Toby Faber - author and lecturer

Published journalism on Stradivarius

A slightly cut-down version of this article about the Messiah violin appeared in The Guardian in August 2004 to coincide with the publication of Stradivarius in the UK

More than two hundred and fifty years after his death, Antonio Stradivari’s violins and cellos are the best in the world. On song and in the right hands they are magnificent, projecting their glorious tone to the back of the largest concert hall, and responding immediately to their player’s every change of style, pitch, volume – even mood. In a recent season at London’s Royal Festival Hall, four of the five soloists played Strads (the inevitable abbreviation). They are the ultimate rebuke to the arrogance of the modern age: science does not have all the answers; renaissance technology still cannot be bettered.


How can that be? It has puzzled me, on and off, for almost thirty years. Then, about four years ago, I read a newspaper article that made me appreciate for the first time the richness of the stories behind Stradivari’s instruments themselves. They have been valuable for nearly three centuries, passed down through the generations as objects of value, even reverence. Their lives encompass a host of remarkable individuals; they are windows onto musical history. I realised that if the answer to the mystery of Stradivari’s continuing supremacy lay anywhere, it must be in his instruments themselves.


That article was about the Messiah - probably the most famous Stradivarius in the world, celebrated above all for its almost impeccable condition. Its varnish, in particular, is as flawless as when Stradivari applied the last few drops in 1716. Such perfection, however, comes at a price: the Messiah has hardly been used; there are no famous performances in its history. More than that, if someone were to tune it up now it would not sound terribly good – for reasons that are still not fully understood, violins have to be ‘played in’ over several months or even years to develop their full tone. It is, therefore, a lopsided example of a Strad. Nevertheless, its story is fascinating, both for the cast of characters it contains, and for the light it sheds on Stradivari himself.


The first notable point in the Messiah’s biography is that it was unsold at its maker’s death. Although by the end of his life Stradivari had accumulated a substantial stock of unsold instruments, almost all of them were later – and, arguably, lesser – examples of his work. The Messiah, by contrast, is from the heart of his ‘golden period’, the first two decades of the eighteenth century, when it was all Stradivari could do to meet demand. Why the Messiah did not join the stream of instruments leaving his workshop is itself a mystery, one to add to all the others, but whatever the reason, it was part of the substantial legacy inherited by his eldest son and principal helper, Francesco. He only survived a few more years, and left the violin, with a hundred others, to his youngest brother, Paolo, who gradually liquidated his inheritance over a period of thirty years, finally selling the Messiah to a young nobleman, Count Cozio di Salabue, shortly before his own death in 1776.


Some time in the late 1820s, Count Cozio sold the Messiah to Luigi Tarisio, the son of an Italian peasant. Despite his humble origins, Tarisio would come to own more Strads, at one time or another, than anyone apart from their maker. He had an obsession for them; and he fed it by travelling through Italy, playing the violin to support himself, and sniffing out treasures wherever he could. On arrival in a village he would ingratiate himself with the locals to find out if anyone owned a violin, or he might visit monasteries and other likely prospects, and offer to repair their instruments. Armed with information he could gauge the situation, perhaps simply buying cheap, or, more subtly, offering new violins for old. Even if no purchase resulted, knowledge was still useful to him; and Tarisio gradually became both expert and collector. He had the great advantage, as later dealers noted ruefully, of coming across violins while they still had their original labels in them; so that he was able to build a picture of different violin-makers’ work without being misled by false information. Those who bought from him were not necessarily so lucky: he does not seem to have been averse to increasing an instrument’s value with a little judicious forgery. Even contemporaries who realised what he did, however, did not think of him as crooked. If he had been seeking material gain, he would surely have lived a more luxurious lifestyle. In the words of Charles Reade, the Victorian novelist - and occasional violin dealer - ‘The man’s whole soul was devoted to violins.’


