Antonio Stradivari (1644 – December 18, 1737) was an Italian luthier, a crafter of stringed instruments such as violins, cellos, guitars, violas, and harps. Stradivari is generally considered the most significant artisan in this field. The Latinized form of his surname, Stradivarius, as well as the colloquial,
Family background and early life
Stradivari’s ancestry consisted of notable citizens of Cremona, going back to at least the 12th or 13th century. The earliest mention of the family name, or a variation upon it, is in a land grant dating from 1188. The origin of the name itself has several possible explanations: some sources say it is the plural of Stradivare, essentially meaning ‘toll-man’ in a Lombard variety of Italian, while others say that the form ‘de Strataverta’ derives from ‘Strada averta’, which, in a Cremonese dialect of Italian, means ‘open road’.
Antonio’s parents were Alessandro Stradivari, son of Giulio Cesare Stradivari, and Anna Moroni, daughter of Leonardo Moroni. They married on August 30, 1622, and had at least 3 children between 1623 and 1628: Giuseppe Giulio Cesare, Carlo Felice, and Giovanni Battista. The baptismal records of the Parish of S. Prospero then stop, and it is unknown whether they had any children from 1628 to 1644. This blank in the records may be due to the family leaving Cremona in response to war, famine, and plague in the city from 1628 to 1630, or the records may have been lost due to clerical reforms imposed byJoseph II of Austria in 1788. The latter explanation is supported by the word Cremonesis (of Cremona) on many of Stradivari’s labels, which suggests that he was born in the city instead of merely moving back there to work. Antonio was born in 1644, a fact deducible from later violins.However, there are no records or information available on his early childhood, and the first evidence of his presence in Cremona is the label of his oldest surviving violin from 1666.
Stradivari likely began an apprenticeship with Nicolò Amati between the ages of 12 and 14, although a minor debate surrounds this fact. One of the only pieces of evidence supporting this is the label of his 1666 violin, which reads, “Alumnus Nicolai Amati, faciebat anno 1666”. However, Stradivari did not repeatedly put Amati’s name on his labels, unlike many of his other students. Stradivari’s early violins actually bear less of a resemblance to those of Amati than his later instruments do. M. Chanot-Chardon, a well-known French luthier, asserted that his father had a label of Stradivari’s stating, “Made at the age of thirteen, in the workship of Nicolò Amati”. This label has never been found or confirmed. Amati would also have been a logical choice for Antonio’s parents, as he represented an old family of violin makers in Cremona, and was far superior to most other luthiers in Italy.
An alternate theory is that Stradivarius started out as a woodworker: the house he lived in from 1667 to 1680 was owned by Francesco Pescaroli, a woodcarver and inlayer. Stradivari may even have been employed to decorate some of Amati’s instruments, without being a true apprentice. This theory is supported by some of Stradivari’s later violins, which have elaborate decorations and purfling.
Assuming that Stradivari was a student of Amati, he would have begun his apprenticeship in 1656–58 and produced his first decent instruments in 1660, at the age of 16. His first labels were printed from 1660 to 1665, which indicates that his work had reached a quality sufficiently high enough for him to offer it directly to his patrons. However, he probably stayed in Amati’s workshop until about 1684, as to use his master’s reputation as a launching point for his career.
Marriage and early career
Stradivari married his first wife, Francesca Feraboschi, on July 4, 1667. Francesca was the young widow of the burgher Giacomo Capra, who she had two children with, and who had been shot by Francesca’s brother on the Piazza Garibaldi (formerly the Piazza Santa Agata). After their marriage, Stradivari moved into a house known as the Casa del Pescatore, or the Casa Nuziale, in his wife’s parish. The couple had a daughter, Giulia Maria, three to four months later. They remained in this house until 1680, during which time they had four more children: Catterina, Francesco, Alessandro, and Omobono, as well as an infant son who only lived for a week.
