When one hears the name of Antonio Stradivari, possibly the greatest luthier of all times, the mind goes immediately to his wonderful bowed instruments. But, on the other hand, the reality of the master’s production was quite various.
Judging from the material we have today the quantity of different instruments that came out of his workshop was quite different. We will start to define this and what we can understand of his specific take on the guitar, to begin an identification process of an instrument that is in the public collection of the Museo nazionale degli strumenti musicali in Roma: the guitar catalogued as Mr 1622.
The information we get from what remains of his workshop is crucial.
All of these items were sold by his son Paolo to Count Cozio di Salabue, then passed to his heirs, the Della Valle family, from whom the luthier Giuseppe Fiorini brought them in 1920. He decided to donate them to the city of Cremona, that already had other material from Bergonzi and Ceruti’s workshop, obtained in 1893 with the Cerani donation. They were exhibited during the Stradivari celebrations of 1937 and gave later birth to the Museo Stradivariano that evolved in actual Museo del Violino. This is an incredible insight in a workshop of the time, revealing the fact that Stradivari produced everything, from the single parts (pegs, rosettes, tailpieces, cases) to the whole instruments. There are templates, sketches, paper silhouettes, notes on stringing, molds. But, and this is the interesting part, not only of violins, violas and cellos, but of a lot of plucked instruments.
Stradivari, especially at the beginning of his career, and up to the 1690s, must have had a vast clientele regarding these. His interest spans from the mandolin to the lute “alla francese”, from the harp to the guitar. The characteristics of his projects and what we have left of originals derived from these projects tells the degree of experimentation and originality that Stradivari wanted to put in every instrument.
These specific characteristics that define his signature and ideas, allowing us to make them a trademark of his work.
Regarding the guitar, that is the main focus of our interest here, we consider today to have five original guitars by the master: The Hill ( Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), the Giustiniani (Milan, private collection), the Vuillaume (Paris Musée de la Musique), the Rawlins (National Music Museum, USA) and the Sabionari ( on loan to the Museo del violino in Cremona). Also we can add the Canobio – Pagliari (Roma, private collection), which is the work of another maker, restored and modified by Stradivari, as the label inside ereads “ da me rivisto e corretto, Antonio Stradivari”, analog to what written inside a 1701 violin and another of 1719 where he also indicates “Fatto il coperchio” (Hill, 1901) and a headstock and part of neck that was donated to the Museo del Violino by Beare .
The hard part when evaluating the autograph instruments is understanding the quantity of original parts left in the instrument itself. This due to restorations but, also, from the transformation of the instruments in six string romantic guitars at the turn of the century, fate that struck the Sabionari, modified by Marconcini and, partially, by the Giustiniani, whose neck was cut while the head remained untouched. This to adapt them to the 65cm string length of the romantic style guitar.
The instrument that we will examine, kept in the Museo Nazionale degli strumenti musicali in Roma with inventory number 2342 was part of the famous tenor Evan Gorga’s collection, acquired by the Italian state in 1950 to pay his tax debts. Its characteristics, flat back, wood choice, long string length, decoration, size and design point at the master’s hand.
The guitar in the baroque period had distinctive features, from which Stradivari differed in some key elements, making his own model one of a kind. The Spanish guitar (chitarra alla Spagnola) was derived, in shape, directly from the vihuela, from which it inherited the shape of an eight and string length of 54 – 60 cm, plus the fluted curved back. The vihuela had a playing style and tuning close to the one of the lute. The introduction of the guitar created a completely new style. The rasgueado playing was part of this instrument’s new language, being referred to as a “cow bell sound” by Covarrubias Orosco, in 1606.
The first example we can identify as a Spanish guitar is the Belchior Dias of 1581, in the Royal College of Music, being still a transition instrument, possibly even a reworked vihuela. Its plate thickness reaches 4mm, its body is only 366mm long and the string length is 555mm.
