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Why The Great Violins Came From Italy

By Expert Author: Nathan Weiss

By R. Klettke

Old fine Italian violins deserve their reputation for greatness.

The tradition for making fine violins, violas and cellos trace back to the violinmakers of the 16th century – as proven by 21st century science.

A perusal of Internet chat boards turns up controversies unknown outside the world of string instrument makers and players. The questions that seem to linger without resolve is what makes a great violin and where do the finest violins originate?

The discussion is not unlike those among the oenophiles, the connoisseurs of fine wines. They speak of a wine’s vintage owing to terroir (the physical characteristics of vineyards), the year it was made and the wine’s performance over time. A similar list of characteristics and performance are discussed with regard to violinmakers and their craft. Some say it’s the wood and how it is treated, or the varnish, or the shape of the belly and back, or the character of the scroll.

The Italians are widely credited for creating history’s greatest violins, violas and a href="http://www.benningviolins.com/Benning-Catalog-Cellos-for-sale.html">cellos. This is largely due to the fact that Brescia, in the Lombard (northern) region of Italy, is where major stringed instruments of the Renaissance were first developed, from the late 16th century onward.

The Brescian school of luthiers include the Bertolottis (Francesco, Agostino and Gasparo), Giovan Giacomo Dalla Corna, the Micheli family (Zanetto, Pellegrino, Giovanni, Francesco and Battistoa Doneda, who married into the family), Giovanni Paolo Maggini and Francesco Ruggieri. Other cities in Italy had their own schools of violin, cello and viola makers: Cremona – where the fabled Antonio Stradivari made about 500 violins in the late 17th and early 18th centuries – and Naples and Venice.

Some say that it is the bow that makes for the sound in a violin. That’s a highly debatable point. Perhaps more remarkable is how these great Italian violinmakers used different methods in constructing their instruments. For example, some use sealer coat on the inside of the wood while others do not. The Italians in general shave the top and ribs much more thinly as compared to what’s found in German and French instruments. Italian violins tend to be slightly smaller than those made in Germany. Compared to the French, Italian violins are not as arched. Italian violins also tend to have an amber varnish that lightly cracks.

At least one academic researcher, George Bissinger of East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina has attempted to identify the science that defines great violins. A professor of physics, Bissinger attempted to measure the precise mechanisms of great violins to determine why the Italian violins are so beloved. In papers published in peer review journals (Journal of the American Acoustical Society, Acoustica, and others), he looks at such things as violins’ in- and out-of-plane vibrational properties and correlates those with acoustical and qualitative evaluations.

Bissinger sampled 17 instruments, including such Italian legends as Stradivari’s “Titian” and “Willemotte,” and “Plowden’ del Gesu,” as well as contemporary mass produced instruments. His findings: the best Italian violins had an even radiation of sound across the range of acoustic frequencies – great strength of the lowest-octave response that accounts for a richness and sweetness of tone, the “big sound down low.”

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