Stradivari: Lord of the Strings

A genius plucked from obscurity His name is synonymous with the greatest violins ever made. But what do we know of the life and loves of the 17th-century craftsman? As one of his instruments is sold for a record-breaking £1.8m, Toby Faber reveals the extraordinary story of a musical revolutionary
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Antonio Stradivari was probably born in 1644 somewhere near Cremona. Located on the river Po between Milan and Venice, Cremona had been periodically controlled by one or other of its neighbours. Prior to becoming the centre of Europe's nascent violin-making industry, about a century before Stradivari's birth, its proudest boast was that it contained the tallest medieval towers in Italy.

There had been Stradivaris in Cremona since the 12th century, but there is no record of Antonio's birth. Most likely, his parents had fled to some outlying parish during the troubles that halved the town's population over three years from 1628 - war followed by plague. Instead, the first trace of the young violin-maker dates to 1666, when he was already 22 - the earliest surviving example of his work.

The violin still plays well; there is much that is exciting about it, but it is the unique wording of its label that is particularly intriguing. It bears the words "Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Alumnus Nicolaii Amati, Faciebat Anno 1666" ["Made by Antonio Stradivari of Cremona, pupil of Nicolò Amati, in 1666"]. This is an important claim. Cremona's violin-making reputation rested with the Amati family, of whom Nicolò Amati was the third generation. What could be more natural than that Cremona's next great violin-maker learnt his trade from his outstanding predecessor?

There is, however, little evidence to support Stradivari's claim to have been taught by Amati, and much to refute it. Most tellingly, even Stradivari's earliest violins are amazingly carved; it is in their design that they betray inexperience. Moreover, Cremona's census returns show that from 1667 to 1680 he lived in the Casa Nuziale, owned by a wood-carver and inlayer. Stradivari could not have lived off his violin-making alone at this time. His other source of income was most likely from working for the man in whose house he lived. Stradivari, unchallenged as the greatest violin-maker of his or any other age, may have originally been a woodworker.

Overplaying his link with the great Amati by cheekily pasting a label in an early experiment casts some light on the character of the young Stradivari. We start to see him not as a dutiful apprentice who eventually outshone his master, but as an independently minded genius with an entrepreneurial streak. We can also begin to understand the background that would eventually lead Stradivari to re-think every aspect of the violin's design. He understood and respected the Cremonese tradition, but he was not bound by it.

Sketchy as they are, the few details we have of Stradivari's life suggest a man who was prepared to take risks. On 4 July 1667 he married Francesca Feraboschi. Their first child, Giulia, was born less than four months later. This was not particularly unusual. But there was more to make the marriage remarkable. Francesca was the widow of a wealthy Cremonese burgher, Giacomo Capra. Capra had been murdered by Francesca's brother - shot with an arquebus, a kind of musket, in front of one of Cremona's many parish churches.

Soon after their wedding the young couple moved into the Casa Nuziale which for 13 years would be Stradivari's workshop and his home, accommodating a growing family. Giulia was the eldest of six children. The first son, Francesco, died in 1670, 12 days after he was born. Less than a year later another Francesco arrived, to be followed over the next eight years by another sister, Caterina, and two brothers, Alessandro and Omobono.

As a father Stradivari may have been prolific, but the same can hardly be said of his initial output of violins. From his first 14 years as an independent luthier, only 18 violins are known to have survived, along with a viola, a guitar and a cello. They suffer by comparison with Amati's instruments. Moreover, several of Amati's undoubted former pupils had set up workshops. All, too, were facing challenges from a growing army of German makers. Stradivari, by contrast, was still finding his feet, taking only commissions that Amati could not fulfil. The small number of instruments Stradivari produced reflects simply a lack of demand.

By 1680, however, Stradivari's fortunes had started to improve. He bought his first house, paying 7,000 lire for it (about £40,000 in today's terms). It was more substantial than Casa Nuziale and only steps from the Amati workshop - a statement that he now considered himself on a par with Cremona's best. From now on, Stradivari would focus on violins. Both output and quality would increase accordingly. When Nicolò Amati died in 1684, aged 88, Stradivari was already established as his natural successor. Royal commissions from across Europe were quick to follow. By 1688, when Giulia Stradivari married the son of a prominent Cremonese notary - a good match for the daughter of an artisan - her father should have been content.

Stradivari's violins, though, suggest restlessness, for in 1690 he embarked upon a decade of almost ceaseless experimentation. The starting point must have been what Stradivari heard from violinists. Composer-violinists were attracting followings. Their concerti and sonatas showcased technical prowess that would have been inconceivable to their predecessors, used to accompanying voice or dance, or to playing in ensembles. But to achieve their full effect as soloists they needed violins with a stronger tone.

