Antonio Stradavari (in latin, Antonius Stradivarius) was an Italian luthier — a maker of extraordinary stringed instruments such as violins, violas, cellos, guitars, and harps. Even if you’re not a musical expert, the name “Stradavarius” connotes excellence in instrument making even though other luthiers at the time, like Amati and Guarneri, also produced instruments of excellent sound.
Stradavari’s life and work are surrounded by an aura of mystery, beginning with his birth. Records are inconsistent, but it is believed that he was born around 1644 presumably in Cremona. The origin of the name could be either the plural of Stradivare meaning “toll-man” in Lombardy or “de Strataverta,” from Strada averta, which means “open road” in Cremonese dialect.
Between the ages of 12 and 14, Stradavari probably became an apprentice to Nicolò Amati. Another theory holds that he started out as a woodworker, or, instead of being an apprentice, he may have been employed by Amati to decorate his instruments. In any case, it is interesting that Stradavari’s early instruments bear less resemblance to those of Amati than his later instruments.
But the most enduring mystery of all is how Stradavari created stringed instruments of such extraordinary sound. Despite technological advances, his violins remain the gold standard. For hundreds of years, scientists have been trying to discover the secrets behind the Cremonese’s craftsmanship. One of the most recent research studies by a multidisciplinary team based in Milan attempted to explore the role of decorations on the sound production. The study showed that the white lozenges on the soundboard’s edges are ivory and that the black threading on the sides of the instruments are painted with black ink and not the customary crushed ebony used at the time. But the study did not prove anything about the incredible sound.
After 33 years of investigation, in 2009 a professor at the University of Texas concluded that it was a combination of chemicals that Stradivari used to treat his instruments against woodworm which caused the unique sound. And in 2012 a Swiss professor concluded that the secret was all in the wood: the cold winters in Europe at the end of the 17th century made the wood compact, yet elastic. These theories are interesting but inconclusive. Stradavari used spruce for the top of the instruments, willow for the internal blocks and linings, and maple for the back, ribs, and neck.
Of the approximately 1,000 instruments that Stradavari and his atelier made between the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century, about 650 exist today. They are either displayed in museums or owned privately. Because a Stradavarius can cost about $5 million today, they are usually bought by wealthy benefactors, who in turn loan them to musicians at no charge or in exchange for private concerts, publicity, or other terms.