It is perhaps surprising that so much remains unknown about the origins and training of the most famous violin maker of all time. For over three hundred years, musicians have revered his instruments, connoisseurs have praised his inimitable genius, makers have studied his methods and materials, and yet we still don’t know the basic facts of Antonio Stradivari’s education and how he began his career as a violin maker.
Antonio Stradivari: 1665-1670
Traditionally, in the mid-17th century, a boy who was to become a violin maker would start an apprenticeship in a violin making workshop by the age of fourteen which, for Stradivari, would have been in or around 1658. In Cremona at that time there were only three workshops that could have taught the young Stradivari: the well-established Amati workshop, and the newer workshops of Andrea Guarneri and Francesco Rugeri. The Amati workshop, led by Nicolò, was in its third generation of fame and success. A crew of young boys assisted and production was prolific. Guarneri and Rugeri — both in their mid-thirties — were at the beginning of their careers and far less experienced and influential than Amati. If a boy wanted to learn violin making and had the choice, he would probably choose to join the celebrated and successful Amati workshop.
The earliest biographers, too, assumed Stradivari was a student of Nicolo Amati, but the only historical record that supports this hypothesis is a label in which the maker calls himself an “alumnus” (pupil) of Amati. In 1816, the violin connoisseur Count Cozio recorded a violin bearing this label with a date of 1665 and the Stradivari violin today known as the ‘Serdet’ bears an “alumnus” label dated 1666. The “alumnus” label in itself doesn’t guarantee an actual connection between the makers; it could, rather, be evidence of an ambitious young maker embellishing his credentials, a 17th century example of “fake it ‘til you make it.”
The “alumnus” label …. could, rather, be evidence of an ambitious young maker embellishing his credentials, a 17th century example of “fake it ‘til you make it.”
If not Amati, the other possibility is that Stradivari received his early violin making training in the workshop of Francesco Rugeri. Stylistically, early Stradivari instruments are, in many ways, more similar to Rugeri’s work than that of Amati. But intriguingly, Stradivari’s earliest instruments show features independent of the style and working methods of either maker.
The marriage record of Antonio Stradivari and Francesca Ferraboschi in the church of Sant’Agata on July 4, 1667.
The earliest archival evidence of Stradiviari’s life we have so far uncovered indicates that in the mid-1660s he was living and working in the company of woodcarvers and woodworkers. We know that he married in 1667 and that in 1668 he was living with his wife and their infant daughter in a house owned by Francesco Pescaroli. The Pescaroli family were woodworkers and sculptors and the Pescaroli workshop was in Piazza San Domenico, only a few meters away from the workshop of Nicolò Amati. We know from other documents that Stradivari’s wife, Francesca Ferraboschi, had been widowed three years earlier. Her first husband was the son of a famous architect, a profession linked with woodworking trades in the 17th century.
The earliest archival evidence of Stradiviari’s life we have so far uncovered indicates that in the mid-1660s he was living and working in the company of woodcarvers and woodworkers.
Over the course of his career, Stradivari made a small number of decorated instruments with finely detailed inlays and intricate decorative designs. The ‘Sunrise’ of 1677 and the ‘Hellier’ of 1679, made during the second decade of the maker’s production, show a dexterity, artistic taste and a competency in marquetry that were beyond the skills that one would learn in a typical violin making apprenticeship. We believe that, as Charles Beare suggested, Stradivari received his first training in the bottega of a woodcarver, where he learned the basics of tool handling and fine woodworking, and that he came to violin making later, in his early twenties. This was not the typical education of a violin maker, but nevertheless a unique and enriching path that produced a superlative master craftsman.
The other important conclusion we can make about Stradivari’s circumstances in the mid 1660s is that, already in his early twenties, he had the means to rent a house with an attached workshop on the Contrada Diritta (now called Corso Garibaldi), a main street in the center of the city. Not only was his income large enough to support his family, but he already needed a separate workshop for his growing business.
