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Nicolò Amati / Stradivari connection

Joel Pautz

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I dunno, it's kind of mind boggling to go to the baroque galleries in the Victoria and Albert Museum, where everything is covered with inlay, polychrome, metal, tortoiseshell - you name it, over carved and too ornate.... and in the middle of it all there's a brown Stradivari violin which they kind of had to put there to make up for closing the galleries - but you realise that amongst everything baroque, here is a totally honest bit of workmanship where the only embellishment to the natural wood is a natural varnish. When you consider how common the violin became by the 1700s and how it resisted further embellishment and decoration, you realise its not by accident and there must be something very fundamental in the ideology of what the violin represented. - Even the decorated instruments in question here are subdued and modest. Look at Stradivari's harp, and you can see what he was capable of if he put his mind to it. Why not make a violin to the same decorative order? 


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It is very strange that Strad's other work doesn't feature decorative sculptures - all the rest of his cupids are simply inlaid, correct? He wouldn't be the first instrument maker to outsource figure carving to another artisan though. Pollens mentions a Cremonese sculptor Giacomo Bertesi (1643-1710) as a possibility, due to a similarities between his cupids elsewhere, and the one on the Stradivari harp.

Not to get too off track from this great discussion on how decorative features / techniques get transmitted between regions, etc. but I've come across a few interesting side notes that I feel could add further context. First, in Roger's article on the 'Alard' Amati, he mentions that during this period we are discussing (1670's), Girolamo II had come onto his own and his hand is visible in the bulk of the shop's production. Girolamo II (born 1649 according to Pollens) would have been only about 5 years younger than Stradivari (born 1644), and Nicolò was already in his early 50's at the time of his son's birth. Pollens states that beginning in the 1670's the Amati dynasty began to face additional troubles from which they never truely recovered; it was then that they started "selling or taking out loans against their property. For example, in 1698 they borrowed 3,000 lira with the family home as collateral. They were later forced to forfeit part of the house when they failed to make interest payments on the loan. When several of Girolamo II's loans came due and a judgement was brought against him for non-payment, he apparently fled Cremona and did not return until 1715."

In a "Stradivarius" exhibition essay "A Brief History of the Violin and its Makers", Charles Beare states that the "1680's are remarkable as the only period when the appearance of Stradivari's violins remained largely unchanged for several years, with pale golden-orange coloured varnish on well figured maple backs cut on the slab, but towards the end of the decade a stronger personality becomes detectable, in part because of purfling of more substantial width, but especially because the arching curves of both plates were better conceived for more powerful tone production."

For what it's worth, Roger Hargrave mentions that Girolamo II appears to adopt these newer arching concepts in his work (I think it was in his post 1700's work?).

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  • 2 weeks later...

Here is a virgnial that I saw last night by Marcus Sicilius made in 1540 - so a good stretch earlier than the earliest Sellas guitars that we acknowledge... it's a unique example, and all I'd say is that you don't call yourself "Marcus of Sicily" and set up workshop in Palermo, to me it shouts of Venetian-type workmanship. I'm particularly interested in how the arabesques mirror themselves on the corner, which is stylistically quite appropriate against the Amati style of rib decoration. 

As for arabesques, the very beautiful pegbox of the lira da braccio in the Ahsmolean by Giovanni Maria of Brescia is a really nice example. The kind of arabesque foliage is also quite common amongst Northern Italian decorative art, and somewhere in the Ashmolean is a lovely Northern Italian picture frame with exactly the same kind of foliage picked out in gold on a dark background. The point is to express how relatively common these decorative ideas were in a broader context of musical instruments in general and decorative arts more broadly. 

Frankly, if one wanted to apply the Marcus Sicilianus motifs onto a violin rib, I think it would be in very good taste within the Amati - Strad - PG Mantua tradition. 





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On 9/21/2017 at 11:11 AM, Ben Hebbert said:


Although Stradivari decorated like this in the fullest way, it is not exclusive to him with examples by Peter of Mantua as well as Nicolo Amati, and when you look to the Venetian school of Guitar making (and it's attendant outposts) you see that by 1600 all the techniques used by Cremonese violin makers were already well developed, and neither Nicolo or anyone afterwards was doing things differently. This refers not only to the inlay between the double purfling, but to the way the little fleur de lis on Amati, Peter of Mantua (and I think possibly Goffriller) appear.

However I do agree that the Prague Amati does for several reasons appear to have some Stradivarian interest, although I have only seen it in pictures, I think there is at least a 50% chance that Strad had something to do with it. The star on the button certainly is a reference picked up by Strad in later works and he must have seen these, though the purfling inlay of squares in this case is absolutely as you would expect to see it on inlayed Venetian guitars. 

So the answer is Venice :) 


On 9/21/2017 at 11:13 AM, not telling said:

Well, my husband is excited.  He likes Amati better than Stradivari, which makes him weird, but he is looking forward to making the Tuscan.  I am not even sure if he has made a Stradivari copy before...I actually don't think he has!  I know, really weird.  


Your husband has fine taste! I've always been of the opinion that Amati family instruments generally are more beautiful geometrically than Strad's, or any other makers, for that matter. They really set the bar high for other makers vying for the pinnacle.

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