Stradivari set about trying to meet this demand, producing what are now known as "Long Strads". These are beautiful instruments. Stradivari was at his peak as a craftsman when he made them; and he was pushing the design of the violin further than anything achieved before. But the form was not ultimately successful. The power came at the cost of some sweetness.

Between 1695 and 1697, almost as though he was struggling with the form, Stradivari's production slowed. Then, on 20 May 1698, Francesca died. They had been married for 30 years, throughout Stradivari's entire career as an independent luthier. For half that time, his eldest son, Francesco, had been working with him. This would have been a natural moment for Stradivari to retire.

Far from it. The 1690s had seen Stradivari conduct every possible experiment with the size and shape of the violin, and now he was able to bring it together. He reverted to Amati's design, but this did not constitute total regression. His years working on the long pattern had generated a key insight: a flatter body gives greater tonal power without making the violin unacceptably fragile. By the 1700s the workshop was making violins whose soundboxes remain a model for those being made today.

So began the "golden period", as Stradivari, helped by Francesco and Omobono, produced - at the rate of two to three each month - the violins that now sell for millions. Acoustically, the design of the soundbox was their most important attribute, but there was far more to them than that. The deep red of the varnish made the golden-yellow of the Amatis and of Stradivari's earlier instruments appear insipid by comparison. The scrolls were emphasised with black edging that shouted out the carver's skill. Broad edges and wider corners gave the violins an almost masculine appearance. Everything about them spoke of confidence, of the luthier's desire to draw attention to his brilliance.

The effect on Stradivari's competitors was marked. Almost every other violin-maker in Cremona closed down. Stradivari's instruments had not yet attained the status they have today - violins need to age, for at least 50 years, to reach their full potential, and in any case the power of the instruments would only be fully appreciated when the need for them to fill large concert halls became apparent - but they were already being recognised as the best in the world.

The term "golden period" could equally refer to Stradivari's circumstances: wealth and contentment far removed from the struggles and uncertainties of his early life. In 1699 he married again, aged 55, to the 35-year-old Antonia Zambelli. Their family would be almost as numerous as his first. Francesca was born a year after the wedding. Four sons followed, of whom three survived infancy: Giovanni Battista, Giuseppe and Paolo, the last of them born in 1708, when his father was 63 and his mother 43.

It was not until Stradivari drew towards his eighties that his instruments start to show signs of age; their carving clumsier, the soundholes placed less exactly. Moreover, they are made with inferior materials. This may have been to cut costs. Northern Italy suffered an economic slowdown in the 1720s and violin-makers were as affected as any other trade. If conditions had been better, perhaps Stradivari would have considered handing over to one of his sons. More likely, neither Francesco nor Omobono had shown the aptitude or ambition to take over. It is probable that by now a third son was helping in the workshop - Giovanni Battista. Stradivari may even have considered him a possible successor, but his death in 1727, aged only 23, killed that hope.

In 1729 Stradivari drew up his will. It is a remarkable document. The writing is vigorous; whatever the evidence from his violins, the author can still wield a pen. And the contents tell several different stories. Antonia is remembered for the "affection which she has always shown towards" her husband, and exhorted many times, probably tellingly, to live in harmony with the rest of the family. A trip Omobono had made to Naples 30 years before still rankled; although he does, like the other children save one, receive a small legacy. The exception is Francesco who is designated as the master of the workshop, the storeroom (and therefore its contents) and, touchingly, "the room where I sleep where I am now". For the first time Stradivari had truly named a successor.

Stradivari was prepared for death, but he carried on working. Documents show him investing in a pastry shop, and lending against the security of a garden. By 1733 he was able to pay 20,000 lire [£80,000] to make his son Paolo the partner of a cloth-merchant. Four years later he approved Paolo's marriage. Paolo was the only one of Stradivari's sons to marry; now, finally, the ageing luthier could expect future generations. It was to be his last formal act. He had buried Antonia that year; and now death was approaching for him too. From 1734, Stradivari's pace of work had finally slowed, but three violins are known from even that last year, when he was 93.

Antonio Stradivari died on 19 December 1737. He was buried beside his wife in the Church of San Domenico, opposite the house where they had lived for almost 40 years. Either Francesco or Omobono could have carried on the business, taken on apprentices, and ensured that Stradivari's techniques were continued by a new generation. But they were in their sixties; the workshop's storeroom contained over 100 unsold instruments. Who can blame the brothers, finally free of their father's control, for taking a well-earnt retirement?

It is estimated that Antonio Stradivari made over 1,000 instruments; the 600 or so that survive remain as desirable as ever. The paradox, however, is that by living so long, and refusing ever to relinquish control, the world's greatest violin-maker ensured that his commitment to excellence died with him.

Toby Faber is the author of 'Stradivarius: Five Violins, One Cello and a Genius', published in paperback by Pan, price £7.99