22 June 2024

Stradivarius' Italian violins: greatest ever?

Violins built by Italian master luthier/stringed instrument maker Antonio St­rad­ivari (1644–1737) have a special mystique in the cl­as­­sical music world. Antonio established a shop in Cremona where  he remained active, all his life. The earliest known Stradiv­arius violin was made in 1666, when the lad was only 22. He may have been an apprentice of Nicolo Amati, grand­­son of C16th violin-maker Andrea Amati. Or he was a woodworker by trade, perhaps expl­ain­ing his genius in design and drafting.

Stadivarius’ interpr­et­ation of violin-design serv­ed as a model for vio­lin makers for 250+ years. In the 1680s, he designed and crafted full-bodied violins with rich phy­s­ical and tonal charact­eristics. Alt­h­ough he cont­in­ued to use Amati’s basic structures, Stradivari eventually felt free to create his own vio­l­in models. His 2 sons joined the family bus­in­ess in c1698 but neither show­ed the same passion as their dad.

Antonio Stradivarius examining an instrument,

In his 60-year car­eer, Stradivari made c1,200 instruments, most­ly violins plus violas, cellos, guit­ars, mand­ol­ins and harps. He started creating violins in the classic Am­ati style, handed down over the generat­ions. And even by using tra­d­itional tech­n­iques, his skill was impressive eg his Hellier Violin (1679) showed an ab­il­ity to create better than any other maker then.

Stradivari manufactured his best instruments from 1700-25. It was in this era that he designed and perfected his violins, setting the stand­ard for artisans of the future. During his golden period, Stradivari created violins whose sound boxes are unmatched even today. Along with the final redesign of the soundbox, his violins also introduced a unique deep red varnish, black edging, broad edges and wide corners.

c500 of his musical instruments survive today, showing  how he was credited with some de­s­ign innovations that helped bring the violin to its modern form. Stra­d­ivari was consid­ered a master cr­aftsman in his own time and in the decades that fol­lowed, but his reput­at­ion as the best sol­id­­ified in the early C19th, when vio­lin perform­ances shifted to la­rger concert halls, where the better project­ion of the instruments was fully appreciated.

His instruments were sought for both their historical value and visual beauty. Musicians spoke of the C17th and C18th viol­ins’ sound as having special brilliance and depth. But mus­icians are still sear­ching for an explan­at­ion of what made the St­r­ad­ivarius special, viol­ins that were superior to any other instru­m­ent for a unique, brilliant, deep sound.

One suggestion focused on the wood itself. The wood that his viol­ins were made of, mostly spruce and maple trees, grew in the Litt­le Ice Age, a cooling era (c1300-1850) in which Europe was badly hit. Since it would have caused the alpine trees used for the up-facing front of the violin to grow more slowly, leading to den­ser wood and better sound. The re­duced sol­ar output, in normally warmer regions, limited tree-growth. Tree rings were comp­os­ed of a light spongy portion that was pr­oduced in rapid growth in spring, and a dark dense portion prod­uced in autumn and winter. Stradivarius violin wood had a less pro­noun­ced difference between the 2 portions and was denser over­all. The wood’s den­s­ity aff­ec­ted how sound vib­rat­ions travel through, ?explain­ing the high sound quality of his violins.

Thousands of violins were made in the C19th, based on Stradivarius’ model and bearing labels that read Stradivarius. These violins were made as inex­pensive copies of the great C17th-C18th Italian master’s work. Affixing a label with the master’s name was not in­t­ended to deceive the purchaser; at that time the buyer knew he was buying a cheap violin and the label was just a ref­erence. Bet­ter still, copied labels made after 1891 may also have had a coun­try of orig­in printed in English on the label, identific­ation that was requ­ir­ed by U.S rules on imported goods from 1891 on.

Authenticity could only be determined through compar­at­ive study of design, wood characteristics and varnish texture. This expertise was gained through examination of thousands of instruments. But the Smithsonian Institution, as a matter of legal and ethical pol­icy,  does not determine the monet­ary value of musical instruments.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History-NMAH has the 1701 Servais cello made by Stradivarius, famous for its pre­s­ervation and mus­ic­al excellence. It takes its name from the C19th Belgian, Adrien Francois Servais (1807-66), who played this cello. The Her­b­ert Axelrod Strad­iv­ar­ius Quartet of ornamented instruments is al­so housed in the NMAH. Some of his most famous violins created during his golden period include the 1715 Lipinski and the 1716 Messiah. Never sold or giv­en away, the Messiah remained with his maker until his death.

These instrum­ents can be heard in concerts. The Smithsonian Chamber Music Soc­iety's exhibitions, concerts, tours, broadcasts, recordings and educat­ional programs brought the Smithsonian’s priceless collection alive.