Whatever Tarisio’s motives, we have to be grateful to him. Something over six hundred Strads still exist, more than half their maker’s entire output. It’s an impressive survival rate for such essentially fragile objects, and we owe it to Tarisio, who recognised their value relatively early in their lives. It’s hard to guess what proportion of that six hundred actually passed through Tarisio’s hands, but there is a famous story of how, towards the end of his life, he was able to identify the maker and date of every violin in one of the great London collections. He did it time and again, without even touching the instruments, until the collector himself could only whisper: ‘That man smells a violin as the devil smells a lost soul.’ It was a remarkable feat of recognition, rather than sorcery: Tarisio had been the source for every violin.


Tarisio was more than a dealer, however; he hoarded violins. The best went straight into his collection, and none was better than the violin he had bought from Count Cozio, the Messiah. He would taunt other connoisseurs with its existence: the violin from one of Stradivari’s peak years, still in perfect condition. It was on one such occasion that the violinist Delphin Alard responded with understandable exasperation: ‘Ah ça, votre violon est donc comme le Messie; on l’attend toujours, et il ne parait jamais.’ The name would stick.

Alard’s father-in-law, the great violin-dealer, maker and copyist, Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, would eventually bring the Messiah into public view, but he had to wait for Tarisio to die first. The moment Vuillaume heard the news – three months late – he scraped together as much money as he could and caught a train for Italy. For the next twenty years he would regale listeners with the story of his arrival at Tarisio’s farm. The dead man’s relatives were assembled there ‘with every appearance of the most sordid poverty.’ Vuillaume’s enquiry for instruments was met with some disdain – most of the junk was in Milan, where Tarisio had died, surrounded by his collection, but half a dozen violins were at the farm.


Guided by Tarisio’s sister, Vuillaume bent down to a rickety piece of furniture. It was in such a bad state that it was all he could do to open the drawers without damaging the contents. Inside he found five masterpieces, but it was the contents of the last violin case that took his breath away. For some time, he could only stare. Tarisio had been telling the truth: there was the Messiah, as perfectly preserved as the day it was hung up to dry.


Vuillaume bought 150 instruments, including about two dozen Strads, from Tarisio’s heirs. Over the next few years he sold on almost his entire purchase at what would have been a huge profit, but he kept the Messiah. Only Vuillaume’s own death in 1875 broke the bond: there were whispers that this was an enchanted violin, one that kept its owners in its own special thrall. In the event, various changes of ownership followed, but by the late 1920s, the Messiah was in the hands of the Hill brothers, whose London dealership could eventually claim to have seen more Strads than Tarisio. They were determined both that the Messiah should not leave the UK, and that it should not fall into the hands of anyone who wanted to do something so sacriligeous as play the instrument. Refusing a blank cheque from Henry Ford, they placed the masterpiece in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. As if to confirm the Messiah’s reputation, both brothers were dead within a year.


There the story might have ended – the Messiah still hangs in the Ashmolean – but for the sting in the tail. In the late 1990s a researcher with doubts about the the violin’s authenticity sent photographs of its front to a dendrochronologist. He measured a set of widths of tree rings as they occurred in the wood’s grain, compared them to an established reference series, and appeared to show that the relevant tree could not have been cut down before 1738, one year after Stradivari’s death. The implications were enormous, and not just for the Messiah. If the most famous Stradivarius in the world were a fake, then how could any attribution to Stradivari be trusted? The labels in violins have been untrustworthy since the days of Tarisio. Violins can only be attributed through stylistic judgements, and it is the dealers who make them, and the certificates they issue, that carry the weight when it comes to a violin’s authenticity, and therefore value.


With their reputations at risk, violin dealers closed ranks. They commissioned further dendrochronology that appeared to date the Messiah’s wood back to 1682, but there was controversy over the methodology. Amid accusations of a cover-up, a scandal seemed about to break. Journalists took an interest – one of them wrote the piece that first inspired me to dig deeper into the Messiah’s history. All subsequent work, however, has verified the 1682 date. Moreover, there is a good cross-match between the wood in the Messiah and that in other Strads. Everything about the violin is consistent with its label, ‘Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Faciebat Anno 1716’.


Moreover, with the Messiah as a guide, we can start to unravel some of the mystery behind its maker’s pre-eminence. One of the questions that is often asked is why Stradivari’s techniques – ‘secrets’ is probably too strong a word – were lost so soon after he died. We only need to look at his son Francesco to realise why. He was sixty-six when he finally took over the workshop where he had been his father’s assistant for over fifty years. Its storeroom contained the Messiah and a hundred other finished violins; there was no reason for him to carry on making more. He all but hung up his tools.


