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 Omobono, he 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 Nicolò Amati, 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 ‘Youssoupoff ’ violin 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 (see the 1690 violin). This was no doubt an attempt to match the richness of tone that the Brescian makers of the 16th and 17th 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. The great violins of these years are too numerous to list, but we feature four here, including the ‘Greffuhle,’ one of only ten decorated instruments in existence, and the only one ever to appear at auction. The ‘Lady Blunt’ of 1721 is indisputably the finest violin ever to appear at auction, and is considered the second-best preserved Stradivari, after the ‘Messie’ of 1716.
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. The ‘Innes; Loder’ of 1729 and the ‘Red Diamond’ of 1732 are two fine examples of this last period of Stradivari’s working life.
Stradivari’s violas 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, like the circa 1690 ‘Bonjour’, 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, of which the 1710 ‘Gore Booth’ is one of the best known examples. In his final years Stradivari developed two new cello models. One is narrower than the forma B, as illustrated by the 1730 ‘Pawle’, and the other is smaller and squarer. One of the most notable examples of this type is the ‘Pleeth’ of 1732, and the cello from circa 1732 (which is particularly small in its dimensions) is in many respects a twin to that instrument.