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Bruce Tai

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  1. Since Andreas Preuss has chimed in, I will share something that is even more dangerous: The Dangers of Interpreting the Present Based on the Information from the Past We hardly know how to interpret the reality presented right before our eyes. How foolish to think that we can understand the past. But I love historical research because I am a fool.
  2. Jacob, you are much more of a history expert than me. So I followed your lead to investigate Pietro Guarneri's income in Venice. From Pio's article https://www.veniceresearch.com/Deconet.pdf, I found this passage "Pietro Guarneri......having opened his own workshop in the San Lio Parish in 1733, after 16 years spent as an employee at the workshop of Matteo Sellas (1717- 1733) 205 , would never have been in a position to take on an assistant, because work and money were scarce: “November 24, 1737. Iseppo Guarneri, violin maker (NB: Pietro, Iseppo‟s son) appeared at Salizada S. Lio and made a petition to decrease his debt of 12 Ducats for the Militia and Talion taxes for the current year 1737, a burden, laid on him by tax officers, that is too heavy, because he earns so little that he can hardly support his family and also has many other valid reasons, and having seriously reflected on his story, it was decided that he had to pay a one-time tax of 8 Ducati." So, in 1737, Pietro Guarneri (age 42) negotiaited down his tax payment from 12 ducat to 8 ducat. 8 ducat is worth anout 370 g of silver. This is compared to GDP per capita of 600 g of silver in Italy. In 1708, David Tecchler (age 42) was thre third best paid luthier in Rome (out of 15), and he paid 0.6 scudi in taxes, or 19 g of silver. At 5% taxt rate, his "taxable income" was 380 g of silver. David Tecchler was probably living below the poverty line. We don't know the actual income of Pietro in Venice or the tax rate there. But Pietro Guarneri was paying almost 20 times more tax than David Tecchler, both at age 42. I think the Guarneri family name was a tremendous asset and helped Pietro with his business. The US GDP per capita is around $60K USD now, compared to Italian historical GDP of 600 g of silver. Pietro paid the modern equivalent of $37,000 in taxes while David Tecchler paid $1900. And yet David Tecchler managed to surviive for 40 more years after 1708. That probably meant Pietro was not too poor and could at least live comfortably. Jacob, I hope that you will agree with my analysis.
  3. Sorry to revive this old thread, but it is so intriguing that I would like to contribute a little something as well. After reading this whole thread over two nights, this quote from Benjamin Franklin (1716) came to my mind: “It’s impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes.” Prof. Stefano Pio’s archival research has shown that Michele Deconet was a real person who lived in Venice and died in 1799 at age 88. There was no record to show that he paid taxes for making and selling violins, or any indirect archival evidence to suggest that he could make a violin. On the other hand, violin identification experts have posted that there is a group of violins with authentic “Deconet” labels that are stylistically related. Yes, I am convinced. So the real question is whether the maker(s) behind this group of instruments is truly Michele Deconet--a real person documented in Venetian archives. The Pio camp says no and the other camp says yes. From what I have read, there is no definitive evidence to go one way or the other. But my best guess would go with Prof. Pio. In the archives, we could find many violin makers who have no known surviving works. If Michele Deconet was an active violin maker in Venice with 30+ surviving instruments, he must have made hundreds. If he did, there should be a very good chance to find archival materials to support his violin making activities, at least indirectly. But there is not. Hence, I tend to think that he was not a porlific maker. But we must explain why genuine Deconet labels were attached to master violins with some stylistic coherence and how Michele Deconet was involved. Here, I propose a theory: TAX EVASION. It is just my pet theory with no proof whatsoever. So do not take it too seriously, please. First, I do not believe that we truly understand how violin sales was conducted in Venice either within or outside the guild system, and nor do we know how it was taxed. Looking at my research notes on some undisclosed historical tax documents from Cremona, I only noticed one entry related to string instruments in 1558. It listed the tax for each leuti (lute) as 6 soldi (0.3 lire, 13 g of silver). We don’t know the tax rate or what a kind of lute (violin? guitar?) it referred to. It is my impression that moving goods from one city state to the next required taxation upon entry to the city (correct me if I am wrong). In Hill’s book, an ordinary Brescian violin cost 4 ducats in 1637 (180 g of silver). In Barbieri’s paper, the average taxable income of 15 violin makers in Rome was 340 g of silver in 1708, which meant living in poverty, considering the GDP per capita at around 600 g of silver. The silver weight conversions were given in my recent STRAD magazine article (The Price is Right, Feb 2022). Considering that the current US GDP is $60K per capita, could we say that the sales/import tax per lute in Cremona was equivalent to $1300? If so, would it make sense for a traveling musician to bring an extra violin that he could sell but claim it as a personal backup instrument? I am suggesting a violin smuggling business. Here, I propose a hypothetical scenario: Michele Deconet was a traveling musician but also a traveling salesman of violins. He clandestinely sourced his violins from the low-income makers of Venice. He traveled around to sell them outside Venice. When he attached his own labels outside the city of Venice, it probably