Paolo, Stradivari’s youngest son and the Messiah’s next owner, was much younger - only thirty-five when his brother died - but he was a cloth merchant who knew nothing of violin-making. He needed help just to prepare those inherited violins for sale. Count Cozio did his best to find and preserve violin lore – even buying Stradivari’s tools as well as the Messiah – but he was asking his questions forty years too late. He has, however, left us with the best single insight into Stradivari’s genius: ‘They still say of Antonio Stradivari in Cremona “while other makers did what they could, Stradivari did with violins as he wanted”.’


Then there is the question of Stradivari’s resistance to later imitation. Vuillaume – the Messiah’s ‘finder’ – is counted among the best violin-makers of the nineteenth century. He took Strads apart so that he could reproduce every possible measurement, delighted in placing the Messiah and his copies of it side-by-side so that visitors could guess which was which, and advertised that his violins would be as good as Stradivari’s ‘after a little use’. Yet nobody would now believe that claim. A compelling reason for refusing to attribute the Messiah to Vuillaume is that it is simply too good to be his work.


These days, we can recognise the mistakes in Vuillaume’s techniques; the best modern violin-makers do not repeat them. Many would argue, in fact, that some of the instruments produced in the last twenty or thirty years finally do match Stradivari’s. All they need is sufficient time to mature and at last we will have found worthy competitors to those seventeenth century masterpieces. Yet it’s this need for a violin’s wood to age – for perhaps fifty or a hundred years – that shows the futility of attempts to imitate Stradivari. There remain controversies about how he worked. Testing each would mean building the violins, letting them age, and then ensuring that they were played for long enough by a good enough player to bring out their best tone. It is absurd.


If we cannot copy Stradivari’s exact methodology, surely the best hope is to be inspired by his approach: single-minded devotion to the aim of producing instruments better than any predecessors’. Many factors contributed to Stradivari’s brilliance: an uninterrupted tradition already over a century old when he began, a methodical and disciplined mind, a certainty about carving that meant he could easily translate his ideas into practice, at least two dutiful helpers, and a life long enough both to experiment and to reap the benefits of that experimentation. Perhaps his genius really is inimitable; no one expects to match Bach or Shakespeare. But the violins he made are not perfect; they can be moody; they have off-days. Modern violin-makers benefit from a whole set of other advantages, the knowledge brought by history and science. It may need another genius, but surely we can imagine that one day someone will produce instruments that not only match Stradivari’s, but supersede them.

© Toby Faber

Around the time that Stradivarius came out in the UK, one of the violins it followed, the Viotti, came on the market. The Royal Academy of Music launched a campaign to raise the funds to buy it but were initially kicked back by the National Heritage Memorial Fund. I wrote this article, which appeared (minus its opening paragraph) in The Times in October 2004, as part of the resulting campaign, which eventually succeeded in securing the Viotti for the RAM.

Two weeks ago the Royal Academy of Music received some hugely disappointing news. Who would doubt that classical music is central to our cultural life? Its role in ceremony, and concert series like the Proms make that clear. Yet the National Heritage Memorial Fund has refused the RAM a grant towards the purchase of an outstanding link with our musical history. Moreover, the Viotti Stradivarius’ price tag of £1.9 million is a bargain by comparison with equivalent violins, let alone works of art. The NHMF’s decision is so frustrating, it can only have been made through ignorance or prejudice. It leaves me fervently hoping that the RAM is able to raise the money elsewhere.

I suppose I’d better track back a bit. If anyone knows anything about Antonio Stradivari, it is that the violins and cellos he made in Cremona in the forty years before his death in 1737 remain the best in the world. Every violinist would love to play one of the six hundred or so that survive, but with most of these now in museums or private collections, only the top virtuosi can even dream of it. Successive generations of makers have tried to match Stradivari, but none have succeeded. I cannot think of any other object, still in daily use, where the modern age remains in such definitive thrall to previous eras.

