William Castle - Violin Maker

© William Castle 2014

To return to index page of Videos and Articles  - click here

The spirit of classical Italian violin making  -  Part 1

first published by the British Violin Makers Association

Over the last thirty years, our knowledge of classical Italian violin making in the period from about 1550 to 1750 has increased dramatically. Varnish analysis, geometrical investigations and historical research, as well as the documentation and interpretation of instruments have all made important contributions, so not only has the quality of new instruments improved, but we are nearer solving the enigma of the classical violin maker’s craft.

Although accumulating knowledge can lead to greater intellectual understanding, we cannot truly understand anything without being part of that experience; you cannot, for example, be a jazz musician simply by reading the notes off the page, or be a wood turner without knowing the feeling of the wood spinning against the end of your gouge. The performance of any activity is not just the result of technical ability, but the interplay of numerous factors, absorbed, often unconsciously, as you are engaged in the task. Of course we cannot go back in time and work with the classical Italian violin makers, but the more we can work out how they did things, and more importantly why they did so, the nearer we can come to understanding the spirit of classical Italian violin making.

It is this spirit, over and above any particular aspect of an instrument, which makes an instrument special. In regard to both tone and appearance, in a great instrument we are looking for something ephemeral which will raise it above the ordinary, just as when we listen to music we want the musicians to do more than just keep time and play the right notes. To attempt a definition, what singles out a great instrument is a vibrancy of intent pervading the entirety of the instrument; the maker’s concept, indeed their very character, expressed in the accumulation of small gestures.

This is perhaps an unusual starting point for examining instruments, but to capture the essence of classical violin making we need to look at the body of work as a whole, as much as is possible, through 16th or 17th century eyes.

Working with their hands

In pre-industrial societies including Renaissance and Baroque Italy, most people earned their living by working with their hands. Craftsmen of all trades were usually involved with every stage of construction, from preparing raw materials to designing and constructing every part of the finished product.  So whereas an artist nowadays simply uses paint out of a tube, the painter of the 16th century was thoroughly familiar with his pigments, having spent hours grinding colours as an apprentice. He knew where they came from, how they were produced and how they reacted with other pigments and in the medium he was using. Equally, the stone mason’s apprentice would probably start work with dressing stone, mixing mortar and holding one end of a piece of string whilst the master laid out foundations, but by the time he finished his apprenticeship he would understand the proportional geometry necessary to construct the interlocking arches which form vaulted ceilings.

As part of this group of craftsmen and artists, the instrument maker fitted in very easily. As such, it would be surprising if they were not capable of using similar rules of proportion and geometry to arrive at their own individual outlines, being sufficiently familiar with the constructional principles to adapt them to their own aesthetic sense; and we know they had sufficient knowledge to manipulate the materials used in varnishing, even if they did not make the varnish themselves. That they were competent and skilled woodworkers goes without saying. This opinion was shared by the physician, alchemist and author, Leonardo Fioravanti, who wrote in 1573 :

He who would be esteemed in the art of musical instrument making must firstly be a Painter in order to know how to design the form of the instruments; secondly he must be a Smith in order to make tools to proportion his art; thirdly, he must be a Master Wood Worker in order to make the mechanics of the instrument, fourth, he must be a Musician in order to make well the proportions of the voicing; lastly he must be an Alchemist in order to know the preparation of the metals with which to make the strings….  He who would discover everything in this art would discover a multitude of diverse things, as if it were a deluge and would never find an end, much and deep and of great practise and science it is.[1]

The Universal Man

In noting the depth and breadth of knowledge involved in instrument making, Fioravanti is deliberately casting the instrument maker in the role of a Renaissance Man, or Uomo Universale. This concept of the Universal Man would have been immediately recognised by his readers as the ideal to which man can aspire, being skilled in all areas of knowledge, both intellectually and practically. And whilst we cannot expect the instrument makers to have been authors, linguists and architects on the days they were not making violins, they nonetheless were part of a culture defined by the artistic and philosophical values of the late Renaissance and early Baroque. So although their manual ability was a product of the traditional transfer of skills between master and pupil, the concept of their instruments and their aesthetic goals were derived from contemporary cultural ideals. So even without any written evidence of why the instrument makers worked as they did, by interpreting the instruments in the light of cultural ideas and the social and economic constraints of the time, we can form an idea of their aims.