just meant that he sold the violins but not necessarily that he made them. When Deconet was not traveling, his traveling musician friends could have sold these violins for him. Some may say the violin smuggling business model I suggested is a fantasy because no other noted makers operated this way. However, the other makers also didn’t seem to be as enigmatic as Deconet. If Deconet had a normal violin-making career and paid his taxes, we would not be arguing about him here. If the illegal business model was widespread, the tax authority and the guild would have struck it down. I have neither seen a Deconet instrument nor read Prof. Pio’s book (can I still order them?). I can only represent my uninformed thoughts after reading this thread. I don’t mean to offend any experts who have previously posted. JacobSuanders directed me to look at this old thread due to my interest in violin history. After reading the whole thread, I applaud experts like Stefano Pio, Duane Rosengard, Benjamin Hebbert, Roger Hargrave, Chris Reuning and others who have contributed to this discussion. We know so much about old Italian violins only because generations of experts and scholars like you have dedicated your valuable years to sort things out while shouldering economic sacrifices. The culture of classical Italian violin is alive and well because people like you have passed the torch from one generation to another. Nowadays, valuable Chinese guqins (7-string zithers) can also fetch several million US dollars in public auctions (the record is 20 million). What do we know about their makers and history? Almost nothing in most cases. The only reason we know so much about Italian violins (and improving every decade) is because of these passionate experts. Some antique guqins are thought to be over 500 years old, so that radiocarbon dating may be applied. When we compared radiocarbon dating results to the supposed provenances, most of them did not match: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1296207421001692 But we were lucky enough to find a real gem, an excellent sounding guqin made around Tang Dynasty, over 1200 years old. All visual, historic, and scientific evidence seems to suggest that it is really that old. If one compare what we know about valuable Italian violins and old Chinese guqins, one will be simply amazed by how much we know about obscure craftsmen living 300 years ago in Italy. Bravo!! With my background and training, it may seem ridiculous that I am even trying to conduct research on Italian violin history. Chinese is my first language, English as second language, no knowledge of Italian, only childhood violin lessons, with PhD in chemistry. But I sincerely hope that some of you may find my recent articles in the STRAD magazine partially useful (On Cremona and alchemy in Dec 2021; On Stradivari’s original sales price in Feb 2022). If you see serious mistakes in my published research, please email me at brucehtai@gmail.com. My day job is a biochemistry professor who tries to invent new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease (our new drug APNmAb005, a tau protein oligomer antibody, has entered phase I clinical trial in the US in 2022). I have no business interest in violins and simply study them for fun. As an outsider, I would not mind to learn from my own mistakes. For instance, Benjamin Hebbert published a web article that is highly critical of my 2018 PNAS paper (https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1800666115) about the acoustics features of Strad violins, in which I contradicted and criticized Claudia Fritz’ three previous papers in PNAS. Still, I borrowed Ben’s excellent data on Cremonese violin prices in England in my 2022 Strad magazine article (I am sorry that no citations were allowed for data sources within the two-page limit). Because acoustics research on violins is so much harder than instrument identification and archival research, it was easy for Ben to find many logical weaknesses in our arguments. But a new paper by Rozzi et al. (doi: 10.1121/10.0009320) conducted improved listening tests that largely support my arguments over those of Fritz. Rozzi was able to improve the blind listening tests because he saw my criticism about the ones conducted by Fritz. Therefore, I beleive my 2018 PNAS paper was not full of crap or just fantasy. To me, Fritz et al. conducted excellent blind tests that showed me what would not work. I am bringing this up to show that having a debate between researchers helps promote our collective understanding. The wise would see much value in previous research that got things wrong, because it helps late-comers conduct new and better research. To research everything from scratch is just impossible. EDIT (08/22): I forgot to link to Prof. Pio's excellent article shared online: https://www.veniceresearch.com/Deconet.pdf , with much biographicla details on Michele Deconet. Of course, Pio already mentioned that Deconet could be selling instruments made by the lesser Venetian makers. I am just speculating that he operated his business so strangely in order to evade taxes.
  4. Thanks to Jacob's guidance, I was able to find this information from Stefano Pio's website: "At his death Montagnana left 22,320 Lire (3,600 Ducats), Zuane (II) Sellas left 15,006 Ducats to his sons. See: Stefano Pio, Violin and Lute Makers of Venice 1640 -1760, Venice Research 2004" https://www.veniceresearch.com/Deconet.pdf Montagnana's wealth was quite incredible. Did he marry into money? The Sellas wealth is also considerable, and this is probably becuase their was a major string instrument dealer. So at least some string instrument makers were making good money in Venice in early 18th century. On the other hand, the best maker in Rome, David Tecchler, was literally starving in 1708. What's wrong with Rome? Handel was in town to look for employment during 1708-1710. So the music business did not seem to be overall too bad.