Antonio Stradivari is unique.
 It was in an effort to understand this phenomenon that I began researching a book about Stradivari, but I soon realised that the really fascinating part of my story would relate not so much to the man himself, but to the lives of the instruments he made after they left his workshop: valued for two hundred years, they are windows onto musical history. 

I chose five violins (a cello came later) partly for their own interest, and partly for their role in the overall story of Stradivari himself. The Viotti was a natural choice on both counts.
 Giovanni Battista Viotti may be little-heard of now, but he could make a strong claim for being the most influential violinist not just of his generation, but of all time. A series of concerts that he gave in Paris in the early 1780s first alerted French audiences to the violin’s potential as a solo instrument. They came as a thunderbolt to his sophisticated listeners: violin-playing would never be the same again. He had a similar impact across Europe, from London and Berlin, to Warsaw and St Petersburg. In the words of The London Oracle, Viotti was ‘original and sublime - he reaches at unattempted grandeur’.  

In Paris, three of Viotti’s disciples collaborated on a book of violin instruction – Méthode du Violon – that effectively codified his style of playing. Immensely influential, it alone justifies us thinking of Viotti as the father of modern violin-playing.  As these three and others themselves took pupils, Viotti’s standards were spread all over Europe. Look in the teaching pedigree of any modern virtuoso, and you will eventually be led, inexorably, back to Viotti. 

And there was another aspect to Viotti’s influence. He played upon a Stradivarius. Its powerful tone was a crucial element in his success. It was Viotti who first demonstrated the power and versatility of Stradivari’s instruments. Before his appearance in Paris, the sweet-toned and soft-voiced violins of Amati and Stainer were thought the best; after them, every player was clamouring for a Strad. In short, the Stradivarius that Viotti used as his concert violin is the most important of them all. No other single instrument has played a comparable role in the history of Western music. It should be an icon to every music-lover. Finding it, however, is complicated by the existence of around six other Viotti Strads – the virtuoso helped many of his contemporaries to find their own violins and all subsequent owners were keen to record his name in their instruments’ pedigrees.

There is, however, one Viotti Strad that stands out from all the others, for it is the violin that Viotti kept until his death.
 Despite his success as a violinist, the course of Viotti’s life ran far from smoothly. Some of this was bad luck – it does seem particularly harsh that, having just got his life back together in England after fleeing revolutionary Paris, he was arrested in London in 1798, accused of Jacobin sympathies, and exiled to Germany for three years. Some of the violinist’s misfortune, however, was largely self-inflicted. Always unenamoured of his sublime talent, he stopped giving concerts as soon as he could. In Paris he eventually went into opera management, sinking his entire fortune into a new theatre even as the Revolution gathered pace. In London, he spent two interrupted decades as a wine merchant, for reasons that are now hard to divine. He cannot have been very good at it. The failure of the business in 1817 left him with huge debts to English friends, and sent him back to Paris for another unsuccessful stint as an impresario. He died in genteel poverty in 1823. 

While he was alive, Viotti would never, of course, have sold his main violin. In death, however, he was determined to do all he could to repay his debts. His will tells how his soul is torn to pieces in the agony of feeling that he dies a debtor, and requests that ‘If I die before I can pay off this debt, I pray that everything I have in the world may be sold off.’ His Stradivarius, he mentions plaintively, ‘should realise a large sum.’ It was sold at auction in Paris for 3,816 francs (roughly equivalent to £10,000 now). The Viotti left the concert stage. There is one further sale of it recorded in 1860, and a curious mention by François Fétis, Stradivari’s first biographer, who named it, with striking precision, the third best Stradivarius in existence. By the early twentieth century, however, it had come into the possession of the Hills, the great London firm of violin dealers, who refer to the violin in their book on Stradivari as ‘a grand example in every respect’. They also appear to have connived, if only tacitly, in a curious case of mistaken identity: for fifty years the Edwardian violinist Marie Hall, together with many reference works, believed that her violin was this Viotti Strad.  In fact the Hills bought and sold the true Viotti three times. Their last sale was in 1928, when they sold it to a British purchaser for £8,000 (about £270,000 now). The firm noted at the time that they could have got much more from an American buyer, but the Hill brothers wanted the great violin to stay in Britain. And so it has, the son of that last purchaser died in 2002, and his heirs are trying hard to meet his wishes that the Viotti remains in this country.

