The Violin-maker’s Dilemma

About a year ago, violist Yizhak Schottenleft his Francesco Linarol viola at my shop for a few days. Originally built as a lira da braccio, it’s one of those loosely built Old Italians whose symmetries are all approximate. Each square inch of it is a landscape in itself: sunset orange varnish over a dark gold ground deepens here and there into storm gray, burnt umber, and black – all lent a jewel-like depth by the reflectivity of the wood. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

Yizhak Schotten’s Linarol viola

Yizhak Schotten’s Linarol viola

On my bench at the time was an unfinished violin – not a copy, but intended to look more-or-less old and more-or-less Italian. Compared with the Linarol, its varnish seemed over-pigmented. The colors were too hot, and the surfaces too smooth. Thinking I could do a better job with inspiration near at hand, I stripped off the varnish and began again.

There is nothing very original about trying to make a new violin look old. Makers going back to Vuillaume and beyond have built careers on it. Still, there is within the profession a deeply-rooted ambivalence toward the practice. It shows itself in raised eyebrows, in the shaking of expert heads, in website arias about “faking” and “artificial aging.” It is articulated more clearly in the rule-books of competitions. While both “antiqued and pristine instruments” are admitted into the Violin Society of America competitions, the Cremona Triennale disallows “artificial antiquing of the wood or varnish.” The 1st China International Violin Making Competition forbids an “antique effect.” The Mittenwald International excludes instruments that have been “aged artificially or imitated.”

Violin-makers typically use the word “antique” as a verb. To antique an instrument is to shade, wear, chip, scratch, dent, or otherwise distress the varnish and underlying wood so as to give the appearance of age. Some makers do it. Others do not. The do-nots tend to claim the moral high ground. They build honest, unashamedly new instruments, and they count among their numbers all the Italian makers from Andrea Amati to J.B Guadagnini. “The ignorant,” wrote Simone Sacconi, “remain more in awe of the back of a Stradivari instrument worn away, than [one] whose varnish is intact.” A violin should at least start off with crisply-cut edges, sharp corners, and a uniform coat of varnish. Time, playing, and restoration will do the rest.

Linarol top

The problem for me is that “the rest” is where violin making becomes most interesting – where it moves beyond craftsman-like finishes toward something less rational and more evocative. Handing a client a sharp-edged, evenly varnished instrument makes me feel the way a winemaker might in handing over an empty bottle, a cork, and a barrel of grapes, saying “You finish it!”

There are of course players who prefer that a new instrument look new, and there are top-notch makers who devote themselves to the New Look. Other makers move easily between the two approaches. Some build pristine instruments for competitions and antiqued ones for the market place. Some say that while they prefer the New Look, their clients keep ordering the other kind. I myself used to offer a discount for un-antiqued instruments, which after all take less time to finish. I discontinued the offer after hearing once-too-often, “I don’t care what it looks like, so long as it sounds good.”

I do care what it looks like, and in truth I have never warmed to the New Look – not on my instruments, not even on that most famous of all new-looking instruments, Stradivari’ s “Messiah.” This may be because I have seen the “Messiah” only in photographs. Still, the photographs suggest that a little Old Italian varnish goes a long way, especially when it is so, well, orange.

Messiah Strad 1716

“Messiah” Stradivari, 1716

Things were different when the Messiah was varnished. Colors were precious. They were dug from the earth, ground from semi-precious stones, and extracted from roots, berries, and insects. Recipes for their manufacture were protected by governments, and stolen by spies. The colored varnishes perfected by Stradivari must have made a vivid impression in a candle-lit court, where servants wore colored livery and musicians came in by the servants’ entrance. But stage lights are harsher now. Violinists wear black, and I know soloists who would as soon step on-stage with a bright orange violin as they would wearing a tuxedo that color. Brightly colored varnish now broadcasts not the value of the pigments or the exuberance of the maker, but the inability of the player to get hold of anything older.

Though there is little direct relationship between the sound of an instrument and its appearance, there is a strong connection in the mind of the beholder. This is partly a kind of placebo effect. Someone told that a particular wine is more expensive than another will tend to enjoy it more. Both wines may be poured from the same bottle, but the ‘expensive’ wine will actually taste better. The brain’s pleasure center will glow more brightly in an MRI scan. Placebo is from the Latin, “I shall please.” More relevant to new violins is its antonym, nocebo (“I shall displease”), a word coined to explain the negative side effects of a drug a patient is not actually taking.

Fairly or unfairly, the New Look has become a visual metaphor for the sound of bad new instruments – bright, edgy, monochromatic – while the Old Look retains powerful and carefully cultivated associations with the best-sounding old instruments and the artists who play them. The look of a Strad both anticipates and reinforces its sound. You expect it to sound fabulous. If it doesn’t, you assume it needs adjusting, or that you need to learn how to play it. If an instrument looks new, you assume that it needs a few years to open up, then a few hundred more to fully mature. Hardly fair,considering that top new instruments (antiqued or otherwise) routinely out-perform their elderly counterparts in blind tests, especially in terms of projection. And it is remarkable how the subtle tone colors attributed to an Old Italian can lose their charm with the first reports from the back of the hall: “We can’ t hear you.”

All of which leaves the violin-maker in a dilemma. The obvious way to give an instrument a little Old-Italian-appeal is to antique it. But unless exquisitely done, this can cheapen the appearance, especially for the expert viewer. Even at best, antiquing is somehow too literal to stand on its own as an artistic style. There is no leap of the imagination, no move toward abstraction. It is hard to dispel the whiff of a con job. Might it be possible, then, to build an instrument whose appearance has something of the seductiveness and emotional reach of an Old Italian’s – but which does not look old?

Linarol back

It is first worth noting that the Old Look itself has changed. Expert restorers have removed layers of polish, dirt, and un-original varnish from battle-scarred Old Italians, taking them in the direction that art restorers of the 1980s took the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. For copyists, this rejuvenation has been both a blessing and a curse. The myriad, dirt-filled scratches and dents were tedious to replicate, but they also distracted the eye from things much harder to get right: the reflectivity of the wood, the subtle color effects, and the surface textures of both wood and varnish.

The New Look too has changed. Going through an exhibition of competition instruments recently, I was struck by how highly finished so many were: their woodwork impeccable, their varnish rubbed down and polished to a high gloss. The polishing is understandable. Humans and magpies love shiny things. Many of the materials we hold most precious – gold, platinum, gemstones – are those which best hold a shine. Wood is not among them, at least not without some kind of surface treatment. French polishing takes the aesthetic of shiny wood to its limit, giving us the spectacular mirror finishes prized on nineteenth century furniture.

Detail of Stradivari’s Messiah

Detail of Stradivari’s “Messiah”
Photo: Claudio Rampini

Looking at the photo of the Messiah above, mirror finishes are evidently not what Stradivari had in mind. Though the varnish is certainly shiny, there is an almost shocking amount of texture: the grain of the spruce, the traces of tool work, the native texture of an un-abraded oil varnish. Had the Messiah been released into the wild, these textures might have become accentuated as dirt built up in recessed areas, or they might have been lost to wear and French polish. But even as one kind of texture fades, new ones arrive. Varnishes craze and flake. They are corroded by perspiration. Dents and scratches accumulate. At no time in its history does a respectfully maintained Old Italian have the smooth gloss associated with Victorian furniture. Why then do so many new instruments – even those which cling tightly to Old Italian models?

It may be because pristine old instruments don’t often fall into a maker’s hands, and their surface textures don’t show well in the kind of straight-on, glare-free photographs favored by violin books. Or it may be that sanding and polishing are simply the most convenient ways to remove dust particles and other imperfections from the varnish film, whose surface can then be maintained ad infinitum by re-polishing. Or it may be that tastes have changed and, to the extent that makers and their clients are happy, all is well.

Yet there remains an equal and opposite attraction to more variegated finishes – finishes that retain a sense of process, finishes that carry a story. The pull between these opposites is hardly limited to violins. Think of Michelangelo’s smoothly-polished “David” and then Rodin’s rough-hewn “Thinker.” Or compare the Brancusi sculpture in the photograph below with Giacometti. The glamour currently attached to Brescian violas and Guarneri del Gesu violins has suggested new degrees of freedom for violin-makers today. No need to hide all those tool marks! No need to be quite so symmetrical! Sophisticated makers are taking an increasingly three-dimensional approach to varnishing. Few have gone further in this direction than Grubaugh & Seifert, who treat texture as something to celebrate rather than eliminate.

Giacometti: Woman of Venice VII

Giacometti: “Woman of Venice VII,” courtesy Wiki Commons

In this regard, antiquing is a pretext, an umbrella beneath which a variety of visual effects may be introduced. The question becomes:
Who needs an umbrella? Sculptors, jewelers, metalworkers, and ceramicists require no pretext for enlivening their work with textures and variegated colors. Why should violin-makers?

Art-world finishes often speak to the way things age. Prince and the Pauper”

Art-world finishes often speak to the way things age. “Prince and the Pauper”, courtesy Wiki Commons

Art-world finishes often speak to the way things age. The oxidation of metals, the wearing through of layered finishes, the crazing of glazes, the smoothing of rough surfaces, the erosion of smooth ones: all are commonly brought into works of art, but without suggesting the art-works themselves are old. Take, for example, the patination of bronze, which preempts the oxidation that occurs naturally over time. The Giaacometti above might at first glance have been dug up at an archeological site. Did this great 20th Century artist “artificially age” his work? Well, his patinas certainly involved artifice – but then sculptures, like violins, are entirely artifice.

In the end, saying a violin has been artificially aged is rather like saying the “Messiah” has been artificially colored – as indeed it has. You may find antiquing offensive, or you may find the “Messiah” too orange, but neither reaction has much to do with the level of artifice. The difficulty with antiquing is in making it persuasive. The difficulty with orange is in making it palatable. Stepping back a bit, the difficulty with violin finishes is in the lack of alternative approaches. The road between Pristine and Antiqued goes through barren country – a sign here saying “lightly antiqued,” another there saying “shaded.”

Most art-forms reinvent themselves with each generation, given that some measure of originality is expected in a work of art. The expectation is less pressing in a craft, but even among traditional crafts, violin-making stands out for having barely responded to any aesthetic movement since the Renaissance. Where sculptors and ceramicists now draw upon a vast legacy of styles and finishes, we violin-makers are left arguing about whether or not to antique our work. For those who do not, the beauty of an Old Italian can be taken as a kind of promise: Build instruments in just the way the Italians did, and yours may someday look as good. To which a chorus of antiquers replies, “Why wait?”

Linarol endpin

Why indeed? Ancient artifacts have long inspired artists to borrow, modify, or steal outright the effects they like best, all in service of creating something new. Antiquers have followed this same path, though with no great thrust toward originality. Still, they may be just steps away from something original: complex color effects and satisfying textures on instruments that don’t pretend to be old. All of which leaves me at my varnish bench, with a Linarol viola in one hand and an unvarnished violin in the other, wondering what to do next.