Making Matters: Hidden in plain sight

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The Stradivari moulds preserved at Cremona’s Museo del Violino still have secrets to give up. David Beard re-examines all 17 survivors to find how they reveal details from rib heights to the maker’s working method

Antonio Stradivari’s making process has been the subject of study and myth-making for the past 300 years. Luthiers and researchers alike have studied everything from the varnish to the bee-stings to learn about the evolution of his personal method – but are there clues hidden in plain sight? In this article I will be looking at the moulds preserved in Cremona’s Museo del Violino (MdV), exploring their features and their use, to see what secrets they might hold.

The MdV collection holds fourteen moulds for violins, three for violas and one for a piccolo violin, while other artefacts suggest his workshop also used nine or more cello moulds. Excluding perhaps two in Paris, none of the cello moulds have survived. There are common features to all the moulds, including pairs of lateral ‘cross-lines’ running across the mould for both the lower and upper corners, as well as marked centre lines, rib guides, and patterns of drilled holes. These were all part of the Old Cremona system of posts and counterforms used to bind sides against the mould while bending and gluing the ribs. Of course, they all have cut out-recesses to receive the corner-blocks and end-blocks as well. While not overtly displayed, the moulds share the same sort of geometry seen in the instruments (figure 1). Lastly, most of them show one or two identifying letters. Some are also dated.

Details of the moulds vary along several dimensions. The progression of such details helps reveal the order in which the moulds were made. In the earliest, for example, the calculation and presentation of the rib guides hasn’t settled into its later pattern. Furthermore, visible ‘pry cuts’, made by the luthier to free the finished sides from the mould, are absent from the first moulds. Likewise, Stradivari carved or marked dates on to his moulds after 1689, but not before…

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