For some 200 years,
Antonio Stradivari has been recognised as the greatest violin maker of all. His
developments in violin design, combined with excellent workmanship and superb
materials, produced instruments that, both tonally and aesthetically, have never
been surpassed. His career spanned 71 years, and with the help of at least two
of his two sons, Francesco and
produced close to a thousand instruments, of which around 650 survive today.
Stradivari was born in or around Cremona in about 1644. He has traditionally
been thought to have been a pupil of
a claim that appears on his earliest known label, dated 1666. Recent research
suggests, however, that his association with Amati may have been less formal,
and he is not mentioned in the census records listing the inhabitants of the
Amati household. Another possibility is that he was trained as a wood carver,
and may have been employed by Amati to decorate the
of 1656. From 1667 to 1680 he lived in the 'Casa Nuziale,' which
was owned by the woodcarver Francesco Pescaroli, and the possibility that he was
employed by Pescaroli would explain the rarity of instruments from this first
period of his working life.
Stradivari moved to
Cremona's Piazza San Domenico in 1680, and from this point his work became more
consistent and more prolific. Over the next 20 years he gradually moved away
from Amati's influence, at first making violins based on Amati's model but
slightly more robust in conception, and then experimenting with an entirely new
form - the 'Long Pattern' of the 1690s. This was no doubt an attempt to match
the richness of tone that the Brescian makers of the 16th
centuries had achieved. It
was in 1699 that Stradivari finally found the ideal model for which he had been
searching, and the
'Lady Tennant' is an early example of Stradivari's so-called
'Golden Period.' This period saw Stradivari at the height of his powers, making
instruments that are characterised by an increased breadth of model and flatness
of arch, combined with magnificently flamed maple backs, and the glorious red
varnish that is one of the trademarks of his best work.
The pinnacle of
Stradivari's career was the period 1709- 1717. Both Stradivari's sons, Francesco
and Omobono, were active in their father's workshop from around 1700, although
Omobono was often away from Cremona on other business. Their father's influence
was so strong, however, that their involvement is largely undetectable before
about 1720. A recently 'discovered' third son, Giovanni Battista Martino, who
died in 1727, may well have been active in the workshop during the Golden
Period, and may therefore have been involved in the production of some of
Stradivari's greatest instruments.
From about 1729 we see
another change of design, and the instruments made between then and Stradivari's
death in 1737 tend to have a fuller arch and rather less spectacular wood, but
are equally popular with players.
are extremely rare, and only about eleven are thought to exist. These are almost
all built on a contralto model of around 40cm in length. The only exception to
this is the 'Medici' viola of 1690, which has a back length of 47.6cm, and is
the only entirely unaltered Stradivari in existence today, retaining its
original neck, fingerboard and bass bar.
Cello design also
benefited from Stradivari's thirst for new ideas. His early instruments were
originally of the large dimensions prevalent in the late 17th
century, and most have
subsequently been reduced in size, but in about 1707 he began to develop a new
cello model known as 'forma B.' Stradivari's forma B cellos enjoy the same
status as the violins of his Golden Period, and are rivalled only by
those of Montagnana.
Only about 20 cellos of this type survive. In his final years Stradivari
developed two new cello models. One is narrower than the forma B and the other
is smaller and squarer.