Old Cremona Varnish Publications

The varnish of the Old Italian violin makers of the period 1550 to 1750 has been the subject of considerable speculation and conjecture but of little scientific research for the last century. The fabulously increased value of these violins, the surpassing beauty of the varnish, the fact that no tangible records regarding the varnish have been left to posterity, and the atmosphere of mystery surrounding a “lost art,” have encouraged unbridled speculation to ridiculous extremes. Stradivarius appeared in a dream to one seeker of the secret of the varnish, according to a newspaper article; another investigator discovered the formula suddenly by accident, overnight. These “discoveries” are generally announced with indisputable certainty; but rarely arc at¬tempts made to reconcile the “discoveries” with the existing data concerning the varnish. The public has indulged in speculation also; nearly every old violin found in a garret is considered potentially a “Strad”—but rarely a Guarnerius or an Amati!

In the past hundred years, a varied literature on these old violins has accumulated; but only a few books or papers have been published which are devoted exclusively to the varnish, especially its composition. Nearly all of the scores of books and articles on the violin, its history, its construction, its makers, its music, etc., contain no worthwhile data on the varnish; and those publications purporting to consider the varnish offer very little ” information of scientific value—and of this, much is conflicting. However, two publications especially contain descriptive and helpful information; as these papers may not be freely accessible, to preserve accuracy and to present a first-hand report, portions pertinent to this book will be reprinted verbatim.

Ole Bull’s Manuscript

The following is abstracted from “Violin Notes” on the varnish written by the famous Norwegian violinist Ole Bull (1810-1880) which appeared in a book by Broadhouse1 and in Ole Bull’s Memoire written by Sara Bull.

“In a search after an elucidation of this so-called lost art, three facts immediately present themselves: first this varnish was employed by the very earliest of the Italian makers as well as the later; second its use was common only in Italy; third, it ceased to be applied to violins after 1750-1760.”

“In texture this varnish is extremely supple; it will yield to pressure, but breaks or scales off under a sudden blow. It is entirely transparent, and of all shades of brown, red and yellow. The vehicle in which the gums and colors are dissolved is an oil. Applied to a violin, it compacts the tone together, without render¬ing it shrill or harsh, and gives additional beauty to the wood.”

“Three questions occur: first, was this manufacture a secret? second, how was this secret lost? third, are there any clues for perusal and examination? Answers to these questions should dear up the mystery of this so-called lost art.”

“To begin, then, with the first question, was the manufacture of this varnish a secret? There is no reasonable doubt that it was, but only in a certain way. For a period of about two hundred years, from the time of Caspar da Salo to that of the Bergonzi, the varnish was common to every Italian violin-maker. Cremona had no monopoly, for the knowledge and use of it extended to Padua, Venice, Rome and Naples. It is impossible, therefore, during this long time to say that the selection of ingredients or the method of preparation employed in the manufacture of this substance, so well known and widely used, were in any sense a secret. But a little later quite a change is observable. From a hundred Italian instruments of this later date, only a notable few can be selected as possessing the true varnish; and that this marked characteristic in the case of these few is not the result of mere chance is apparent from the fact that the artists who made them have consistently applied it to all their productions. From about 1745 to about 1760, then, the manufacture of this varnish may be properly called a secret, as being confined to a chosen few.”

“The second question now presents itself: how was the secret lost? A careful and repeated examination, extending to a vast number of objects, reveals the fact that the varnish of the Italian violin maker of the time of Stradivarius and before him was common to the painter, the varnisher, and the gilder as well. Let an ancient piece of Italian furniture, a chair, a cabinet, the case of a spinet or harpsichord, be examined, and provided it has escaped modern retouching, the varnish might be by Stradivarius himself. Generally it is colorless, then the quality and texture are the indications, but occasionally it is of brilliant hues, and then it proclaims itself to the eye at once. Let specimens of a later date, say 1760, be examined there is no such varnish. This is smooth, fairly lustrous, hard and durable. The chair of 1725 presents a surface broken and worn away, that of 1760, one comparatively smooth, and fairly able to endure further vicissitudes of time.”

“Between the years of 1740 and 1760, great changes in the manufacture of varnish were introduced. The old soft gums and their menstrua, capable in themselves of dissolving them, were discarded in favour of newer and more complicated processes producing a result more durable and unchangeable under exposure and rough wear.”

“And so it has happened that the art of the old varnish is not lost, but buried in the dust under the wheel of progress. For two hundred years it was in the hands of a nation; and though now a desire for this forgotten knowledge is confined to only a few, it would be absurd to say that persistent inquiry must fail to unravel a skein of so many ends.”

