Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Title Bout: Guarneri del Gesu versus Stradivari. Which is Best?

Written by Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins,
and Kevin Berdine

Be careful what you ask for. This morning, while taking photos (to send to a customer) of an Atelier Cremone del Gesu model, I asked Andy "what's the difference between the models of del Gesu and Stradivari?" And, in Andy's usual fashion he exclaimed "Great idea! You have figured out your next blog posting!" Then he showed me some resources and sent me on my way.
1703 "Lady Harmsworth" Stradivari

1743 "Il Cannone" Guarneri del Gesu
The violins of del Gesu and Stradivari are at the utmost pinnacle of violin making. Each innovated violin making and broke away from the highly arched traditional forms of Stainer and Amati. Interestingly, however, the strides that both makers achieved were completely different from one another. Stradivari is known to have executed his violins with extreme physical elegance. Because of their extreme beauty, Stradivari's violins were immediately sought out by the courts and nobility of Europe. A Desiderio Arisi manuscript, written in 1720, lists many nobility, from princes and dukes, among those who purchased instruments from Stradivari. In contrast, del Gesu's instruments were rougher and much more unique. Each instrument left the shop with a much more adventurous design. Although rougher in design and workmanship, his instruments yielded a wonderful tonal palette that was both beautiful and powerful. His instruments, unlike Stradivari, were used by the the common musician who required a great sound without the high price tag.

Antonio Stradivari Statue in Cremona
Because of Stradivari's large customer-base of royalty and nobility, the prices for his instruments were always considerably higher than that of his competitors. His financial success allowed him to own a large shop that employed up to 10 workers at a time, and produced fine instruments. His shop was set-up with many luthiers producing many instruments. Although Stradivari produced some 2000 instruments during his working life, only 600 exist today.

Conversely, Guarneri worked alone in his rented shop. His instruments never fetched the same high prices as Stradivari thus he produced many instruments and claimed to be able to produce a violin a week. Because of his realatively low market demand compared to Stradivari, he made instruments much more hastily, just to try and earn a living. His closest working relatives, Pietro of Mantua and Pietro of Venice, actually left Cremona and settled in Mantua and Venice to avoid having to directly compete with Stradivari.

Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri's designation "del Gesu" refers to the insignia he placed on his labels:

The roman cross and the initials IHS refer to the Greek abbreviation for Jesus' name or the acronym for the latin phrase "Isesus Hominum Salvator," (Jesus, Savior of Man). del Gesu's father was also Giuseppe, thus it is believed that the "del Gesu" moniker may have been used to help distinguish himself from the work of his father. Both men have instruments labeled Giuseppe and Joseph (the Latin or Anglicized version of Hebrew version of the name).

Violin II Cannone, once owned by Niccolo Paganini

Like Stradivari, del Gesu went through many periods during his life. He began working with his father. His father's instruments, although very nice, are not the exquisite specimens produced by his son. To this day, there are many who believe that many of his father's finest instruments are mislabeled and should be attributed to del Gesu instead. Between 1730 and 1735 del Gesu reaches his "Golden Period." His instruments during this time-frame exhibit extraordinarily fine workmanship with beautifully refined corners, cleanly cut f-holes and exquisite purfling/edgework.

Immediately after the death of his father and Stradivari his workmanship became much more individualistic. The f-holes became elongated and uneven (the bass f-hole tends be placed higher than the treble), the fluting became shallower, corners became dramatically hook-like, and the varnish became erratically colored. The entire instrument can even feel as though it is offset, including the ears of the scroll. One ear is often times markedly lower than the other. His father and Stradivari died during this period and it has been conjectured that their absense allowed del Gesu more freedom to express himself without the masters looking over his shoulder. Others believe he was just beginning to express his more artistic nature, thus working towards new ideas without taking the requisite time to complete the arduous and tedious tasks of violin-making. Whatever the case may be, his instruments never lacked a beautifully rich sound. Other issues that differed from the norm were his shortened body length, which many believe is easier to play on, and his use of a thicker backplate. Each of these attributes may have happened as he searched for solutions to acoustic problems. 

Richard Tognetti, discusses his 1743 del Gesu violin.

In his later period, between 1736 and his passing in 1744, del Gesu's instruments continued to have the powerful, rich tone that one expects, while the overall craftsmanship changed once again. The scrolls were cut on very narrow dimensions, while his f-holes exhibited hatchet-like wings. The edge work became much more dramatic, but his wood selection remained exemplary.

1740-1744 "Sauret" del Gesu now owned by Itzak Perlman
1744 "Ole Bull" del Gesu
Guarneri del Gesu violins tend to exhibit a deeper, darker tone than the silky, rich tone of a Strad. Players who prefer a shorter scale length, a darker sound, and a limitless cache of tonal variance tend to prefer a Guarneri. Players who prefer precision and refinement tend to prefer a Stradivari. Given the option to play on either or both, don't hesitate. Neither violin will prove ineffective. If you are ever lucky enough to own both, like Perlman, you will be able to access the power of a del Gesu, with the sweet clarity of a Stradivari. Doesn't sound too bad, eh?

