Cremona, located in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, is known as the home of hand-made violin workshops, called botteghe. A historic city of 70,000 people, violins from Cremona are considered some of the most exquisite musical instruments in the world. For centuries, the city has been a city of luthiers (stringed instrument makers), practising the master craftsmanship pioneered by some of the most famous and revered violin makers in history. The golden age of violin making, from the 16th to 18th centuries, saw celebrated Cremonese luthiers such as Antonio Stradivari, Nicolò Amati and Giuseppe Guarneri create instruments which today can be valued at tens of millions of Euros.
Today, Cremona still attracts luthiers and apprentices from around Europe and the world to follow in the footsteps of the greats. While the rise of cheap, factory-produced violins in other parts of the world make up the majority of manufactured violins, no other place can match Cremona’s luthiers for their hand-made expertise, knowledge of materials, craftsmanship, and sound.
Invention Of The Violin In Cremona
Violin making in Cremona is generally regarded to have begun with Andrea Amati (1520-1578), founder of the Cremona school of violin making. His first violins date to about 1564, and are thought to be the first violins ever invented. Before the violin, the most common instrument throughout Europe was the fiddle.
What’s The Difference Between A Violin And A Fiddle?
Evolving from the Byzantine Lira, the fiddle spread into Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries, becoming one of Europe’s most common instruments. Over time, the fiddle evolved into the violin shape we know today. But here’s the puzzling part – fiddles and violins are considered the same thing in terms of their design, and the difference between a violin and a fiddle is often debated. So how can Amati have invented something which already exists? Generally, the fiddle is considered a larger family of string instruments, and violins and fiddles can be spoken of interchangeably. The key difference is the type of music played – folk, bluegrass and country is played on a fiddle, and classical is played on a violin.
Nicolo Amati, Antonio Stradivari, And Giuseppe Guarneri
Andrea Amati (1505-1577) was the first in a line of celebrated luthiers, and started making violins around 1564, setting the standard for violin making in Cremona. His sons Antonio and Girolamo (Hieronymus) took over the tradition of violin making in the family business. Girolamo’s son Nicolò (1596-1684) is perhaps the most famous of the Amatis, who mentored many other famous luthiers.
One of Nicolò Amati’s pupils is said to be Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) whose stringed instruments are often considered some of the finest ever built. These instruments are known as Stradivarius instruments. Giuseppe Guarneri (1698-1744) is another of the most revered luthiers from the age. Less than 200 of his instruments survive today, and often sell for over $10 million USD.
Life Of A Cremonese Luthier
There are around 160 luthiers working in their workshops in Cremona. They come from many different countries to make a name for themselves in the violin making capital of the world. Many are graduates of Cremona’s International School Of Violin Making, which opened in 1938.
A luthier in Cremona assembles over 70 wooden components by hand to craft a violin, with the process taking around 300 hours (or 2-3 months) per instrument. Only traditional techniques are used, with no synthetic parts or spray painting permitted. Cremonese violin making is on the UNESCO Cultural Heritage list, to preserve the craft. When a violin is complete, it can sell for an average of €10,000, many of which have been pre-ordered. Models can be designated a Stradivarius, following Stradivari’s design, or a Guarneri del Gesu, in the style of Giuseppe Guarneri.
Despite Cremona’s mastery of the violin making process, Italian violins make up a small percentage of the world’s total violin output. China is the world’s largest producer, selling 1.5 million instruments annually, more than half the market. While still handmade, Chinese instruments are assembled along assembly lines, with different craftsmen working on different elements. By contrast, Cremonese violins are created entirely by a single person. Italy is fifth largest violin producer in the world, with 4.6% of the market share. Of the Italian violins, Cremona contributes 80% of the country’s total.
The Violin Museum Of Cremona (Museo Del Violino)
For those interested in learning more about the violin making trade of Cremona, there is the Museo del Violino (Violin Museum). Opened in 2013, the museum is housed in the Palazzo dell’Arte, just 5 minutes walk from the Cremona Cathedral. It harkens back to the golden age of violin making, with examples of instruments by Antonio Stradivari, Guarneri del Gesù, and Andrea Amati. The instruments are displayed in red velvet-lined rooms designed to mimic the interior of a violin case. The galleries also include old Stradivari documents and working tools, and interactive music-themed kiosks for children.
Cremonese violin craftsmanship was placed on the intangible cultural heritage list by UNESCO in 2012. The violin is part of Cremona’s history and heritage, with its small amount of luthiers lovingly crafting their instruments in Cremona’s historic old town. While most people won’t be able to afford such beautiful instruments, it’s certainly worth exploring deeper into Cremona’s musical past to better understand and appreciate the culture of this wonderful city.