Juan Carlos Amat, in his treatise of 1586, dedicated to the instrument, marks the name Spanish, as it is called in Italy also, to mark the difference from the Italian guitar also called chitarrino, that was an instrument of the lute family. Sanz also states this in his preface to the “Istruccion de musica sobre la guitarra espanola” where he defines the origin “Italians, French and other nations qualify the guitar as Spanish; the reason lies in the fact that in ancient times it had no more than four strings, and in Madrid the master Espinel, Spanish, added the fifth, which is why his originated from here refinement. The French, Italians and other nations, imitating us, also added to their guitars the fifth string, and that’s why they call it Spanish Guitar”.
The tuning had some differences, the most common being like the modern guitar but with five courses, so: ee, bb, GG, dd, aa. The e, like indicated in Amat, the canto, was single, the others double. There was a very fast popularity of the instrument, due to the massive presence of the Spanish domination in Italy, and also because it suited very well the new monodic style of music. In Italy a new notation system was born, the Alfabeto, first featured in Girolamo Montesardo’s Nuova inventione d’intavolatura per sonare li balletti sopra la Chitarra Spagniuola of 1606, that uses this stenographic notation where the letters refer to a chord chart.
The construction of guitars became popular between the luthiers and violin makers didn’t disdain at all this instrument. Masters like David Tecchler or Pietro Guarneri de Mantua define themselves as “Chitarraio” and, in the latter’s studio after his death, were found many examples of this instrument. The construction techniques were different from region to region, the Spanish ones had a distinctive way of inserting the neck, neck and side inserts in one piece (the so called Spanish foot).
Makers like Sellas and Voboam used a long nail as an internal seam for the neck in the top block, that reached the sides, allowing a large gluing surface for them. The majority of guitars, at the time, had curved backs, made of staves, also to create color differences, often fluted. The Stradivari guitars had all flat backs.
This is part of a stylistic idea that comes from the venetian school, with examples in the Cité de la Musique in Paris, the anonymous venetian early 600s and the Coch, of 1660s. Feature that we find also in the Gerolamo de Mensis guitar, also in the same Museum in Roma, of Brescian origin, 1660s. The relation with the venetian culture was direct, Cremona was Venetian before Spanish, Brescia was in its territory. Also the melting pot of makers from northern Europe in venetian territory was very large, especially for the plucked instruments, names like Sellas, Tieffenbrucker and Venere testify their excellence. The flat back guitar is also present in many paintings of Baschenis, from the same geographic area.
Stradivari’s guitar stand out as unique, both in looks and in ideal. They were all made in a distinct moment of his career, around the 1680s-1700s: Giustiniani 1681, Canobio Pagliari restoration 1681, Sabionari 1679, Hill 1691, Rawlins 1700. It’s a very experimental time from the maker, when he develops his long pattern violins, all the mandolins, the harp and more. He develops specific ideas and experiments new sound ideals. After the year 1700 he will dedicate himself mostly to bowed instruments.
Their building technique comes directly from the violin one. Stradivari used internal molds and built the instrument around them, testified also by the signs left on the upper sides where two wooden points were used to block them.
Three shapes are in Paris, one in Cremona, being modified to build a cornerless viola d’amore (also an instrument with flat back). Also, the woods were the same as bowed instruments: spruce for the top and maple for the back and sides, and no tropical woods were used. Stradivari’s purfling was pear wood, as the rosette of the Hill guitar is. The bridge was probably with drilled holes, like the lute and mandora ones, idea we can get from the designs we have left. The Hill triangular hole one is possibly not original (Pollens).
The bracing was very violin like in its shapes, and the instrument was built with a strong resonance concept. The bracing consisted in only two bars on the front, leaving the back and the curves of the case free to vibrate. This also working on the thickness of the wood, that is thinner than the other contemporary models. This creates an extremely light and vibrant body. Also, the choice of not over decorating the instrument is atypical, and it has possibly the root in this idea of the instrument as a vibrating whole. A master inlayer and decorator as Stradivari surely left these instruments so simple for a reason.
The design of the curves is extremely geometric and based on the coincidence of circles that create the outline. A tendency to become classic in the Italian school.
