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Dimitri Musafia

Where did Stradivari get his wood?

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I've heard all sorts of stories about where Stradivari got his tonewood. Some say that he travelled to Val di Fiemme to select trees to fell for the spruce, other stories say that he travelled to Venice to source his maple. Are there any reliable information sources that cast more light on this aspect of Stradivari's work? Thank you in advance!

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I've seen quite a bit as well. For example, most account say that Stradivari, at least for violins, almost invariably used spruce for bellies, and maple for backs. For cellos, he may have used poplar for the back at times instead of maple.

But other accounts say that the Cremonese makers in general, apparently including Stradivari, used fir or pine for their bellies. And sycamore for the backs.

However, I've found that in Europe the names "maple" and "sycamore" sometimes get switched around between the trees involved.

Also, I recently ran across someone quoting - derisively - the claim that Stradivari used wood from the south side of trees growing on the south side of the forest, so that they were exposed to the Sun.

While modern research papers will no doubt accurately identify the types of wood in Stradivarius violins, how Stradivari purchased wood does not appear to be known with certainty. It is reasonable, as commonly conjectured, that he had, as a relatively good customer, working relations with his wood supplier(s), but I don't think we know who they were.

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1 hour ago, Quadibloc said:

I've seen quite a bit as well. For example, most account say that Stradivari, at least for violins, almost invariably used spruce for bellies, and maple for backs. For cellos, he may have used poplar for the back at times instead of maple.

But other accounts say that the Cremonese makers in general, apparently including Stradivari, used fir or pine for their bellies. And sycamore for the backs.

However, I've found that in Europe the names "maple" and "sycamore" sometimes get switched around between the trees involved.

Also, I recently ran across someone quoting - derisively - the claim that Stradivari used wood from the south side of trees growing on the south side of the forest, so that they were exposed to the Sun.

While modern research papers will no doubt accurately identify the types of wood in Stradivarius violins, how Stradivari purchased wood does not appear to be known with certainty. It is reasonable, as commonly conjectured, that he had, as a relatively good customer, working relations with his wood supplier(s), but I don't think we know who they were.

Quadribloc,

Welcome to MN. It appears you are doing a lot of reading about violins but have not much in the way of exposure to the trade. British say pine , Europeans and Americans say spruce . British say Sycamore  Europeans and Americans say maple. Same stuff different terminology. As to whether Strad sometimes used poplar for cello backs there is no "may" about it. He  did.

There are plenty of people on this forum who have seen many original Strads and also some who have done primary source research on documents and historical material relating to him and Cremonese history. Hopefully some of them will offer their knowledge about  the trade and economics of Strad's era which will shed some light on this interesting question.

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1 hour ago, Quadibloc said:

Also, I recently ran across someone quoting - derisively - the claim that Stradivari used wood from the south side of trees growing on the south side of the forest, so that they were exposed to the Sun.

If you read what I thought you read then the discussion ended up with the compadre here taking his road trip and discovering there was no wood growing on the south side.

 

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3 hours ago, MikeV said:

There is a theory Stradivarius violins have a special quality due to wood used from trees that lived during the "Little ice age".

Pretty well debunked, but that never keeps these kinds of ideas from continuing to float around.

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45 minutes ago, Don Noon said:

Pretty well debunked, but that never keeps these kinds of ideas from continuing to float around.

Say it isn't so.  :)  I think the whole Strad legend is just in people's minds, as far as sound quality goes, none the less it's fun.

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37 minutes ago, MikeV said:

Say it isn't so.  :)  I think the whole Strad legend is just in people's minds, as far as sound quality goes, none the less it's fun.

Definitely fun! ^_^

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Wasn't there a Woodcutters guild, or something of that sort if not a true guild, who cut the wood?

Seems to me that if the Cremonese and the Venetians couldn't trade viola and cello models that they probably didn't share wood.

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9 hours ago, Dimitri Musafia said:

I've heard all sorts of stories about where Stradivari got his tonewood. Some say that he travelled to Val di Fiemme to select trees to fell for the spruce, other stories say that he travelled to Venice to source his maple. Are there any reliable information sources that cast more light on this aspect of Stradivari's work? Thank you in advance!

yes - I think Peter Ratcliff has identified a very narrow geographical area, though it applies to pretty much all the Cremonese classical makers, not just Stradivari.

Because the source of the wood is shared amongst so many makers, it most likely came from a tonewood supplier they all used.

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I am certainly hoping Peter will offer his opinions on this as he actually does know something about it rather than just  repeating speculations from the past. I also think that if some one was willing to look for them there are possibly bills of sale, law suits, tax records ,customs declarations  etc. which might be relevant.

