Antonio Stradivari was a maker of violins in the Duchy of Milan, on the Italian peninsula, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The Latin form of his name “Stradivarius” is used for his creations, which are to this day uniquely prized. Chemists now, in the 21st century, are beginning to understand what is special about them.
Beginning with the models made in the early 1690s, Stradivari’s violins had a deeper and richer varnish that helped set them apart visually from the works of his precursors and rivals. They also had a distinctively beautiful tone. The “why” of the distinctive tone has never been clear.
Indeed, there were no patents in those days, so whatever led to Stradivari’s success he must have zealously guarded as a secret, only to take it to the grave with him.
Through science, the secret has only now been recovered.
Strange New Worlds:
Research at National Taiwan University in recent days has confirmed a theory advocated for decades by a scientist affiliated with Texas A&M University, Joseph Nagyvary, professor emeritus of biochemistry. The Texas/Taiwan position is that the distinctive varnish and the distinctive tone are more closely related that is generally understood.
It was not just “varnish.” Stradivari treated the violins with a distinctive blend of chemicals including borax, zinc, copper, and alum. This bundle of chemicals was likely first introduced to prevent worm infestation, although later Stradivari likely understood that the mix had acoustical advantages.