Recipe for success: Stradivari’s varnish

Alard Strad

The search for Stradivari’s varnish formula has continued since the 18th century, but there have been few scientific analyses of the varnish itself. Stewart Pollens reveals the results of his recent study of the varnish on five of Stradivari’s instruments, in this feature from May 2009

Stradivari’s varnish has long been admired for its beautiful colour and clarity, and it is also believed to contribute to his instruments’ extraordinary tonal characteristics. It is this that has led many people to look for the ‘secret’ to his varnish. My interest in violin varnish began while I was working as the conservator of musical instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from 1976 to 2006. Shortly after leaving the museum, I had the opportunity to analyse minute  samples of varnish from the tops of two golden-period Stradivari violins. I have also examined pieces of varnished wood that Simone Sacconi removed from three Stradivari instruments while he was restoring them. Both these studies yielded illuminating results, which I will return to later.

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