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Sunday, July 14, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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'What finer thing exists?'

The great Cremonese and Brescian violin makers who arose in Italy during the 16th century, including Gasparo da Salo (1540-1609) and Andrea Amati (1511-1580), were reduced in number by a plague and famine that swept through the area around 1628-1633. Of the early great makers, only Nicolo Amati (1596-1684) survived; he taught Andrea Guarneri (c.1626-1698) and Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), as well as Girolamo Amati (also called "Hieronymous II," 1649-1740).

In the Guarneri line, four more famous violin makers followed, including the most famous of all, Giuseppe "del Gesu" Guarneri (1698-1744), whose nickname arose from the Maltese cross that adorns his personal label. Antonio Stradivari's two sons, Francesco and Omobono, also continued on the family tradition, though not at a level to compare with Antonio; Carlo Bergonzi was another famous student of the first Guarneri.

And after that? Through all these centuries, there's really nobody to rival this handful of great violin makers.

"It's simple," says collector David Fulton.

"There aren't any more Antonio Stradivaris for the same reason there aren't any more Leonardo da Vincis: They're dead. They were unique. But that doesn't mean that great violin makers won't come along, in our time and beyond."

What makes these 17th- and 18th-century violins from northern Italy so great? The top ones have a tone so distinctive that Russian-born violinist Vladimir Spivakov can play a few bars on a certain Guarnerius del Gesu and remark, "That's Isaac Stern's voice." (Sure enough, it's the fiddle Stern played for 48 years.)

Cynics may say that it's merely the cachet of the name, the age and the rarity of these fiddles that makes them such prizes. Listening to several of Fulton's prize violins side by side makes you realize there's much more to it. While each has its own distinctive timbre, these violins really are different from lesser instruments in quality of sound. As Fulton draws a bow across the violins, the sound seems to leap into the center of the room like a palpable object — sometimes like an object on fire. You can almost warm your hands on the sound.

How a small, delicate wooden box can produce something so glorious, for so long, is one of life's continuing mysteries. As a famed Chicago violin dealer told Money magazine, "Except for these fiddles, not one single object on this earth works better than it did 200 years ago. Stradivari is the ultimate icon of Western civilization. I mean, what finer thing exists?"

— Melinda Bargreen

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