Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) was a crafter, like no other, of string instruments, violins, cellos, guitars, violas and harps. He created about a thousand Stradivarius instruments and about 650 survive today, mostly violins. The violin was originally designed to imitate the human voice and was used for ballet and dance music. It became the most prized instrument for orchestra and melody.
Stradivari or Stradivarius?
Both are used regularly and they actually mean exactly the same. The famous maker’s name was Antonio Stradivari, but it was customary at the time to latinise names, hence Stradivarius. He used Stradivarius on his violin labels and, therefore, it has become almost customary to refer to a violin made by Stradivari, as a Stradivarius. In fact it has almost become a superlative expression, meaning the absolute best, i.e. to be the “Stradivarius” of any field means “to be the best there is”.
Antonio’s ancestry goes back to the 12th century in Cremona, Italy, the capital of violin makers, since the 16th century. Antonio’s parents were Alessandro Stradivari and Anna Moroni. Stradivari likely began an apprenticeship with Nicolò Amati between the ages of 12 and 14, although a minor debate surrounds this fact. One of the few pieces of evidence supporting this is a label in his 1666 violin, which reads, “Alumnus Nicolo Amati, faciebat anno 1666”. However, Stradivari did not usually put the master’s name on his labels, unlike many of Amati’s other students. M. Chanot-Chardon, a well-known French luthier, asserted that his father had one of Stradivari’s instruments with a label stating, “Made at the age of thirteen, in the workshop of Nicolò Amati”. This label has never been found or confirmed. Amati, though, would have been a logical choice for Antonio’s parents, since the master was from an old family of violin makers who were far superior to most other luthiers in Italy at the time.
An alternative theory is that Stradivari started out as a woodworker because the house he lived in from 1667 to 1680 was owned by Francesco Pescaroli, a wood-carver. Stradivari may even have been employed to decorate some of Amati’s instruments, without being a true apprentice. This theory is supported by some of Stradivari’s later violins, which have elaborate decorations and purfling ( a narrow decorative edge inlaid into the top plate and often the back plate of a stringed instrument).
Assuming that Stradivari was a student of Amati, he would have begun his apprenticeship in 1656–58 and produced his first decent instruments in 1660 at the age of 16. His first labels were dated from 1660 to 1665, which indicated that his work had reached a quality sufficiently high enough for him to sell directly to his patrons. However, he probably stayed in Amati’s workshop until about 1684, so as to use his master’s reputation as a launching point for his career.
Stradivari was first married to Francesca Feraboschi with whom he had 5 children. After her death, he married Zambelli Costa with whom he had another 5 children. He lived on what is now Piazza Roma 1, where other famous violin-maker’s families lived at the time. Two of his sons, Omobono and Francesco, became violin makers.
Though the violins’ construction was influenced by Amati, Stradivari soon developed his own style. His carved heads showed what a skilled craftsman he was and his violins became very popular throughout Europe. It was said that his secret formula for the varnish gave his violins their unique sound. He experimented with the shape and design of the violins and, in the 1690s, the Long Stradivarius with a larger pattern, flatter form, reclined sound holes and a darker, richer varnish emerged that all proved to be a crtical modifications. There were ornate violins, such as the collection made for the Spanish court in 1687, inlaid with ivory and with scrollwork round the sides. In 1688, Stradivari outlined the heads in black, one of the famous features of a Stradivarius’ violin from that period. Noblemen of the time commissioned him to make instruments for them and, as a result, Stradivari became famous during his own lifetime. Violins were considered fashionable and when the virtuoso violinist, Niccolò Paganini, played a Stradivarius, he was treated like the equivalent of one of today’s rock stars!
Some of the earlier violins are referred to as “Amatise” and the later ones as “Long Strads” or “Grand Pattern.” They are all better known by their interesting names which they acquired due to the fame of the owner and by their appearance and sound. In 1698 Antonio began making a slightly shorter model and, between the years 1700-1720, which is considered his “Golden Period,” the violins had higher quality curves, rich varnish, gracefulness and a number of variations.
The violins themselves are like characters, each unique, each having a name and a history, each with its own beauty – names like “Sleeping Beauty,” “Firebird,” “Lincoln,” “Spanish,” “Emperor” and “Leonardo da Vinci”. The “Davidoff” Stradivarius cello is owned by YoYo Ma, the “Barjansky” Strad belongs to Julian Lloyd Webber and “Soil” to Itzhak Perlman. The “Dolphin” is with the Nippon Music Foundation. The “Mendelssohn” sold in 1990 for £902,000, the “Kreutzer” sold in 1998 for £947,500. “Lady Tennant” sold for an enormous $2 million in 2005 through the Christie’s Auction House and “The Lady Blunt” (dated 1721) raised $15.9 million for the Japan Earthquake fund in 2011. The well-known “Molitor” was bought by Anne Akiko Meyers in 2010 at the Tarisio Auctions for $3.6 million, the “Hammer” (1707) sold in 2006 for $3.5 million and in 2012 the “Baron van der Leyen” Stradivarius sold at the Tarisio auction for $2.6 million.
