Top 5 Best Violin Makers of All Time
Professional violin makers are called luthiers, and they practice a fine art that has been passed down for over four centuries. While the history of the violin is shrouded in mystery, the oldest violin still in existence was made in the early 15th century in a small town called Cremona in Italy by a luthier named Andre Amati. Italy would go on to become the world’s predominant producer of violins and other bowed stringed instruments for centuries and as a result, several other important and renowned luthiers have come from it.
While there have been thousands of luthiers over time, here are the five that most music historians consider to be the best violin makers of all time.
Antonio Stradivari is such a famous luthier that his name is synonymous with the instrument. He was born in Cremona, and while no official birth records exist, historians have dated his birth to be in or around 1644.
Stradivari started his career as a luthier under the tutelage of Nicolò Amati, the grandson of Andre Amati. With the skills he learned from Amati, it would not take long for Stradivari to master his art and develop his own unique style of violin, which still serves as the standard for modern violin making.
Stradivari crafted almost a thousand instruments in his lifetime, but currently only about 650 survive. In fact, some of his original works are still in use to this day and played by the greatest violinists in the world.
Despite being one of the most studied and famous violin makers in history, the true “secret” behind Stradivari’s illustrious instruments is a mystery. Scientists have studied everything from the wood that he used to make his violins to the varnish he used to protect them to try and determine what make his violins so special, but to no avail. To date, Stradivari’s formula for success has never been uncovered.
Bartolomeo Giusseppe Guarneri was born into one of Cremona’s most famous luthier families in 1698. His father was Andrea Guarneri, one of the town’s most famous luthiers at the time. It was often said that the quality of Giusseppe’s works rivaled those of Antonio Stradivari and in some circles, many even claimed that Giusseppe’s violins were superior to Stradivari’s.
In his early days, Giusseppe’s instruments were understandably fashioned according to his family’s rich tradition of violin making, but over time his skills continued to improve to the point that he would go on to develop his signature style. Today, his violins are cherished for their enduring beauty and quality, but also for their rarity. Fewer than 200 of his instruments remain in existence, so when one does enter the auction block, it usually sells for more than $10 million USD.
Andrea Guarneri is the grandfather of Bartolomeo Giusseppe Guarneri and the man who founded the Casa Guarneri. He was born in Cremona in 1626 and would later become another of Nicolò Amati’s apprentices at the age of 14. In fact, Andrea is considered by many to be Amati’s most important student because he served as the link between the Amati and Guarneri violin making dynasties.
Andrea Guarneri was such an adept student and skilled luthier that eventually his works would be nearly indistinguishable from Amati’s. Over time, his models would share Amati’s impeccable quality craftsmanship, but unlike his teacher’s works, his designs were considered to be freer and less precise. He would also go on to pioneer the violoncello.
Andrea Guarneri and his wife Anna Maria Orcelli would wind up having four children, two of which (Giuseppe and Pietro) would follow in their father’s footsteps to become celebrated and distinguished luthiers of their own and further the Guarneri legacy.
You can’t have a listing of the world’s most famous violin makers and not include Nicolò Amati. After all, he was the man who taught Antonio Stradivari, Francesco Ruggieri, and Andrea Guarneri their skills. Nicolò Amati was born in 1956, where he was one of twelve children and the fourth in his family to become master violin makers in the town of Cremona.
One of the most major things to happen to Amati occurred in 1629, when the Italian Plague ravaged the country. It would wind up killing his father, mother, two of his sisters, and his rival Giovanni Paolo Maggini. After the plague was over, Nicolò Amati was one of the only active luthiers left practicing the Cremonese tradition. This left him with an overwhelming demand for instruments. This demand was what led him to start taking apprentices, many of which went on to become famed luthiers in their own right.
Nicolò Amati became renowned for his own inventive style of violin making, which was eventually coined the “Grand Amati Pattern.” Because of the age and rarity of his violins, any models that do still exist are kept in museums or private collections and rarely ever played in public.
Francesco Ruggieri was born in Cremona in 1628 and he would go on to become the first luthier in an important family of Italian luthiers, the Casa Ruggieri. His violins were notably inspired by the works of Nicolò Amati because they shared many of the features most associated with Amati’s “Grand Amati Pattern.” As a result, Ruggieri was believed to be one of Amati’s earliest apprentices. This has been questioned by historians, however, as there are no census records to support the fact. That said, many believe that Ruggieri was not one of Amati’s “indoor apprentices,” but rather an apprentice who studied with him while still living in his own family home, much like Stradivari.
Unlike many of the other most famous violin makers, Francesco’s career would see him working outside of Cremona, Italy. Francesco was assisted by his three sons but only one, Vincenzo Ruggieri, would continue pursuing a career as a luthier. Because of his violin making skills and close association with Amati, many of his existing instruments have become nearly as renowned as Amati’s.