Except for the ‘Serdet’, there are no Stradivari instruments from the 1660s with undisputed, original labels. However, it seems that around the time of his first marriage, Stradivari made up a batch of labels with the first three digits of the decade printed: “166_”. He continued to use these into the 1680s and 90s, altering the third digit from a six to an eight and, later, a nine. Seeing as he had such a surplus of the “166_” labels, it would be reasonable to conclude that Stradivari had ordered this batch of labels intending to make a substantial production of his own instruments in the decade of the 1660s.
The ‘Back’ Stradivari of 1665-1670
Stradivari’s instruments from 1665 to 1670 are of tantamount historical significance and yet there are only around a dozen or so authentic instruments that can be attributed to this period. We can group these instruments by their stylistic similarities, models and materials, but because almost none bears an original label, it is difficult to establish a definitive chronological sequence or to assign the instruments to a specific year.
The back of the ‘Back’ (left) and the ‘Aranyi’ are particularly twinned.
Four violins from this period stand together in an easily recognizable group: the ‘Back’, ‘Aranyi’, ‘Sachs’ and ‘Canadian’. Visually the four violins bear a striking similarity. The two-piece backs are carved of a very similar looking quarter-sawn, narrow-flamed maple and the flame orientation of each is nearly horizontal. This type of maple, with its very narrow, rippled, curl is particular and probably of local origin. There are Amati and Rugeri instruments made of similar wood, but few Stradivari instruments were made of this type of maple.
The fronts of the four instruments are also closely related. Dendrochronological tests conducted by Peter Ratcliff revealed a tree match between the ‘Back’ and the ‘Sachs’. The fronts of the ‘Canadian’ and the ‘Aranyi’ are both made in one-piece and have youngest visible tree-rings dating to 1659 and 1650 respectively.
Stradivari’s ‘P’ form. MS 6. Image © Museo del Violino, Cremona.
By comparing the ‘Back’ to Stradivari’s original forms and models in the collection of the Museo del Violino in Cremona, we determined that the ‘Back’ was made on Stradivari’s “P” form. The Museo del Violino’s collection comprises thirteen violin forms upon which Stradivari constructed his instruments. The small albeit significant variations reflect the different patterns and periods of the master’s production. Each form is labeled with a manuscript letter, or letters, written in ink. It is presumed that this was done by Stradivari himself but it is also possible that the letters were added later, perhaps by Count Cozio in the early 19th century. The forms corresponding to Stradivari’s earliest instruments are labeled, “MB” “P” “S” “T” and “Q”. It has been suggested that “P” stands for Primo (first), “S” for secondo, “T” for terzo and “Q” for quarto (second, third and fourth respectively).
By overlaying the “P” form on photographs of the top and back, we can confirm that the ‘Back’ has been reduced slightly at the center joint and that the outline matches the contours of the form precisely. The slight reduction in the center explains the absence of locating pins at the upper and lower edges, adjacent to the purfling, which normally would be visible on the back of the instrument.
Clockwise from upper left: the ‘Back’, ‘Aranyi’, ‘Sachs’ and ‘Scalettaris’.
Stradivari’s sound holes in this period are long and slender. The stems of the ‘Back’ measure just under 6mm at their widest point and are more similar to the work of Rugeri than Amati. The notches indicating the mensur are set at 193mm and are small and shallow. Interestingly, the position of the lower holes on the ‘Back’ and ‘Sachs’ is lower in relation to the curve of the c-bout purfling than is typical of Stradivari’s later work.
The heads of the instruments from this period are among the most refined and precise Cremonese heads of all time. The carving of the volutes shows masterful tool control and consistency. In model they bear a strong similarity to the heads of Nicolò Amati but exude a distinctive refinement and elegance. The precision of the carving and the elegance of the execution are strong indications that Stradivari’s early training was in a parallel woodworking discipline with transferable skills.
The purfling is unusually narrow on many of Stradivari’s early instruments and the white center strip is often of equal width to the outer black strands. In later periods, the white core of Stradivari’s purfling was wider and the blacks more narrow. The varnish Stradivari used on his earliest instruments is similar to the varnish of the Amati workshop at this time: a golden brown over a bright and clear ground.
Provenance of the ‘Back’ Stradivari
Cecil Marsland Gann, his wife Charlotte, and twelve of their fourteen children in c. 1905. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Chanot, Gann’s great-grandson).
