Making Matters: The price is right

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Could a skilled violinist born around 1700 have afforded a new Stradivari violin? Wenjie Cai and Hwan-Ching Tai examine the economics of Baroque music making, and find that the answer is yes

What was the cost of a brand-new Stradivari violin? This question is frequently brought up but is difficult to answer. In Stradivari’s last will and testament, written in 1729, each violin was valued at 167 lire, about 720gS (grams of silver) or 48gG (grams of gold). In 1729, 720gS was worth £6 and 9 shillings, equivalent to £1,000 today after adjusting for inflation. (As a useful rule of thumb, 1gS in 1729 can be taken as around US$1 in today’s money.) Alternatively, according to current silver/gold prices, 720gS is worth £500 and 48gG is worth £2,000. None of these answers seems satisfactory or realistic.

Instead, we could ask: ‘If a skilled violinist was born between 1650 and 1700, could he or she afford a Stradivari?’ To answer this, we need to understand the overall economic situation of Italy and the Baroque period, and music-related professions of the time. There was little inflation in Italy between the 16th and 19th centuries, and the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita remained around 600gS per year. It is said that an income of 2,860gS could have comfortably supported a family of five. The average musician’s salaries in Rome, Venice, and Malta were quite similar, around 100 per cent of the per capita GDP – barely enough to raise a family. Highly skilled instrumentalists or maestro di cappella  would have earned three to six times more…

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