Antonio Stradivari, the legendary Italian luthier and craftsman, had the Midas’ touch for string instruments. It was a craft he (and one other luthier
Antonio Stradivari, the legendary Italian luthier and craftsman, had the Midas’ touch for string instruments. It was a craft he (and one other luthier) perfected for the production of acoustically “perfect” violins, cellos, guitars, and harps that were also resistant to insects and fungus. The exceptional tonal performance and sound of Stradivarius violins have long been a source of fascination and wonder for music aficionados all over the world. Now, a new study published in Angewandte Chemie International Edition , by an international team of scientists and researchers, led by Taiwan National University, has new shed light on the secret chemical recipe used on Stradivarius violins.
Stradivarius Violins: How Chemicals Added to Acoustics
Antonio Stradivari (born: 1644; died 1737 AD) and his contemporaries treated their instruments with chemicals like alum, borax, copper, lime water and zinc to fight worms and to produce their unique tones. And the suppression of damage and aging caused by time with these chemicals also added to their acoustic perfection. The sound quality of Stradivarius violins has not been matched or replicated in the last 300 years!
Another genius craftsman of the time, a contemporary Italian luthier from Cremona, by the name of Giuseppe Guarneri also used similar chemical compositions. There was and still is a rivalry between fans of Stradivarius and Guarneri instruments as to which are better. Guarneri’s instruments are known to be darker in color, more robust, and more sonorous than Stradivari’s works.
Less than 200 of Stradivari’s original instruments have survived: many violins and one cello. Some of his pieces have sold for millions of dollars or euros because they are so rare and produce exceptional acoustics. Guarneri’s violins have sold for even more!
Antonio Stradivari, the legendary Italian luthier and craftsman, had the Midas’ touch for string instruments. In this painting by Edgar Bundy (1862–1922), he is pictured in his studio flanked by two assistants. (Edgar Bundy / Public domain )
Specifically, the violins, which were called Cremonese violins, after the area in which they were produced, were the focus of the study, reports Phys.org. The soundboards of these instruments, which are most crucial to the acoustic output, were relatively thin and light by modern day standards. It was here that the chemicals did their magic.
“This new study reveals that Stradivari and Guarneri had their own individual proprietary method of wood processing , to which they could have attributed a considerable significance. They could have come to realize that the special salts they used for impregnation of the wood also imparted to it some beneficial mechanical strength and acoustical advantages,” says biochemist Joseph Nagyvary, a biochemist at Texas A&M university, whose work has long focused on the chemical composition of modern instruments.
Texas A&M University professor Joseph Nagyvary holding a violin (left) and a viola (right) with poplar wood fingerboards. He was the first researcher to suggest that chemicals used to treat Stradivarius violins also created their unique sound output. (Joseph Nagyvary / Texas A&M Today )
The Secret Sauce: Taking the Science Forward
The new study was led by Professor Hwan-Ching Tai of Taiwan University, who has taken the work of Nagyvary and others to a higher forensic level. The international team investigated the material properties of the Cremonese soundboards using a wide range of microscopic, spectroscopic, and chemical techniques, in a bid to determine oxidation patterns . They found evidence of artificial manipulation in the oxidation patterns, which was the first indication of the chemical composition.
Following this, they combined analytical data, with previous patterns of chemical manipulation and historical data to deduce that “borax and metal sulfate were used for fungal suppression, along with table salt for moisture control, alum for molecular crosslinking, and potash or quicklime for alkaline treatment. The overall purpose may have been wood preservation or acoustic tuning.”
A violin shop in modern-day Cremona, Italy where the greatest violins makers ever plied their craft in the 17th and 18th centuries. (Massimo Telò / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
“All of my research over many years has been based on the assumption that the wood of the great masters underwent an aggressive chemical treatment, and this had a direct role in creating the great sound of the Stradivari and the Guarneri,” Nagyvary added. He also pointed out that it was obvious that there was some level of collaboration between the violin makers of Cremona, and the local drugstore and druggist , which allowed for the chemical treatment perfection found in these instruments.
Further research is underway to work out the exact chemical mix, and the balance of elements, and how the chemical mix interacted with the wood to create such a beautiful and finished acoustic sound .
What complicates the matter further, for modern historians and researchers, is that this was an era before competition and patents. But likely special chemical treatments were family secrets.
“One needs several dozens of samples from not only Stradivari and Guarneri, but also from other makers of the Golden Period (1660–1750) of Cremona, Italy,” Nagyvary concludes.
Top image: A recent international study has proven that the chemical treatments used on Stradivarius violins both preserved them from insects and fungus but also added to their exceptional acoustic properties. Source: estima / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey
Nield, D. 2021. The World’s Most Famous Violins Were Treated With a Secret Chemical Mix, Study Shows . Available at: https://www.sciencealert.com/classic-violins-get-their-amazing-sounds-from-chemical-treatments-study-shows.
Randall, I. 2021. The secret behind the Stradivari violin: Famous instruments produce their stunning sounds thanks to a chemical treatment of borax, zinc, copper, alum and lime water, study finds . Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-9912473/Music-Stradivari-violins-produce-stunning-sounds-thanks-chemical-treatment-study-finds.html.
Randall, K. 2021. The secret of the Stradivari violin confirmed. Available at: https://phys.org/news/2021-08-secret-stradivari-violin.html.
Su, C., Chen, S., et al. 2021. Materials Engineering of Violin Soundboards by Stradivari and Guarneri . Angewandte International Edition Chemie. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/anie.202105252.