The first recorded owner of the ‘Back’ was Cecil Marsland Gann, an orchestra leader in Brighton on the south coast of England. Gann was born in Canterbury, Kent, in 1862 and died in 1938. The Hills referred to him as “the leading professional violinist in the Canterbury district” and “a naturally gifted player.” Gann lived in a house that he called Cremona Villa and had fourteen children, most of whom grew up to become professional musicians.
Gann was closely associated with the London violin maker and dealer Frederick William Chanot. Gann’s influence as an important teacher and player was indubitably useful to Chanot and the two regularly did business together. Chanot died in 1911 but the Gann and Chanot families became connected by marriage when Gann’s eldest daughter, Gertrude, married Chanot’s son, Francis, in 1921.
In 1957 the ‘Back’ was featured in an article in The Strad magazine which noted that it was, at the time, in the possession of a musician living in Holborn, London, named Mr. M. Back, from whom the violin takes its name. A year later, the ‘Back’ was in the possession of Dr. Jean Michel from Joué-lès-Tours, a town in the Loire valley. Certificates were issued for the violin by the Paris dealer and expert André Chardon (a cousin of Fredrick Chanot) in 1958 and again in 1961.
Josefowitz’s Fridart Foundation loaned the ‘Back’ and other instruments to talented students and faculty at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
The ‘Back’ was bought at Sotheby’s on March 14, 2000 by David Josefowitz, a violinist, entrepreneur and philanthropist. Josefowitz’s Fridart Foundation loaned the ‘Back’ and other instruments to talented students and faculty at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
The ‘Back’ is illustrated in Herbert K. Goodkind’s Violin Iconography of Antonio Stradivari 1644-1737, David Ratray’s Masterpieces of Italian Violin Making, Stradivari Varnish: Scientific Analysis of his Finishing Technique on Selected Instruments by Brigitte Brandmair & Stefan-Peter Greiner and Antonio Stradivari: The Complete Works by Beares Publishing.
Carlo Chiesa is a violin maker and expert in Milan; Jason Price is Tarisio’s Founder, Expert and Director.
- The Carteggio of Count Cozio, Cremona, Biblioteca Statale, June 8, 1816.
- Charles Beare, Stradivarius (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2013), illustrated on p. 48-55. The date on the label of this violin is not clearly readable; possibly it is the same label that Cozio interpreted as 1665.
- Ibid, p.23.
- Interestingly, in the late period of his career, Stradivari used a similar maple for the back of several instruments in the late 1720’s including the 1728 ‘Milanollo’, the 1728 ‘Artot’ and others.
- Dendrochronological tests performed by Peter Ratcliff did not identify a date for the latest ring of the table of the ‘Back’ but revealed a same tree match with the ‘Sachs’. Ratcliff subsequently confirmed that the top of the ‘Canadian’ is a same tree match with the ‘Golden Bell’ attributed to the same period.
- David Rattray, Masterpieces of Italian Violin Making 1620-1850: Twenty-six Important Stringed Instruments from the Collection at the Royal Academy of Music (London: Royal Academy of Music, 1991), p. 52.
- The Business Records of W. E. Hill & Sons (unpublished). Nov 5 1918.
- Ibid. June 2 1914.
- Correspondence with Kevin Chanot, March 10, 2023.
- The National Archives of the UK (TNA); Kew, Surrey, England; Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911.
- Gann bought a supposed Guarneri del Gesù from F. W. Chanot that the Hills later identified as a composite violin which had been revarnished by John Lott. In around 1910 Gann sold the violin to the father of his pupil, a man named Mr. Flower who owned a pub in Ramsgate Harbour near Canterbury. Several years later, Mr. Flower had trouble selling the violin and in 1919 its authenticity was re-confirmed with a duo of certificates from Joseph Chanot and Chardon & Fils, both attesting to the originality of the instrument and praising the plentiful original varnish.
- General Register Office; United Kingdom; Volume: 1b; Page: 642.
- The Strad, “An Early Stradivari”, May 1957. P. 6-7, 28.