French explore riddle of Stradivari fiddle

Fri Dec 4, 2009 2:30pm EST
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By Lucien Libert and Clotaire Achi

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.   Continued...

<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>