  5. What could explain that violin makers were starving while string makers were very welathy in Rome? I an interested in Pietro Guarneri's situation in Venice. Where may I find it?
  6. I have always wondered, if I were born in Italy in 1700, could I afford a brand-new Stradivarius violin. After some years of research, my wife and I finally finished a mini study on the original sales price of Stradivari violins. It is published in the Strad magazine, Feb 2022: https://www.thestrad.com/lutherie/making-matters-the-price-is-right/14321.article The table below is a summary of what we found. A Stradivari violin could be purchased locally for around 100% GDP-per-capita during thre 18th century. If exported to England, the price doubles (England's GDP per capita is also double of Italy's) , according to Benjamin Hebbert's excellent research on the English market. In today's terms, Italy's GDP is ~32K USD, and the USA ~64K USD. In a nutshell, if Stradivari were working today, an international customer could probably buy his violin for 60K-80K USD. Many professional violinists can still afford it. In our article, we discussed the income range of Barqoue musicians. It seemed that musicians with decent emplyment could still afford a new Strad back then. The biggest surprise in our research was how David Tecchler was almost starving in 1708 depite being the leading maker in Rome. The market for new master violins was already dwindling by 1708 and destined to be doomed very soon. String makers and organ makers were making much more money. Antonio Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu tried their best to survive by producing innovative violins that proved to be superior. Fortunately, they held on long enough to leave us with their masterpieces. Prices in Italy (GDP per capita ~600 g of silver, 1550-1750) Maker Price (gram of silver) Note Ordinary violins 30 Similar in price to ordinary guitars Mattheo Morales 80 Maltese guitar maker, 1698 Anonymous Brescian 180 1637 Ordinary master violin 240 1724 Michele Platner 250 1759 Francesco Rugeri 260 1685 David Tecchler 380-490 1710-1724 Cremonese (Amati?) 550-690 1637 Cremonese (Amati?) 720 1572 Antonio Stradivari 720 1729 testament Antonio Stradivari 460-790 1750-1775, posthumous Jacob Stainer 790 1708, posthumous Nicolo Amati 1080 1685, posthumous
  7. Dear friends, My wife Wenjie and I wrote new article discussing the role of alchemy in Cremonese violin making has appeared in the December issue of The Strad: https://www.thestrad.com/current-issue/wood-treatment-the-magic-touch/13907.article It discusses our new findings on chemical treatments in Cremonese spruce plates, published this summer in Angewandte Chemie. Moreover, we described our views on the influence of alchemy in violin making, based on the analytical results of varnish and wood accumulated over the years. Alchemy seems so arcane and mysterious at first. Modern chemists pay basically zero attention to what alchemists have written. I would like to thank Joseph Nagyvary, Andres Preuss, and Jose Maria Lozano who have discussed alchemical issues with me over the years. I learned a lot from them. However misguided the old alchemical beliefs were, there has always been practical industrial chemistry throughout human civilization. So I try to link practical alchemy to what Cremonese masters have done. Spiritual alchemy, on the other hand, could have provided some theoretical inspirations for the old masters. In the end, we failed to uncover a direct link between alchemy and Cremonese makers in historical records. But I learned that Monteverdi, the son of a Cremonese druggist, was also an alchemist and famously so, even being called a "grand chemistry professor." Monteverdi recommended Cremonese masterworks (presumably Amati) over Brescian violins in response to Galileo's inquiries in 1637 (Hills, p 241). We are a glad to report that a 1619 Amati viola already incorporated chemically treated spruce and maple. From Wenjie's perspective, there may have been a creative ecosystem that allowed Cremonese makers to absorb scientific knowledge from experts in other areas. So Cremonese masterpieces were not simply born out of luck, personal genius, accident, or constant tinkering. There was an creative, intellectual atmosphere that allowed them to be created. The best fruits always grew out of the fertile ground. At least that's our theory.
  8. Ars Technica had mistakenly mentioned varnish in the title, I have contacted them to have it corrected. Study confirms superior sound of Stradivari is due to how wood was treated https://arstechnica.com/science/2021/09/study-confirms-superior-sound-of-a-stradivari-is-due-to-the-varnish/ We will have a Strad article in December to explain our finding and its relation to alchemy. Before we conducted this study, no one could predict what we will find in Amati, Stradivari, and Guarneri spruces. I believed that we will find some chemical additives. But the results are still surprising for us. Each family had different recipes. Strad and DG did not really use untreated wood to build violins. Sometimes they used heavily treated woods. That is worth knowing, if you care about what old masters did. We made all our research results openly available for all. The Excel table in the Supplementary Information has the elemental compositions of every wood sample we tested, easy to download, read and analyze. Next, we plan to analyze old violins from other cities, even 19th-century France. But it will take years and sufficient resources to complete.
