Article: Revealing the Secrets of Stradivari :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Gary Sturm, Curator Emeritus, Division of Music, Sports, and Entertainment, National Museum of American History

Antonio Stradivari (who labeled his instruments in the Latin--"Antonius Stradivarius") is universally acknowledged as the most famous and influential of violinmakers. The Stradivari workmanship and the qualities of tone associated with his instruments are generally thought to be unsurpassed. Born in the northern Italian town of Cremona around 1644, Stradivari lived to age 92, having produced some 1,100 musical instruments. Around 650 instruments have survived and are played and treasured by collectors and musicians alike. What makes the Stradivari instrument unique?

Modern violinmakers copy Stradivari's "Golden Period" design as the ideal for aesthetic and tonal qualities. This estimation was used to advantage by the mid-19th-century French violinmaker Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, who developed a marketing technique that centered on the Stradivari design being the best possible--and sold his instruments as exact copies. Consequently, imitations of Stradivari instruments were manufactured by excellent instrument makers but also mass-produced in factories and sold to the general public. Examples of these copies are being found all over the world. Vuillaume's 19th-century marketing of an aura of perfection played a role in determining a larger Stradivari influence. This mystique and the finite number of Stradivari instruments that survived have attracted public attention and an exclusive club of collectors and performers.

Why are Stradivari instruments musically superior? Did he apply some secret features--material and/or chemical treatments to his instrument--which later instrument makers failed to recognize? Did he use special treated wood, or perhaps a special varnish, and did he select wood with very specific density to enhance both the looks and the tone qualities? Or is it all a product of manipulative marketing in order to sell more instruments? We still do not know for sure, but it is most likely a result of many factors, some known to us, and others still unknown.

The Museum's collection includes four rare, highly ornamented Stradivari violins. We wanted to identify visually similar component parts (wood, ivory or bone, ebony or black shellac) and determine that Antonio Stradivari was consistent in his application of these materials among all his ornamented instruments. This was possible by destructive techniques of extraction and analysis, but that was not an acceptable option. Instead, we proposed an experiment with the collaboration of the Computed Tomography Laboratory at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History to try its Siemens Somatom CT scanner for nondestructive and noninvasive study. Widely known for its application in medicine, computed tomography is a tool for generating a virtual computer model of a target subject, using three-dimensional X-ray scanning. The model can then be manipulated for analysis, revealing information that might otherwise be obtained only by disassembling or dissecting the subject. This makes CT scanning an ideal technology for nondestructive museum investigations.

The virtual computer models revealed internal repairs and invisible alterations, density of individual wood grain, accurate physical measurements of components (especially measurements of volume), and a precise document of a state of preservation, identification, and connoisseurship. What we discovered was not the answers to our original questions, but the value of a new tool for the Museum to use to document its collections and for the violinmaking world to use for studies of instruments, makers, and periods. The identification of materials suddenly took a back seat to using CT technology for documentation and comparative studies. To date, we have scanned more than forty instruments, significantly increasing our sample size to include a variety of instruments produced before, during, and after Stradivari.

The use of high-resolution CT scanning and the application of advanced software for the analysis and display of CT data have significantly improved access to research data that otherwise would be inaccessible. The creation of a true digital copy based on the original object and the ability to retrieve information from the digital copy are powerful developments in the field of nondestructive and noninvasive research. The immense volume of information now available leads to even more questions about violin construction and to many long hours seeking answers.

From Prototype, July 2009

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