“The third question now presents itself: Are there any writings or dues for perusal and examination? There are many. An ingenious Frenchman, who long ago wrote a treatise on varnish, has given the list of authors who have treated upon this subject: Alexis, Tiavoranti, Anda, etc.”

“Here is a succession of treatises, the earliest written about the time of Gaspar da Salo, and the latest during that of Stradivarius. Here are hundreds of genuine receipts. Is any one of them the right one? Patience and perseverance arc necessary, much fit¬ting of old names to their nomenclatures and many tiresome comparisons, but these once made, the desired result may be obtained, and the new varnish may possess the old coveted lustrous softness and suppleness. And the colors? the brown, the red, and the yellow?—hidden under quaint and obsolete names, they are all indicated by one and another of these authors, and all are soluble in the one vehicle, forming a colored oil varnish, clear and transparent, which, however long kept, will let fall no sediment.”

“There is still another branch of this subject which has never, or very rarely, been specified, and this is the ground-toning. In all Italian instruments the wood appears to be permeated with a color varying in intensity from pale yellow to almost orange. This color is quite distinct from that of the varnish; for however faded by exposure and other causes the latter may be, the ground-tone almost always retains its color. The violins with red varnish afford the finest examples of this ground-toning. On such its tawny yellow is the most intense, and offers a splendid foil to the superimposed color, toning and giving life to it. How it was composed or applied, whether as a wash or stain, or as a distinct varnish, none of the authors give any information. But from their miscellaneous lists of the drugs, dye stuffs and coloring matter common to the Italian markets, it is quite possible that a selection could be made, which would fulfill all the required conditions of color and stability.”

“But though supplied with the ground-tone, another element is needed before the exact reflex of the Italian varnish can be reproduced, and that is the natural color of the old wood.” “The problem of the old varnish is solvable by anyone who deems the reward worth the trial of patience and perseverance, two elements most effective in the task of interlining the broken sentences of tradition.”

Charles Reade’s Papers

These papers are of considerable value for the purposes of this book, although portions are highly speculative. Reade was an eminent connoisseur (but evidently not a chemist). He had the advantage of studying the old Italian violins more than seventy years ago when they were in a better state of preserva¬tion and when they were not widely distributed throughout the world. Reade’s papers arc interestingly written and will be re¬printed as they appeared in Heron-Allen’s book”. Heron-Allen regards Reade’s as “a great connoisseur and eminently qualified to give an opinion.” Heron-Allen also considers Reade’s papers as the most intelligent, practical, and scientific solution of the fiddle-builder’s greatest difficulty. Reade says:

“It comes to this, then, that the varnish of Cremona, as acted on by time and usage, has an inimitable beauty; and we pay a high price for it in second-class makers, and an enormous price for it in a fine Stradivarius or Joseph Guanerius. No wonder, then, that many violin makers have tried hard to discover the secret of this varnish, many chemists have given days and nights of anxious study to it. More than once, even in my lime, hopes have run high, but only to fall again. Some have cried ‘Eureka!’ to the public; but the moment others looked at their discovery, and compared it with the real thing, ‘inextinguishable laughter shook the skies.’ At last, despair has succeeded to all that energetic study, and the varnish of Cremona is sullenly given up as a lost art. I have heard and read a great deal about it, and I think I can state the principal theories briefly but intelligently.”

1. ” It used to be stoutly maintained that the basis was amber; that these old Italians had the art of fusing amber without im¬pairing its transparency: once fused by dry heat, it could be boiled into a varnish with oil and spirit of turpentine, and combined with transparent yet lasting colors. To convince me, they used to rub the worn part of a Cremona with their sleeves, and then put the fiddle to their noses, and smell amber. Then I burning with the love of knowledge, used to rub the fiddle very hard, and whip it to my nose, and not smell amber. But that might arise, in some measure, from there not being any amber there to smell. (N.B. These amber seeking worthies never rubbed the colored varnish on an old violin. Yet their theory had placed amber there.)”

2. “That time does it all; that the violins of Stradivari were raw, crude things at starting, and the varnish rather opaque.”

3. Two or three had the courage to say it was spirit-varnish, and alleged in proof that if you drop a drop of alcohol on a Stradivari, it tears the varnish off as it runs.”

4. ”The far more prevalent notion was, that it is an oil varnish, in support of which they pointed to the rich appearance of what they call the bare wood, and contrasted the miserable, hungry appearance of the wood in all old violins known to be spirit varnished (for instance, Nicholas Gagliano of Naples, and Jean Baptiste Guadagnini of Piaccnza, Italian makers contemporary with Joseph del Gesu).”

