Stradivari’s fabled “Messiah” three centuries on: The most controversial violin in History?

Antonio Stradivari’s “Messiah” made in 1716 is simultaneously the best preserved of all his instruments in existence, and an example from the height of his “Golden Period”. Owing to it’s new-like condition, it was donated to the Ashmolean Museum in 1940 by the firm of W.E. Hill & Sons to become a benchmark for future makers. Despite their high hopes for it, its usefulness has been overshadowed by rumour and legend. Benjamin Hebbert writes to encourage makers to put their doubts aside and embrace it as an encyclopaedic reference to Stradivari’s working methods, and explains how dispassionate forensic science stands shoulder to shoulder with traditional connoisseurship in providing certainty of attribution.  

Every musical instrument kept behind glass has it’s own controversy, as demand for them to be heard conflicts with the museum curator’s responsibility to preserve. With many instruments this is mitigated by their antiquity, obsolescence, and fragile state of preservation but in the world of great violins where seemingly identical instruments are vied for by the leading musicians of the day, this can become a particularly emotive point. Across the world, the famous concert violins of Fritz Kreisler, Nicolo Paganini, Pierre Rode, Delphin Alard and Ole Bull sit silent – or largely so, but none receive quite the same attention as Stradivari’s 1716 masterpiece, the “Messiah”. Fabled as the greatest of all Stradivari’s violins – whatever that means – it was gifted to the the nation and placed in the Ashmolean Museum by W.E. Hill & Sons in 1940 on the express condition it never be played, and with strict restrictions on access which mean that even most violin experts and makers won’t have the chance to hold it in their hands, and study it meaningfully outside of its glass case. For those who want to understand more about its predicament as a silent relic, my 2013 position paper written with the encouragement of the Ashmolean Museum was published by Oxford Today and can be read here: Caged Messiah

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Patently not what we imagine when we think of a great violin from 300 years ago. Stradivari’s 1716 Messiah.

Such situations inspire emotion and ultimately this must add fuel to the controversy over  whether the instrument is genuine or not. Since word of the existence of the violin first reached Parisian violin dealers in the 1820s, it’s existence and authenticity has been shrouded by scepticism. By this point, almost a century after Stradivari’s death, few of his violins had survived without suffering significant wear as a result of how they were played, and the fragility of the varnish. Luigi Tarisio, the violins owner from 1827 boasted of its existence to the amazement of the Parisian trade, but never brought it with him, leading the violinist Delphin Alard to proclaim  ‘Truly your violin is like the Messiah of the Jews: one always expects him but he never appears’. Thus the violin was baptized with the name by which it is still known. Long before Tarisio died in 1854 thanks to his many trips to Paris, the legend of a remarkable, uniquely preserved Stradivari violin from the height of his Golden Period was strong within dealing circles, so when Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume heard of his death and travelled in secret to Turin to secure Tarisio’s collection of violins, it was as if his reputation rode on his ability to secure the crown jewel of all violin making come what may. As some have suggested, the significance of owning the Messiah was so great for Vuillaume, that he had to return to Paris with it whether it existed or not. From thereon the legend was not subject to whether such a violin existed, but whether it was real of fake.

 

Whatever rumours abounded in the nineteenth century, the violin is harder to comprehend with modern eyes. Alongside Vuillaume’s own copies, the Messiah inspired a wealth of other makers, and in turn it inspired cheaper more mass produced instruments. It’s influence is easy to see in the work of J.B. Colin-Mezin, and into various instruments by the enormous Jerôme Thibouville-Lamy enterprise that produced tens of thousands of instruments for export around the turn of the century. Even preposterously antiqued violins of the Caussin workshop often show a basic Messiah template as the starting point, whilst the essential design passed into factory made instruments of the Far-East: There are simply millions of violins, good and bad that are derived from the Messiah. Many times we hear of it characterised as a “French violin”, but one has to remember that every French violin that looks like it was made after 1854.

The problem is magnified further in the Ashmolean Museum, where inevitably it stands out glowing red amongst a room of gently worn and faded instruments. In fact, it is rivalled in condition by other instruments, Nicolo Amati’s 1649 “Alard” in particular, but they lack the fiery red colour so unique to the Messiah, yet so reminiscent of many of the instruments copied from it. These reasons make it difficult for the modern eye to accept the Messiah without question. It is too complicated an instrument too isolated in its environment to sit comfortably at first glance.

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It is easy to see how the Messiah contrasts disturbingly against the subdued colours of other violins in the collection, Brothers Amati 1618, Nicolo Amati “Alard” 1649, The Messiah, Giovanni Maria c.1580, and Antonio Stradivari “Cipriani Potter” 1683.