Duane, I am puzzled by your comment about makers being unable to share instrument patterns. Are you thinking this was prohibited in some way or just the fairly logical assumption that they kept their proprietary info out of the hands of their competitors? I have heard various speculations about guilds and professional organizations in Italy during the relevant time periods but don't know the facts and would be grateful if some one could cite any non speculative articles or other sources on the subject. 

I have heard but have not seen that there are instruments from the Guarneri brothers Joe DG and Peter that seem to indicate a common source of wood while Joe was in Cremona and Pete was working in Venice. I hope some of our experts (Bruce?) could  comment on that.  

In short this is a very interesting question which I am thinking could be both useful and relatively easy to answer using normal historical research methods. Since the OP spends time in Italy maybe he can interest some researcher in looking into this.

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23 hours ago, martin swan said:

yes - I think Peter Ratcliff has identified a very narrow geographical area,.....

 

 No - at least this "narrow gerographical area" seems not to have been published until now. Or can you tell the name of this region ?  Can Peter Ratcliff ?   Please ask him the next time. 

As I have read a longer time ago, the "Il Cremonese Strad" ( also called "Ex Joachim"") even contains a north-alpine spruce.

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While we are waiting for information on this topic from people who would know far more than I do about it, a web search has enabled me to locate two European forests, which still have trees in them, which are claimed as sources for the spruce that Stradivari used: the Paneveggio forest (in the province of Trento) in Italy, and the Risoud forest (in the Jura mountains) in Switzerland.

A 1980 article by Paolo Peterlongo in the Strad, cited in a research paper on violin wood, claimed that superior resonance characteristics for violins result from closely spaced grain, and this is found in spruce trees that grow on the north-facing slopes of mountains. However, a National Geographic article on violins notes that Stradivarius violins are not consistent in this respect; some have closely-spaced grain, but others do not, and the latter fact is evidence against the Maunder Minimum hypothesis.

As for the maple, again I cannot confirm the reliability of this, but there is a common belief that Stradivari and the other Cremonese makers got their maple from the Balkans. Presumably maple trees grow there to a greater extent than in Italy or Switzerland, and this part of the world is just across the Adriatic from Italy, so it is at least plausible.

But whether or not it is worth the trouble to get wood from there, or similar North American varieties would do just as well, because what matters is knowing how to use the wood we have, is unclear.

Edited by Quadibloc
Adding new information, avoiding double post

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14 minutes ago, Danube Fiddler said:

 No - at least this "narrow gerographical area" seems not to have been published until now. Or can you tell the name of this region ?  Can Peter Ratcliff ?   Please ask him the next time. 

As I have read a longer time ago, the "Il Cremonese Strad" ( also called "Ex Joachim"") even contains a north-alpine spruce.

Yes - I’m sure Peter will publish this data when he’s good and ready.

I suppose there are rare exceptions, but the wood for pretty much all classical Cremonese instruments cones from one valley.

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Perhaps I should have been clearer in my question :-) 

With all the violin making going on in Cremona in the late 1600s and up to mid 1750, I would assume that some enterprising merchants would have brought the wood to Cremona, as opposed to the makers individually having to go by stagecoach and source it on the spot.

Does anyone know of any evidence of this? Thank you - 

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8 hours ago, martin swan said:

Yes - I’m sure Peter will publish this data when he’s good and ready.

I suppose there are rare exceptions, but the wood for pretty much all classical Cremonese instruments cones from one valley.

If it is really only one valley - I am afraid, that Peter Ratcliff will at first make a lot of contracts about the remaining trees in this valley and only after that publish the name of the valley- to late for us.

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36 minutes ago, Danube Fiddler said:

If it is really only one valley - I am afraid, that Peter Ratcliff will at first make a lot of contracts about the remaining trees in this valley and only after that publish the name of the valley- to late for us.

Haha maybe he has already bought the “secret of Stradivari”.

 

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If it’s the Paneveggio, the natural transport route would be by river to Verona and then across the plain to Cremona. Since the people in this part of the Dolomiti are still very much into woodcutting and woodcarving, I have no doubt that they could recognize particularly good trees and mark them for sale to instrument makers.

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2 minutes ago, martin swan said:

Haha maybe he has already bought the “secret of Stradivari”.

 

We still don´t know if there is a secret and if yes, which secret it is. My belief is, that wood obviously is a big player in the whole game. 

If really all great Cremonese masters primarily used wood coming from one single valley : don´t you think about, WHY ?

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2 minutes ago, Felefar said:

If it’s the Paneveggio, the natural transport route would be by river to Verona and then across the plain to Cremona. Since the people in this part of the Dolomiti are still very much into woodcutting and woodcarving, I have no doubt that they could recognize particularly good trees and mark them for sale to instrument makers.

