Chapter Two, Stradivari's Violins

Part One

The tradition that Stradivari was a pupil of Nicolo Amati has been handed down to us by successive generations; and there has been a general disposition to believe it to be correct. Still, doubts have not unreasonably been raised, as it has been hitherto impossible to point to the existence of any documentary evidence to confirm the tradition.

Stradivari, unlike several of Nicolo Amati's other pupils, did not make his master's name generally known by mentioning the fact that he was his apprentice on the various labels he inserted in his instruments during so many years. Andrea Guarneri, for instance, from time to time uses the words "Alumnus Nicolai Amati"; so also did Francesco Ruger (The several members of this family appear to have spelt their name Rogeri, Ruger, and Rugerius, though the name more frequently met with on the labels is Ruger. It is usual, however, to speak of them as "Rugeri." This family of makers must not be confounded with the two named Rogeri who worked at Brescia and who were of Bolognese origin) whilst we believe this to have been the invariable practice of G. B. Rogeri, who worked at Brescia. Lancetti, the Cremonese biographer, who about the year 1823 compiled a work on the different celebrated violin-makers (but it was never published, owing to its non- completion), in writing of Stradivari, states that he used a label about 1666 bearing the words "Alumnus Nicolai Amati"; and M. Chanot-Chardon, the well-known Parisian luthier, tells us that he recalls having seen in the possession of his father an autograph label bearing the following statement by Stradivari: "Made at the age of thirteen, in the workshop of Nicolo Amati." Unfortunately this interesting document is not now to be found.

A Nicolo Amati violin of 1678

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Piccolellis, in his genealogy of the Amati family ("Liutai Antichi e Moderni," Firenze, 1886), throws no light upon the connection of Stradivari with his master, although in certain of the archival documents which he publishes Andrea Guarneri and others are mentioned as inmates of Nicolo Amati's house. The absence of the names of Ruger, Rogeri, and Stradivari is possibly to be accounted for by these not having been indoor apprentices- i.e. they did not live and board with their master, and therefore did not figure in the return of the members of the household.

Now, we have searched long for the label mentioned by Lancetti, and have also consulted many of our colleagues, but always with the same negative result: no one had ever heard of its existence. We had at length given up hope of any success, when during a visit abroad we were fortunate enough to have a violin submitted to us which we recognised as an early work of Stradivari, and great indeed was our pleasure and surprise when, on deciphering its original label, we found the words: "Alumnus Nicolai Amati, faciebat anno 1666." Here, then, was the long-sought-for confirmation of Lancetti's statement, proving by unquestionable documentary evidence the fact that Stradivari was the pupil of Nicolo Amati. It is curious to note that in the very next year, 1667, Stradivari makes no mention of his master; nor apparently did he again do so throughout his life.

As we have already seen, Stradivari was born in 1644; and we may safely assume that his parents apprenticed him not later than his fourteenth year, possibly two years earlier, for even at the present day fourteen years is the average age of apprenticeship in both the French and German violin-making centres. ("In the Census return of Nicolo Amati's household for the year 1641 Andrea Guarneri, aged fifteen, is included. This shows that he was already an apprentice" Piccolellis, "Liutai Antichi e Moderni".)

Stradivari would, therefore, have commenced working in 1656-58. To whom could the parents have addressed themselves, if not to Nicolo Amati? No other name suggests itself to us. And when we recollect that Amati was the sole representative of the only old family of violin-makers we know of in Cremona, and that his fame far excelled that of all other makers throughout Italy, no other choice practically existed.

That Nicolo Amati received apprentices was doubtless well known locally. We may believe, then, that the boy Antonio Stradivari entered the workshop of Amati some time between his twelfth and fourteenth year, and, taking his allotted place at the bench, began, tools in hand, laying the foundation of that career which was to prove so fruitful and remarkable.

At Mirecourt, in the department of the Vosges, the centre of the violin-making industry in France, an apprentice of average intelligence learns to make a very fair instrument in three years; so we may conclude that Stradivari at the age of sixteen-in 1660-would be equally competent. We know that about 1660-1665 he printed his first labels, and this fact points to his having reached a standard of excellence sufficiently high to justify him offering his work direct to his patrons. It does not follow, however, that Stradivari had quitted the workshop of his master, for having labels of his own simply shows that he was both competent and free to make instruments on his own account if commissions were forthcoming. That he did not do so to any extent is certain, for singularly few of these early productions are to be met with. Various reasons might be given to account for this, but we are of opinion that by far the most probable explanation is that Amati practically retained the services of his gifted pupil until within a short time of his death, which took place, at the age of eighty-eight, in the year 1684.

Such an assumption is the more reasonable when we bear in mind the resources of an establishment of reputation so high and merited as that of Nicolo Amati, a reputation acquired during the course of a whole century. Such a house, therefore, would be favoured with most of the orders for fine instruments sent to Cremona in preference to that of a new maker whose name was possibly still unknown outside the walls of his native city. Thus in all ways it probably suited Stradivari to remain as a paid workman under the roof of Nicolo Amati until about 1684.

Careful observation, carried on during many years, has conclusively convinced us that very few of the later-dated instruments of Nicolo Amati-i.e. after 1665-70--are the work of an old man, and it must be remembered that he was seventy-four in the last-named year. Clearly, then, he was assisted by others; and without doubt these assistants were his pupils, amongst whom we may mention Andrea Guarneri, Giovanni Battista Rogeri, Francesco Ruger, Amati's own son Hieronymus, and, lastly, Stradivari. Here, then, was the school in which Cremona's greatest fiddle-making son passed the first three decades of his working life, profiting by the guidance and mature counsels of the master who had maintained, and added to, the reputation gained by successive members of his family.

During these years Stradivari must have vied with his fellow-workers in striving to improve: in fact, a healthy spirit of emulation no doubt existed amongst them; and possibly the innovations that Stradivari was destined to carry out were then slowly and imperceptibly ripening in his mind, awaiting that moment when, in the natural course of events, the position held by his master would become vacant, leaving him a fair field for their development.

As to the exact position occupied by Stradivari while with Amati nothing is really known, nor does the most minute scrutiny of the workmanship of Nicolo Amati's later instruments enlighten us to any appreciable extent. We recognise in certain violins the unmistakable handiwork of Andrea Guarneri, of Giovanni Battista Rogeri, and of Francesco Ruger; but we have hitherto failed to find a single specimen bearing the already strongly characteristic impress of Stradivari, or even agreeing with those instruments contemporaneously made by him and bearing his label, dated after 1663, but prior to 1680. In Hart's book we read that Lancetti says (Hart, "The Violin, etc. London, 1887. Lancetti obtained much of his information from Count Cozio, who doubtless had gleaned a good deal of correct information, though many of his statements have proved to be inaccurate), on the authority of Count Cozio, that the instruments made by Stradivari in 1665, and others in 1666, bear the label of Nicolo Amati; and he instances one, which was in the collection of the Count, to which Stradivari made a new belly in his best style many years later.

Continuing, the writer adds: "It is certain that instruments as described by Lancetti have been recognised by intelligent connoisseurs as wholly the work of Stradivari, and, as may be imagined, they have no longer been allowed to sail under false colours, but have had their proper certificates of birth attached to them."

Now these statements are liable to be misunderstood, as they imply that a certain number of Stradivari's instruments of the earliest epoch exist, which were originally made for Amati, whose label they bore. Such, however, is not the case. If they existed, where are they? We have certainly not met with them. The violin mentioned by Lancetti is known to us; it is still in the possession of an Italian nobleman. If we may rely upon Lancetti's statement-viz. that the original ticket was one of Amati's (the one now in the violin is a false Stradivari label dated 1710)-then it does furnish an instance in point, for the work and style, with the exception of the belly, are undoubtedly those of Stradivari's early period, and, furthermore, are thoroughly characteristic. We may add that we are acquainted with only four other examples in which, similarly, the original label may have been one of Amati. In one instance only have we seen an Amati violin the head of which we can unhesitatingly affirm to have been made by Stradivari; but of course it is easy to assume his co-operation in the construction of many others. Again, it may be that Stradivari was more especially employed in varnishing, in fitting up the instruments, and in generally supervising the work; or perhaps he and Hieronymus, the son, worked conjointly, as was undoubtedly the case with Giovanni Battista and Pietro Giacomo Rogeri, of Brescia.