It is easy to see why doubt persists, although in many ways the modern viewer is in a better position to judge the instrument than most people who pursued rumour in the last hundred years. We forget that from 1890 until 1931 it was almost constantly in the hands of private collectors, and only with the W.E. Hill & Sons for nine years before it was given to the nation. In the early days at the Ashmolean, display was difficult. The Hill Room, when it was built in 1950 was seldom open, being reserved for special appointment, and with lighting intended to preserve the tapestries that hung on the wall: The lighting was so bad that a scurilous rumour spread around the museum community that the Messiah’s varnish had been bleached by over exposure because it looked so unappealing in that context. It wasn’t until 2009 that anyone could visit the Messiah unfettered and not until 2014 that it  could be observed in a properly lit case for the first time. The first high quality colour photographs of the violin were produced in 1997 by Stewart Pollens in an abortive exploration to publish a revised catalogue of the collection. Afterwards, The Strad Magazine’s poster, published in their special edition in 2011, really the very first time that makers and experts without access to Oxford were able to examine the Messiah in any meaningful detail (read my article from that edition here). Buy the poster here.

Between 1997 and 2000 stirrings were afoot concerning the Messiah, leading to a front-page exposure in the Sunday Times. Stewart Pollens, a distinguished instrument scholar and Associate Conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art had made preliminary investigations towards producing a catalogue of the collection. He was already well acquainted with Cremonese archives having documented The Violin Forms of Antonio Stradivari a watershed at the time in bringing Stradivari’s working methods to a wider audience, and his research uncovered many of the apparent inconsistencies in the provenance of the Messiah from the time that it was purportedly in Count Cozio’s hands. Preliminary questions were raised – was this Stradivari the one owned by Cozio or another one? Arguably crucial elements of the violins provenance had been swept under the carpet by complacent dealers and experts raising a variety of possibilities about it.

At the same time, pioneering studies were taking place into the dendrochronology of stringed instruments. In Britain by John Topham and Derek McCormick, and in Germany by Professor Peter Klein. The two methodologies couldn’t have been more different. The Topham-McCormick technique used a gantry mounted microscope to measure the rings non-invasively and the data was fed directly into a computer programme that cross referenced the results against all know sources on the database. By contrast, Klein had already earned a significant reputation for his work on Renaissance oak panel paintings, and was a kind of granfather figure from the very earliest ages of dendrochronology of cultural objects. His measurements were taken directly off the surface of the object using a magnifying lens, and the resulting sequence drawn as a graph onto tracing paper and overlaid on a master chronology until he found a match. When he was sent photographs of an anonymous, new looking violin it is obvious that he would have started his search in the most plausible place, moving back in time. As the dates became less plausible for the objects appearance, he would have placed greater reliance on a fainter resemblance of his sequence fatally settling on a low lying cross match with an outer-ring date of 1738, the year following Stradivari’s death. The consequences were deadly, as this seemed to be the ‘smoking gun’ that gave credibility to the doubts surrounding all questions concerning the Messiah. In 1998 he addressed the Violin Society of America Conference with his findings that the Messiah was a fake. Almost two years later Topham and McCormick fired back with a peer reviewed article in the Journal of Archaeological Science showing their findings of an outer-ring date of 1682 with significant cross matches against other Stradivari violins of undisputed authenticity, showing that the tree was cut down before the Messiah was made. Read here. “Strad Wars” kicked off, as a witty Times reporter dubbed it.

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Shortly afterwards the Violin Society of America commissioned a group of independent climatological scientists to arbitrate between the two results. Their exercise vindicated the Topham-McCormick’s result (Read here), and no one has since been able to replicate the 1738 date, or the purported cross match with the “Lord Wilton” that followed. Whilst Klein retracted his findings, Pollens remained convinced that other questions remained to be answered. It was remotely possible that Vuillaume had acquired a specimen of Stradivari’s wood, whilst an over reliance on Cozio’s notebooks treated them like notarised deeds of ownership rather that the ad hoc collection of drafts produced over many years that they were. I very much doubt that Cozio’s writings are anything more than circumstantial evidence, however compelling they are, but whilst they may raise issues of provenance, which had been swept under the carpet and deserved to be revisited with a critical eye, they did not raise issues of authorship and attribution. Whatever the history of the Messiah, sometimes Ockham’s Razor is a useful tool – Where there exist two explanations for an occurrence. In this case the simpler one is usually better – the possibility of a second near perfect Stradivari from the height of the Golden period hiding out of sight until Vuillaume needed it to fulfil a legend is less probable than accepting warts-and-all documents of from a dilettante with a wandering mind. Nevertheless, there was always pressure on the Messiah which would have trickled on forever. We should be grateful for Stewart Pollens for opening Pandora’s Box as widely as it could. It paved the way to explore the questions and inconsistencies about the violin and about its provenance. For good or for bad, “Strad Wars” was timely and much needed.