A standard output?

An obvious feature of classical Italian instruments is how essentially similar they are. In terms of this discussion, however, there is one group that stands out. These are the instruments where no expense was spared, which could be seen as the high point of the makers’ work and are therefore most likely to reflect what they were trying to achieve. Obvious examples are Andrea Amati’s set of instruments made for King Charles 9th of France, and Stradivari’s decorated instruments. Not surprisingly, these instruments were made of high quality materials and were put together with care, but to make them extra special they were also elaborately embellished. As such, they embodied the essence of baroque style, like the fashionable clothes of the day which were lavishly embroidered with silk and metal threads. However, with the exception of the painted or inlaid decoration, these instruments are of the same quality as the makers’ standard output, which although less ornate, are also typically baroque in style. So just as baroque architecture is characterised by ornamentation overlaid upon a geometric design, in the violin we have the decorative features, such as the scroll and corners, embellishing an object designed on the principles of proportion and symmetry.

These deficits in precision suggest that the classical violin makers’ way of working was much more matter-of-fact than we usually acknowledge, and quite different from our romantic notion of the meticulous craftsman, bent over the bench obsessing over every detail. Of course, some craftsmen such as the Amati family and Stradivari were more precise than the majority. It is certainly possible that having the most prestigious customers, they may have taken more time over each instrument. Nonetheless, their workmanship bears no signs of being forced, suggesting that their work was naturally accurate and controlled, rather than that they were taking special care. Moreover, their precise craftsmanship is at one with their overall conception, the beauty of the shapes and the varnish.  This is an attribute we see repeatedly, the workmanship of any maker matching their own design; the less perfect the design, the less perfect the tool use. Comparing the work of Nicolo Amati and his pupil Andrea Guarneri, for example, Andrea Guarneri’s bolder tool use entirely suits his more robust shapes, whereas Amati’s work remains precise and light, matching the elegance of his outlines, scrolls and f holes. This should come as no surprise, as the maker’s artistic sensibilities are the same, whether at the design stage or when making the instrument.  

Artistic freedom

Whether working in a collected manner or with gay abandon, the approach of the classical violin makers was sufficiently free to allow a trained eye and a skilled hand to follow the inclination of the moment, and in so doing reflect the artistic nature and working temperament of the individual maker. Underpinning that artistic freedom was a thorough familiarity with tools and materials, combined with working methods that produced the result quickly, naturally and with a minimum of fuss. The linings left fresh from the knife, purfling strips of uneven thickness, and the asymmetry between the sides of the scroll are additional evidence that the violins were made quickly. The number of instruments the makers produced also indicates a no-nonsense approach; though coming up with an accurate figure of annual production is problematic. Having had no employees, del Gesu’s production is perhaps a useful benchmark, having made sixteen instruments in his most prolific year.

But perhaps the most compelling reason to believe that the classical violin makers worked in a thoroughly pragmatic manner is because they lived in a society where all work was accomplished by human effort, animal power, and a smattering of wind and water power.  In such a world, you do not waste energy moving things twice, or do anything in two stages when one will do; instead you devise tools and techniques to work quickly using the available muscle to best advantage. Although in comparison with some other crafts the physical effort involved in violin making is not all that great, the principle of using straightforward and effective working techniques is just as valid in violin making as it is in the work of the wheelwright or silversmith.