Instruments thus made would necessarily lack the individual characteristics of both the one and the other, the whole being blended. However this may be, it is unquestionable that the later specimens of Nicolo Amati, of neat and perfect form and finish, which are dated as late as the year of his death, were either made by his son alone or jointly by his son and Stradivari. Further experience and research may perhaps enable us to determine this with more certainty than at present. In the meantime we may say that the scant credit accorded in various books to Hieronymus, the son of Nicolo, is most misleading: at times he made instruments worthy of the best traditions of his family. We have not sufficient data to enable us positively to affirm in what year Stradivari definitely started working on his own account; but the fact that he purchased a house in the Piazza Roma in 1680 tends to fix that year as the probable date, though we think it not unlikely that the separation from his veteran master was made gradually, and commenced a year or two previously.

Mr. E. J. Payne, in a very interesting article contributed to Grove's "Dictionary of Music and Musicians," says that Amati appears to have retired in 1679, and that the workshop was broken up the following year. Such cannot have been the case, as we have both repeatedly seen and possessed instruments bearing Nicolo's original labels dated between 1680 and 1684. It is therefore apparent that the love of his art held him to his calling until the end; and, judging by the extreme rareness of Stradivari's works at that time, we believe that he must have continued to give a helping hand to the last. Again, Hart (Hart, Articles "Stradivari," p. 1173, and "Arnati," p. 87), on the authority of Lancetti, states that all the tools, models, and patterns of Amati passed, at his death, into the possession of Stradivari instead of remaining in the hands of his son, Hieronymus.

This may possibly have been the case, but we are much inclined to doubt it; for, as far as we can ascertain, they have never belonged to the Dalla Valle Collection. Lancetti appears to have formed his conclusions from the fact that a wooden rule or straight-edge and a model of the "f" holes of the Amati form were found among the Stradivari relics purchased by Count Cozio from the great maker's descendants in 1775. The reasoning of Hart that this fact, if true, would account for Hieronymus not always working to the same forms as those which would be derived from his father's instruments is unconvincing. We repeat that the abilities of Hieronymus have been underrated. His capacities were quite equal to striking out modifications of form or outline if circumstances called for them.

The earliest dated instruments of Stradivari seen by ourselves are of the years 1666, 1667, and 1669. Hart mentions a violin of the year 1666, and M. Silvestre, of Paris, tells us that his uncles, Pierre and Hippolyte Silvestre, of Lyons, also possessed one of that date. But Count Cozio says that Stradivari worked from 1656 to 1736; and, as we have already remarked, it is quite possible for him to have made instruments and inserted his own label as early as 1660, his sixteenth year-in fact, in a notebook in our possession, compiled in the early part of last century, we find mention of a violin of this early date; though we cannot vouch for the correctness of the statement, it being so very easy to misread old and obscured figures. Before proceeding to note the successive changes in Stradivari's work as we approach 1700, we will pause and review those instruments made by him during Amati's lifetime-i.e. prior to 1684-and seek to find the point where Stradivari's originality asserted itself.

We cannot with justice say that he commenced where his master left off, nor do his earliest works foreshadow a man of such exceptional and versatile abilities as he proved himself to be. He did not, as we are often told, suddenly flash forth as a brilliant genius endowed with the gifts and experience of all his elders. On the contrary, he was slow to develop, though from the first he showed industry, earnestness, and persistency in carrying out his own ideas, whether good or bad.

The dimensions he adopted for his instruments were those of the smaller form of violin more frequently used by Nicolo Amati in 1660-70; and, with but slight modifications effected here and there after 1660, he continued to make instruments of these proportions until 1684. We have, however, met with exceptions, one of them being the "Hellier" violin, dated 1679, of which we shall speak later.

That Stradivari did not at once take the "grand" Amati pattern as his standard of size is instructive; for it shows that he was still in doubt as to whether or not these proportions would give a superior tone. It is probable that the majority of players still favoured the bright and responsive, though lighter tone, obtained from the smaller form. Both the previously mentioned violins of 1667 and 1669 are marked by the same character, and reveal throughout considerable Amati influence-more so, indeed, than any later specimens seen by us; though at the same time they distinctly and undeniably bear the stamp of Stradivari.