 

For a while, dendrochronology was the casualty of the debate, with seemingly disparate dates available for the same tree. No one has been able to replicate the 1738 date with any statistical validity, whilst suddenly an enormous range of home-grown dendrochronologists started offering a bizarre range of dates despite 1682 being supported by an independent panel of experts. Whilst professionals in the violin trade knuckled down to understand exactly what was going on, conspiracy theorists sought to bypass the inconvenient truth of the matter, fixating on the idea that independent dendrochronologists had found divergent dates rather than questioning the circumstances. Over the years accusations rumbled on. The spectre of a world-wide mafia with much to lose if the instrument was fake reared its head. It was even suggested that in collusion with the Ashmolean the Hills had added a painted “G” mark to the interior of the pegbox sometime after 1997 to help the instrument’s authenticity. Nonetheless by 2011 the last serious word had been spoken. The year before, Stewart Pollens had published Stradivari with Cambridge University Press. Alongside one of the most useful and exhaustive analysis of Stradivari’s life, he set out his final arguments. This was followed in short order by the Musical Instruments in the Ashmolean Museum, in many ways the first comprehensive published argument to put the record straight.

Despite all odds, new breeds of conspiracy theorists continued to evolve under the illusion that they have something to say, and by 2015 the Messiah had reached a similar status in the public eye as Shakespeare’s true identity, Area 51, or believers in the Da Vinci Code. No one could have guessed that someone would produce the most tedious book ever written on the violin. The assumption, strong as always that the house of cards would come tumbling down when the Messiah was exposed as a fake remained.

Meanwhile sensible things were happening. In 2013 the leading violin expert, Charles Beare was able to mount an extraordinary exhibition of Stradivari’s works at the Ashmolean in which the Messiah took centre stage. The catalogue can be purchased here. The Messiah may be the most complete in terms of it’s preservation, but that does not mean that other instruments don’t share the same purity and features in part here and there. The result was to create a nexus of some of the finest surviving Stradivari instruments, the inner circle of which all contributed directly towards analysing the Messiah from a connoisseurly point of view with an outer circle that helped to place them in a broader, firmer context. Many times since, I have heard it said that “if you were at the 2013 exhibition you could not have failed to be impressed by the similarities between the Messiah and the other violins as to leave you in no doubt of its authenticity.” It pains me to hear that, because although it is absolutely right, by now a generation of Violin Making students have passed through college and many other people across the world with opinions to spill never got to experience the event. It was a unique and extraordinary experience for those who were there at the time. I spent fifteen whole days in the exhibition, with time aside to rest my eyes.

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The Messiah back in Cremona 300 years on.

The tercentenary of the violins birth in 2016 allowed it back to Italy for the first time, to be displayed in Cremona in an exhibition curated by Gregg Alf. I had to question my sanity in taking two trips to Italy and the number of times I revisited a violin that I had studied so long in the ten-or-so years I lived in Oxford, but the joy of seeing it amongst three of the finest specimens of Vuillaume’s copying was superb. Back in 2012 Ingles & Hayday (then Sotheby’s musical instrument department) had mounted a superb exhibition of Vuillaume’s work and I had spent three of four days ritually taking notes and returning in the afternoon to Oxford to compare my observations against the Messiah – just as I had with the Vuillaume’s vaunted Evangelist Quartet, but there is nothing quite like seeing the same things in the same room. Just as important were Giuseppe Rocca’s copies of the Messiah – crude, yet distinctive that were made in Turin when it was owned by Luigi Tarisio, confirmation of the history of the violin prior to 1854 that was conveniently overlooked by conspiracy theorists at large.  Better still, the Museo del Violino had enabled the Messiah to undergo unrivalled scientific study. The Absolute Stradivari: The Messie violin 1716-2016 and the associated study day comprised the fruits of this study. It summarised some of Brigitte Brandmair’s excellent work on varnish, and revisited John Topham’s dendrochronological studies over a decade after they had first been published, and led to some gems in the most unexpected corners that significantly added to our knowledge of things. As I left the study day, one thing that had been left unsaid was the corroborative quality of different strands of evidence.

