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In the Spirit

Photo credit: Genessa Gutzait

Antonio Stradivari was born in Cremona, Italy in the middle of the 1600s. Over the course of his career, he made around 1,116 instruments. The majority of which were the violins for which he became famous.

Owning a Stradivarius is something akin to owning a Renoir or a Jackson Pollock, but instead of hanging the thing on the wall, these masterpieces are played in concert by famous musicians like Joshua Bell, Yo Yo Ma, or Itzhak Perlman, who plays the famous “Soil” Stradivarius. Other famous violins have found their way into museums, like the “Greffuhle” or the “Ole Bull” both at the National Museum of American History, “The Gould” Violin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or Stradivari’s masterpiece “The Messiah” at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Most of these works are priceless, and those that do sell can cost as much as a house. However, blind tests have conclusively shown that, if anything, listeners prefer the sounds of modern violins to those of the master luthier. Their acoustic qualities have remained in question for years. What makes these violins sell for millions of dollars?

Researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that when listeners know that they’re hearing a Stradivarius, it tends to sound far better than the competition. There’s something in the experience of seeing such a renowned instrument ringing out through the concert hall in the hands of a first-chair violin. It takes listeners back—all the way back—to the birth of that instrument in Cremona. Plenty of other famous luthiers lived and worked there, like Andrea Amati, credited with inventing the violin.

As Stradivari’s teacher, Amati made violins that are not only ancient but incredibly beautiful. Fit with ornate inlays and painted inscriptions, Amati’s violin’s reinforce the meaning of quality and craftmanship in art.

They refute Duchamp’s Fountain. The entire ‘what is art’ question flies out the window. These violins are prized because their creators have carved their souls into the wood, and their spirit reanimates every time that hollow body sings.

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