December 4, 2009 / 7:32 PM / in 8 years

French explore riddle of Stradivari fiddle

<p>Jean-Philippe Echard, Music museum research engineer, works on a 1708 Stradivarius violin at his laboratory at the Cite de la Musique in Paris, December 4, 2009. Echard and a team of scientists from various French and German institutions shine a light on the mystery of Stradivarius violin's legendary varnish : Antonio Stradivari used completely common and easily obtained materials that were broadly used in 18th century decorative arts and paintings. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer</p>

PARIS (Reuters Life!) - Fossilized amber? Resin harvested from bees? After generations of craftsman sought to guess the secret of Stradivari violins, French scientists see the solution in a simple varnish.

Using high-tech spectrometers, researchers at the Musee de la Musique in Paris studied the varnish used by Antonio Stradivari, one of the greatest violin makers of all time -- and found that the recipe was surprisingly straightforward.

“There were a lot of theories, whether there was fossilized amber, propolis from bees, all kinds of strange materials that would explain why this varnish was so special,” engineer Jean-Philippe Echard told Reuters on Friday, standing in a lab dotted with antique instruments and modern research tools.

What they found in four years of research was a mix of pine resin, oil common with oil painters at the time, and a red pigment that was also popular with painters including Titian.

The result is a thin, reddish glaze typical of Stradivari.

While the glaze is unlikely to be solely responsible for the rich, deep sound that makes his violins some of the most revered and expensive instruments in the world, it has long been a frustratingly elusive piece in the puzzle.

After the Italian violin maker’s death in 1737 at the age of 93, the race was on among craftsmen to copy his instruments.

It turned into an obsession in the 19th century as the myth of his talent grew. Craftsmen picked apart every element of the violins, from the wood to the shape and even the glue.

Reproducing the design and finding high-quality wood proved relatively achievable.

“But the varnish, which is a very fine film of a thickness that was very difficult to measure, concentrated the entire mystery for two centuries,” Echard said. “It was something no one could really reproduce.”

Given that Stradivari violins can sell for millions of dollars and have been beloved by legendary musicians for centuries, it is no wonder that scientists are looking to demystify their every nook and cranny.

Stradivari himself never revealed the recipe for his varnish.

And despite years of experiments, helped by highly sophisticated microscopes and other tools, the researchers still admitted they had barely scratched the surface of the secret.

“We know the ingredients, but we don’t know how exactly he put them together,” Echard said. “We will leave some secrets to future generations to solve.”

Writing by Sophie Hardach; Editing by Patricia Reaney

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