The much-debated long scale of the Stradivari instruments derives possibly from the fact that, as every instrument at the time, it had different sizes and related tunings. So, the 741mm string length of the Hill is compatible with the major guitar described both in Giovanni Ambrosio Colonna in 1620 and Foscarini in 1629:
” Rule for stringing the guitar in order to play in concert
First the largest guitar is tuned to any note you wish, and then the medium guitar one
note higher, that is to say the fifth string of the large guitar makes a unison with the
third string of the medium guitar. The fourth string of the little guitar has to make a
unison with the third string of the medium guitar and thus it will be tuned a 4th higher”
So, if the regular middle one was tuned in E, the bigger one had a D as canto string. Together they sound as a G major chord.
Later Corbetta will extend this to a guitar in B and Antonio Carbonchi, in his collection, le “Dodici chitarre spostate” will suggest 4 groups of guitar tunings that work with the three different sized instruments , that can play its Alfabeto notation creating a concert together.
The stringing was very important at the time, here again Stradivari gives us a testimony of his ideas. Infact there are many ways to string the instrument, the Montesardo tuning scheme of 1606 in Italy shows the last two courses in octave with a lower bourdon string, while Sanz in Spain used to string them in unison, the so called re entrant tuning, that allowed his “campanelas” effect. Stradivari, in one of his templates, the guitar stringing pattern MS 375, gives hints on the thickness of the strings in comparison to the violin ones and states that the forth and fifth course octave strings, the higher ones, are mounted on the “outside” position, so the thumb would make contact first.
So, the Stradivari guitars responded completely to the spirit of their times. In their uniqueness they were the perfect answer to this new repertoire. The Identification process started when I was making two parallel researches: one on the Ruggeri instruments for my book and the other on the Stradivari guitars that was finalized to the design of my Stradivaria baroque guitar. During this research I had done a lot of studies and seen many original baroque guitars in the major museums like The Met and the MIM or the Museu de la Musica of Lisbon thanks to the kindness of the curators. So, I had a large amount of information straight from originals of what the main
differences between the Stradivari models and the other guitars of the time. In my career as a maker and as trustee for the Thys De Castella collection and other privates I had the opportunity of viewing and studying many instruments by Stradivari and the Cremonese school, their details in wood choice and finishing, the construction technique, were much familiar.
The original templates and shapes that were at the Museo del violino in Cremona were being made ready for publication at the time, so I asked for their images and sizes for study reasons, while I was researching in the Archivio di Stato of Cremona for traces of the Sabionari guitar, that had been submitted to the committee of the Stradivari celebrations and was exhibited there for six months . I was looking for ideas, a possible report and also of pictures of it before it was restored or reopened, that happened in 1948, when Segovia autographed it inside.
I had the opportunity in May 2016 of seeing it live at Maestro Lorenzo Frignani’s laboratory in Modena, since it was going to be played by Lislevand in a public concert. All of the data I was collecting was a large amount of comparisons that would d help me build my own model, based on Stradivari’s ideas and principles, that made his guitars totally peculiar. So, my networking got me a technical drawing of the Hill from the Ashmolean museum, that helped get precise information on his way of designing curves and acoustics. Also, I had finally a precise design of the rosette, that helped me develop my version for Stradivaria. Redesigning that rosette so many times on pear and amaranth wood was a very hard task but it helped me memorize that design, curves and elements perfectly. Little did I know what this was going to take me.
So, in June 2016 I was in the Museo in Roma, to inspect a viola da gamba with a Ruggeri label and I passed in front of the Mr 1622. The rosette, its design, they struck me. I was astonished, immediately, and asked the museum staff if I could have the possibility to have a quick look at it outside the display on the viewing table. I took a few pictures with my phone, I could see these distinct curves and shoulder design, the decoration, the hand of the master was here. Slowly and surely, I tried also to hear the position of the bracing and it seemed that only two bars were there.
The decoration, the rosette, the wood quality and the style, it was all there. The direction of the museum, at the time Sandra Suatoni, was incredibly supportive, I told them that there was a strong possibility that the guitar was a work of Stradivari so we booked another appointment.
There, finally, I could take precise measurements of every element, its outline and take a close look at the reconstruction. Slowly the picture was coming together. Since the Museum was doing RXs of the Barberini harp they had done a quick one of the instrument, and it showed its inner two bars.
