Stradivari’s Varnish: a Memoir
By Joseph Curtin, Brick: a Literary Journal, Winter 2004.
For Isabel Huggan
Alfred Hitchcock used to speak of the MacGuffin in a film, an object one or more of the characters is searching for—the mysterious bird in The Maltese Falcon, for example, or Rosebud in Citizen Kane. The thing about a MacGuffin is that, once found, it is always less than expected. The Maltese Falcon proved to be a worthless statue; Rosebud was just a child’s sled. And Stradivari’s varnish, that great MacGuffin of the violin world, turned out to be plant oil and tree resin. Perhaps for this reason, there was little fanfare when plausible re-creations began appearing in the mid-1980s. No TV specials, no Time magazine covers—and for that matter, no miraculous improvement in the quality of new violins. The problem was not that the researchers got it wrong—twenty years have passed without serious challenge to their findings—but that they got it right, and their findings were anticlimactic. There were no ground-up rubies; no shrimp shells or insect wings; nothing made in a beehive; no fungus, mould, salt water, or water glass, or any of the other ingredients periodically served up by hopeful researchers. No, the Great Italian Varnish, for centuries called upon to explain everything we love but do not understand about old Italian violins, turned out to be, well, just varnish.
None of which I knew when the doorbell rang one afternoon at the Cremona workshop of violin maker Gregg T. Alf. This was May 1984, and Italian varnish was still one of the great mysteries of my profession. I opened the door. Standing on the cobblestones outside was a tall man with fair wavy hair, a scraggly beard, and mischievous blue eyes behind gold-rimmed glasses. He smiled with closed lips and was fairly stepping from side to side with excitement. “Greetings from America!” he said. “I’m Geary Baese.” He told me that he was in Italy to finish some research on Cremonese varnish, and then to study violin making. As I remember, we stood talking in the vestibule for some time before I finally blurted out the question, “So, do you know what’s in Strad’s varnish?
He smiled. “I’ve pretty much worked out the story.”
In Toronto six months earlier, an aging, ailing chemist had approached me with a similar claim, basing it on thirty years of after-hours research and experimentation. When I took him for lunch, he laid a few strips of varnished spruce on the tablecloth along with some pictures of old instruments. It soon became clear that he had probably never seen a genuine old Italian violin and he had certainly not looked into the historical plausibility of his varnish formula. But I didn’t have the heart to argue; I just thanked him for his generosity, promised to keep his secret, and left the restaurant feeling depressed. Would that be me in forty years? For I too had ambitions in the varnish world.
Gregg and I took Geary out for dinner that first evening in Cremona. After dessert, Geary remembers, we broke chunks off a block of grana with a short triangular knife provided by the waiter, who weighed the cheese before and after our excavations and then charged us for the difference. Between mouthfuls, we reached an agreement: Gregg and I would show Geary the basics of violin making. He, in turn, would share his research and help us cook up a batch of Cremonese varnish. The next morning, he checked out of his hotel and rolled out a mattress on the floor in Gregg’s wood room. The summer began.
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