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Last Updated: Friday, 25 May 2007, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Cremona violins thrill virtuosos
By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Cremona, Italy

The great Maxim Vengerov once said of his Stradivarius violin: "It is my musical soulmate."

Stradivarius violin, The Hammer, auctioned for $3.5m in May 2006
Stradivarius violins sell at auction for millions of dollars
Creating an instrument with such depth of character relies on centuries of tradition - most of which belongs to the small town of Cremona in northern Italy.

It was here that Antonio Stradivari set up his workshop in the early 1700s.

It was also the home of Andrea Amati, who designed the first template of the modern-day violin.

Today the town has 130 luthiers who still make violins using the template of the great masters.

Stefano Conia, 61, has been making violins in Cremona for 40 years. It is a family business.

"My father, my brother, my son they were all violin makers!" he told me.

Stefano's workshop is cluttered with gauges, planers, scrapers and clamps.

And on the shelf is stored an exotic collection of ingredients with names such as Black Boy Gum, Juniper Gum, Root Of Curcuma: all natural resins that he blends together to make each of the 40 layers of varnish he applies to his violins.

Obsessed with wood

But aside from the craftsmanship, it is the wood from which the instrument is made that gives the Cremona violin its unique sound.

Stefano owns valuable stocks of old wood, some of it bequeathed by his late father.

The name Cremona is to musicians as Ferrari is to car enthusiasts

The wood is dated in pencil on the back, some of it going back to the early years of the last century.

"I have been searching for the best wood all my life," said Stefano. "It's an obsession. Even when I was a student.

"I am always buying wood for my violins. The best pine comes from the north Italian Alps and the best maple from the mountains of Bosnia-Hercegovina."

Apart from violins, Stradivari made guitars, violas, cellos, and at least one harp - more than 1,100 instruments in all.

About 650 of these instruments survive.

Pinpoint accuracy

Stefano has been crafting a replica of a Stradivari violin made in 1715.

The measurements and the thicknesses of the wood are exact to the nearest millimetre.

It is time-consuming work. He makes just 12 instruments a year, all entirely by hand.

A craftsman busy in workshop of Mathijs Adriaan Heyligers - photo courtesy Mathijs Adriaan Heyligers
A Cremona violin maker continues the town's proud tradition
Each sells for at least 10,000 euros ($13,400, 6,700). But pluck the strings of a Cremonese violin and you can instantly recognise the clarity and depth of the sound.

"A violin maker is a sculptor, an artist and a musician," says Stefano.

"They are three elements which are not easily reproduced."

That is why the musicians still flock to Cremona.

Eastern rivals

Even so, as is the case in most industries, the luthiers of Cremona face intense competition from East Asia.

In China, violins and cellos are mass-produced for a fraction of the cost of those you can buy in Cremona.

And in the town itself the craftsmen increasingly hail from Asia. Among Italians, violin making is a dying trade.

Cremona is the home of violin making - it always will be
Mathijs Adriaan Heyligers
Master violin maker

At the town's International Violin Making School, Professor Massimo Negrosi says 80% of his students are foreigners.

"We have Koreans, Japanese and Taiwanese students," he said. "These days a large number of our students come from Asia - very few from Italy."

While most will take their skills abroad, some do stay to continue learning their trade and open their own shops in the town.

One former student who did that is the Dutch master Mathijs Adriaan Heyligers, who attended the school over 30 years ago.

Good investment

He says local Italians have always been concerned that foreigners who learn their trade in Cremona will eventually take away the business altogether. He just does not believe it.

"In the time of Stradivari the world was only as big as Europe - now they come from all over," he said.

Master violin maker Mathijs Adriaan Heyligers in his shop - photo courtesy Mathijs Adriaan Heyligers
Mathijs Adriaan Heyligers came to Cremona 30 years ago
"But if the Italians think intelligently about this question, they will quickly come to the conclusion that every foreigner who arrives in this city comes because it IS Cremona.

"Once every year we have a huge meeting when thousands of violin makers, from all over the world, gather for conferences, exhibitions and concerts. We learn from each other. Cremona is the home of violin making - it always will be."

And there are very few investments that will provide a return like a Cremonese violin.

The experts tell me that if you buy well, within three to five years, you can expect to see a 20 to 30% return on your money.

Few can resist the allure of a Cremonese - particularly an old instrument.

Cremona's town hall boasts a collection of the most ancient instruments - including one dating back to 1556, made by Andrea Amati for Carlo IX of France, and the original "Cremonese" made by Stradivari in 1715.

They may be museum pieces, but they are still tools of the trade and must be played every day.

The lucky man entrusted with this task is composer Andrea Mosconi.

So how does he compare the instruments made today with those of the grand masters?

"There's an enormous difference," he says. "These violins are like wine - they get better with age.

"But if the new violins are made well and to this classic template of the Stradivaris and the Amatis then one day they too could be put in the category of the grand instruments."

And that, say the luthiers, is why violin making in this town will always survive.

The name Cremona is to musicians as Ferrari is to car enthusiasts. It is special, it is hallowed and no one - not even the Chinese - can reproduce that.

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