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What makes Stradivarius violins so special? Made by Antonio Stradivari and his family, these instruments are among the most valuable violins in the world, highly regarded by performers and audiences. Take a look at pictures from the Stradivarius exhibition at Oxford's Ashmolean museum, uncovering the beauty of these musical works of art.
Antonio Stradivari is one of the most famous makers of stringed instruments (otherwise known as luthiers) of all time. His instruments are highly regarded and often sell for six figure sums at auction thanks to their unique sound and esteemed history. Created in 1715, in Stradivari's 'golden period' this violin takes its name from French violinist Jean-Delphin Alard, its most famed owner. The instrument sold at auction in 1981 to a collector in Singapore for $1.2 million. Look at the ornate carving on the tailpiece.
Stradivari wasn't just a violin maker. He's well-known for his incredible stringed instruments, including violins, cellos, guitars, violas, and even harps, famous for their unparalleled sound quality. This cello, nicknamed Cristiani, was made around 1700 and currently resides at the Museo Stradivariano in the City of Cremona.
A great violin maker like Stradivari needs a great teacher. Cue Nicolò Amati (1596–1684), one of the first luthiers to take apprentices from outside his family into his workshop. At least one Antonio Stradivari label, dated 1666, reads, Alumnus Nicolais Amati - student of Nicolò Amati. This violin is known as the Amati Alard, made by Nicolò in 1649.
It's estimated that Antonio Stradivari made around 1,000 violins in his lifetime, now affectionately known as 'Strads'. This particular Strad, dating from 1698, takes its name from Baron Johann Knoop, a collector of musical instruments who possessed a total of 29 violins, violas, and cellos at one time or another including four Stradivari violas and eleven violins!
Violin makers are still stumped as to why the Stradivarius instruments are so difficult to replicate - both in terms of their sound, and design. Perhaps it had something to do with Stradivari's incredible carving skill, demonstrated here on the edges of the Cipriani Potter violin.
No one's entirely sure why Stradivarius instruments sound the way they do, but it could be to do with the type of wood used. Apparently, during the Little Ice Age (between 1645 - 1750), trees grew slower due to lower temperatures, and wood was more dense as a result. And dense wood means a better sound. Apparently.
Stradivari developed his style gradually over time, with his earlier violins being slightly smaller than his later models. As well as being smaller in size, his earlier models are often not as highly regarded as his later instruments. This is a 'Violino piccolo' from 1712, meaning it's slightly shorter than a regular sized violin. Measuring 475mm from top to bottom, it's around 100mm shorter than a full sized instrument.
Stradivari quickly made a name for himself as one of the most dextrous craftsmen in the world, thanks to the tiny ornate details on his instruments - notice how even the pegs holding the strings on this Viotti violin are beautifully carved. Crafted in 1709 and named after its owner Giovanni Battista Viotti, this violin now belongs to the Royal Academy of Music in London.
Paganini is just one of the famous figures who's played a Stradivarius: this 1696 viola belonged to him for a time. Nowadays, they are on loan to a number of famous violinists including Nicola Benedetti, David Garrett and Janine Jansen. Yo-Yo Ma, Julian Lloyd Webber and Steven Isserlis are among the lucky cellists who perform on Strads.
In around 1698, Stradivari reverted to his original ideas, and started creating slightly shorter instruments once again. This led to his so-called 'Golden Period', which lasted from 1700 - 1720. It's generally thought instruments from this time sound even better than his earlier models - this 1714 cello is one such example from the period.
They're regarded as some of the finest stringed instruments ever created, apparently possessing a sweet tone and superior sound quality. Despite this, blind listening tests have never demonstrated Stradivarius instruments are any better than other high-quality instruments, so their legendary status still remains a bit a mystery - it's no wonder the instruments are still fascinating for music-lovers throughout the world.
Only two examples of Stradivarius guitars exist, this one, known as the 'Hill' from 1688, and the 'Rawlins', created in 1700. This one is owned by the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.
In the early 1690s, Stradivari tweaked his violin-making style once more, making the instruments slightly longer, and switched to using a darker, richer varnish, like the varnish used here on this Boissier-Sarasate violin. Named after its owner, this violin is one of two Stradivarius instruments which previously belonged to Spanish musician Pablo de Sarasate. Now it's housed in the Real Conservatorio Superior de Musica de Madrid.
Showing the differences in colour and style among Stradivari's violins, this 1709 instrument has an ornate tailpiece design, much like the Alard Stradivarius. The carving wasn't made by Stradivari himself, however: Parisian dealer Jean Baptiste Vuillaume took it apart in the 19th century and added a tailpiece with a carving of Joan of Arc, the virgin warrior known as La Pucelle, from where the violin takes its name.
He's famous for his violins, but it might surprise you to know Stradivari was also a fine mandolin-maker. This is his incredible eight stringed mandolin, crafted around 1705. It's one of only two Stradivarius mandolins in the world, and resides in the Charles Beare collection.
Could this be the most valuable violin in the world? it's one of the best-preserved examples of a Stradivarius instrument, and sold at auction in 2011 for just under £10million. It's named after its first owner, Lady Anne Blunt.
Behold The Messiah. Seldom played, this violin lived in Stradivari's shop until he died in 1737 - which is probably why it's in mint condition. It takes its name from a remark made by violinist Jean-Delphin Alard, discussing the merits of the unknown instrument with his father-in-law: "Then your violin is like the Messiah: one always expects him but he never appears".
It's not just Antonio Stradivari who's responsible for creating the best violins in the world. His son, Francesco Stradivari, was also a talented luthier whose instruments are highly regarded - if not slightly eclipsed by his father's superior models. This is one of the violins made by him in 1734.