The last secret of Stradivari I

The breaking of the Thread

Myths and sources

This will be mainly a presentation of new thoughts on old facts. For the facts I am massively indebted to the labours of Hill, Sacconi, Pollens, Dilworth, Chiesa, Rosengard, Kass, Hargrave et al1). This is definitely not going to be a learned treatise packed with footnotes, bibliography and the like. That said my aim is to keep the reasoning clean, to come up with verifiable thoughts and, as a bonus, to present a few hypotheses that can easily be tested with the help of modern research. I definitely do not expect this to be the last word on the subject, and beg the kind reader to correct me whenever, in order to get the picture of our ancestors in the craft as clear as possible. The secret is, of course, not to be understood as a grain of wisdom intentionally withheld from later generations.

Master craftsmen

Better to think of it as something that got lost, with or without intention. Also the secret is in my opinion not Stradivari’s specifically, but really more that of the extended Amati family. After having removed the thick crust of 19th century romanticism, superstition and deception we can see, with some confidence, the Amati’s, and with them the Guarneri’s and Stradivari, as:

  • extremely competent woodworkers;
  • professional violinists (several of them, with Stradivari as notable exception);
  • by and large illiterate (except Stradivari);
  • having held the monopoly of the high end of the market for the best part of two centuries.
Antonio Stradivari (bron: wikipedia)
Antonio Stradivari (source: wikipedia)


These points of departure allow us to sketch the circumstances that may indeed have led to what I would like to call “The breaking of the thread”.

For instance: considering the top level at which the craft had to be transmitted from one generation to the next, you can easily imagine this to have been rather time consuming in itself. Illiteracy of course did little to ameliorate this situation. Imagine yourself having to store and transmit information without the 0,1mm, the Herz, pictures, the copying machine, written text etc. Furthermore not only basics and the training of the hand had to be handed over, but details and niceties, the training of the eye e.g., too.

System of ratios

They might have had at hand a system of simple ratios for the basic layout. A system wherein the Golden Rule, or other arcane mathematics are highly improbably to have played any role. In which connection I would like to point out that the GR leads to totally unmusical results when applied to strings or air columns. The first few simple ratios (1:2, 2:3, 3:4 etc.) on the contrary are about octaves, fifths, fourths etc., all musically relevant intervals. Which lead me to the conclusion that the basic layout of the violin may have had as its point of departure an extremely simple scheme, whereby the ratio between e.g. bodylength and stringlength can be fixed in quite an elegant way. I do not think that they had lots of drawings, gigs, moulds etc. at hand. Firstly because I deem it more than slightly improbable that everything would have disappeared without leaving one trace.

Workshop in the old days

Secondly the workshop of Stradivari is surely not to be considered as exemplary for the common practice of those days. Exactly its having been way out of the ordinary, may well have led to its partly conservation in the end. Thirdly freedom of expression is one of the constant and striking features of the Amati school. Worrying about moulds, gigs or even making a bench copy is really another world. This latter subject will be touched upon in more and practical detail later on.


Then we have to consider their position as family, though extended so, business and monopolists of the top end of the market. They will for sure have had, and wielded, means to consolidate and protect this enviable position. Though they have surely had to operate within the rules and prescriptions of the guild system, there must have been ample room for selectively transmitting the various elements of the craft. At this point I would like to remind the patient reader that quite a few Amati’s, and Guarneri’s were employed as professional violinists1). Why, you can think of this capability as a nice item on their curriculum vitae, but to me it must have been part of the essence of their immense success.

Sound control

The conclusion I am aiming at is that they had the ability to control sound and playing characteristics themselves. And, furthermore, that this was exactly the part of their craft that they kept deliberately within the “family”. Practical consequences for the modern workshop and verifiability of this hypothesis will be touched upon later. For the moment it suffices that we have an, admittedly hypothetical, notion of traditional violin making in general besides a body of knowledge about sound control as a speciality of the Amati tradition. Would it be hard to imagine that this shaping of the sound, may I propose “voicing”, in itself takes a palpable amount of time to hand over?

And that inevitably it comes into play only after the practical part of the craft had been mastered to the full? So far I have mainly tried to point out that fully learning to make a violin in the Amati tradition probably took decades more than years and was strictly limited to a very select body of successors.

Loss of knowledge and tradition

As more often, the strength of this approach was also its inherent weakness. The thread was deliberately kept thin. When economical and social circumstances became adverse we can clearly see the moment at which, at its latest, it snapped. M.A. Bergonzi was born in 1722. At the death of Stradivari he was 18, 22 when Guiseppe Guarneri del Gesu died, 25 when Carlo Bergonzi died en 40 when Pietro Guarneri died. But Pietro had been working in Venice since ca. 1718. At this junction of time a vast amount of knowledge must have got lost already. The remainder went in the years after 1758, when M.A. Bergonzi died and Nichola Bergonzi was ca. 12 years old and finally the curtain fell in 1762 with the passing away of P. Guarneri2).

Parallel chimes

For those who refuse to consider the possibility that an ability thus vital to the craft, it might even be considered essential, got lost in the mists of time, I have a nice parallel at hand, as improbable and as shocking. The brothers Francois (ca. 1609-1667) and Pieter (1619-1680) Hemony, working from 1641 in the Dutch town Zutphen, revolutionised bell casting by introducing a system to tune the essential partials of each bell. They did so with the help of Jacob van Eyck, a blind carillon and recorder player famous for his stunningly acute hearing, who in the preceding years had demonstrated the existence of partials in wine glasses and bells. Together they developed a workshop procedure, whereby partials were made audible and visible with help of metallophone strips. The strips were tuned to the required frequencies and strewn with a little sand. The partial was then tuned to the strip by removing bronze from the inside of the bell, until the sand bounced merrily. It was an immediate success, they cast 51 chimes, alongside a host of cannon, and became famous and rich. To these days the sound of a Hemony carillon stands out clearly amidst the non-tuned chimes. The brothers duly handed their knowledge over, but by 1716 in Holland and 1793 in Flanders there was nobody left to practise this system. Gradual and slow re-invention started at the end of the 19th century, to be completed by the second half of the 20th century.3)

1) Apart from several ground breaking books, I would like to draw attention to many an enlightening article published by venerable “The Strad”.
2) It was the highly informative article by Roger Hargrave, “Cremonese Kaleidoscope” published in The Strad, that made me aware of the circumstances outlined above. I give the dates as stated by Hargrave.
3) Een muziekgeschiedenis der Nederlanden, L.P. Grijp ed., Amsterdam 2001, pp.254-260. ISBN 90 5356 586 8