Today our idolisation of the classical Italian violin makers, particularly Stradivari, means we are compelled to put them in the same category as great artists, but in doing so we undervalue the importance of their down-to-earth craft-based tradition. Our modern obsession with precision also prevents us from seeing their work as a natural result of simple procedures, performed without undue deliberation. However, when we look at the instruments from the point of view of a ‘mere’ craftsman who needs to get through his work using quick and easy techniques, not only do we see how things might have been done, but also gain a greater insight into the spirit of classical Italian violin making.

               1 - The mirror of Universal Science, Leonardo Fioravanti, 1573

2 – A rational look at classical coatings, Koen Padding, VSA papers Summer 2005, Vol 1, no 1.

When we take a closer look at the instruments in relation to these ideals, however, we find that the proportions are not exact, the shapes are only approximately symmetrical and the level of finish is far from perfect. This prompts the question as to why there is such a divergence between the guiding principles and the end result. Why, for example, would they go to the effort of drawing outlines and making symmetrical moulds, but end up with outlines which are significantly different from one side to the other and between back and belly? There are certainly practical reasons as to why this occurs, but in allowing it to happen, these discrepancies cannot have offended the violin makers’ idea of beauty.

The concept of beauty

Since Renaissance ideas first swept through Italy, the concept that beauty derives from order and a harmony of proportions had been central to cultural life. In the visual arts, the use of symmetry was fundamental to Renaissance and Baroque design, and still remains at the core of our idea of beauty today. This is because the appreciation of symmetry is likely to be innate. Studies show that when people are presented photos of human faces, the more symmetrical faces are held to be more beautiful than those that are less symmetrical. However, if you flip an image of one half of a person’s face to make a whole face, many people find the resulting image somewhat disconcerting, probably because we know intuitively that absolute symmetry is unnatural. Whether this perception was understood by the Italian violin makers is an open question, but with their undoubted visual awareness, they must have known that their instruments deviated from their drawings, and at the very least, they were sufficiently unconcerned to let it go. A more likely explanation, however, is that their perception of beauty embraced the idea that the final product was not exactly symmetrical and that it benefited from growing organically out of the ideals of proportion. In music we have an analogous situation; the great baroque composers being happy to bend the rules of harmony to increase the drama and tension of the music, stretching and distorting the idealised form to produce more interesting works.

Roughness of surface

Regarding the finish of the instruments we have a similar dichotomy, with a surface which was obviously acceptable to the classical violin makers, but certainly not perfect. So whereas the overall shapes exhibit motion, direction and intent, the surface of the wood is often covered in scraper and gouge marks, and sometimes bits of wood are torn out of the figure.  Admittedly many of the tool marks would originally have been less obvious when covered with varnish, a typical feature of which was its even thickness, no matter how uneven the underlying surface. As Koen Padding described it:

 ‘the coats seem to have simply fallen over any roughness in the woodwork like a blanket of snow.’[2]

The reason why we can easily see the tool marks is because the wear over the years has taken varnish off the high points but left it in the hollows, so the contrast in colour accentuates the unevenness of the woodwork.  On the bellies of instruments in near-pristine condition we also see that the surface is not flat, the varnish on Stradivari’s Messiah violin, for example, follows the corrugations of the wood as it goes across the grain lines. On most instruments the abrasion from players’ clothes has thinned down the varnish on the spring wood more than over the sunken summer wood, thus accenting the reed lines, but the same effect also occurs when a varnish is intentionally rubbed down. Since we do not see that effect on pristine instruments, it shows that the instruments were not rubbed down, or only minimally so, between coats.

To read part two, where I look at the working methods of the classical violin makers   - click here

To return to index page of Videos and Articles - click here

painted back of an Andrea Amati cello

Detail of the decoration on the back of a cello made by Andrea Amati for Charles lX of France. The use of gold as well as the obvious crown show that this instrument was made for an important person. The rest of the work, however, is of similar quality to Amati’s other instruments.

belly of the Messaih Stradivari violin

The front of the Messiah violin by Antonio Stradivari, showing undulations across the grain.

© John Milnes, image courtesy of Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford