Amelia Hunger­ford, drawn to the rich his­tory of the Old Ital­ians of Cre­mona, dis­cov­ers mod­ern pa­tron­age is keep­ing th­ese in­stru­ments’ melo­di­ous tones alive.

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More than 300 years af­ter they were cre­ated, the Old Ital­ians of Cre­mona still hold the mu­si­cal world in thrall. This city in Lom­bardy, just out­side Mi­lan, pro­duced the finest mu­si­cal in­stru­ments dur­ing the 17th and 18th cen­turies, and their cre­ators – An­to­nio Stradi­vari and Bar­tolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù in par­tic­u­lar – have be­come syn­ony­mous with ex­cel­lence. And while Cre­mona re­mains a cen­tre for luthiers, none has ever risen to the heights of Stradi­var­ius and del Gesù. Even to­day, their vi­olins, vi­o­las and cel­los are still con­sid­ered to be the finest ever made.

In­ex­pli­ca­ble mys­tique Th­ese in­stru­ments are re­mark­able for the very fact they have re­mained in de­mand for more than three cen­turies, to say noth­ing of the melo­di­ous sounds they pro­duce, and sci­en­tists have long at­tempted to ex­plain their mys­tique. They have ex­am­ined the acous­tics, the wood com­po­si­tion, the lac­quer and even con­ducted tests by pro­fes­sional vi­o­lin­ists to de­ter­mine what – if any­thing – was the ge­nius of the Cre­mona luthiers. No study has as yet un­veiled a de­fin­i­tive an­swer and, in fact, in blind tests the Old Ital­ians tend to be sec­ond choice against mod­ern vi­olins. This hasn’t di­min­ished their magic, how­ever, and the tal­ented mu­si­cians for­tu­nate enough to play on th­ese mas­ter­pieces of­ten de­scribe feel­ing a pull to­wards a cer­tain in­stru­ment, as if they’ve been cho­sen as its next cus­to­dian.

Col­lec­tors seem to feel at­tracted to th­ese hal­lowed names, too. Fine stringed in­stru­ments con­tinue to fetch mil­lions at auc­tion: the 1741 ‘Vieux­temps’ Guarneri del Gesù is cur­rently the most ex­pen­sive vi­olin ever sold, ru­moured to have been bought for more than US$16 mil­lion in 2012. Two years later, the 1719 Stradi­var­ius ‘Mac­don­ald’ vi­ola went up for auc­tion with an ask­ing price of US$45 mil­lion. It failed to at­tract a buyer, but that hasn’t hin­dered the mar­ket.

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