In 2017 I was honoured to be able to be chairman and organiser of the Messiah 301 conference at Oxford for the British Violin Making Association with the blessing of the Ashmolean Museum, and just as importantly the blessing of the Museo del Violino. It was an opportunity to reconvene the most important papers of their study day, and combine them with other missing parts of the story: If people persist on thinking the violin is by Vuillaume, lets invite someone – Bruce Carlson – who has restored both Vuillaumes and Stradivaris to offer his opinion on their varying construction. Lets ask Jean-Jacques Rampal, as the effective descendant of Vuillaume’s legacy to teach us more about Vuillaume’s workshop. With a year to digest, what could Carlo Chiesa tell us about Count Cozio’s Carteggio, and specifically about the questions raised over it. But most importantly what was the impact of the forensic evidence that had been put forward?

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Here was the very heart of the issue as I understood it. To put it frankly (time to put your tinfoil hat on, if you may), the authenticity of the Messiah as a purely connoisseurly judgement comes down to the experience of seeing and recalling many other Stradivaris, (and many instruments that are not Stradivaris), in order to be able to make a judgement. People who have invested enough time and expertise in the question tend to have a vested interest in the subject, because – it can be argued, they are a part of the mafia, the global conspiracy that has much to lose if they are wrong. Hence, the perfect conspiracy theory follows that the harder you argue that it is genuine, the more you appear to have a vested interest: Much like the United States Government trying to argue that there are no aliens in a secret bunker in Area 51 – the more they deny it, the more they are doing what the conspiracy theorists expect them to do, yet they cannot rationally do otherwise.

In the end this can become a race to the bottom, with one persons word against another, with one person picking apart the inconsistencies of what another seems to have said until the argument becomes abstracted beyond recognition from the original question and the winner is the one with the greater stamina: Somebody in America around the end of the nineteenth century wrote “Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.” That somebody may have been Mark Twain, although it’s delightfully poetic that scholars of American literature contest to this day whether it is an authentic quote of his or not.

What attracted me in curating most of all in the Oxford conference was that it was seemingly possible to provide enough separate threads of highly credible forensic evidence for a scientific argument to stand shoulder to shoulder with a conventional connoisseurly judgement. Dendrochronology, Varnish Analysis and the results of CT Scans all provided highly credible evidence of their own, but put together it seemed that they had the scientific weight to test a secure conviction, a scenario that seemed arguably to be possible for the first time in the history of violin expertise.

My own experience with Dendrochronology harks back to Student days, and my baptism of fire in 2000 was to be sitting immediately in front of Stewart Pollens when John Topham was giving his paper to demonstrate his technique at a conference in Edinburgh. I’d followed all sides of the story with great interest, and my respect for Stewart was all the more after spending a year’s fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ve always had taken his questions sincerely and seriously, even if I found myself disagreeing with his conclusions. I had seen how dendrochronology had developed and the power of cross matching instruments against each other. With thousands of instruments on four independent databases across Europe the technique was beyond infancy and able to yield profoundly informative forensic detail. John’s work by this point had been able to demonstrate statistical groupings of Stradivari’s wood use, placing the Messiah’s 1716 date as consistent with those instruments that resembled it closest from a scientific point of view. You can review his work in The Absolute Messiah, and the high quality of data that it yields after many years of adding to the database after the initial findings of 2000. Meanwhile, the more recent presentation by Peter Ratcliff, another excellent dendrochronologist surrounds a particularly strong match between wood of the Messiah and the 1717 Wilhelmj Stradivari gives the best insight to date into the nature and reliability of dendrochronology. If you want to understand dendrochronology for yourself, this video is indispensable.

My luck had allowed me to be an intermediary for Brigitte Brandmair and Jan Röhrmann in the production of the Stradivari Varnish project  back in 2009 along with Stefan Peter Greiner, enabling me to gain a first hand understanding of the process and them to  access to the Ashmolean Museum and to our surprise to being able to involve the Messiah in the project as we thought the rules would be too strict to allow it. Brigitte, a conservation scientist with a background in guitar making, had observed a characteristic layer between the wood and the varnish that was identifiable under Ultraviolet light at magnification, that was common to Classical Italian Instruments of Cremona, Brescia and closely related schools, but not present elsewhere. At the most basic level Vuillaume’s instruments did not respond under Ultraviolet in the same manner with the Messiah  was consistently Cremonese, with this intermediary layer simply not detectable with nineteenth century technology, removing the possibility that the instrument could have been made outside of the Classical Cremonese system.

