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By Joseph Michelman. The fabulously increased value of these violins, the surpassing beauty of the varnish, the fact that no tangible records regarding the varnish have been left to posterity, and the atmosphere of mystery surrounding a lost art, have encouraged unbridled speculation to ridiculous extremes.
Stradivarius appeared in a dream to one seeker of the secret of the varnish, according to a newspaper article; another investigator discovered the formula suddenly by accident, overnight. These discoveries are generally announced with indisputable certainty; but rarely are attempts made to reconcile the discoveries with the existing data concerning the varnish. The public has indulged in speculation also; nearly every old violin found in a garret is considered potentially a Strad —but rarely a Guarnerius or an Amati!
In the past hundred years, a varied literature on these old violins has accumulated; but only a few books or papers have been published which are devoted exclusively to the varnish, especially its composition. Nearly all of the scores of books and articles on the violin, its history, its construction, its makers, its music, etc. However, two publications especially contain descriptive and helpful information; as these papers may not be freely accessible, to preserve accuracy and to present a first-hand report, portions pertinent to this book will be reprinted verbatim.
In a search after an elucidation of this so-called lost art, three facts immediately present themselves: first this varnish was employed by the very earliest of the Italian makers as well as the later; second its use was common only in Italy; third, it ceased to be applied to violins after A.
In texture this varnish is extremely supple; it will yield to pressure, but breaks or scales off under a sudden blow. It is entirely transparent, and of all shades of brown, red and yellow. The vehicle in which the gums and colours are dissolved is an oil. Applied to a violin, it compacts the tone together, without rendering it shrill or harsh, and gives additional beauty to the wood.
Three questions occur: first, was this manufacture a secret? Answers to these questions should clear up the mystery of this so-called lost art.
To begin, then, with the first question, was the manufacture of this varnish a secret? There is no reasonable doubt that it was, but only in a certain way.
For a period of about two hundred years, from the time of Gaspar da Salo to that of the Bergonzi, the varnish was common to every Italian violin-maker. Cremona had no monopoly, for the knowledge and use of it extended to Padua, Venice, Rome and Naples. It is impossible, therefore, during this long time to say that the selection of ingredients or the method of preparation employed in the manufacture of this substance, so well known and widely used, were in any sense a secret.
But a little later quite a change is observable. From a hundred Italian instruments of this later date, only a notable few can be selected as possessing the true varnish; and that this marked characteristic in the case of these few is not the result of mere chance is apparent from the fact that the artists who made them have consistently applied it to all their productions.
From about to about , then, the manufacture of this varnish may be properly called a secret, as being confined to a chosen few. The second question now presents itself: how was the secret lost? A careful and repeated examination, extending to a vast number of objects, reveals the fact that the varnish of the Italian violin-maker of the time of Stradivarius and before him was common to the painter, the varnisher, and the gilder as well.
Let an ancient piece of Italian furniture, a chair, a cabinet, the case of a spinet or harpsichord, be examined, and provided it has escaped modern retouching, the varnish might be by Stradivarius himself. Generally it is colourless, then the quality and texture are the indications, but occasionally it is of brilliant hues, and then it proclaims itself to the eye at once. Let specimens of a later date, say , be examined there is no such varnish.
This is smooth, fairly lustrous, hard and durable. The chair of presents a surface broken and worn away, that of , one comparatively smooth, and fairly able to endure further vicissitudes of time. Between the years of and , great changes in the manufacture of varnish were introduced.
The old soft gums and their menstrua, capable in themselves of dissolving them, were discarded in favour of newer and more complicated processes producing a result more durable and unchangeable under exposure and rough wear. And so it has happened that the art of the old varnish is not lost, but buried in the dust under the wheel of progress.
For two hundred years it was in the hands of a nation; and though now a desire for this forgotten knowledge is confined to only a few, it would be absurd to say that persistent inquiry must fail to unravel a skein of so many ends.
The third question now presents itself: Are there any writings or clues for perusal and examination? There are many. An ingenious Frenchman, who long ago wrote a treatise on varnish, has given the list of authors who have treated upon this subject: Alexis, Tiavoranti, Anda, etc.
Here is a succession of treatises, the earliest written about the time of Gaspar da Salo, and the latest during that of Stradivarius. Here are hundreds of genuine receipts. Is any one of them the right one? Patience and perseverance are necessary, much fitting of old names to their nomenclatures and many tiresome comparisons, but these once made, the desired result may be obtained, and the new varnish may possess the old coveted lustrous softness and suppleness. And the colours?
In all Italian instruments the wood appears to be permeated with a colour varying in intensity from pale yellow to almost orange.
This colour is quite distinct from that of the varnish; for however faded by exposure and other causes the latter may be, the ground-tone almost always retains its colour.
The violins with red varnish afford the finest examples of this ground-toning. On such its tawny yellow is the most intense, and offers a splendid foil to the superimposed colour, toning and giving life to it. How it was composed or applied, whether as a wash or stain, or as a distinct varnish, none of the authors give any information. But from their miscellaneous lists of the drugs, dyestuffs and colouring matter common to the Italian markets, it is quite possible that a selection could be made, which would fulfill all the required conditions of colour and stability.