So far as I know, the wood of this general area is still traded by tonewood-suppliers of our days. However I believe the Paneveggio forest is a conservation area and therefore probably has no acoustical judged wood-cut-selection. In Val di fiemme is a new growing "tonewood"-parc- Daniel Hope is one of the godparents, if I remember right - you also can become godparent of "your own" new spruce tree there ! 

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11 minutes ago, Danube Fiddler said:

We still don´t know if there is a secret and if yes, which secret it is. My belief is, that wood obviously is a big player in the whole game. 

If really all great Cremonese masters primarily used wood coming from one single valley : don´t you think about, WHY ?

Why not? If you make furniture and find a good supplier of English oak, who favours you by offering you his best pieces of wood, there is no motive to shop around?

One question which the violin makers here could answer, and non-makers like me could not: what do you think Starivarius was looking for when buying his wood? What are you looking for? I bought a violin recently and the maker said that later in his career the wood used by Antonio was much inferior to the wood used by Guiseppe. He did not explain how he, and by implication they, were judging quality. He told me he had the chance to pick out the best pieces of wood from his regular supplier. I should have asked him what 'best' means. Perhaps someone here can answer that?

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12 minutes ago, John_London said:

Why not? If you make furniture and find a good supplier of English oak, who favours you by offering you his best pieces of wood, there is no motive to shop around?

I agree, if you think of a single person or maker. However why all the famous makers did use wood of one single valley ?  There should have been some competition of different suppliers also in these times.

16 minutes ago, John_London said:

One question which the violin makers here could answer, and non-makers like me could not: what do you think Starivarius was looking for when buying his wood? What are you looking for?

I think, he just knew, that wood coming from this particular source would be a quite excellent sounding one - eventually yet validated decades earlier by former great masters of Cremona. If he did additional choices at all, eventually in beautiness as also makers of our days  and some sound-related tests.

Provided, that Peter Ratcliff would be wrong ( or Martin Swan told wrong ) and the wood did not come from one single valley - THEN we would have to assume other things.

29 minutes ago, John_London said:

I bought a violin recently and the maker said that later in his career the wood used by Antonio was much inferior to the wood used by Guiseppe. 

If I remember right, this was also claimed by Roger Hargrave in the Guarneri-book of Biddulph. However I believe, this claim concerned the maple-wood. 

35 minutes ago, John_London said:

What are you looking for? 

We have a really big amoúnt of high-resolution pictures of great instruments. I just try to look. However I am not a maker. 

Some years ago there was an exploration about the wood-choice in spruce of 14 renowned modern austrian makers ( " Resonance wood [picea abies (L.) Karst.] - evaluation and prediction of violin makers´quality grading ", Buksnowitz, Teischinger, Müller, Pahler and Evans ). The makers seemed to regard 

- annual ring width variation ( if I interprete the statistical modeling right, most regarded)

- annual ring width ( second)

- brightness of wood color (third rank)

- tracheid diameter radial ( 4th rank)   

Not regarded were any physical/acoustical properties measured by the authors outside of density, which however had no meaning in the total judgement of the makers but only in a reduced modeling concerning only mechanical/physical properties !!!

I think, some makers here on MN have a density - target and / or a sound-speed target.

 

 

 

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14 hours ago, martin swan said:

Yes - I’m sure Peter will publish this data when he’s good and ready.

I suppose there are rare exceptions, but the wood for pretty much all classical Cremonese instruments cones from one valley.

Seriously? I assume we are talking about spruce and the variety of wood as far as grain width etc. which we see on classical instruments is enormous.

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There is little doubt that Stradivari used Picea abies for all his tops. 

The English common name for this tree is norway spruce today, but it has been called pine, red spruce fir, or deal in the past. There is little doubt that Stradivari used Picea abies from the Alps. Although there is plenty of spruce in colder parts of Europe at lower altitudes, they are simply inferior to the high-altitude spruce in the Alps (a Norwegian violin maker told me so). Stradivari's grandson said that spruce was sold by dealers in Brescia (Pollen's book). I think this was probably true. Exactly which part of the Alps they came from is still unclear. The dendrochronology research may be able to point to certain regions in the Alps, but no details have been published yet. Stradivari never went into the mountains to pick trees. Tree cutting was highly regulated. He was busy making violins in Cremona. He bought wood from the dealers.    

The backs of Strad violins are always made of maple.

The traditional view is that the flamed varieties came from the Balkans and the plain ones were local. There are several possible species that all seem to work. The most mentioned ones are Acer campestre, Acer pseudoplatanus (called sycamore in UK and sycamore maple in US), and Acer platanoides. The tonewood dealer does not generally identify the species being sold. The flame pattern is due to growth condition rather than a particular species. Both plain and flamed maples can make equally good sounding violins (as seen in great master instruments of the past). But the flamed pattern is more beautiful and more popular with customers. 

 

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