving and the painting, it is not strong enough to form a satisfactory proof of identity of subject.

Monteverdi Print Fortunately there is another print, published in 1644, the year after Monteverdi's death, in a volume now very rare (Fiori Poetici " raccolti da G. B. Marinoni, e stampato in Venezia nel 1644), of which I heard through Signor F. Sacchi. This print bears much more closely upon the portrait. There is no copy of Marinoni's rare volume in the Library of the British Museum) but the engraving of Monteverdi has been fairly well reproduced as the frontispiece of a pamphlet which is obtainable ("Claudio Monteverdi a Cremona " da Giorgio Sommi Picenardi. G Ricordi e C. Milano.)

A comparison of this reproduction with the portrait, allowance being made for some twenty or five-and-twenty years' difference of age-affords reasonably satisfactory proof that the portrait does represent Claudio Monteverdi, All the details of the picture being borne in mind, the likeness is too striking to be accidental. It should be mentioned that the dress of Monteverdi in the prints is probably that of his office as Maestro di Capella of St. Mark's, Venice.

The painting thus discussed is therefore of quite exceptional interest, as in it we have a portrait hitherto unknown of the great Monteverdi as a young man and the story of its fortunes, while forming, a romantic tale, points more than one important moral.

It must, however, be accepted that there exists no authentic portrait of Antonio Stradivari. For knowledge of his personal appearance we must rest content with the few words of description handed down by Polledro: "He was tall and thin in appearance, invariably to be seen in his working costume, which rarely changed, as he was always at work."


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