While in Phoenix recently as a board member with the Bellingham Festival of Music (BFM), I and BFM President, Karen Berry met with MIM’s director of marketing, Karen Farugia. Afterwards, I had some time before heading off to meet friends. It wasn’t enough time to visit the MIM’s permanent collection (which I’ve done) of 6,000 instruments, but thought I could manage a quick tour of MIM’s special exhibit in the Target Gallery: Stradivarius: Origins and Legacy of the Greatest Violin Maker. I bought my ticket and stepped into the gallery.
The exhibit, which opened in mid-January and continues through June 5, welcomes you with a multi-screen video introduction to the area where this legendary violin maker lived and worked: the Northern Italian city of Cremona. The video gives a brief overview of this rich, historic city which yielded so many early master violin makers, in addition to Stradivari, and explains how the city’s proximity to the Fiemme Valley forest provided these craftsmen with the fine materials they needed to produce what became some of the premier instruments in the world.
The violins of this exhibit have been artistically (and no doubt carefully) hung within a clear, climate-controlled plexiglass case so that the viewer can walk entirely around them to get a close and complete look at them. In addition, every ticket to MIM comes a set of earphones so that as you approach the instruments on display, you also hear the sound of the instrument played by musicians who are masters of it. But what’s striking about the Stradivarius exhibit, is how incredibly gorgeous these stringed instruments are, indeed works of art in appearance as well as sound. Their beautiful, burnished wood shines in the light reflected from overhead.
First on display is the exquisite violin made by Andrea Amati, recognized as the father of the violin. Amati was a luthier in Cremona who, according to some histories, was asked to make a lighter instrument than the lyre and viol di gambas that he was building at the time. The viol di gambas resemble the modern-day cello in that they are played upright between the knees. Amati came up with a design that was smaller and lighter although similar in appearance to the viols. He added the fourth string which soon became standard to violins and is credited with developing the methods used in constructing the Cremonese violins. Only 20 of his instruments survive today. One of them, known as the ‘Carlo IX’ created for France’s King Charles IX in 1566, is in the MIM exhibit.
As you can see from my photograph taken at the exhibit, Amati used a lighter colored wood for the neck, face of the fingerboard and tailpiece and decorated it with fine, delicate black line design. On the backside of the violin, he added a golden crown and fleur d’lis, still visible but fading with time. Interestingly, whenever Amati made violins, including this one I believe, he made them as part of a matched set. They were used, with the viola, viol da gamba and lyres for example, to provide dance music for those at court. It’s a bit humbling to stand in front of this historic instrument and realize that its maker gave us the start of our beloved violin of today.
Equally as stunning is the “Violino Barocco” by Simone Fernando Sacconi, also displayed at MIM. This violin is so named because its neck is shorter and its fingerboard like those from the Baroque era of music. It was built in 1941 by the Italian maker who is regarded as one of the foremost violin makers of the modern-day. Sacconi, who died in 1973, devoted himself to extensive study of Stradivari’s techniques even using his antique tools. Although difficult to photograph through its display case, you can still see here the exquisite design of this violin’s ribs and get an idea of the lacelike intricacy of the bridge. To view it in person is breathtaking.
But of course, the instrument in the exhibit that draws your greatest attention is the one violin made by the master himself, the “Artot-Alard’ violin of 1728. It is the first time that this particular violin has ever been on display in the United States. Made when Stradivari was 84, it is a fine example of his craftsmanship. Look closely and you can see the close, straight grains of the spruce wood used to make it. Undoubtedly, this is as close to a Stradivari that I will ever get so I stood before it as I might an art masterpiece, which it truly is, taking in its beauty, admiring its deep color and imagining what it must be like to actually play it.
I could have lingered there in the exhibit for an hour but my time had run out. I managed to watch the short video on the “Science of the Stradivarius”, which you can see here by clicking on this link: http://bit.ly/1pFwDEq. It’s an excellent and fascinating explanation of how these incredible instruments were constructed.
Should you find yourself in Phoenix between now and June 5, I’d encourage you to plan some time to spend at MIM and this special exhibit. And if you miss it, don’t miss MIM next time you’re in the city. It’s truly a place where you can spend an entire day. It’s a topic for a future blog post!