So, for months after this I looked for any report on the construction and measurements of the Stradivari guitars, then Finally, after another trip to Cremona, I could see the different guitar molds in the Museo del violino. But more than them, the models for the outlines in paper, the details of elements like the head sides, ideas for bridges and more. So I created a full comparative outline and measurement table of the different guitars and also of the molds and templates.
According to the proportion studies I could actually see that there wasn’t any of the existing Stradivari guitars that corresponded to an existing mold. But, incredibly, the measurements of the MR 1622 matched the paper template 1/1 scale for guitar that was in Cremona.
This time I submitted my conclusions and elements in a report that I showed to Frignani. He helped me point out the correctness of my method and conclusions. After seeing the instrument, in 2017, he was totally convinced there was material for a strong relation with Stradivari. He also confirmed the connections with some aspects of the Canobio Pagliari of which he had some documentation made in his studio.
The guitar Mr 1622 has incredibly many contact points with the autograph guitars. The part that is older and original surely is the front, in spruce, with a rosette that is clearly the same as the Hill one and also extremely adherent to the one of the Canobio Pagliari, not only for the design, made of a spiral and pique element decoration but also from the fruit wood from which it’s made. It will be of help also if we think that, in Stradivari’s time, the rosettes were made of parchment, in levels, not of wood. These in wood were a unique signature of this maker.
The instrument has been heavily restored and reconstructed, including the neck, sides and back. But its shapes, proportions and decorations bring us back to the style and work of Stradivari.
The rosette, infact, is surrounded by a decoration of small diamond shapes in bone on a black ground. A decoration extremely similar to the one of the Canobio Pagliari, executed with the powdered ebony made in paste, not inlaying squares of wood, this method to avoid the high cost of this wood. Also, the pique decoration that is on the lower and upper part of the front is in tainted wood. This sign is supposed to be a bringer of luck and is present also on the Sabionari, Hill, and Rawlins.
The use of local woods was widely preferred by Stradivari, possibly including the bog oak from Cremona, now extinct, with his dark color that could be of use in substituting ebony at the time. So as the tainted pear mostly found in his purfling.
Purfling that here plays on the alternation of black and white, just like in the Sabionari.
The adherence to the Stradivari models is given by the correspondence between the measurements of the front of this guitar and one particular template that is in the Museo del violin, the MS 374e. It’s a template for a guitar, with also the diameter of the sound hole and the position of the bridge in a 1:1 scale. This detail is particularly important, since none of the autograph guitars match any of the molds or existing templates.
There are also some very interesting details of the restoration of which we don’t know the author or time of intervention. Infact the original part of the guitar is limited to the front with the neck insert and the rosette.
Possibly the restorer had a sense and idea of what he was in front of. Using the proportions and measurements of the body Pollens calculated that the string length corresponding to the shape and size of the body of the MS 374e would have been 770mm. A measurement exactly precise here.
Also, the reconstructed head, apart from the bone decorations, has a design that matches the ones present in the templates in the MDV MS 376-381 (wooden models for the head profiles).
The bracing, as revealed by the X ray examination, is with two bars, leaving the whole resonating body.
So, this instrument has many connections with the master’s ideas and designs, being a totally resonant instrument with distinctive proportions, decorations and flat back. The instrument brings us back to this particular moment of experimentation in the luthier’s career, when the road to the golden period was still not clear and his desire to try new solutions and expand the workshop’s interest were alive in these models.
Models that responded to the society’s thirst for the Chitarra spagniuola and its experimental repertoire that spread through Europe, but with a distinct mark of the maker’s genius.
Hoping that further and deeper research confirm this attribution that would allow us to consider the Roma guitar as a sixth sister of Stradivari’s output in the guitar field, we propose this journey through the building details to focus on the contribution of the Italian style of guitar making.
A route that lead to the astounding results of Fabricatore, Guadagnini, Vinaccia, and of which Stradivari is a landmark.
E. Marinucci Roma july 2019
All rights reserved.
Unathorized reproduction prohibited.