To talk about a Stradivarius is to talk about the highest standard of craftsmanship an object can attain. Never mind the fact that studies have shown that many professional violinists can’t tell a Stradivarius apart from a lesser violin: almost three centuries after Antonio Stradivari died, the Stardivarius is still perceived to be such a paragon of violin design that modern violins almost always use the same shape.
But that wasn’t always the case: in fact, Stadivari’s unique design language didn’t become a dominant part of violin design language until the 19th century. And thanks to one lapsed violinist turned scientist, we can now see for ourselves how violin design has evolved over the centuries.
Dan Chitwood, a researcher at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri, set out to trace the evolution of violin design using the same software that researchers use to quantify and compare the shapes of different plant specimens. Using a database of photos of over 9,000 string instruments, Chitwood was able to chart the average shape of violins from 1560 to 1989.
What Chitwood discovered was that up until the 19th century, the average violin was rounder, and shaped almost like an eggplant. Stradivariuses, however, had a very different shape, with sharp-edged corners separating the violin’s upper and lower half. That style only became dominant when influential French violin makers Nicolas Lupot and Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume discovered Stradivari in the 1800s and began copying his work.
“Lupot and Vuillaume thought in their hearts that Stradivaris were the best instruments ever,” Chitwood told the New York Times. “They dedicated their lives to figuring out things like the family secrets for the varnish and trying to find the right wood types that matched his. And of course they thought that shape was important.”
In other words, if it wasn’t for these two early advocates, the Stradivarius may never have become the paragon that it is today. What’s ironic, though, is that of all the elements that go into making a violin sound good, shape is actually much less important than the properties of the wood and the varnish used. It just goes to show how important having the right PR people on your team can be.