The Violin Cases of Antonio Stradivari

Dimitri Musafia - Master Craftsman of Violin and Viola Cases

 

 
 Dimitri Musafia

Dimitri Musafia

 
 
Stradivari was a perfectionist, and in this context it makes sense that he would have wanted to safely house his instruments during their long and often perilous journey to the new owner, especially in consideration of the high prices he was fetching.
— Dimitri Musafia
 

Dimitri Musafia is a master craftsman of violin and viola cases with an international clientele that includes commissions from aficionados, museums, foundations and professional artists such as Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang and Salvatore Accardo – all of whom want to house their instruments in uncompromising safety and elegant styling. In fact, he has made cases for some of the most precious violins including the 1742 Guarneri del Gesu “The Cannon” ex-Paganini, 1715 Stradivari “Il Cremonese” ex-Joachim and 1740 Guarneri del Gesu ex-Ysaye-Stern.

Musafia was born in Long Beach, California and raised in a musical family of whom his father was the concert pianist and philosopher Julien Musafia. At age 16, he began studying violin making at the Stradivari Institute in Cremona, Italy, producing his first violin in 1979. After graduating three years later, he received First Prize Gold Medal at the 7th National Competition of Violin Makers, held near Ravenna. In addition to responsibilities as concertmaster of the Camerata di Cremona Chamber Orchestra and Choir, his reputation as instrument maker blossomed with orders coming in particularly from the US and Japan. After making thirty instruments that included violins, violas and one cello, Musafia made a career change in 1983, recognizing a need for cases that offered a greater degree of structural integrity and creativity – and he has never wavered in this commitment to perfection.

Musafia Cremona Italy violin and viola cases are considered by many to be the standard of the craft for their construction, design, innovation and quality of materials used, such as high-end silks, satins and Italian suede lining. Among the many accolades, Strings Magazine described his work as “The Crème de Cremona.” As such, each case is handcrafted by Musafia and a tight-knit group of assistants (most of whom have been with him for 25 years) at his family-owned atelier in Cremona. The Musafia series of cases are offered through select dealers worldwide including California representatives Hans Weisshaar in Los Angeles and Morey’s Music in Lakewood. Dimitri Musafia has published several articles on the historic violin cases of Antonio Stradivari. MIROIRS CA features “The Violin Cases of Antonio Stradivari” by Dimitri Musafia. 

 

The Violin Cases of Antonio Stradivari

 

A violin by the greatest of all makers, Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) of Cremona, Italy is every violinist’s dream. Starting where the dynasty founded by the inventor of the violin, Andrea Amati (1505-1577) left off, Stradivari, through dogged determination and constant refinement perfected the instrument with his “G” model in 1710, and his subsequent “Golden Period” works are considered unsurpassed, if not unsurpassable.

This of course is common knowledge to most string players. What is less so is that Antonio Stradivari was also the designer and builder of the cases in which his instruments were delivered, as is proven by the wealth of autograph designs, sketches and models of violin case components on display at Cremona’s Museum of the Violin – purchased from his descendants in 1775. How could he have had time for that, since by most accounts he built an astonishing 1,100 instruments, including guitars, mandolins and even harps?

Many people imagine Stradivari as a gaunt, solitary figure, curved over his workbench in flickering candlelight, carefully carving an elegant scroll; or thoughtfully examining a finished work again in regal privacy, as depicted in the famous painting by Hammand.

The less romantic fact is that Antonio did not build his violins all by himself from start to finish. In reality, Antonio managed a well-staffed atelier that allowed him the necessary time and freedom to research improvements and to travel to select materials, and was very successful at it. “As rich as Stradivari” was a way of saying, popular at the time in Cremona. The Hills write in their quintessential biography Stradivari: His Life and Work, “Possibly…Stradivari permitted {his sons and assistants} to rough out the work, and went all over it after them…his assistants may have made the cases destined for the instruments, cases of considerable artistic merit.” But why even the cases?