Stradivari did not “flash forth as a brilliant genius” as is often said, but more likely developed his own style slowly. His violins often used slightly smaller dimensions, and he obviously doubted whether the “Grand Amati” patterns actually led to a greater tone. A notable exception to this is the 1697 Hellier violin, which was had much larger proportions. Stradivari’s early (pre-1684) violins contrasted with Amati’s contemporary instruments by a stronger, more masculine build, less rounded curves, and purfling set farther in.
By 1680 Stradivari had acquired at least a small, yet growing, reputation. In 1682, a Venetian banker ordered a complete set of instruments, to be presented to King James II of England. The fate of these instruments is unknown. Cosimo de’ Medici bought another five years later. Amati died in 1684, an event which was followed by a noticeable increase in Stradivari’s production. The years 1684 and 1685 also marked an important development in his style — the dimensions he used generally increased, and his instruments were more in the style of Amati’s 1640–50 work. Stradivari’s instruments underwent no major change in the next five years, although in 1688 he began cutting a more distinct bevel and began outlining the heads of instruments in black, a quite original improvement.
Stradivari’s early career is marked by wide experimentation, and his instruments during this period are generally considered of a lesser quality than his later work. However, the precision with which he carved the heads and inserted the purfling quickly marked him as one of the most dexterous craftsmen in the world, a prime example of this being the 1690 “Tuscan” violin. Pre-1690 instruments are sometimes termed “Amatisé” but this is not completely accurate; it is largely because Stradivari created many more instruments later on that people try to connect his early work with Amati’s style.
Stradivari moved out of the Casa Nuziale by 1680, and purchased a house now known as No. 1 Piazza Roma (formally No. 2 Piazza San Domenico). The house was just doors away from several other violin making families of Cremona, including the Amatis and Guarneris. Stradivari probably worked in the loft and attic, and he stayed in this house for the rest of his life. Stradivari’s wife Francesca died on May 20, 1698, and received an elaborate funeral five days later.
“Golden” period and later years
In the early 1690s Stradivari began to make violins with a pattern larger than before, which is sometimes dubbed the “long Strad”. He continued to use this pattern until 1698, with few exceptions. In 1690 he also switched to using a darker, richer varnish, as opposed to a yellower varnish similar to that used by Amati. From the 1700s until Stradivari’s death is often termed the “golden period” of his life, and instruments made during this time are usually considered of a higher quality than his earlier instruments.
Stradivari married his second wife, Zambelli Costa, on August 24, 1699. They had five children from 1700 to 1708: Francesca Maria, Giovanni Battista Giuseppe, Giovanni Battista Martino, Giuseppe Antonio, and Paolo.
Stradivari’s instruments are regarded as amongst the finest bowed stringed instruments ever created, are highly prized, and still played by professionals today. Only one other maker, Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù, commands a similar respect among violinists. Fashions in music, as in other things, have changed over the centuries, and the accepted supremacy of Stradivari’s and Guarneri’s instruments is only true today. In the past, instruments by Nicolò Amati and Jacob Stainer were preferred for their subtle sweetness of tone.
October 14, 2010, a 1697 Stradivarius violin known as ‘The Molitor’ was sold online by Tarisio Auctions for a world-record price of $3,600,000 to renowned concert violinist Anne Akiko Meyers. The price is the highest on record for any musical instrument sold at auction. On May 16, 2006, Christie’s auctioned a Stradivarius called The Hammer for a record at the time of US$3,544,000. The previous record price paid at a public auction for a Stradivarius was US$2,032,000 for the Lady Tennant at Christie’s in New York, April 2005. On April 2, 2007 Christie’s sold a Stradivari violin for more than US$2.7 million, well above its estimate. The 1729 instrument, known as the Solomon, Ex-Lambert, went to an anonymous bidder in the auction house’s fine musical instruments sale. Its price, US$2,728,000 including the Christie’s commission, far outdid its estimated value: US$1 million to US$1.5 million. The London sales of The Mendelssohn at £902,000 ($1,776,940) in 1990 and The Kreutzer for £947,500 ($1,591,800) in 1998 constitute as the other two top selling Stradivari.
Other famous Stradivarius instruments are the Davidov Stradivarius, a cello currently played by Yo-Yo Ma, the Barjansky Stradivarius, a cello currently played by Julian Lloyd Webber and the Duport Stradivarius, a cello owned by Mstislav Rostropovich until his death in 2007. The Soil of 1714 is owned by virtuoso Itzhak Perlman. The Countess Polignac is currently played by Gil Shaham. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra uses several Stradivarius instruments that were purchased by the Österreichische Nationalbank (Austrian National Bank) and other sponsors: Chaconne, 1725; ex-Hämmerle, 1709; ex-Smith-Quersin, 1714; ex-Arnold Rose, ex-Viotti, 1718; and ex-Halphen, 1727.
While the usual label for a Stradivarius instrument, whether genuine or false, uses the traditional Latin inscription, after the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890, copies were also inscribed with the country of origin. Since thousands of instruments are based on Stradivari’s models and bear the same name as his models, many unwary people are deceived into purchasing forged Stradivarius instruments, although this can be avoided by having an instrument authenticated.
Publicly displayed collections of Stradivari instruments are those of the U.S. Library of Congress with three violins, a viola, and a cello, the Agency of National Estates of Spain, with a quartet of two violins, the Spanish I and II, the Spanish Court cello, and the Spanish Court viola, exhibited in the Music Museum at the Palacio Real de Madrid (Royal Palace) and the Royal Academy of Music’s Collections with several instruments by Antonio Stradivari, including the ‘Joachim (1698), Rutson (1694), the Crespi (1699), Viotti ex-Bruce (1709), Kustendyke (1699), Maurin (1718) and the Ex Back (1666) violins, Ex Kux (1714), and the Archinto (1696) violas, the Marquis de Corberon (1726) and the Markevitch (1709) celli. The collection of The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra had the largest number of Stradivari in its string section, purchased in 2003 from the collection of Herbert R. Axelrod, until it recently decided to sell them off. A collection assembled by Rodman Wanamaker in the 1920s contained as many as 65 stringed instruments by such masters as Stradivari, Gofriller, Baptiste and Giuseppe Guarneri. Included was “The Swan,” the last violin made by Stradivari, and soloist instrument of the great Cuban 19 century virtuoso Jose White. The collection, known as The Cappella, was used in concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski before being dispersed after Wanamaker’s death. The Vienna Philharmonic uses four violins and one cello. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has three Stradivari violins dated 1693, 1694, and 1717. The University of South Dakota, in Vermillion, South Dakota, has in its collection one of two known Stradivari guitars, one of eleven known viola da gambas, later modified into a cello form, one of two known choral mandolins, and one of six Stradivari violins that still retain their original neck. In the interests of conservation, the Messiah Stradivarius violin—on display in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England—has not been played at all in recent years.
In the second installment of the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance video game series, Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift, Stradivari is a wood used to create the items Edaroya Scriptures, Sage’s Robe, and Faerie Shoes.
In the video game Fallout 3, the player is tasked with retrieving the “Soil” Stradivarius from a vault. The “Soil” Stradivarius, named after its original owner, is the violin of Itzhak Perlman.
The film The Red Violin was inspired by one of Stradivarius’s violins, the Red Mendelssohn (1721), which is currently played by Elizabeth Pitcairn, heiress to the PPG Industries fortune, whose grandfather purchased it for her 16th birthday for $1.7 million at auction at Christie’s London. She is one of the few soloists who performs the Red Violin Chaconne composed for the film by John Corigliano. The notion that the fictional violin is red because it is painted with the blood of the maker’s wife, who died during childbirth, is a creation of the filmmaker and is yet unsubstantiated. The real violin is called “The Red Mendelssohn” because of a unique red stripe on its top right side, but how the stripe came about is unknown.
In the Broadway musical Urinetown, a Stradivarius instrument is briefly mentioned in a single line, “Play it on your/ Stradivari/ He’s not sorry/ Not a shred!” as a high-status, political symbol.