21 Ultimate Gifts: Crème de la Cremona

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Violin makers are still trying to determine what Antonio Stradivari knew that they do not. In more than 250 years, no luthier has been able to build an instrument quite like his. In fact, the master himself may not have understood what made his violins sound so supernaturally beautiful. This much is certain, though: Cremona, Italy, became a hotbed of superior violin making during the Renaissance, and Stradivari was the greatest violin maker of all, surpassing his teacher, Nicolo Amati, and illustrious contemporaries such as Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu. When Stradivari died in 1737, the secrets behind his superior violins were buried with him.

Not all Stradivarii are created alike, however. Scholars and connoisseurs believe that the luthier was at his peak from 1698 through 1725, which some refer to as his golden period. Produced circa 1719, the Duke of Alba Stradivari shown on these pages takes its name from a nobleman who might have been one of its 18th-century owners. The limits of the print medium make it impossible for you to hear what makes this Stradivari so valuable, but you can see hints of its greatness.

In 1550, Andrea Amati (who was the grandfather of Nicolo) invented the violin as we know it. Stradivari spent his life improving on the design. In addition to applying more colorful varnishes to his violins, he refined the shape of the scroll (the curlicue-shaped piece at the top of the violin), making it rounder, and tweaked the arching (the curvature of the top and back of the instrument) to produce a broader, flatter violin. However, his most significant alteration involved reducing the thickness of the wood used for the top and back of the instrument to impart incomparable vibrancy and power to the violin’s sound.

Also notable is the back length of the Stradivari, which counts the length of the body sans neck. This measure greatly affects the value of the instrument; the most desirable violins have a back length within the narrow range of 13 7/8 and 14 1/8 inches. Falling a mere fraction of an inch outside of this target length can slash the value by as much as $1 million. The back length of the Duke of Alba Stradivari is 14 inches.

Bein & Fushi, a 27-year-old Chicago firm that restores, repairs, and sells violins, received the instrument earlier this year and gave it its first restoration in roughly a century, carefully cleaning and repairing it over the course of two years. But unlike a da Vinci, which can be appreciated without a frame, a Stradivari is voiceless without a bow, and it cannot sing as intended without one that is worthy of its majesty. Bein & Fushi have paired this violin with a bow produced in 1810 by the acclaimed French craftsman Dominique Peccatte. Made from Brazilian Pernambuco, a strong, flexible wood that bow makers favor to this day, the 36-inch bow is ennobled by mountings of gold and rare tortoiseshell.


Price: $3.985 million ($3.8 million for the violin and $185,000 for the bow).


Contact: Bein & Fushi, Alec Fushi, 312.663.0150, afushi@aol.com

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