  9. That's good to know. Is this a recent CT measurement?
  10. The reason I say alum and potash is because they are fuzzy terms but historically accurate terms. Renaissance alchemists named chemicals that way for practical reasons and limitations. Potash (pot ash) can be made from burning wood or grass. Depending on the temperature, it can be K2CO3 and KOH in different ratios. A lot of CaO may be present, but they can be removed by some means. A purer kind of potash can be made from burning potassium tartrate (tartar, wine stone) or burning potassium bitartrate (cream of tartar). The product is called burnt tartar or Alumen faecis, high-purity K2CO3. Alum has many names in medieval texts but dyer's alum is almost always KAl(SO4)2. Ancients knew how to make highly pure synthetic KAl(SO4)2 by recrystallization. They also prepared NH3Al(SO4)2 similarly, also called alum. Natural alum may be KAl(SO4)2 or Al2(SO4)3. Al2(SO4)3 was chemically produced in large quantities in the 19th century for industrial use. I think an entire book may be written about alum's history. I am just giving a very brief summary.
  11. https://www.bormanviolins.com/pdfs/VSAPBormanandStoel.pdf This paper has different measurements for the Titian Strad Density: spruce 0.368; maple 0.579 Weight: top 61.7g (no bass bar); back 93.6g
  12. I can imagine that CT density may be a few percent off. But 48.1 and 66.6 is night and day difference. I have never done violin CT. I wonder how reliable it is. So what is the lightest Strad top out there? Joseph curtin reported 54 and 55.5 grams without bass bar in a Strad magazine article if I remember correctly.
  13. Assuming 550 cm^2 (includes arching), 2.3 mm thick, 0.35 density, that's 44.3 g. Bass bar 4 g -> 48.3 g. Very close to the Titian measurements. Am I more correct this time?
  14. As you can see from our published photos that have been color-calibrated, the answer is no.
  15. So David, what is the area of the violin plate? Is it 500 square centimeter? I am trying to calculate average thickness based on the area. But the area number is difficult to find on the net. What is the average thickness of the Titian top?
  16. Thanks a lot. I have read this thesis before but missed the data. The top is 48.1 g with bass bar with wood density of 0.35. So the average thickness may be 0.24-0.25 mm. That's a very thin top made of low density spruce. And yet it survived well and sounds great. And yet Joseph Curtin thought a 54 g top without bass bar (for a Strad) is already very light.
  17. In a nutshell, the relevant ones are: Minor additives (tens of ppm): copper sulfate, iron sulfate Major additives (thousands of ppm): 1. Stradivari: table salt, potash 2. Del Gesu: alum, lime We don't know the order and application conditions. We don't know about washing or potential baking/boiling steps.
  18. Unfortunately we still don't have publicly available CT data that tell us about the weight, density, thickness, and weight at the same time. It would be important to know if the very thin Strad plates were built wit denser wood. More importantly, CT cannot reveal chemical composition. So we don't know if Stradivari also adjusted thickness according to wood treatment method.
  19. Hi Andreas, Do we know that Poggi used natural wood? Do you think he has any secret?
  20. Endless debates on who is the peak and who sounds better seems futile, I think we should be debating the thickness pf soundboards, because it is measurable. Let me quote from the Hill book on Stradivari: "It has at various times been asserted that Stradivari erred in the adjustment of his thicknesses, and made his instruments too thin. Fortunately, such statements invariably proceed from persons whose knowledge of Stradivari's work is very limited. The more thought we give to the subject, the more reason we see to hesitate in speaking positively for or against such a view. " I cannot find any other source willing to discuss this issue in a straightforward manner. Did Stradivari make his soundboard thinner than modern makers on average? I am sure some modern makers tried to copy Stradivari's extra-thin soundboard (2.0-2.4 mm in center). Good results or bad results?
  21. Since we have analyzed a bunch of aged tonewoods from antique Chinese zithers, we have now further insights into wood aging. By antique we mean softwood up to 250-2250 years old; hardwood from 250-700 years old. We also did artificial aging. Hemicellulose in hardwood decomposes more easily in natural aging. Softwood cellulose rearranges more easily in artificial aging. (This will be published in a couple of years) Antique Chinese zither makers were pretty crazy in both artificial aging and using very old wood (>500 years) . It may not be totally crazy to think that the soundboard can survive 1000+ years in violins. But I doubt that the maple back will last more than 600 years. When we recorded violins from 1560 and 1570 in my Savart Journal paper, they seem to be fine. So 450 years is still OK for maple.
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