CREMONA, Italy - When the Duke of Milan’s daughter Bianca Maria was about to get married, her father gave her the town of Cremona as part of her dowry. He could do that you see, for 1441 was a time when Italian cities were the personal property of the rich and powerful.
Bianca Maria didn’t do much with Cremona, and for more than a hundred years the town didn’t do much with itself either. That is until the 16th century when Andrea Amati came along and developed the first modern violin. Through Armati, and his pupils Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu, Cremona made history and secured its place as the violin capital of the world.
It is hard to talk about Cremona without talking about violin making, although there are other things to talk about. The origins of the town go back more than 3,000 years making Cremona one of the oldest towns in northern Italy. And while the Venetians, the French, the Spanish and the Austrians all conquered Cremona at one time or another, all of that history is completely over-shadowed by the music.
It hits you right away. Walking from the train station, down the Via Palestro on my way to the center of town, the honeyed strains of Vivaldi and Paganini, Tartini and Boccherini floated out from the buildings. It was like being in a movie with the sound track running.
The music was coming from the privately operated violin workshops that are the commercial backbone of the city. It was in a workshop just like the ones I was passing that Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu worked.
What those old Masters accomplished was nothing short of a musical miracle and for centuries scholars and scientists have been trying figure out just how they managed to build such magnificent instruments. Now researchers think they have found the answer. They say the secret lies in the remarkable even density of the wood the violin masters used.
It really wasn’t a secret. Any of the violin artisans working in Cremona today could have told them that. The real trick would have been to figure out how the old masters knew what wood to choose, and where to find it.
“The method I use to select the wood for my violins is exactly the same method Antonio Stradivari and other Cremonese violin masters used hundreds of years ago,” says violin Maestro Stefano Conia, founder of the Italian Association of Violin Makers.
Like Stradivari, Maestro Conia uses a special wood found in the Paneveggio Forest, high on the slopes of the craggy Dolomite Mountains in Italy’s northern region of Trentino. The unique honeycomb structure of the forest's red spruce trees make it the ideal wood for violins and other string instrument. It is the reason why Paneveggio is called the Forest of the Music Trees.
But there is more to making a musical masterpiece than just choosing the right wood. Making a violin was, and still is, slow and painstaking work and the superstitious violin masters of old didn’t tempt fate.
Stradivari, for example, would only use wood from the male red spruce trees, and he insisted that they be cut during the winter under a waning moon when their sap was not running. And before the final coat of varnish went on the instrument he would take it home and put it on the table next to his bed for a couple of weeks, for he believed a spiritual transaction would take place between him and the instrument, and that the violin would inherit a soul.
The craftsmen working in Cremona today may not be quite as superstitious as the old Masters but they do follow the same methods and patterns. You can see how it’s done by visiting an artisan’s workshop. Just stop in at the Tourist Information Office and ask for their list of Botteghe Liutarie. Maestro Stefano Conia’s workshop is in the heart of the city’s historic center at Corso Garibaldi 95. His violins can also be found at Sothebys, Philips, Bongards and Christies.
In the Palazzo del Comune you'll find a collection of classical Cremonese School violins, including a 1566 violin made by Andrea Amati for King Charles IX of France and the 1658 Hammerle violin created by Nicolò Amati. And in the Museo Stradivariano on Via Palestro 17, there are more than 700 objects from the Master’s workshop. Also interesting is the replica of a violin artisan’s workshop during the time of Antonio Stradivari. It is located in the Tower il Torrazzo in the Piazza del Comune. Museum hours Tues-Sat 10-12:30 - and 3-6, Sundays 9:30-12-30.
Cremona Tourist Information Office (APT)
Paneveggio Forest Information
Photos: (1) Clock Tower and Duomo; (2) Maestro Conia in his Cremona workshop (3) Cremona's Palazzo Comunale (photos courtesy of Cremona Tourist Bureau)
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