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Decoration deciphered on Stradivari violin

Photonics Spectra
Sep 2013

Historians, artists and music lovers have long debated the merits of a Stradivari violin: Are the materials or the methods responsible for the unsurpassed sound quality, or did the 17th-century master just have a sixth sense that told him how best to construct each instrument?

A recent paper offers a scientific look at the materials. Marco Malagodi and colleagues at the Università degli Studi di Pavia in Italy analyzed Stradivari’s materials and methods using optics-based and other techniques to study the decorations and varnishes on the top plate of a 17th-century Stradivari violin.

The researchers studied the plate at the university’s Laboratorio Arvedi, which is dedicated to the study of the materials that make up historic artifacts for applications such as replication, restoration and authenticity verification.

Their goal was to identify the presence of original varnish layers and to characterize the composition of either the inlaid purflings (three decorative strips of wood encircling the outline of the top plate) or the composite false-inlay strip between them.


A research team in Italy used optical methods to characterize decorations on the top plate of a 17th-century Stradivari violin. Photo courtesy of Marco Malagodi/Claudio Canevari.


The nondestructive investigation began with UV-induced visible fluorescence, which provides low-level information about uniformity of the surfaces and identifies areas for further investigation. Optical digital microscopy enabled them to quickly obtain simple and morphological information.

They used an energy-dispersive x-ray fluorescence technique with micro Fourier transform IR (FTIR) spectroscopy; securing the top plate onto the stage of the micro FTIR spectroscope allowed them to use an attenuated total reflectance probe. They also dated the wood dendrochronologically – by studying its growth rings.

They discovered that the purflings were colored with iron gall ink, the dye used for writing at that time, and they detected the absence of varnishes on the top plate, which Malagodi said could be from past restoration attempts. They found that the black matrix of the decoration was made by ebony powder, and that the white elements were made with ivory – difficult to distinguish from bone, even with the techniques they used, Malagodi said.

Based on overall analysis, they made a copy of the top plate and analyzed it in the same way that they had the original.

“The most important application of this finding is the study of ancient technologies oriented to the conservation of ancient musical instruments, and to the identification of their most important and characteristic features, even and eventually in order to assess their authenticity and provenance,” Malagodi said. The information they obtained is “of extreme utility for makers who want to replicate original instruments trying to use the proper ancient techniques and similar materials,” he added.

The work appeared in Applied Physics A: Materials Science & Processing (doi: 10.1007/s00339-013-7792-2).


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