Stradivari was a perfectionist, and in this context it makes sense that he would have wanted to safely house his instruments during their long and often perilous journey to the new owner, especially in consideration of the high prices he was fetching. He would not have wanted his instruments to arrive in less than perfect condition, or presented in a haphazard fashion to King or nobleman who had commissioned them. Designing and building the best possible cases down to the smallest detail would have been the obvious solution, and indeed among Stradivari’s hand-penned models are no less than 52 different keyhole designs.

 

And yet, the problem with identifying a case by Stradivari is that, except very rarely, the cases are unlabelled. Indeed, only one case has the writing “Stradivario A. Cre.” branded into it. Incidentally, this also helps date the case, as Stradivari himself signed his surname “Stradivario” (which is the singular form, famously latinized into the legendary “Stradivarius”) until about 1680. From then on he used the plural form “Stradivari” on deeds and documents, a transformation that had become customary in that period for most Italian surnames and for the most part remains the standard today.

One would think that in view of the availability of Stradivari’s own component designs in the Museum, it would be easy to identify a Strad case: just check the hinges and lock and look for a match. The problem is that over the course of centuries the cases have been repaired, modified, and often lined in the interior, thus effectively contributing to mask their true identity. To put this into perspective, imagine purchasing a new violin case today and expecting the hardware to last for the next three hundred years!

The two earliest cases attributed to the Stradivari workshop are dated to the late 1600’s, when Stradivari was approaching maturity, and are known as the “Chi Mei, ex-Biddulph” case and the “Milan” case. Both are of the “holster” type, so-called because of their shape and resemblance to a pistol holster. They are violin-shaped, carved from the solid poplar wood abundant in the region, covered outside in Moroccan leather with protective studs, lined inside only in paper and well-represent the earliest violin cases that have survived to this day tout court. There are fewer than a dozen “holster” cases currently catalogued in the world, between private collections and museums. Certainly one of the reasons of their rarity is the fact that when the modern violin setup with the increased neck angle became popular in the second half of the 18th century, these cases became useless because violins could no longer fit inside them.

Around 1700 a new type of violin case appeared, which researcher Dr. Glenn P. Wood suggests was designed by none other than Stradivari himself, the perfectionist. Conceptually similar to today’s cases, it possesses a straight-sided, curved-end symmetrical oblong form, featuring a hinged lid that allows the violin to be deposited into the case from above. For the first time proper provisions for bows are present in the lid of the case, as well as handles for portability, and modern violin cases descend directly from this design.

Arguably the most famous of these oblong cases is the “Marquis Crevelli” (or “Crivelli”) case, currently in a notable English collection, which has a paper trail that reinforces its attribution to the Stradivari workshop. Like many similar cases, it is built to house not just one but two violins, not unlikely because the natural gut strings used at the time were prone to frequent breakage and required a lengthy tuning-in. If a soloist suffered a broken string while playing he would simply grab his spare violin and resume the performance with a minimum of fuss.

How much is a Stradivari case worth today? It’s difficult to say because their extreme rarity makes them quite literally priceless: should a collector or a museum be interested in acquiring one, they are rarely for sale, and when they change hands it often happens privately, behind closed doors. The only recent publicly documented sale of a case by Stradivari was in 2007, where the case was sold at the Bongartz auction house in Germany for 7,000 Euros, or about $8,800 at the time. That was, however, before the case was attributed to the Stradivari workshop, through an article published the following year in The Strad magazine. It is safe to assume that today that same case is certainly worth several times that figure.

In conclusion, very few cases ascribed with any certainty to Stradivari are known today, and their identification is rather arduous. However, the sheer number of instruments built by Stradivari suggests that there must be other cases made in the legendary workshop, hidden undiscovered in attics or in Museum collections, and as yet unattributed. www.musafia.com

"Milan" violin case by Antonio Stradivari, c. 1680