We observe already the beginnings of that originality of style which we see more boldly and distinctly asserted later on in the 'seventies and 'eighties. Now, all pre-1684 Stradivari instruments contrast with Nicolo Amati's contemporary works by their more masculine and solid build, accentuated in some specimens to a greater degree than in others. They lack that characteristic neatness of work shown in the small and light substance of the edges, the slender corners, delicately cut head, and holes of Nicolo's violins, in which, in fact, every part is light of build and elegant in design.

With Stradivari the curves are stiffer and less rounded, and especially noticeable is his treatment of the corners and the bouts; the two edges are broader in aspect and heavier in actual substance, all rendered the more apparent by an increase of margin round the sides, and the purfling being set a shade farther in. The corners are short and blunt; and the sound-holes, more angular in their curves, and placed more often closer together, are as a whole more substantial-looking. The model is that of his master, though perhaps less full round the edges than in the majority of Amati's violins of this period.

In the choice of material it cannot be said that Stradivari was particularly happy; and this fact leads us to conclude that the remuneration he obtained for these early works, with possibly an exception here and there, was not sufficient to permit of his employing handsomely figured wood, though as regards its resonance there is but little fault to be found. The maple is either rather plain, cut the slab way of the grain, showing but little cross figure, and with veins running in a downward direction or in curves; or it is of another tree, wood marked by a small and weak curl, this time cut the right way of the grain. Both these types of wood were evidently obtained from trees grown in the province. The pine is invariably of good quality. After 1670 we meet with bellies of a good width of grain, but on approaching 1680 it is generally very close-more so than one could wish.

The "Hellier Strad" of 1679

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The most typical and interesting examples known to us-apart from the "Hellier," made, we believe, between 1666 and 1680-are the "Selliere," the violin owned by M. Desaint, and that in the possession of Capt. Saville. The latter instrument is perhaps as remarkable for its vigorous build as the "Hellier." All three, unfortunately, have had their original dates tampered with. Other examples also of this period are those owned by Mr. Nairn, 166-, Mr. Younger, 1667, and M. Bovet, 1677. By 1680 we may safely assume that Stradivari had acquired a certain reputation, though possibly as yet only local. Nevertheless, as we shall see, it was spreading. We learn from the Arisi MSS.

(There were two brothers named Arisi, contemporaries of Stradivari,and they both appear to have acquired some literary distinction in their nativetown of Cremona. The first, to whose pen we are indebted for the few interesting records of the great master and his works which have come down to us from those days, was Don Desiderio Arisi, a priest of the order of St. Jerome, belonging to the church of S. Sigismondo, situated about a mile outside the city. He seems to have taken much interest in art, and left two works dealing with the sculpture, architecture, and collections of pictures to be found in Cremona. These works are now preserved in the public library of the town. Don Desiderio is believed to have died about the year 1720, to which date his manuscript notes on Stradivari are assigned. His brother, Dr. Francesco Arisi (born 1657, died 1743), was a prominent lawyer and prolific writer both in Italian and Latin. He was elected President of the Society of Advocates of Cremona, was a member of most of the learned bodies of his day, and corresponded with the chief literary and scientific men of the period in Italy, France, and Germany. His writings comprised poems, dramas, speeches, and historical and miscellaneous works. His chief claim to fame rests upon his "Cremona Literata," a biographical account of all the writers who flourished in Cremona from the earliest times to his own day. The work was published in Latin at Parma, in three volumes, folio, 1732-41.)

that in 1682 the Venetian banker Michele Monzi ordered from Stradivari a complete set of instruments, which were destined to be presented to James II. of England. (We have no knowledge as to what has become of these instruments; they are not now amongst the royal possessions.) What better evidence of his growing prestige could we have? The death of his veteran master Nicolo Amati, which took place two years later, must have powerfully contributed to his advancement; for the increase in Stradivari's productions dated after 1684 is most noticeable. Thus stimulated, he was fast proving that he, and he alone of Cremona's sons, possessed an energetic grasp of his craft and a fertility of idea which were not only sufficient to maintain the glorious traditions of the past, but even to raise the art and renown of his native city to a still higher pinnacle. The years 1684 and 1685 mark a decided development both in form and construction, more pronounced than hitherto. The character of Stradivari's work remains the same, although he had at length perceived that the instrument as a whole required broader treatment.

