An article from The Strad, September 1931, looks at the reasons for the high price of Cremonese instruments
The perplexed astonishment with which even the cultivated layman reads in the newspapers now and then that certain Italian violin masterpieces have been bought and sold for sums reaching fifty thousand dollars, or more, is a natural thing. Occasionally, the newspapers may exaggerate the price paid for a Stradivari. That the figures do sometimes run from forty to fifty thousand dollars is true. However, it is by no means every Stradivari that brings the above-mentioned sum. Many of them sell considerably more modestly. I know personally of several instances in which the top price has been paid; but the instruments involved were exceptional and outstanding in every way. I may mention one specific case in which an American collector owning a famous Stradivari, has been offered and has refused a sum that would stagger the reader’s imagination if I disclosed it here. Let me again emphasise that the violin concerned was of world-renown and of the finest distinction.
Fiddles seem to the average eye pretty much alike, the only patent difference being that one is or looks old and the other is or looks new. Most people have the idea that, other things being equal, an old fiddle is worth more than a new one, thus paying fitful, hesitant homage to the belief that the old masters knew their craft better than the modern ones. But that any violin, ancient or modern, should be worth fifty thousand dollars at all is consent matter for popular amazement, curiosity and, perhaps, disbelief.
The average man has heard the word “Strad.” as the name of that maker whose violins bring the highest prices. Perhaps he has also heard the name “Amati.” It is almost safe to assume that beyond this his information does not reach; that even the mighty master, Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu, is unknown to him. Nor do even the words “Strad.” and “Amati” reveal to him convincingly why the violin products of great craftsmen should fetch thousands of dollars.
What intrinsic value do “Strad.” and “Amati” violins posses that enable them to be traded about in the cold marts of the world for such fancy figures? Popular ideas on the subject are various and curious. Some believe it is age which accounts for it: a violin, they think, made two hundred and fifty years ago, for example, is more valuable than on made two hundred years ago, and incomparably more valuable than one made fifty or even one hundred years ago. Others go a step father and say it is age alone which can impart the beautiful quality of tone so much sought after by the great violinists. In other words, it is tone, they assert, which makes one fiddle worth a thousand dollars and another fiddle worth a hundred dollars.
Then there are those who fancy the secret of the commercial value of old instruments lies in the workmanship. Such violins, they conjecture, bring high prices because of their perfection of design, their impeccable modelling, their curves and angles and contours, which obey at once the laws of science and of aesthetics of utility and beauty.
Still others are of opinion that it is the varnish which adds all value to what would otherwise be just an ordinary fiddle. This varnish, they think, was the result of a mysterious, secret formula known only to an inner circle of a few masters of violin-making, an esoteric formula written down and carefully guarded from outsiders, but which has been lost with the death of the discoverers. If this formula were now known, so they believe, and could be applied to any violin, such an instrument would in the twinkling of an eye become a master-work and sell for a colossal price.
Where, in all this, does the truth rest? Are the precious master-fiddles worth huge sums because they are old, because of their tone, because of their workmanship or because of their varnish? Is the answer in any one of these elements, in a combination of them, or in all of them together plus other factors not yet mentioned?
Before I proceed to clear up this perfectly natural obscurity, it will be advisable to make some specific reference to those tremendous craftsmen whose violins do actually bring prices incredible to the uninitiated. Foremost comes that noble artist know vaguely to the public as “Strad.” His full name was Antonio Stradivari, or Antonio Stradivarius, to give the Latin appellation. The ne plus ultra of violin creating is embodied in these two words: “Antonio Stradivari.” His is the third and greatest name in that triumvirate of imposing innovators who face the violin as we know it today. Gasparo di Salo befan it, Paolo Maggini improved upon it and Antonio Stradivari brought it to the pinnacle from which every other maker, excepting one, represents retrogression. That one was Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu, also called Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu or, familiarly among connoisseurs, simple “Joseph” This wayward genius, in moments of inspiration, created violins that equal some of the best of Antonio Stradivari. To catalogue more names would be only to confuse. In later articles I hope to make more vivid the individuality of other Italian master-makers. Two names are enough to remember for the present, Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu, twin-gods who reign supreme in the Pantheon of violin-making.
These twin-gods happen to have been not Frenchmen, not Germans, not Englishmen, but Italians. Just how and why Italy, in the person of these two and many other talented, if lesser figures, should have been chosen to be blessed for violin-making among all the other nations during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries must remain one of the mysteries of the divine caprices with the arts, though there will be those who glibly try to account for it. Never before nor after were such perfect fiddles created as came from the hands of Nicolo Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu in certain little Italian town.
Not very long ago, a charming young lady journalist was inspecting the violins of a collector of my acquaintance preparatory to describing them for a metropolitan paper. After she had examined the specimens with care and interest, she remarked: “You have shown me excellent examples of a Stradivari, and Amati, a Guadagnini and several others. I have often heard of Cremona fiddles; how is it that you have no specimen of a violin made by Cremona?” Imagine the embarrassment of the host as he tried to explain to the estimable young woman that Cremona was not the name of a violin-maker but of an ancient Roman town in the North of Italy, which, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, became the home of one of the most famous schools of violin-making that ever existed upon earth. In Cremona lived Nicolo Amati, teacher of Stradivari, Stradivari himself, Stradivari’s greatest rival Guarneri del Gesu, and Stradivari’s greatest pupil, Carlo Bergonzi. It is honour enough for any town that within its walls there lived and worked, among a host of smaller lights, the four incomparable craftsmen, Amati, Stradivari, del Gesu and Bergonzi.
Stradivari, prince of them all, was born in the year 1644 and lived to be ninety three years of age, dying at Cremona in 1737, busied to the last at his beloved occupation of turning out superlative fiddles for an admiring world willing even then to pay handsome prices for them. Adequate remuneration for his unflagging industry enabled him to accumulate a snug fortune for his day; “rich as Stradivari” became a current Cremonese saying. Orders for violins, violas and violoncellos from kings, dukes, impotent prelates and the eminent virtuosi of the time testify to the general esteem in which he was held by the contemporary world. Of his personal life and appearance we know next to nothing. Only a few meagre words survive to tell us what he may have looked like. “He was tall and thin in appearance.” writes one Polledro, “invariably to been seen in his working costume, which raptly changed, as he was always at work.” Upon the wall of the house in Cremona wh