Stradivari Makes His First Violin

Building on a tradition established by several generations of fine violin makers, Antonio Stradivari brought the craft to such a high level that his instruments are regarded by many as the best in the world.

Summary of Event

The town of Cremona, on the Po River in the Lombardy region of Italy, has been known since the Middle Ages as a center of culture. During the Renaissance, when bowed string instruments appeared in many forms, the family of violins began to take shape. Andrea Amati, Amati, Andrea a master violin maker in Cremona, is credited with helping to define the proportions and design of these new instruments, which he began labeling in the 1560’. He shared this craft with his son and established a shop that was well respected and continued for several generations. [kw]Stradivari Makes His First Violin (c. 1666)
[kw]Violin, Stradivari Makes His First (c. 1666)
Music;c. 1666: Stradivari Makes His First Violin[2240]
Art;c. 1666: Stradivari Makes His First Violin[2240]
Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1666: Stradivari Makes His First Violin[2240]
Italy;c. 1666: Stradivari Makes His First Violin[2240]
Stradivari, Antonio

This was the tradition that Stradivari would have learned when he became an apprentice in the Amati shop, most likely in the late 1650’. By this time, Amati’s grandson Nicolò Amati Amati, Nicolò had inherited the master’s business. Both Stradivari and Andrea Guarneri Guarneri, Andrea (destined to become a famous maker in his own right) were pupils of Nicolò.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, instruments of the violin family had emerged in Europe as the most popular variety of bowed stringed instruments. Italian musicians such as Arcangelo Corelli Corelli, Arcangelo wrote and performed extensively for the new instrument, and international demand for fine violins increased during this period. The viola da gamba and other bowed instruments that had been prominent during the Renaissance remained in use, however, and the Cremonese violin makers continued to make them, as well as guitars. Music;Italy

Stradivari’s parents, Alessandro Stradivari and Anna Moroni, were married in Cremona in 1622, but it is likely that they left during the years of famine (1628-1629) and plague (1630). The town of Cremona was ravaged by famine and plague, and its population was reduced by half, but its tradition of instrument building, led by the Amati family, managed to survive. According to practices of the time, Stradivari would typically have entered his apprenticeship when he was about twelve years old. In most cases it would take about three years for an apprentice to start making his own instruments, and still longer for him to start putting his own name on the labels. The first violin bearing Stradivari’s name dates from 1666. The label on this instrument mentions that he was Amati’s pupil. As was common at that time, the label’s inscription was in Latin, and his name was Latinized as Stradivarius.

Although not many of Stradivari’s violins made before 1680 survive, his earliest violins have shapes that are somewhat less rounded and more angular than those of Amati, but in most respects, Stradivari followed the patterns he had learned, and he sometimes embellished the instruments with delicate inlays.

He must have developed enough confidence in his own abilities to be able to support a family, because in 1667, he married Francesca Feraboschi. After he and his family moved to the Piazza San Domenico in Cremona in 1680, he began producing many more violins and cellos under his own name and established his shop in his home, where he would remain for the rest of his career. His reputation began to grow, too. In 1682, a set of instruments was ordered and eventually presented to James II James II (king of England);Stradivari and , who became the king of England in 1695.

After 1684, when his teacher Nicolò Amati died, Stradivari came to be regarded by many as the world’s leading violin maker. He made many subtle changes and adjustments in construction and constantly experimented with his work. He is said to have developed the ability to carve spontaneously, sometimes without a template, so that his decisions were made on the spot, through intuition as well as conscious planning.

Violin maker Antonio Stradivari in his workshop.

(Library of Congress)

Hoping to understand the physical reasons for the beautiful sound and durability of the Stradivari violins, violas, and cellos, many have studied the physics and biochemistry of his instruments. The instruments’ glue, ground coating, and varnish have all been studied, as well as how the wood was prepared and the significance of shape and thickness. Research has revealed that during this period, the violin makers of Cremona and Venice used a ground layer (between the wood and the regular varnish) with a high mineral content, especially silicon and aluminum. The varnish itself was applied in very thin layers, to maintain the resonance of the instrument while protecting the wood.

The thickness of the wood in the bodies of Stradivari’s instruments generally increases toward the center, but rather than applying a strict formula without variation, he appeared to have made constant adjustments to thickness based on the unique qualities of each piece of wood.


Although Stradivari’s sons Francesco and Omobono were trained in violin making, they did not make violins under their own names, and they died soon after their father, who passed away after more than half a century of work. After Stradivari’s death, his fellow apprentice’s grandson, Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri Guarneri, Bartolomeo Giuseppe (1698-1744), continued to make fine violins, but he was the last famous carrier of the Amati violin tradition, a tradition that had lasted for more than two centuries.

Stradivari’s fine instruments have been imitated so thoroughly that authenticity sometimes becomes an issue in terms of assessing value. Also, some of the violins made toward the end of his life were probably made by apprentices under his supervision, just as Stradivari himself had first worked under Amati.

Some instrument builders became obsessed with discovering the “secret” of Stradivari’s success and so sought to isolate various components of his craftsmanship, but the essential design of the instrument has changed very little since his time.

In addition to furnishing a prototype for subsequent centuries of instrument makers, Stradivari’s creations have directly impacted generations of musicians, as many of the instruments have remained in active use through the centuries since Stradivari’s death. Great musicians would rise to fame, spend most of their careers playing on the Stradivari masterpieces, and then lovingly pass them on to the next generation. Most of the instruments, especially the violins, were eventually given colorful names that referred to famous owners and musicians.

More than six hundred of his instruments still exist, and many of them are still played in concert by well-known musicians, not just for novelty but also for sound. The instruments were made so well that they surpass most contemporary instruments in quality, in spite of technological innovation.

Further Reading

  • Chiesa, Carlo, and Duane Rosengard. The Stradivari Legacy. London: Peter Biddulph, 1998. Chiesa and Rosengard examine Stradivari’s last will and testament, which they had rediscovered in the course of their research. The work includes contextual analysis, full commentary, and complete text (with English translation) of all four versions of the will, with related documents. Includes color photographs of six Stradivari instruments.
  • Cho, Charles. “Secrets of the Stradivarius: An Interview with Joseph Nagyvary.” Scientific American (June, 2002). Nagyvary summarizes more than twenty-five years of his applied scientific research into the biochemistry and physics of the Stradivari violins.
  • Hill, W. Henry, Arthur F. Hill, and Alfred E. Hill. Antonio Stradivari: His Life and Work, 1644-1737. New York: Dover, 1963. An unabridged reprint of the monumental work by the Hill brothers, first published in 1902. Includes new supplementary indexes and an introduction by Sydney Beck. An extremely detailed study of various parts of the instruments as well as biographical data. Photos of instruments, illustrations.
  • Kolneder, Walter, and Reinhard Pauly. The Amadeus Book of the Violin. Portland, Oreg.: Amadeus Press, 1998. An updated version of the work first published in 1972. This substantial volume includes complete coverage of materials and construction, the history of the instrument, and anecdotes. An excellent overview places Stradivari’s work in a larger context.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Arcangelo Corelli; James II. Stradivari, Antonio