The RAM would be a perfect home for it. Fétis’ certainty in asserting that it was the third best Stradivarius in existence may seem incongruous now, but it is a indication, at least, of the violin’s tonal qualities. The RAM’s policy of lending out its great instruments to suitable players would allow audiences to hear this violin for the first time in almost two hundred years. But the Viotti is stunning to look at as well: the iridescent tiger stripes of the maple on its back make it one of Stradivari’s most beautiful instruments. Here too the RAM comes into its own, with its rotating exhibition of instruments not out on loan. And the on-site presence of a permanent curator to the collection should ensure that the Viotti’s condition remains as near-perfect as it is currently said to be.

So I am aghast at the NHMF’s decision. £1.9 million may sound like a lot of money for a violin, but I have no doubt that on the open market the Viotti would fetch something in excess of £3.5 million: its provenance, condition and tone would guarantee that. For the sake of both our musical heritage and of future British audiences, let us hope the NHMF changes its mind.

© Toby Faber

The following article is largely a precis of two chapters of Stradivarius. It was commissioned by The Independent in May 2006

‘Tall and thin, habitually covered with a cap of white wool in winter, and of cotton in summer, he wore over his clothes an apron of white leather when he worked; and as he was always working, his costume scarcely ever varied.’ This image of Antonio Stradivari at his workbench in the 1730s is the only eyewitness account we have of the world’s most famous violin-maker. Still a workaholic, even in his nineties, he was already rich and famous; for fifty years, his instruments had been bought by archbishops, dukes and kings across Europe, and he had been friendly with some of the great players of his era. Yet he was, at heart, an artisanal craftsman in eighteenth century Italy, with no more social status than that implied. So it is not surprising that we know so little about his life, and that the bulk of what we do know comes, appropriately enough, from the instruments that have made him an object of deification for centuries.


Antonio Stradivari was probably born somewhere near Cremona in 1644. Located on the river Po, between Milan and Venice, this town had been periodically controlled by one or other of its two nieghbours, but had benefited from never being important enough to challenge either for supremacy. Instead, it had been content simply to get on with being prosperous. Before becoming the centre of Europe’s nascent violin-making industry, about a century before Stradivari’s birth, its proudest boast had been that it contained the tallest medieval towers in Italy.


There had been Stradivaris (or people with similar names) in Cremona since the twelfth century, but there is no record of Antonio’s birth. Most likely, his parents had been caught up in the troubles that halved the town’s population over three years from 1628 – war followed by plague – and had fled to some outlying parish. Instead, the first trace of the young violin-maker dates to 1666, when he was already twenty-two - the earliest surviving example of his work.


The violin still plays well; there is much that is exciting about it, but it is the unique wording of its label, visible through the left-hand soundhole, that is particularly intriguing. It bears the words ‘Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Alumnus Nicolaii Amati, Faciebat Anno 1666’ [‘Made by Antonio Stradivari of Cremona, pupil of Nicolò Amati, in 1666]. This is an important claim. Cremona’s violin-making reputation rested above all in the Amati family, of whom Nicolò Amati was the third generation. What could be more natural that Cremona’s next great violin-maker learnt his trade from his outstanding predecessor?


Nevertheless, there is little other evidence to support Stradivari’s claim to have been taught by Amati, and much to refute it. Most tellingly, even Stradivari’s earliest violins are amazingly well-carved; it is in their design that they betray inexperience. Moreover, Cremona’s census returns show that from 1667 to 1680 he lived in the Casa Nuziale, owned by a wood-carver and inlayer. Stradivari could not have lived off his violin-making alone in this period.  He must have had another source of income, and the most likely possibility is that he was working for the man in whose house he lived. Antonio Stradivari, unchallenged as the greatest violin-maker of his or any other age, may have originally been a woodworker.


