The Stradivari Viola D’Amore, pt 1

Front view of viola d'amore

Andrew Dipper DVA257 viola d’amore front

Viola d'amore scroll sideview

Andrew Dipper viola d’amore scroll

Back view of viola d'amore

Andrew Dipper viola d’amore back

In 1976 as part of my work translating Simone Sacconi’s book, The “Secrets” of Stradivari into English I was asked to review the holdings of the Ala Ponzone collection of Stradivarian material in Cremona. This collection consists of the residue of forms and patterns that were once part of the workshop materials of Antonio Stradivari. Included in this material are a number of forms and patterns for viola d’amore type instruments. Some of these are demonstrative of advances in the design of a novel instrument based on the format of a viola d’amore.

Tartini portrate

Giuseppe Tartini holding his viola d’amore and bow

Antonio Stradivari’s new concept of a corner-less viola d’amore was designed after 1700. The first existing paper patterns for the first instrument are dated 1716 when the master was over sixty years old. This flourishing of new designs is interesting since Tartini was active in Northern Italy as solo violinist and director at St. Antonio in Padua (from 1721 through 1723).  Tartini returned to Padua in 1726. Two years later he founded a school of violin playing, which became known as the School of the Nations. A portrait of him at his time exists in which he is shown playing a fourteen stringed viola d’amore. (See illustration.) A second new model was designed, probably by Antonio and Francesco Stradivari in 1727, and yet another in January 1728.  One has to wonder if the impetus of the new designs came from the activity of Tartini and his search for new violin tones and new bowing techniques, an activity for which the viola d’amore would have been a perfect research tool.

This first dated instrument had a body length of 372 mm and was reminiscent of earlier forms of instruments from the  Brescian school. The necks of these instruments, for which there are multiple patterns, were finished in a simple volute that terminated in a shield-shaped finial. This shield volute applied to bowed instruments is a particular Stradivarian concept and diverges from the normal classic spiral volute of the violin. Some other instrument makers such as Gaspar Bourbon from Brussels used this same design detail but its use was restricted to pochettes, mandolins and soprano lutes. It can occasionally be seen on instruments by the Milanese and Nuremberg makers and was copied much later by the Viennese.

Stradivari sons viola d'amore

Stradivari’s sons, viola d’amore

The late Stradivari violas d’amore are usually designated as twelve strings models, six metal wire strings running under the fingerboard and six plain gut and over-spun gut strings running on the fingerboard, whereas the earlier models often only have ten peg holes designated and may have been divided unequally with only four sympathetic strings. The tailpiece was attached, violin style, to a tail button inserted in the end-block, and the wire strings were probably attached to the saddle area or perhaps to wire hooks on the underside of the tailpiece. If these wire hooks were used, the attachment of the tailpiece was achieved with a wire loop in order to keep the tuning of the under-strings stable, which it would not be with a tail-gut of natural gut. In rare circumstances, as with the viola d’amore made by the sons of Stradivari in 1727[1], the tailpiece was attached in the English manner by a wooden post which ran through a square hole in its lower end.

Charles Beare viola d'amore

Stradivari viola d’amore altered in the 18th century into violin form. The pegbox altered and corners added.

A notable characteristic of these Stradivari corner-less instruments is that during construction, the ribs, which were usually 5cm high, were pinned to the internal form at the waist position and the two little holes caused by the pins were subsequently filled with a small disc of  maple about 2 mm in diameter. The reason for this pinning procedure was the lack of corner blocks, which ordinarily hold the waist of the instrument to the internal form. The pinning was usually done with a gut thread that was tightened by way of a small block that held a hand tightened tapered peg. This filled pin hole at the waist of the instrument can be seen in the two surviving instruments of this type. One of these violas, in the collection of Charles Beare, is illustrated in S. Sacconi’s book[2]. The other was once owned and played by Joshua Bell. Both of these instruments originally had a rib height of 50 mm but this was cut down in order to make them conform to violin family dimensions. The pin in these cut down ribs is usually 2.5cm from the upper edge.

Pegbox with dividing wall

Stradivari pegbox with center dividing wall (ex-Gibson viola d’amore)

The chamfers of the shield volute were darkened with ink in a manner similar to Stradivari’s later violins, which must have given these instruments a somewhat funereal look when they were new. This ink lining can be seen perfectly in the head of a viola d’amore which is in the collection of the Paris Conservatoire. This peg head has the unusual feature that the peg-box has a dividing wall running down its center, either to enable the wire under-strings to be kept separate from the gut playing strings, or to allow more pegs to be placed in a smaller pattern of peg-box. This feature is sometimes found on the instruments with sympathetic strings known as Baritone viols.

It is strange to think that Antonio Stradivari, who was responsible in part for the design of the modern violin, should have designed other types of instruments of which there are few traces left. It seems logical that his genius, when applied to other instruments should have produced superb instruments but we have only small scraps of paper to identify the instruments that were in the design process or for which samples only had been produced.

The paper patterns that make up the accoutrements used in the construction of the instrument encode various details about the construction of the instrument. The significant patterns for the viola d’amore that I made were two paper body outlines and several paper outlines of necks and scrolls. What intrigued me about the design was that it was a forward looking concept that seemed to come out of the early part of the nineteenth century instead of the eighteenth.  The corner-less design reminiscent of the instruments of Chanot and the neck patterns with shield scrolls similar to Viennese work of the 1800s led me to think that these forms represented a truly novel departure from the normal Stradivarian concept and were a specific attempt to create a new market for an innovative form of instrument.

To be continued…


[2] The Secrets of Stradivari, page 226, Figs 161. 162.

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