Text and images by Dimitri Musafia

The ‘Milan’ Stradivari case

The ‘Milan’ Stradivari case

The many similarities with another example exhibited at the Chi Mei Museum in Taiwan provide unprecedented evidence of Stradivari’s case production in series

Antonio Stradivari built over 1,100 instruments—many of which left the workshop in cases. Though not as widely celebrated for this kind of work, Stradivari was a case designer and builder as well as a liutaio, a fact verified by the wealth of autograph patterns of case components purchased from Stradivari’s descendants in 1775.

They are today viewable at the Museum of the Violin in Cremona. But while there are approximately 660 surviving instruments attributed to Stradivari that can be studied to try to discover their secrets, it is much more difficult to do so with his cases.

Only a handful of cases attributed with any certainty to Stradivari are known today, and many have been modified with new interior linings and external hardware, making recognition that much more difficult.

If there can be little doubt that the same workshop built both cases, even more compelling is that the similarities provide unprecedented evidence of case production in series.

Since his production was not limited to the violin family, but also included guitars, harps, mandolins, and other instruments, he likely built cases for these, too. However, it’s almost exclusively his violin cases that have survived to this day.

Given their rarity, and the difficulty in recognizing a Strad case when faced with one, a discovery last year from a Milan estate sale of what appears to be a case from the famous workshop is very thrilling indeed.

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Strad Case Production

Strad cases are of two types, the earlier “holster” and the subsequent “top loader.” The holster cases earned their name because of their pistol-holster shape and the way they open. The bottom part of the case is hinged laterally to open in order to allow the violin, wrapped in a cloth bag, to slide in scroll-first. There is no provision for the bow, which is simply inserted as space permits, and the interior lining is only paper. There are no handles, only attachments to which a carrying strap could be affixed.

Around 1700 the new case type appeared, which is much more similar to today’s models. With a straight-sided, curved-end, symmetrical, oblong form, it has a hinged lid that allows the violin to be deposited into the bottom from above, hence the moniker “top loader,” and proper provisions for bows are present in the lid of the case.

These cases often possess handles to make transportation a little easier, although they are rarely practical by today’s standards, and thus reflect the reality of travel at the time.

Today all musicians travel with their instruments: by car, plane, bus, taxi, etc. In those days, the owners of Stradivaris and the like were often kings and nobility, who kept their instruments within the walls of their castles or mansions, and the musicians came to them. Travelling musicians who were not able to afford instruments of the highest quality often had holes cut into the C-bouts their own instruments so they could attach straps directly to the instrument, or used holster cases that did have strap attachments. The oblong cases, for the most part, were for keeping the instruments safely within the confines of one’s home. According to researcher Glenn Wood, this “top loader” design may have been invented by Stradivari himself, as Antonio was a notorious perfectionist and, as a case designer, was certainly aware of the shortcomings of the holster-case concept.

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Certainly, the turn of the century was, for Stradivari, a moment of liberation: Left virtually without competition in Cremona, he was free to give his creativity free reign and the resulting unparalleled excellence of his work from 1700 until 1720, when old age began to set in, truly deserves to be called his Golden Period.

One reason for Stradivari’s dominance of the Cremonese violin market was due to the decline of the Amati dynasty. Its grand patriarch, Andrea (1505–77), is credited with inventing the violin in its modern form and the first iconographic image of a modern violin appears as early as 1534–6.

Subsequent generations continued to work in the violin trade, but the family was decimated by the plague in 1630 and had practically died out by 1700. Only Girolamo (Hieronymus) lived to 1740 but was totally overshadowed by Stradivari. Giuseppe Guarneri “del Gesù,” according to the Hills, was not particularly successful, and Stradivari at a certain point even loaned him money, which Guarneri apparently never paid back.

The earliest holster cases are particularly rare (according to Wood, fewer than a dozen  are known to exist), and for good reason. Not only are they more antique, but their lack of a handle or accommodation for the bow made them decidedly obsolete when the oblong design appeared. Most importantly, however, when the modern violin setup, with the increased neck angle, became popular in the second half of the 18th century, these cases became useless. Violins would no longer fit inside them, and many were probably thus discarded.The-‘Milan’-Stradivari-case----

A Surprising Discovery

As Stradivari continued on his path toward perfecting the violin, it is unlikely that he would have continued to produce the outdated holster case once the modern oblong had been invented. This means that any example of this type attributable to Stradivari would probably be dated between 1666/1670—when, according to researcher Carlo Chiesa, Stradivari is thought to have opened his first workshop—and around 1700.

The most well-known holster case attributed to Stradivari is the “Chi Mei, ex-Biddulph” case. Discovered at auction in Germany in 2007, it was extensively researched and attributed in 2008. It is now on display at the Chi Mei Museum in Taiwan, labelled as a case made by Antonio Stradivari between 1680 and 1690, thus making it a valuable point of reference for comparing other cases.

Last year, a virtually identical violin case surfaced at an art-services center in Milan, as part of an estate sale. Although no information regarding provenance was available, cursory examination noted a marked similarity with the Chi Mei case. While unbranded and lacking the fine gold-leaf decoration that graces the latter, once the “Milan” case was made available for analysis, almost every other aspect of this case proved identical. First and foremost was the design itself. All Baroque holster cases look the same at first glance, but upon closer scrutiny marked differences appear.

The lid and back, which in Italian cases of the time are carved from solid wood and not bent or molded, can show flatter or more pronounced roundness, greater or lesser thickness, and a more or less stylized violin pattern, especially in proximity of the upper bouts. As these cases are wide at one end and tapered at the opposite, the taper can be more or less pronounced, and the overall sections can be boxier or rounder. In the newly discovered Milan case, all of these elements proved to be identical to those of the Chi Mei, including the refined taper that starts out as a box section to terminate with a slim, round one, while most other existing holster cases maintain the square section, probably for ease of construction. In both cases, the protective studs of similar diameter are placed every 25mm along the perimeter.

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The calfskin covering the exterior of the Milan case is another clue, being the same texture and color of that of the Chi Mei. Because the latter was subsequently lined on the inside with velvet, thus concealing from view both the structure and the original lining, it is not possible to compare these elements to those of the new case, which retains its original paper lining.

The curator of the Chi Mei Museum, Dai-Ting Chung, kindly provided a series of measurements for comparison. Not just length, width, and height, which basically depend on those of the violin, but telltale secondary measurements that are more dependent on style rather than function, and the measurements of both cases match almost to perfection (see box above).

The number of similarities between these two cases overshadows the differences, and is sufficient to be able to reasonably assert that they came from the same workshop, between approximately 1670 and 1700, rather earlier than later.

In 1680 Stradivari moved to his new house-workshop on Piazza San Domenico 2, where his career began to develop in earnest. He was then able to afford more expensive and figured wood for his violins, and perhaps the Chi Mei case, clearly a luxury item with its ornate gold-leaf decorations, likewise represents his move up-market. In such a context, the Milan case seems representative of his earlier work. But it could also be work of a later date instead, sold by itself to a player or even another violin maker, where utility took precedence over decoration.


Comparing the Measurements

In confirming the identity of the Milan Strad case, its measurements were compared to Chi-Mei’s “ex-Biddulph” case. A few notes on these measurements:

  • Variations of +/- 2% should be considered within the construction tolerances.
  • The two different measurements of the length of the long part of the Milan case reflect a lack of symmetry, perhaps due to warping with age.
  • The two different widths of the hinges of the Chi Mei case may signify that one is not original.
  • The similarities in the widths of the taper are significant because they vary greatly in other holster cases, being that the taper itself is less subject to the measurements of the violin itself, and more to the taste of the builder.
  • Likewise, the similarities in the lengths of the long and short part of the cases are significant because they vary greatly in other holster cases.

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Measurements and Variance in Strad Cases:

Chi Mei ‘Ex-Biddulph’

Milan

Variance

1. Length of long part of case

670

673 / 672

+0.3%

2. Length of short part of case

113

113

0%

3. Width of case at taper extremity

88

87

-1.1%

4. Width of case at  taper beginning

127

128

+0.7%

5. Width of hinges

22.7 / 25.3

22.5

6. Min interior height at aperture

62

67 / 68

+8.8%

7. Max interior height at aperture

94

93

-1.1%

8. Thickness of case shell at aperture

13

13

0%

9. Width of case shell

22.4

23.8

+6.2%

10. Number of studs*

369

358

-3.0%

11. Stud placement*

every 25mm

every 25mm

0%

*Including those missing

 

Serial Production

If there can be little doubt that the same workshop built both cases, even more compelling is that the similarities provide unprecedented evidence of case production in series.

Of course, this should not come as a surprise. Stradivari made his violins in series as well, using the same molds, patterns, F-hole designs, and so on for years, which is exactly how experts can recognize them.

Only occasionally did Stradivari tweak a measurement, a curve, or a detail to further bring his creations nearer to perfection, progressing from the earlier amatisé models to the “long pattern” and finally to the G-pattern, which he used from 1710 until his death in 1737. Perhaps to fully amortize the effort of the research that led to these developments, according to experts W. Henry and Arthur F. and Alfred E. Hill in their tome, Antonio Stradivari: His Life and Work, major changes occurred roughly every ten to 12 years.

These patterns and molds also made it possible for his atelier to produce work that consistently met the Stradivari standard of quality and design.

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Contrary to some popular belief, Stradivari did not make his violins all by himself from start to finish. He, in fact, managed a well-staffed shop that allowed him the necessary freedom from the workbench to travel to select materials and research improvements.

“Possibly . . . Stradivari permitted [his sons and assistants] to rough out the work, and went all over it after them . . . . His assistants may have made the cases destined for the instruments, cases of considerable artistic merit,” write the Hills, this last comment bringing to mind the Chi Mei case.

The significance of case series production by the Stradivari workshop is not so much revolutionary in itself, although it certainly sheds interesting new light into a distant past. Rather it finally offers the tantalizing opportunity to facilitate the authentication of other existing cases, languishing undiscovered in attics or on display in private or public collections, but as yet unattributed.

Dimitri Musafia would like to thank Dr. Glenn P. Wood, Dai-Ting Chung, Alfred Primavera, Peter Biddulph, Fausto Cacciatori, and Dr. Fabio Perrone for their contributions to this article.


Sources and Further Studies:

Antonio Stradivari: His Life and Work by W. Henry Hill, Arthur F. Hill, and Alfred E. Hill (Dover Publications, New York, 1902)

Antonio Stradivari—Designs, Models, Forms by Fausto Cacciatori (Edizioni Museo del Violino, publication forthcoming)

What Makes Stradivarius So Special? (Emma Saunders, BBC News, June 22, 2011)

Art & History of Violin Cases by Glenn P. Wood (Authorhouse, 2008)

“Rags to Riches and a Strad or Two” by Erin Shrader (Strings magazine, November 2010)

“Case Studies” by Dimitri Musafia (The Strad, 2008)


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