If so, the label in that first surviving violin casts some light on the character of the young Stradivari, as he cheekily pasted a label in an early experiment that overplayed his link with the great Amati. We start to see him not as a dutiful apprentice who eventually outshone his master, but as an independently-minded genius with an entrepreneurial streak. We can also begin to understand the background that would eventually lead Stradivari to re-think every aspect of the violin’s design. He understood and respected the Cremonese tradition that Amati represented, but he was not bound by it.


Sketchy as they are, the few details we have of Stradivari’s private life also suggest a man who was prepared to take risks. On 4th July 1667 he married Signora Francesca Feraboschi. Their first child, Giulia, was born the following October, less than four months later. This was not particularly unusual; the church had been happy to co-operate with an accelerated reading of the banns. But there was more to make the marriage remarkable than that. Francesca was the widow of a relatively wealthy Cremonese burgher, Giacomo Capra. Their short marriage had surely not been a happy one; after less than two years, and as many children, Capra was murdered by Francesca’s brother, Giovanni Feraboschi - shot with an arquebus, a kind of medieval musket, in the Piazza St Agata, in front of one of Cremona’s many parish churches. Francesca left the children in the care of her former father-in-law, but she came to Antonio Stradivari with a past.


Soon after their wedding the young couple moved into the Casa Nuziale. For thirteen years it would be both Stradivari’s workshop and his home, accommodating a growing family. Giulia was the oldest of six children. The first son, Francesco, died in 1670, only twelve days after he was born. Less than a year later, however, another Francesco arrived, to be followed over the next eight years by another sister, Caterina, and two brothers, Alessandro and Omobono.


As a father Stradivari may have been close to prolific, but the same can hardly be said of his initial output of violins. From his first fourteen years as an independent luthier, only eighteen violins are known to have survived, along with a viola, a guitar and a cello that was originally a viol. They suffer by comparison with the authoritative instruments still emerging from Nicolò Amati’s workshop. Moreover, several of Amati’s undoubted former pupils had set up workshops in Cremona and other cities across Northern Italy. All, too, were facing challenges from a growing army of German makers. By contrast, Stradivari was still finding his feet, no more than a marginal figure in Cremonese violin-making. Taking only his share of the commissions that Amati could not fulfil, the small number of instruments Stradivari produced reflects simply a lack of demand.


By 1680, however, Stradivari’s fortunes had clearly started to improve. He bought his first house in this year, paying 7,000 lire for it (about £40,000 in current terms). It was more substantial than the Casa Nuziale and only a few steps from the Amati workshop - a clear statement that Stradivari now considered himself on a par with Cremona’s best. From now on, he would focus on his violins. Both output and quality would increase accordingly. So when Nicolò Amati died in 1684, aged eighty-eight, Stradivari was already established as his natural successor. Royal commissions from across Europe were quick to follow. By 1688, when Giulia Stradivari married the son of a prominent Cremonese notary – a good match for the daughter of an artisan – her father should have been content.


Stradivari’s violins, however, suggest restlessness, for in 1690 he embarked upon a decade of almost ceaseless experimentation. The starting point must have been what Stradivari heard from violinists themselves. Scraps of evidence suggest that he was friendly with many of Europe’s finest players. Composer-violinists like Arcangelo Corelli were attracting followings. Their concerti and sonatas showcased technical prowess that would have been inconceivable to their predecessors, used to accompanying voice or dance, or to playing in ensembles.  But to achieve their full effect as soloists in front of large audiences they needed violins with a stronger tone.


Stradivari set about trying to meet this demand, producing violins that were slightly longer and narrower than those made before, and which are now known as ‘Long Strads’.  These are beautiful instruments. Their varnish is redder and tougher than on earlier violins, with an almost bottomless depth of colour. Stradivari was at his peak as a craftsman when he made them; and he was pushing the design of the violin further than anything achieved before. But the form was not ultimately successful. The greater power came at the cost of some sweetness; and players may have found them unwieldy.


Over the period 1695 - 1697, almost as though he was struggling with the form, Stradivari’s production slowed significantly. Then, in 1698, he reverted to Amati’s old design. The long pattern had been a dead end. That same year, on 20th May, Francesca Stradivari died. Whatever the circumstances that brought her and Antonio together, they had been married for thirty years, Stradivari’s entire career as an independent luthier. For half that time, his eldest son, Francesco, had been working with him. He could take over the business. This would have been a natural moment for Stradivari to retire.


Far from it. The 1690s had seen Stradivari conduct every possible experiment with the size and shape of the traditional violin, and now he was able to bring it together. He returned to Amati’s old design, but this did not constitute total regression. His years working on the long pattern had generated one key insight: a flatter body gives greater tonal power without making the violin itself unacceptably fragile. By the early 1700s the workshop was producing violins whose soundboxes remain a model for those being made today. Stradivari himself would continue to experiment for the rest of his life, but it was always around this basic form; he must have known he could not do better.


So began the ‘golden period’, as Stradivari, helped by Francesco and his brother Omobono, produced – at the rate of two to three each month - the violins that now sell for millions. Acoustically, that final redesign of the soundbox was their most important attribute, but there was far more to them than that. The deep red of the varnish made the golden-yellow of the Amatis and of Stradivari’s earlier instruments appear insipid by comparison. The scrolls were emphasised with black edging that shouted out the carver’s skill. Broad edges and wider corners gave the violins an almost masculine appearance. Everything about them spoke of confidence, of the luthier’s desire to draw attention to his brilliance.


The effect on Stradivari’s competitors was marked. One by one, almost every other violin-maker in Cremona was forced to close down. No one could match the output of the Stradivari workshop. Its violins had not yet attained the god-like status they have today – violins need to age, for at least fifty years, before they reach their full potential, and in any case the power of Stradivari’s instruments would not be fully appreciated until the need for them to fill large concert halls became apparent – but they were already being recognised by some as the best in the world.


The term ‘golden period’ may usually be applied to Stradivari’s instruments, but it might just as well be used of his personal circumstances: wealth and contentment far removed from the struggles and uncertainties of his earlier life. In 1699 he was married again, aged fifty-five, to the thirty-five-year-old Antonia Zambelli. Their family would be almost as numerous as Stradivari’s first. Francesca was born a little over a year after the wedding. Four sons followed, of whom three survived infancy: Giovanni Battista, Giuseppe and Paolo, the last of them born in January 1708, when his father was sixty-three and his mother forty-three.


By this time the Stradivari workshop had started to produce cellos again, following a six year gap. The hiatus is easy to understand. Stradivari must have been so excited by the capabilities of the violins made according to his new model that for a time he concentrated all his energies into their construction. After a few years however, he started considering what principles he could carry across to their larger siblings. The result was a radical redesign: soundboxes whose flatter archings reflect what Stradivari had learnt from his violins and whose length, at twenty-nine inches, is now regarded as ideal. These cellos not only meet the challenge of tone projection common to all string instruments, but also strike the ideal balance between sonorous bass and vibrant treble that is a more specific problem for cellos.


Stradivari’s golden period came to an end around 1720, as the violin-maker drew towards his eighties. The instruments start to show signs of age in their craftsmanship; their carving is clumsier, and the soundholes are placed less exactly. Moreover, they are made with inferior materials. This may have been an attempt to cut costs. The whole of Northern Italy went through an economic slowdown in the 1720s and violin-makers were as badly affected as any other trade. From this time on a significant proportion of the workshop’s output went into stock.


If conditions had been better, perhaps Stradivari would have considered handing over the reins to one of his sons. More likely, neither Francesco nor Omobono had shown the aptitude or ambition to take over. The former was at least dutiful. Stradivari’s will describes him as ‘the principal support of the profession of the said Testator, having always been, as he is, obedient and obsequious to the Testator’s demands.’ Omobono, on the other hand, was better educated than his father, a man about town and frequenter of at least five different religious confraternities, the only real social organisations of the period. Every now and then he performed some service on his father’s behalf, but he could clearly be spared by the workshop in a way that suggests his value to it was only marginal.


It is probable that by now a third son was helping in the workshop – Giovanni Battista, the eldest child of Stradivari’s second marriage. Stradivari may even considered him to be a possible successor, but his death in 1727, aged only twenty-three, killed that hope. A devastating blow for any father, the loss must have given the octogenarian luthier intimations of his own mortality. Within two years he was ready for his own death. The date 1729 is carved on his tombstone, together with his name, in lettering that only partly conceals the name of the grave’s previous occupants.


If the gravestone alone were not indication enough of Stradivari’s frame of mind, 1729 is also the year he drew up his will. It is a remarkable document, consisting of a hand-written draft, the longest autograph manuscript left behind by any of the great classical luthiers, together with three increasingly elaborate legal versions. That first draft is what truly catches the attention. The writing is vigorous; whatever the evidence from his violins, the author can still wield a pen. And the will’s contents tell several different stories. Antonia is remembered for the ‘affection which she has always shown towards’ her husband, and exhorted many times, probably tellingly, to live in harmony with the rest of the family. She is named as the owner of her clothing and household linens, and of half of her jewellery – so long as she remains a widow. A trip Omobono had made to Naples thirty years before still rankled; there is vitriol for him, although in the will’s final version he does, like all the other children save one, receive a small legacy. The exception is Francesco, Stradivari’s oldest son, who is designated as the master or owner (‘patro’) of the workshop, the storeroom (and therefore its contents) and, touchingly, ‘the room where I sleep where I am now’. For the first time Stradivari had truly named a successor.


Stradivari did not use his usual firm of notaries to draw up the will, and chose, unusually, to formalise it in a convent. It seems clear that he wanted to keep the document’s existence a secret. The desire to control, to spring surprises from beyond the grave, is all at one with the dictatorial tone of the will itself. No other object sheds as much light on the character and life of the world’s greatest luthier. It even gives us the best contemporary valuation of his instruments: a proportion of the cash legacies is in the form of violins; and Stradivari values six at 1,000 lire. To the Master himself, therefore, one of his violins was worth 166 lire (about £700 in current money) The whole bundle of documents was only discovered in 1995, by researchers on the trail of entirely different Cremonese violin-maker. It was still in the archives of the notaries with which it was originally lodged.


Stradivari was prepared for death, but he carried on working. The labels on many violins from this period carry a handwritten annotation of his age. They may have been made by a later owner of the instruments, but the more romantic theory is that they were made by Stradivari himself, showing his pride at his continuing ability to wield the gouge and knife.To back up this image, we have the only eye-witness description of the violin-maker, still a workaholic in the 1730s. Handed down through generations of violinists, until it was first recorded in the nineteenth century, it describes Stradivari as


Such industry had made Stradivari rich. Surviving documents show him investing substantial amounts in a pastry shop, and lending money against the security of a garden outside Cremona’s walls. By 1733 he was able to pay 20,000 lire [£80,000] to make Paolo, his youngest son, the junior partner of a Cremonese cloth-merchant. Four years later, in September 1737, he approved Paolo’s marriage, overseeing the formal transfer to him of his future wife’s dowry. Paolo was the only one of Stradivari’s sons to marry; now, finally, the ageing luthier could expect future generations of Stradivaris, their fortunes built on the money he had earned from his violins.


The dowry transfer was to be Stradivari’s last formal act. He had already buried his second wife Antonia in March that year; and now death was approaching for him too. Since 1734 Stradivari’s pace of work had, finally, slowed. But it had not come to a halt. Three violins are known to exist from even that last year, when he was ninety-three. Antonio Stradivari died on 19th December 1737.  He was buried beside his wife in the Church of San Domenico, opposite the house where they had lived together for almost forty years.


Francesco had been trained by his father, and worked beside him for fifty years. Either he or Omobono could have carried on the business, taken on new apprentices, and ensured that Stradivari’s techniques were continued by a new generation. But they were in their sixties; the workshop’s storeroom contained over a hundred unsold instruments. Who can blame the brothers, finally free of their father’s control, for taking a well-earned retirement? It is estimated that Antonio Stradivari made over a thousand instruments; the six hundred or so that survive today remain as desirable as ever. The paradox, however, is that by living so long, and refusing ever to relinquish control, the world’s greatest violin-maker ensured that his commitment to excellence died with him.

© Toby Faber