His dimensions are in most cases increased, and are more in accordance with those of the "grand" Amati. The heavy edge and breadth of margin round the sides of some of the instruments of this period forcibly recall the style of certain Nicolo Amatis made in 1640-50- Nicolo Amati's own characteristic work. Typical examples of 1683 and the following years are the violins in the possession of the following:-

The Irish Academy of Music, ex Dr. Jay, 1683;
M. Suk, of the Bohemian Quartett, 1683;
Miss Lamplough, 1683;
Mr. Croall, 1684;
Mr. Soames, 1684;
Mr. Rosenheim,1686;
Miss Goddard, of Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.A., 1686;
Baron Erlanger,1687;
Mr. C. Oldham, 1687;
Mr. L. Mackenzie, 1687;
M. Jan Kubelik, 1687;
Mr. Carl Derenberg, 1688;
Miss Gidley, 1689.

Most writers on the subject have divided Stradivari's life into periods, and then over-praised or depreciated this or that epoch. Such a procedure is to a great extent misleading, for no man of Stradivari's commanding genius could be tied down to act on strict lines. Broadly speaking, he profited by experience, and avoided as he advanced in age the shortcomings noticeable in earlier productions; but, notwithstanding, he made at all times throughout his long life various specimens which stand out prominently above others of the same date.

It is perhaps correct to say that he experimented more frequently before 1700, though the more we study his works the more clearly do we perceive that Stradivari was always experimenting even to his last days. Hence it came about that he produced works of varying merit, here very successful, there failing somewhat, though he never made positively poor instruments; even the inferior specimens invariably present good points.

The "Hellier Strad" of 1679

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We cannot better illustrate Stradivari's earlier experiments than by discussing the "Hellier" violin previously mentioned. Made in 1679, it is one of the few inlaid violins, of which we shall speak later on. As regards the dimensions, it differs from any other violin seen by us dated before 1684-85; these proportions were, in fact, never at any later period exceeded. Thus we see that Stradivari was already contemplating that change of proportions to which he was more generally to give effect after 1685. The perfect symmetry of the head, and the position and admirable design and cutting of the "f" holes, are also in advance of any of his contemporaneous work known to us. On the other hand, the model, heavy edge and small purfling are thoroughly characteristic of his early work, and the whole presents a heaviness and solidity of construction such as we may almost venture to say borders on clumsiness. We may here incidentally remark that this violin shows that Stradivari occasionally enjoyed rich patronage previous to 1680, for he received no, ordinary remuneration for the making of such an instrument. During the next five years-i.e. until 1690-Stradivari's work undergoes no decided change.

While all specimens bear the charm of personal distinction, they vary both as regards dimensions and the minor details of construction. In some instruments the dimensions are of large proportions throughout, while others, though of full length, have diminished widths or lower sides. In some cases the model is made to compensate, so to speak; in others, not. In character the model still remains Amatise; here and there flat, but in the majority of cases fairly high at centre, gracefully hollowing towards the edges, and more noticeably so at the bouts than at the flanks.

We have seen some specimens the model of which rises somewhat pointedly to the centre, thus lacking that fulness of appearance which is more pleasing to the eye. The heads show considerable variation. In some examples they are disappointing; they are wanting in vigour, and contrast strangely with the solid edge and more masculine treatment of the body. The absence of a decided chamfer or bevel especially tends to impart a meagre appearance; and again at times the design is too small for that of the body, though we have seen heads which were too heavy. In short, what we wish to point out is, that in these instances the perfect balance of symmetry between head and body is to a certain extent absent.

The year 1688 marks a notable improvement, and for the first time we see Stradivari making a more decided bevel and carrying out his very original idea of picking out the curves of the outline of the head in black. (Some of Stradivari's copyists have blacked the mitre-joints of the sides of their instruments. This feature was originated by Joseph Guarnerius: Stradivari never did it.) He also treated the centre-line running down the middle of the fluting in a similar manner. Few specimens are now to be found with heads in that sharpness of preservation which enables the observer to note this latter feature; besides, we think he did it in but few instances, and never, as far as we have observed, after 1700. The blackening of the bevel he continued-with a few exceptions, dating between 1698 and 1703, and several of his inlaid instruments-to the end of his life.

