Cremonese Varnish: Coats of many colours

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Pierre Flavetta reveals the results of his historical research into the colourants and methods available to the luthiers of Stradivari’s day

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The past few decades have seen many analyses of the varnish of European stringed instruments from the Renaissance era. Today we are beginning to gather a large amount of knowledge in this area, but there are still a lot of missing pieces regarding some strongly coloured varnish, such as most of Antonio Stradivari’s ‘golden period’ instruments. The analyses reveal that in some cases he used transparent pigments such as lake, or nano-sized coloured oxides. But in many other cases there is no trace of coloured pigment, although the varnish is very deeply coloured. So how could luthiers of that time possibly have achieved such colouring without using pigments? Our current analysis techniques are not yet sufficiently developed for us to answer this question – so instead I took a historical approach to understand the materials they had at their disposal. I then reproduced methods with similar materials following information gathered from historical texts and documents, and observed samples under UV light to compare the fluorescence with that of old instruments…

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