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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Violin Makers: Nicolò Amati (1596–1684) and Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737)

The Violin in the Sixteenth Century
Violin family instruments appeared in essentially their modern form in northern Italy, specifically in Brescia and Cremona, about 1550. Andrea Amati (ca. 1511–1580) of Cremona was among the first generation of makers to add a fourth string to the violin and to create the standard sizes of cello, viola, and violin in their classic modern shapes. His instruments, which show an elegance of line and more delicacy and lightness than many later examples, are exceedingly rare; eight small and large violins, three violas, and five violoncellos are all that survive. Eight of these bear the coat of arms of Charles IX of France, and so were probably completed before the French king’s death in 1574. (The authenticity of these instruments has recently been challenged, possibly making authenticated instruments by Andrea Amati even more scarce.) The Museum’s example by Andrea Amati is a large violin (1999.26), 354 mm (13.9 inches) long, highly decorated, with the Latin motto QVO VNICO PROPVGNACVLO STAT STABIQ(ue) RELIGIO (“By this defense alone religion shall stand”) inlaid on its ribs or sides. It is one of a matched set of two large violins and a viola built for an unidentified Italian marquis.

The sixteenth-century violin was played primarily by professionals, as opposed to the viol (1990.223), which was the bowed stringed instrument preferred by amateurs. The violin’s lively attack was particularly suited to dance accompaniment. Consorts consisting of a violin, two violas, and a cello became among the most popular choice of professional instrumental groups in the sixteenth century. The violin’s more brilliant tone suited playing for dance, but the more refined tone and appearance of Cremonese violins led to their acceptance by aristocratic amateurs.

Nicolò Amati (1596–1684)
By 1600, Cremona was the undisputed center of violin making in Europe. During the sixteenth century and into the seventeenth, a new music aesthetic emerged in western Europe, emphasizing the soloist’s ability to express emotion and to dazzle with virtuosity. The growing importance of the violin played a significant role in this change, both as a solo instrument and as a component of the nascent string orchestra.

Nicolò Amati, grandson of Andrea Amati, son and nephew of two other Amati instrument builders, is today considered the finest craftsman of this family of luthiers. This is fortunate, because he was the only member of his family and indeed the only violin maker in Cremona to survive the famine and plague that devastated that city in the years around 1630. In a very real sense, Nicolò single-handedly passed down the tradition of fine Cremonese violin making to subsequent generations. His violins (1974.229) were somewhat wider than other makers’ instruments (a design we now call the “Grand Amati”), with a unique, beautifully shaped soundhole and a strong sound. During Nicolò’s working life, the Amati workshop was one of the finest violin ateliers in Europe, training many apprentices who went on to careers as important instrument builders, possibly including the young Antonio Stradivari.

Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737)
A century of violin making in Cremona culminated in the instruments from the workshop of Antonio Stradivari. Violins are judged by their tone, responsiveness, elegance of design, visual appeal, and precision of their craft, and the instruments of Stradivari are superlative in all categories. From his extraordinary seventy-year career as a luthier, 650 instruments survive, a testament both to his productivity and longevity, and to the high value placed on his instruments. During the 1680s, Stradivari moved away from Nicolò Amati’s style, experimenting with his own soundhole shapes, softer varnish, wider purfling (the inlaid border near the edges of the violin’s back and front; 1990.7), and a stronger tone. During the 1690s, he worked to perfect a “long pattern” violin, with a longer, narrower body and a darker tone than most Cremonese strings. Two of the Museum’s Stradivari violins are of this type (55.86a-c; 34.86.1).

Beginning about 1700, Stradivari reverted to a shorter, wider design, his “grand pattern,” and embarked on the two decades that many writers call his “golden age.” The third of the Museum’s Stradivari violins (34.86.2) dates from this period. After 1700, Stradivari also experimented with building smaller violoncellos (L.2013.71a–g), influenced by the instruments of the Brescian maker Giovanni Paolo Maggini (ca. 1581–ca. 1632) and later Cremonese makers; these smaller instruments aided in the rise of the cello as a virtuoso solo instrument. Stradivari also made violas and a number of stringed instruments, including viols, lutes, mandolins, guitars, and harps. At his death, Stradivari’s business passed into the hands of his son, Francesco (1671–1743).

Stradivari’s Posthumous Reputation and the Modernization of His Instruments
While the instruments of Stradivari were certainly appreciated during his long lifetime, it was not until the late eighteenth century, when several violin virtuosi publicly favored instruments by Stradivari and Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri (“del Gesù”) (1698–1744), that his work was seen as the epitome of the luthier’s art.

Throughout the 250 years since, professional violinists have considered the best instruments of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, by Stradivari and others, to be the most highly valued. During the same time, the demands on the violin have grown and changed. As a result, nearly all of the extant Stradivari violins have been modernized to accommodate later virtuosi’s musical demands. While the body of a Baroque violin is essentially the same as a modern instrument, other traits differ. The Baroque neck is a bit shorter and thicker, and projects straight out of the body, rather than bending back. The fingerboard has gradually lengthened as the instrument’s range has grown higher. The Baroque soundpost (a wooden stick wedged inside between the belly and back of the violin under the treble foot of the bridge) was slimmer, and the bass bar (a piece of wood glued inside under the bass foot of the bridge) was thinner and shorter, changing the tone of the instrument. Modern violin strings are made of steel, not gut, and are strung about 50 percent tighter than Baroque strings. The Baroque bridge was lower and flatter. Violin chin rests were not used until the nineteenth century, and so shifting the left hand from position to position was audible. All three of the Museum’s Stradivari violins were modernized at some point, but “The Gould” (55.86a–c) has been restored with a Baroque-style neck, fingerboard, bridge, tailpiece, bass bar, and gut strings.

Bows have changed as well. Eighteenth-century bows, many built by French makers, were differently shaped, with hair not as tightly strung as later models. The older bows had a more pronounced difference between up- and down-strokes.