It is not surprising that because of the great value attached to the violins there are a number of forgeries, so these instruments must always be authenticated before purchasing. Museums and orchestras own and house many of the violins and violas but not all the violins are in use. However, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra owns several that are in use. The Library of Congress, the Royal Palace of Madrid, the Royal Academy of Music, the Musée de la Musique (Paris), the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Music Museum (South Dakota) all have instruments safely kept in good condition. The “Messiah” Stradivarius is not played but is housed at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England.
Antonio Stradivari was a master of his trade and for over sixty years he produced suburb instruments. The last recorded violin was produced in 1737 the same year he died at the age of 93. Both Stradivari and Guarneri instruments are highly regarded today and judging by the value placed on them by society, these instruments are considered a treasure. George Eliot, the poet, captured this sentiment in a line from the poem, “Stradivarius” (1873): “When any master holds twixt chin and hand a violin of mine, he will be glad that Stradivarius lived, made violins and made them of the best’’.
The city of Cremona is situated in Lombardy, on the left bank of the Po River. It is the capital of the province of Cremona and the seat of the local city and province governments. The city is especially noted for its musical history and traditions, including some of the earliest and most renowned luthiers. The Province consists of vast plains broken up by woods and large meadows that, thanks to the canals built by inhabitants in centuries past, has been transformed into an extensive, fertile countryside ideal for agriculture. The cuisine of Cremona brings the characteristic tastes of local farms to the table. Cured pork and sausages, including garlic-scented salami, cotechino with lentils, culatello ham and all types of pork that are important ingredients for local recipes.
Pickled fruit (mostarda), made here since the Middle Ages, has become well-known. Large slices or whole candied fruit are mixed with mustard and cooked until thick. Mostarda is served with the rich, boiled meat dishes of the region.
A typical Cremonese pasta is filled with boiled meats, mortadella and liver and it is served in broth. Tortelli are also a popular dish, as are Salva cheese, Bertolina (a sweet focaccia with egg) and the local dessert, Spingarda.
From the ancient origins of this area comes torrone, nougat candy. Torrone was first made in 1441 to celebrate the marriage of Bianca Maria Visconti (the daughter of the Duke of Milan) and Francesco Sforza.
Mostarda di Cremona
- 12 ounces (300 g) pears
- 8 ounces (200 g) quinces
- 6 ounces (150 g) cherries
- 8 ounces (200 g) apricots
- 10 ounces (250 g) figs
- 8 ounces (200 g) peaches
- 3 tablespoons powdered mustard seed
- 3 1/2 cups (800 g) sugar
- 2 cups white wine vinegar
Preparing the fruit:
Keep the individual kinds of fruit separate. Wash and dry the cherries and figs. Wash the apricots and remove the pits; do the same with the peaches and cut them into halves or quarters if they’re large. Peel, core and quarter the pears and quinces.
Heat a quart of water in a large pot and when it begins to simmer slowly stir in the sugar. When it has dissolved, add the quinces. Simmer 20 minutes, then add the pears. Then the peaches, apricots, cherries and figs, at five-minute intervals. When you’ve added everything, simmer the mixture for 10 minutes, then turn off the heat and let the mixture cool.
In the meantime, heat the vinegar and stir in the mustard. Let the mixture cool.
Transfer the fruit from the syrup to sterile jars with a slotted spoon. Mix the syrup and the vinegar mixture, pour the combined sauce over the fruit, seal the jars in a processing bath and store them in a cool dry place.
Tortelli di Zucca
For the filling:
- 2 1/4 pounds (1 k) squash (butternut, pumpkin or sweet potatoes)
- 4 ounces (100 g) amaretti (almond macaroons)
- 4 ounces (100 g) raisins
- 4 ounces (100 g) Mostarda di Cremona, recipe above
- 2 cups (100 g) grated Parmigiano cheese
- A little (1/8 teaspoon) freshly grated nutmeg
For the pasta:
- 3 cups (350 g) flour
- 2/3 cup (100 g) semolina
- 4 whole eggs
- 1 tablespoon milk
For the sauce:
- 2/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
- 2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano cheese
Peel and cube the squash and roast in a hot oven until it’s fork-tender.
Grind the amaretti in a food processor and mince the raisins. When the squash is done, blend or process until mashed. Combine the pulp with the amaretti, raisins, cheese and nutmeg; mix well. Cover the filling with a damp cloth and let it sit in a cool place for several hours.
Prepare the pasta:
Using an electric mixer with a dough hook, mix the ingredients to obtain a firm dough. Knead quite well, for 10-15 minutes or more.