Antonio Stradivari's output can be generalized to include three distinct eras; the Amatise, the Golden, and the Late. During his Amatise period, he followed the general workshop patterns of the Amati shop, but did not follow the grand-pattern instruments his probable teacher became famous for. His workmanship from day one exhibited the fine detail that he has become known for. Within years Stradivari's work was outshining that of Amati. His instruments during this time, although closely aligned with Amati, exhibited a much more substantial scroll and corners than that of Amati. Many conjecture that Stradivari made very few violins during this period, but others note that he had not gained renown, thus his instruments were sold to regular musicians, and consequently, were more likely to have been abused and neglected to the point of being lost forever. The fact that Stradivari was able to purchase a house in 1680 also goes to prove that he was making enough instruments to afford a substantial down payment for a house. 

In the 1690s Stradivari developed the long-pattern which has since become the standard for most modern makers. During this time, he also worked to strengthen the arching and add thickness to the plates. These developments, maybe more than the pattern, provided more tonal strength and richness. In 1698, his first wife died, which coincided with Antonio leaving the long-pattern behind. Consequently, he moved towards the Amati grand-pattern, but this time he added the strengthened arches and thicknesses which produced a wonderfully powerful tone. 

Sean Avram Carpenter, 1694 "Francesca" Stradivari

In 1700, Stradivari gave up the usual large-patterns of cellos and developed a more easily played smaller design. He created a cello, the "Christiani" which bridged the size differences from the usual larger form celli of his predecessors, to the much celebrated "Forma-B." To this day, many regard the "Forma-B" as the perfect cello form and makers still work diligently to copy it.

1707 "Count Stainlein" Stradivari gifted to Stephane Treteault by an Anonymous Montreal Patroness

Rocco Filippini Playing the Lalo Cello Concerto on the "Gore Booth" Stradivari

In 1710, Stradivari, introduced his "Booth" Cello which was his first foray into the "Forma-B."  Today, sadly, there are only 20 known "Forma-B" instruments in existence.To this day, every successful luthier, with only a few exceptions have made celli on this pattern. To prove this forms magnificent standard all one has to do is look at the artists who use or used it: Rostropovich and Ma among many others. Artists continue to commend the instrument for its power, tonal colors, and the ideal dimensions which make the cello manageable.  

Sean Avram Carpenter, 1711 "Antonius" Stradivari Violin 
from the Golden Period

Stradivari's later period maintains all the characteristic marks of quality, but materials became sparser. To this end, his late instruments rarely exhibit the beautiful tonewood of his earlier periods. Instead, he used a native 'oppia' maple, which has great tonal capacity and really tight flaming, but lacks the beautiful flaming apparent in his older instruments that show off the wonderful varnish. This later period also saw the great "Forma-B" undergo some changes. To make the instrument even more manageable, Stradivari lengthened it and narrowed it. It is analogous to his "long-form" violins. 

One of Stradivarius' last instruments. A 3/4 size violin made in 1736 with a 2nd handwritten label "D'Anni92"
(At my age of 92)

In 1737 Stradivari's life of 92 years, and working life of 70 years came to an end. Antonio was buried alongside his second wife, Antonia, in a tomb at the Chapel of the Rosary in the Church of S. Domenico. 600 instruments, many great recordings upon those instruments, a museum, and the copying of almost all luthiers are his tremendous legacy.

Again, if you are ever fortunate to have the opportunity to play a Stradivari or a del Gesu, jump at the chance! Find out for yourself why these instruments continue to impress throughout the ages. Find out why most, if not all, instrument makers have used these instruments as their guide. Sorry to disappoint you if you thought we were going to pick the winner of this title bout. Neither maker's instruments will disappoint, so we will call this match-up of masters a dead even heat.
Rachel Barton Pine discusses her Guarneri del Gesu and compares it to a Stradivarius

Eugene Fodor playing Paganini's 'Canon' Guarneri del Gesu violin

Have you noticed we do not have any pictures or videos of a del Gesu cello? There's a reason for that. He did not make any cellos!

A personal note from Andy- While I love the deep and rich sound of a Guarneri del Gesu violin, with new instruments I usually recommend Stradivari model violins. Why? The Stradivari model seems to work better for most people in terms of curvature of the body and overall feel. Also, del Gesu was such an individualistic luthier that copies and models of his violins are too often not carried off well. What starts out as a copy of a specific del Gesu violin too often turns into more of a caricature of a real del Gesu. So, if you're considering which MODEL of violin to get from a modern maker, I almost always recommend a Stradivari model. However, we offer both models on some of our violins (FineViolins.com). If you love the look and feel of a del Gesu model, then that is what's right for you! 

Are you a string musician or interested in becoming one? Take a look at our Fine Violins, Violas and Cellos


  1. My violin doesn't have a label, but I think its a model of a Stradivarius. I asked my violin teacher, who has a model of a Guarnerius, and she said that Stradivarius violins are known to be the "women" of violins and Guarneri vioilins are known to be the "man" of violins. Is that true?

  2. Strads are like art, the golden Guarneri time frame are more like “practical individualism art”.
    One after the apex of its view of sound has amazing precision, the other has a special touch to each individual instrument made. I would say Stradivari’s work is more like the looking at DaVinci and Del Gesu more like Picasso, sharp and unique in contrast to the vivid softness. If one or another is a man or a woman it’s up to you to decide, nonetheless art is art.