Study Yields Clues About Stradivarius Wood And Varnish
July 8, 2013

Study Yields Clues About Stradivarius Wood And Varnish

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Referring to an elite line of stringed instruments, the name Stradivarius has been synonymous with a rarified level of craftsmanship.

The highly coveted violins, violas and cellos have transcended the realm of music to capture the imagination of the public at-large and a team of researchers from the Universita degli Studi di Pavia in Italy has just attempted to deconstruct the magic behind the famous Italian name.

According to a new report in the journal Applied Physics A: Materials Science & Processing, physicists and chemists from the university used various non-destructive techniques to inspect the wood, varnishes and ornamentations of the top plate of a 17th century Stradivarius.

The multi-disciplinary team was able to uncover the different dyes used by Antonio Stradivari while making various parts of the violin. The team also noted the lack of varnish on the top plate, which they said was probably the result of an over-zealous restoration being performed on their subject. The researchers were able to reveal other features of the wood that indicated Stradivari used ancient wood coloring and staining methods.

"Our investigations have provided several important insights about the manufacturing techniques of Antonio Stradivari and allowed us to hypothesize about the recipes used by this violin master, or by his suppliers, to decorate his instruments," the authors wrote. "These findings represent an important step in the study of the materials used by violin makers during the second half of the 17th century in Northern Italy."

The latest study joins a growing body of research aimed at demystifying the great Italian luthier. A 2009 study found that audiences could not tell the difference between a Stradivarius and a special fungus-treated wood violin when played by British classical master Matthew Trusler.

In the experiment, Trusler played was his own $2 million Stradivarius along with four other violins made by a Swiss scientist and violin maker Michael Rhonheimer, in front of 180 concert attendees. An overwhelming 113 attendee thought one of the "fakes" was actually the Stradivarius.

Many experts believe Stradivari was actually aided by climate change. During an event from 1645 to 1715, known as the Little Ice Age, Central Europe experienced long winters and cool summers that caused trees in the region to grow more slowly and uniformly than usual. This pattern of tree growth is thought to be ideal for violin making.

Midway through the Little Ice Age, Stradivari altered his process and began making uniquely different instruments. First, he began to make them larger. He also switched to a darker varnish. These instruments are referred to as the "Long Strads" and Stradivari abandoned the style after eight years in 1698.

Several of Stradivari's instruments have fetched millions of dollars at auction houses over the past years. One 1721 Stradivari violin known as "Lady Blunt" was auctioned off in June 2011 for a record $16 million. The proceeds of that sale went to benefit the victims of the recent Japanese tsunami disaster. The violin was named after Lord Byron's granddaughter, Lady Ann Blunt.