When you are ready to make the pasta, roll the dough out very thin with a rolling-pin or with a pasta maker (about 1 mm) and cut it into 4-inch (10 cm) squares.
Put a tablespoon of filling in the middle of each square and top with another pasta square tamping down with a fork along the edges to seal them.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and then salt it. Cook the tortelli, a few at a time, for a few minutes, (usually they rise to the surface when cooked al dente) and then remove them with a slotted spoon or spider. They’re delicate and will break if you pour the pot into a colander to drain them. Put them in a serving bowl, sprinkling them with melted butter and grated cheese, as you add more cooked pasta to the bowl.
Boiled Beef With Fruity-Mustard Sauce
- 2-3 lb piece of stewing beef
- 2 onions, diced
- 1 carrot, diced
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 stalk rosemary
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- A few dill and parsley stalks, chopped
- “Mostarda di frutta” to taste
Put the whole piece of meat into a pan with water to cover. When the meat starts to boil, add some salt and the diced onions and carrots. Add the rosemary, oregano and bay leaves.
Cook the meat, until tender, about 2 hours over low heat.
Add the fresh parsley and dill. Turn the heat off and leave the meat in the pan for another 15 minutes.
Remove the meat and slice it. Put some meat slices on each serving plate and top with some fruit-mustard syrup and slices of fruit.
Torrone, the classic Italian nougat. This traditional recipe is scented with honey, orange and almond flavors. As with many egg white-based candies, nougat does not do well in humidity, so try to choose a low humidity day to make this candy. Traditionally, nougat is made with edible rice paper, to make it easier to slice and serve. If you cannot find any, line your pan with foil and spray it thoroughly with nonstick cooking spray. Smooth the top as best you can and skip the compacting step described below.
- 3 large egg whites, at room temperature
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3 cups plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
- 1 cup honey
- 1/4 cup light corn syrup
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon orange extract
- 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
- 2 cups toasted almonds
- Edible rice paper
Prepare an 8×11 inch pan by lining it with plastic wrap that extends over the sides of the pan, then spraying it with nonstick cooking spray, taking care to spray the sides well. (For thinner nougat, a 9×13 inch pan can be used instead.) Place the edible rice paper in a single layer on the bottom of the pan—you may need to cut the pieces to fit the pan.
Place the egg whites and salt in the bowl of a large stand mixer that has been thoroughly cleaned and dried. Any traces of grease on the bowl or whisk will prevent the egg whites from beating properly.
Combine 3 cups of sugar, honey, corn syrup and water in a large, deep saucepan over medium heat. The mixture will foam up as it cooks, so be sure your pan is large enough to safely handle the rising mixture. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then brush down the sides of the pan with a wet pastry brush to remove any stray sugar crystals. Insert a candy thermometer and cook the syrup, stirring occasionally, until the mixture reaches 290 degrees Fahrenheit (143 C).
When the syrup reaches 270 F (132 C), start beating the egg whites and salt with the electric mixer using the whisk attachment. When the whites form soft peaks, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar, a little at a time, until the whites are shiny and can hold firm peaks. Ideally, this stage should be reached when the sugar syrup reaches 290 degrees F (143 C), but if the whites are at stiff peaks before the syrup is ready, stop the mixer so the whites are not overbeaten.
Replace the whisk attachment with the paddle attachment. Remove the pan from the heat and carefully pour the sugar into a large 4-cup measuring cup or similarly sized heat proof container with a spout. With the mixer on medium speed, slowly and carefully stream the hot syrup into the egg whites. (If you don’t have a container with a spout, be very careful when pouring the hot sugar syrup directly from the saucepan into the mixer.)
Increase the speed of the mixer to medium-high and continue to beat the egg whites for 5 minutes, until very thick, stiff and shiny. Add the three extracts and beat briefly to incorporate them.
Add the toasted almonds and stir until they’re well-incorporated. The candy will be very sticky and stiff.
Scrape the candy into the prepared pan, then use an offset spatula or knife sprayed with nonstick cooking spray to smooth the top. Cover the top completely with another layer of rice paper, cut to fit. Place a pan of the same size on top of the nougat and place a large book or other heavy object in the pan to weigh it down. Let sit at room temperature for several hours.
When you are ready to cut the nougat, lift it from the pan using the plastic wrap as handles. Spray a large sharp chef’s knife with nonstick cooking spray and cut the nougat into small squares. If the knife gets too sticky, periodically wash it with hot water, dry it between cuts and re-spray.
Nougat can be served immediately or stored in an airtight container at room temperature. It is sticky and will gradually lose its shape once cut, so for storage purposes, wrap individual squares in nonstick waxed paper.
- Stradivarius: Five Violins, One Cello and a Genius, by Toby Faber (vulpeslibris.wordpress.com)
- Antique Violins – Why Do People Still Value Them Today? (effectspedalss.wordpress.com)