Stradivarius originals are very expensive. In 2011 an anonymous buy­er paid $16 mill for the Lady Anne Blunt Violin (1716) named af­t­er a prev­ious owner. Experts cons­id­­er­ed it to be the second best-preserved of Stradivarius’ cr­eat­ions. The best Stradivarius, called The Messiah (1716) in the Ashmolean Museum Ox­ford, was val­ued at $20 mill. The Vieuxtemps Violin was owned by C19th French composer-violin­ist Henri Vieuxtemps. It became one of the most sought after ins­t­ru­ments in 2016, selling for $16 mill. Clearly his viol­ins are still the standard in form, sound and beauty. 

Violin display, Museo Stradivariano Cremona
The Strad

Statue of Antonio Stradivari, Museo Stradivariano Cremona
Stars and Stripes

Today artisans and scientists still try to recreate what can only be the beauty and sound of a Stradivarius instrument. Stradivarius violins and instruments are prized possessions housed in museums and personal collections around the world. At the Museo Stradiv­ar­iano in Cremona/now called Museo del Violino, visitors can see how violins are made. They can also hear a Stradivarius violin played by going to the Palazzo del Comune.


DUTA said...

To this day, Stradivarius is the name of the best violin designer ever.
Me and my late brother studied and played on a standard violin, but used to joke abour it as 'our Stradivarius'.

Jo-Anne's Ramblings said...

Because I don't live in a cave in a jungle, I have heard of the Stradivarius violin but knew nothing at all about the man, I didn't even know what century he lived in

My name is Erika. said...

I read a book recently called "Color" and in it the author talks about how Stradivarious colored his violins. Well stained the wood. It seems that is as mysterious as he process for making violins. Have a super weekend.

roentare said...

This article prompted me to find melodies played by these violins. https://youtu.be/Bd40IQaLAzE?si=Qvpmdjk2aEUu7f2r
I actually can hear the difference!

Ирина Полещенко said...

Stradivarius is known throughout the world as the creator of musical instruments. Thanks for your interesting post about his life.

Andrew said...

It is interesting that will all the electronic machines to study sound, that Stradivarius violins haven't been bettered. To create wonderful sound is an achievement but to do with such beauty as well is almost beyond understanding.

ACO said...

Hear the 1732 ex-Dollfus Stradivarius violin at the Australian Chamber Orchestra's Bach concerts, touring nationally from 18 June. The ACO has acquired its third extraordinary Golden Age Stradivarius violin on loan from an anonymous benefactor.

This spectacular nearly 300-year-old instrument will be played by ACO Principal Violin Helena Rathbone and joins the only other two Stradivarius instruments played within an Australian orchestra: the 1726 Belgiorno Stradivarius violin played by ACO Principal Violin Satu Vänskä, and the 1728/29 Stradivarius violin, played by ACO violinist Mark Ingwersen.


Katerinas Blog said...

This is called quality!!
Some items have gone down in history with their names!!
The history of these violins is amazing!
I didn't know there were cheap ones with this label.
I always learn something more from your articles!!
Thanks Hells very interesting post!!

Margaret D said...

St­r­ad­ivarius was a clever, talented man when it came to violins. His name will always live on in the violin world and beyond. Nice what you've written about him Hels.

Hels said...


that is so cute! I have a very similar experience.

I was rapt in classical ballet until I got married, so for 20 years my grandmother called me
Anna Pavlova :)

Hels said...


that is probably true for everyone. You recognise Stradivarius' name and you know it has to do with violins, but nothing more. Until last year, I didn't even know he was Italian.

Hels said...


Agreed..."mysteries" is a word very often applied to these violins, re colours of course, but also timbers, string materials, varnishes etc. For other mysteries regarding Stradivarius' life, see:

Hels said...


When my maternal family migrated to Australia, all of the cousins had learned piano, violin, composing or conducting. But I was born in Australia and never had a single music lesson of any sort. So although I am very happy blogging about history, art and architecture, literature and travel, I had to read through a lot of research to write this post :)

Hels said...


I assumed he had no home, wife or children to divert his attention from his very special career. After his first marriage in 1667, the couple had 6 children. When the first wife died, Stradivari married a much older second wife in 1699 and he had five another children with her. Clearly when he was working in his attic studio, nothing diverted his attention from the beautiful instruments.

Hels said...


thank you for the notice of the 1732 ex-Dollfus Stradivarius violin at the Chamber Orchestra's Bach concerts, touring nationally from 18 June across Australia. Does the Stradivarius violin have a solo in each Bach concert so that its magical sound is not muffled by the rest of the instruments?

Hels said...


I was very hesitant to write about topics in which I have no expertise, so thank you for your kind response. Maybe I will be more confident next time :)

Hels said...


you have an excellent ear... and you will enjoy the experience much more than the rest of us. Did you have lots of musical education when you were a young lad? If yes, thank you mum and dad :)

Gattina said...

You have to win in the lottery to buy a real St­r­ad­ivarius ! Unless you are the daughter of a Millionaire !

Hels said...


many brand names have gone into the language, to be used generically i.e eponyms. We are used to this eg Kleenex means any tissues, not just those made by the Kleenex company.

But we may not be used to special peoples' surnames going into the language. However the name Stradivarius has, as you say, gone down in history! Perhaps Kafkaesque has as well.