But though supplied with the ground-tone, another element is needed before the exact reflex of the Italian varnish can be reproduced, and that is the natural colour of the old wood.
The problem of the old varnish is solvable by anyone who deems the reward worth the trial of patience and perseverance, two elements most effective in the task of interlining the broken sentences of tradition. These papers are of considerable value for the purposes of this book, although portions are highly speculative. Reade was an eminent connoisseur but evidently not a chemist.
He had the advantage of studying the old Italian violins more than seventy years ago when they were in a better state of preservation and when they were not widely distributed throughout the world. Heron-Allen regards Reade as a great connoisseur and eminently qualified to give an opinion. Reade says:.
It comes to this, then, that the varnish of Cremona, as acted on by time and usage, has an inimitable beauty; and we pay a high price for it in second-class makers, and an enormous price for it in a fine Stradivarius or Joseph Guarnerius.
No wonder, then, that many violin-makers have tried hard to discover the secret of this varnish, many chemists have given days and nights of anxious study to it. More than once, even in my time, hopes have run high, but only to fall again. I have heard and read a great deal about it, and I think I can state the principal theories briefly but intelligently. It used to be stoutly maintained that the basis was amber; that these old Italians had the art of fusing amber without impairing its transparency: once fused by dry heat, it could be boiled into a varnish with oil and spirit of turpentine, and combined with transparent yet lasting colours.
To convince me, they used to rub the worn part of a Cremona with their sleeves, and then put the fiddle to their noses, and smell amber.
Then I, burning with the love of knowledge, used to rub the fiddle very hard, and whip it to my nose, and not smell amber. But that might arise, in some measure, from there not being any amber there to smell.
These amber seeking worthies never rubbed the coloured varnish on an old violin. Yet their theory had placed amber there. That time does it all; that the violins of Stradivari were raw, crude things at starting, and the varnish rather opaque. Two or three had the courage to say it was spirit-varnish, and alleged in proof that if you drop a drop of alcohol on a Stradivari, it tears the varnish off as it runs. The far more prevalent notion was, that it is an oil varnish, in support of which they pointed to the rich appearance of what they call the bare wood, and contrasted the miserable, hungry appearance of the wood in all old violins known to be spirit varnished for instance, Nicholas Gagliano of Naples, and Jean Baptiste Guadagnini of Piacenza, Italian makers contemporary with Joseph del Gesu.
That the secret has been lost by adulteration. The old Cremonese and Venetians got pure and sovereign gums that have retired from commerce. Now as to theory No. Surely amber is too dear a gum and too impracticable for two hundred fiddle-makers to have used it in Italy.
Till fused by dry heat, it is no more soluble in varnish than quartz is; and who can fuse it? Copal is inclined to melt, but amber to burn, catch fire, do anything but melt. Put the two gums to a lighted candle, you will then appreciate the difference. I have tried more than one chemist in the fusing of amber; it came out of their hands a dark brown, opaque substance, rather burnt than fused.
When really fused, it is a dark olive-green, as clear as crystal. Yet I never knew but one man who could bring it to this, and he had special machinery invented by himself for it; in spite of which he nearly burnt down his house at it one day. I believe the whole amber theory comes out of a verbal equivoque.
The varnish of the Amati was called amber to mark its rich colour, and your a priori reasoners went off on that, forgetting that amber must be an inch thick to exhibit the colour amber. By such reasoning as this, Mr. Davidson, in a book of great general merit, is misled so far as to put down powdered glass for an ingredient in Cremona varnish.
Mark the logic. Glass in a sheet is transparent; so if you reduce it to powder, it will add transparency to varnish. Imposed on by this chimera, he actually puts powdered glass, an opaque and insoluble sediment, into four recipes for Cremona varnish. But the theories, 2, 3, 4, 5, have all a good deal of truth in them; their fault is that they are too narrow, and too blind to the truth of each other.
In this, as in every scientific inquiry, the true solution is that which reconciles all the truths that seem at variance. I took that way, and I found in the chippiest varnish of Stradivarius, viz. Look at this dark red varnish, and use your eyes. What do you see? A red varnish, which chips very readily off what people call the bare wood. But never mind what these echoes of echoes call it. What is it? It is not bare wood. Bare wood turns a dirty brown with age; this is a rich and lovely yellow.
By its colour, and by its glassy gloss, and by disbelieving what echoes say, and trusting only to our own eyes, we may see at a glance that it is not bare wood, but highly-varnished wood.
This varnish is evidently oil, and contains a gum. Allowing for the tendency of oil to run into the wood, I should say four coats of oil varnish; and this they call the bare wood. We have now discovered the first process—a clear oil varnish, laid on the white wood with some transparent gum, not high-coloured.
VIOLIN VARNISH BY JOSEPH MICHELMAN
By Joseph Michelman. The fabulously increased value of these violins, the surpassing beauty of the varnish, the fact that no tangible records regarding the varnish have been left to posterity, and the atmosphere of mystery surrounding a lost art, have encouraged unbridled speculation to ridiculous extremes. Stradivarius appeared in a dream to one seeker of the secret of the varnish, according to a newspaper article; another investigator discovered the formula suddenly by accident, overnight. These discoveries are generally announced with indisputable certainty; but rarely are attempts made to reconcile the discoveries with the existing data concerning the varnish.