Lastly Gregg Alf had overseen CT Scanning of the instrument, allowing us a detailed look into it’s construction methods, both making it easier to observe elements that were difficult under normal conditions, and providing new ways to see things that may have been completely impossible without taking the instrument apart. Mysteries like the lack of iron stain on the neck, leading to the belief that there were no nails in the neck were dispelled in an instant, but of the varied observations, his ability to digitally place Stradivari’s existing PG mould into the ribs was of extraordinary importance. Although the mould form was predicatable (Stewart Pollens had first noted it after writing his authoritative book on Stradivari’s moulds and patterns), the vacant areas for the blocks are randomly cut, providing six block shapes – and essentially fourteen reference points aligned, showing that the violin had been made from that unique mould. Along with such elements as the scratch marks from Stradivari’s sound hole placement, demonstrably not practiced by Vuillaume and others, the CT Scans provided another compelling strand of evidence with which to assess the Messiah.

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Benjamin Hebbert, John Topham, Bruce Carlson, Carlo Chiesa, Brigitte Brandmair, Jean-Jacques Rampal, Gregg Alf, Stefan von Baehr, Emilio Crabbé, Bruno Guastella and Philip Ihle, (Colin Harrison missing). The team for the Oxford Conference.

The Oxford conference could not have been done without the energies of the Museo del Violino in Cremona, Brigitte’s, John’s and Gregg’s research is published in The Absolute Stradivari by the museum in Cremona. However, at Oxford we were able to advance the point a crucial element further. In this instance, we could show three separate strands of forensic science that were able to deliver independently supportive evidence towards the authenticity of the Messiah as 1) A violin of classical Cremonese making 2) made using the same precise wood source used by Stradivari around the year 1716 3) made in his workshop using techniques familiar to him and using moulds belonging to Antonio Stradivari that still survive in the Museo del Violino. This has the equivalence of finding the fingerprint evidence, DNA evidence, the muddy boot print at the scene of the crime and the boot that matches it. The case for a solid conviction based on forensic evidence that is completely independent from traditional connoisseurship arguments was compelling, and for probably the first time a compelling case for authorship could be put from a forensic point alone.

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Fingerprints, DNA evidence, the muddy boot print and the boots to match. The Forensic basis for authenticating the Messiah sits shoulder-to-shoulder with traditional connoisseurship.

This leaves unanswered questions. Who in the Stradivari workshop made it? John Dilworth, an expert I admire greatly has put forward a supposition that it is the hand of the young Giovanni Baptista Martino Stradivari, the great hope to succeed his father who died prematurely in 1727.  I argue that in a busy workshop that included at least three sons, and the occasional presence of Carlo Bergonzi and others, there were times when the senior hand would have to make a violin from start to finish to assert his authority. The chamfers on the scroll hark back to the violins of the 1680s and 1690s when Antonio Stradivari was working alone, and perhaps this is the rarest of all treasures, a genuine golden period Strad made entirely by Antonio. Whatever the reason, it made it special enough to be passed through the Stradivari line to Paolo Stradivari, the grandson who sold it pristine to Count Cozio. These are the a priori propositions whose plausibility is only cancelled out by the plausibility of the other and do nothing to diminish the essential truth of a violin made in the Stradivari workshop in 1716.

Do I think controversy will ever die? Probably not. It’s preservation unplayed in near perfect condition is a preposterous contradiction to the violins we are used to seeing, but those are the same reasons that the 1820s Paris trade was in awe of the tantalising possibility that it could exist. Growing to understand it is an essential journey for any violin maker seeking to understand Stradivari at his best and purest, but that has to start with disbelief and incredulity which means that generations of upcoming violin makers will never cease to question it as they approach it for the first time. Delphin Alard may have named it because “one always expects him but he never appears”. In the 21st century I think the Messiah is an even more appropriate name because of the test of faith that it presents. Nevertheless we now have the tools to put forward a compelling rational scientific argument in its favour devoid of the emotional nature of connoisseurly judgement.

As far as the Ashmolean Museum is concerned, they are only interested in the truth.

 

 

My thanks to the Museo del Violino in Cremona, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Stewart Pollens, John Topham, Bruce Carlson, Carlo Chiesa, Brigitte Brandmair, Jean-Jacques Rampal, Gregg Alf, Stefan von Baehr, Emilio Crabbé, Bruno Guastella and Philip Ihle, John Dilworth Colin Harrison, Charles Beare, and everyone who has every looked at the Messiah with me on more visits than I can admit of.

 

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