The year 1690 is perhaps one of the most interesting epochs in Stradivari's career; it certainly marks the most complete innovation as regards the form, construction, and proportions of the violin which took place in his work; it can only be equalled by the change in the form of his 'cellos which he adopted years later. We refer to the creation of the "long Strad."

A "Long-pattern" Strad

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Before proceeding, we will again pause and more fully review the progress of the last few years. Stradivari had now reached the plenitude of his powers as a craftsman, for it cannot be gainsaid that in point of sharpness, accuracy, and beauty of finish some of the examples of the years 1686, 1687, 1688, 1689, and 1690 stand unsurpassable.

This is but natural, when we consider that he was now in the prime of life. The perfect skill with which he handled his knife is seen in the cutting of the "f" holes, the insertion of the purfling, and the carving of the heads. The finish throughout marks him as having been one of the most dexterous craftsmen the world has ever known, and we emphatically assert that no violin-maker has ever surpassed and few have equalled him. No more unique example of his unrivalled finish of work exists than the "Tuscan" violin, made in 1690. It stands alone. Others equally fine were made, but the vicissitudes of time have not spared them to us.

The "Tuscan" Strad of 1690

All pre-1690 violins are termed Amatise, the style as a whole bearing the more or less marked impress of Amati's influence. But this must be understood only in a broad sense: it does not imply that those instruments are to any appreciable extent reproductions of Amati. We have endeavoured to show that, from the very outset, Stradivari's originality asserted itself, and as it developed the points of similarity with Amati became weaker and weaker.

A certain number, indeed the greater proportion, of his earlier instruments were covered with a varnish of a yellow colour, which fact furnishes a strong point of resemblance with Amati; though we may here mention that from his earliest days Stradivari used a varnish of deeper tint, which towards 1690 and onwards became more and more pronounced. Another feature in common with Amati is the wood. Both makers showed a preference for maple cut on the slab and Stradivari, in the great majority of his works made previous to 1690, used it cut thus, sometimes for back, sides, and head, at other times for the back only, the rest being cut the right way of the grain. In contrast to Amati, the curl of Stradivari's wood is generally bolder and more often rather plain, while Amati usually chose wood strongly marked and of smaller curl.

Stradivari's slab backs are with rare exceptions in one piece; those of Amati more often in two. After 1685 we find backs, both in one piece and joined, cut the ordinary way of the grain; those in two pieces were of plain wood and medium width of curl, those in one piece of strongly marked though small curl, generally placed in a direction slanting from right to left.

The "Hellier" and the instrument known as the Spanish Stradivari, dated 1679 and 1687 respectively, have backs of broad curl in one piece; the latter is exceptionally handsome, and both are of wood of foreign, i.e. non-Italian, growth. In the work published by us, "Giovanni Paolo Maggini: his Life and Work," we record our belief that Stradivari was influenced in the conception of the long- pattern instrument by Maggini's violins; and the more carefully and critically we examine the violins of the 1690 decade, the more evidence do we find in support of our views.

Among the various relics from Stradivari's workshop purchased by Count Cozio from Stradivari's son Paolo, and of which we treat fully in Chapter VIII, there are no fewer than nineteen forms or moulds used by the maker for the construction of the sides. Several of them were made for the long-pattern instruments, and one bears the inscription, "A. D. 1. 9. Novembre, 1691," and the letters S. L., which, possibly, as suggested by Mr. E. J. Payne, may mean "Stretto lungo." (Article Stradivari, Grove's "Dictionary of Music and Musicians.") If so, this would show that the term "long form" comes to us from the master himself.

A Stradivari Mould

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A second mould of this form is dated 1692. Now, were it not for our own observations, we should assume that these dated moulds marked the exact date of the commencement of this interesting type of violin; but such cannot be the case, as we had in our possession some few years ago an example dated 1690 in Stradivari's original figures. None anterior to that date has ever been seen by us, so we may take it that the year in question is most probably that of their birth.

Chapter Two, Part Two


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