Monday, July 25, 2011

Who Worked with Stradivarius?

Written by Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins

The romantic image of a lone violin maker, crafting each instrument individually from start to finish, is certainly an image that is held in high esteem. Something the British have termed "A One Off" - each instrument crafted from start to finish, varnished and set up by one individual.  But is it a true image of a violin workshop? Have instruments ever been made that way?

Antonius Stradivarius learned his craft in the workshop of Nicolo Amati. Amati was a wonderful artisan and violin maker. Stradivarius worked in Amati's shop from about the age of 13 until he was about 40. Several other makers were working in Amati's shop, including Andrea Guarneri, Giovanni Baptista Rogeri, Francesco Rugieri, and Hieronymus Amati. Each of these master craftsmen probably had helpers as well. So, a workshop as large and as successful as Amati's probably had 8 to 10, or more, workers of varying skill levels working on instruments simultaneously.

When Stradivarius left the employ of Amati, he moved all the way around the corner from his master's workshop. Nicolo Amati was an elderly man by this time. Stradivarius was married and producing beautiful instruments. Stradivarius' instruments were in demand, and he structured his workshop based upon his experience with Amati. In fact, for many years he made instruments so like Amati's we call this period of his work (up until about the year 1700) Amatisé.

The great Belgian musicologist Francois-Joseph Fetis worked closely with the eminent violin maker and dealer Vuillaume in writing a treatise on Stradivarius' life. In the mid 1800s, Fetis writes that Vuillaume speaks of the following as having worked with Stradivarius: Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu, Lorenzo Guadagnini, Carlo Bergonzi, Francesco Gobetti, Alessandro Gagliano, Michel-Angelo Bergonzi and Stradivarius' two sons Omobono and Francesco.

Other writers at that time add Carlo Bergonzi and Dominicus Montagnana.

In their great book on Stradivarius, the Hills knock down all but three of the names:  Antonius' two elder sons - Omobono and Francesco Stradivarius; and Carlo Bergonzi.

However, they also allude to a number of instruments that are labeled " sotto la disciplina D'Antonio Stradivari". That is, made under the direction of Stradivarius. Stradivarius workshop instruments.  The Rawlins Stradivarius violin is an example of this type of instrument.

But, where are the rest of the "sotto la disciplina" instruments? Hmmm, which would be more valuable, an instrument labeled "sotto la disciplina" or one with Antonius Stradivarius' own label. Unfortunately, I think that many of the workshop instruments have been relabeled. An unfortunate, and all too common, tradition of unscrupulous violin dealers through the ages.

My opinion is that there were more people working with Stradivarius than his two eldest sons and Carlo Bergonzi. Antonius Stradivarius made instruments until he was 93. Know any people in their late 80s and early 90s capable of knocking out a violin from start to finish? I don't.

Stradivarius had a few other sons who very probably moved through positions in his workshop. Some of the people that Fetis names probably did as well. It's important to realize that Vuillaume had a closer connection to the Stradivarius workshop than the Hills did. Many of the Stradivarius instruments from the Hill collection first went through Count Cozio to Tarisio to Vuillaume. Vuillaume was one step (one big step!) closer to the origins of these instruments.

The workshop of Antonius Stradivarius was a very busy shop. Stradivarius received commissions from eminent families, royalty, and concert musicians. The image of him working alone huddled over a workbench is probably incorrect. A well run, orderly and disciplined workshop with Stradivarius' hand in almost every instrument is certainly a more factual, although less romantic, image.

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  1. Robert Šiljak de Pola7/06/2012 7:31 PM

    I agree . That is the reason why there are so many different stradivari models , shapes etc., of course because that violins made different people working for Stradivari. As a boss, he supervisioned their work and profited from their talent.No one says he did not worked because he was too much busy inspecting and supervisioning violins his employees made. Yes, he worked, of course he made instruments, but not so many as attributed by dealers and insurance corps.

    1. This is your own speculation. Of all the research on the subject, only 3 assistants have been mentioned with certainty. As to different models, accordingly, Stradivari was experimental in his search for tone, etc. It has also been mentioned that labels used by the sons have mostly been removed, but some do appear made by Omobono and Francesco. Francesco produced a violin using his own label as early as 1700, but Omobono's labels came after his father's death. I have a Sotto la Disciplina violin.

  2. The above assessment sounds right. Although there may have been a handful or less instruments he may have crafted himself from start to finish.

  3. An excellent article. Very informative.
    A clarification on the British term "A one off". We use it to refer to something that is unique and unlikely to be repeated, rather than to the fact that there has only been one individual involved in it. So even if there were many hands involved in making a violin if it has totally unique characteristics it is still "a one off". For example, had all the great names of the Golden period you mention in 'Cremona After Stradivarius' come together and all contributed to the making of one violin that would have been the quintessential "One Off".