Hels said...


I normally try not to get involved with the financial aspects of historical records, artwork or objects in this blog. So why did I add a section on Value for this particular musical object? Because the dollar value is SO high, it seems to actively promote thefts and fakes.

If a house is worth $1 million, a thief can con $16 million from a violin dealer much easier. But then only c500 of his musical instruments still survive, so rocking up with 5 previously unknown Stradivarius violins might raise eyebrows.

sinforosa c said...

Meraviglioso post su un meravglioso e straordinario italiano. Sai io abito vicino a Cremona, la città che parla interamente di questo grande personaggio, conosciuto in gran parte del mondo. Saluti belli dell'Italia.

Fun60 said...

No-one has achieved what he achieved by created the best sounding violin. All these years later and it is the one instrument we have all heard of. A really interesting and informative post.

jabblog said...

It is a huge responsibility for any musician playing such glorious instruments. They are insured for a fortune and must be wonderful to handle and play.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I loved your article on Stradivarius, yet I am a little leery of the title "Greatest Ever" because this assumes that one type of violin can always be the best. Different makers (the Amati family immediately springs to mind) and schools have different properties that appeal to some performers or are appropriate for some types of music. Strads have a broad and penetrating tone, good for soloists and for large halls and orchestras. Nevertheless, some chamber ensembles use German Stainer violins that have a special and memorable sound.
It is always a wonder what makes certain instruments so good. Of course Stradivarius used good materials, but other luthiers of his time had access to the same or similar materials, and did not achieve as great a fame, so I believe that the ultimate explanation lies in craftsmanship. Oboe makes of today use the same type of black grenadilla wood, and with today's technology it should be easy to copy exactly the dimensions of a good instrument, yet one oboe is great while the next is a piece of junk. Similarly, when flutes are made of solid gold or platinum, it is claimed that those metals have superior acoustic qualities, yet no one but the best makers tend to make flutes out of precious metals, so again we are back to craftsmanship.

Hels said...


Because I had family in Britain and Israel, I spent a lot of time in the olden days travelling by car or train to lots of places in between. Only once in Cremona, but I was mesmerised by Cremona Cathedral, Town Hall, Torrazzo, Palazzo del Comune, Baptistry etc. But alas way back then I knew nothing at all about Museo del Violino.

Hels said...


You are almost correct :) Stradivarius was not quite the only famous name to go down in musical instrument history. Johann Andreas Stein was an outstanding C18th German maker of keyboard instruments especially pianos. And the saxophone is known to be invented in the C19th by a single individual, Adolphe Sax.

Hels said...


can you imagine the excitement in playing an instrument that is totally famous in every country in every century, and is totally a dream to play. It would be like being given your favourite architecture in the world as a birthday present eg Eiffel Tower.

Hels said...


agreed. We should never use the absolute measure of greatness because the answer depends so much on personal taste, extant written histories and prices achieved at specialist auctions.

I see that in paintings all the time eg what happens if Rembrandt is seen as the greatest artist of all time, but his potential competition for the title lost all their works and written records during the Anglo-Dutch Wars.

Liam Ryan said...

Hi hels

I have only ever seen a Stradivarius once. I remember Inspector Cleuseau pulling it out to seduce a lady! Didn't work !! =]

Thanks for the interesting read. I suppose it's a similar story with Steinway pianos.


Hels said...


I cannot believe you remembered Peter Seller's Stradivarius reference in The Pink Panther, a 1963 film. You have made my day :)

sinforosa c said...

Cremona is a beautiful city, but there are so many wonderful cities in Italy, and in each one there are unimaginable works of art, it would take a year to see all the architectural beauties, works of art and natural places-seas, lakes and mountains.

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa noite. Obrigado pela visita e comentário minha querida amiga. Tenho um primo que dá aulas de violino.

mem said...

Helen , You might enjoy a podcast on ABC national called One Tree:In search of Stradivari sibling Violins . Its a great listen it played 12/8/23 . you would love it . I am listening to a lot of podcasts at the moment , a great distraction form doom and disaster . Marianne

hels said...

Right! I used to have 6 weeks holiday a year, spent in the northern hemisphere and avoiding July's cold here. Starting in 1970, my goal was to see every artwork and every piece of architecture in Europe, especially around the Mediterranean countries. But that was pre-covid, I am afraid.

hels said...

I knew I have loved my fellow bloggers over the last 16 years. Thank you. .. I will find the podcast on Sunday.

River said...

Just testing to see if my comment gets published.

Hels said...


your comments are always published in my blog, and mine are always get published in your blog. But I am so sodding annoyed that I don't know ahead of time if other peoples' blogs are working well gggrrrr. So I copy everything into Word files and then try other methods of adding comments.

Hels said...


this is a very small world we live in :) You have an excellent family.

My maternal family was very musical with the piano, violin, composing and conducting, one of them becoming a violinist in the state orchestra and a violin teacher to students trying to become professions. I have written my cousin up in a blog post which will be published in this August.