5. ” That the secret has been lost by adulteration. The old Cremonese and Venetians got pure and sovereign gums that have retired from commerce.”

“Now as to theory No. 1. Surely amber is too dear a gum and too impracticable for two hundred fiddle-makers to have used it in Italy. Till fused by dry heat, it is no more soluble in varnish than quartz is; and who can fuse it? Copal is inclined to melt, but amber to bum, catch fire, do anything but melt. Put the two gums to a lighted candle, you will then appreciate the difference. I have tried more than one chemist in the fusing of amber; it came out of their hands a dark brown, opaque substance, rather burnt than fused. When really fused, it is a dark olive-green, as clear as crystal. Yet I never knew but one man who could bring it to this, and be had special machinery invented by himself for it; in spite of which he nearly burnt down his house at it one day. I believe the whole amber theory comes out of a verbal equivoque. The varnish of the Amati was called amber to mark its rich color, and your a priori reasoners went off on that, forgetting that amber must be an inch thick to exhibit the color amber. By such reasoning as this, Mr. Davidson, in a book of great general merit, U misled so far as to put down powdered glass for an ingredient in Cremona varnish. Mark the logic. Glass in a sheet is transparent; so it you reduce >6 to powder, it will add transparency to varnish. Imposed on by this chimera, he actually puts powdered glass, an opaque and in¬soluble sediment, into four recipes for Cremona varnish. But the theories, 2, 3, 4, 5, have all a good deal of truth in them; their fault is that they are too narrow, and too blind to the truth of each other. In this, as in every scientific inquiry, the true solution is that which reconciles all the truths that seem at variance.”

“The way to discover a lost art, once practiced with variations by a hundred people, is to examine very closely the most brilliant specimen, the most characteristic specimen, and, indeed the most extravagant specimen—if you can find one. I took that way, and I found in the chippiest varnish of Stradivarius, viz., his dark red varnish, the key to all the varnish of Cremona, red or yellow. (N.V.—The yellow varnish always beat me dead, till I got to it by this detour.) Look at this dark red varnish, and use your eyes. What do you see? A red varnish, which chips very readily off what people call the bare wood. But never mind what these echoes of echoes call it. What is it? It is not bare wood. Bare wood turns a dirty brown with age; this is a rich and lovely yellow. By its color, and by its glassy gloss, and by disbelieving what echoes say, and trusting only to our own eyes, we may see at a glance that it is not bare wood, but highly-varnished wood. This varnish is evidently oil, and contains a gum. Allowing for the tendency of oil to run into the wood, I should say four coats of oil varnish; and this they call the bare wood. We have now discovered the first process—a clear oil varnish, laid on the white wood with some transparent gum, not high-colored. Now proceed a step further. The red and chip varnish, what is that? ‘Oh! that is a varnish of the same quality, but another color,’ say the theorists No. 4. ‘How do you know?’ say I. ‘It is self-evident; would a man begin with oil varnish, and then go into spirit varnish?’ is their reply. Now observe, this is not humble observation, only rational preconception. But if discovery has an enemy in the human mind, that enemy is preconception. Let us, then, trust only to humble observation. Here is clear varnish, without the ghost of a chip in its nature; and upon it is another, a red varnish, which is all chip. Does that look as if the two varnishes were homogeneous? Is chip precisely the same tiling as no chip? If homogeneous, there would be chemical affinity between the two. But this extreme readiness of the red varnish to chip away from the clear marks a defect of chemical affinity between the two. Why, if you were to put your thumb-nail against that red varnish, a small piece would come away directly. This is not so in any known case of oil upon oil. Take old Forster, for instance: he begins with clear oil varnish; then on that he puts a distinct oil varnish, with the color and transparency of pea-soup. You will not get his pea-soup to chip off his clear varnish in a hurry, except where the top varnish must go in a played bass. Everywhere else his pea-soup sticks tight to his clear varnish, being oil upon oil.”

“Now take a perfectly distinct line of observation. In varnishes, oil is a diluent of color. It is not in the power of man to charge an oil varnish with color so highly as this top red varnish is charged. And it must be remembered that the clear varnish below has filled all the pores of the wood; therefore the diluent cannot escape into the wood, and so leave the color undiluted. If that red varnish was ever oil varnish, every particle of the oil must still be there. But this is impossible, when you consider the extreme thinness of the film which constitutes the upper or red layer. This, then, is how Anthony Stradivari varnished the instruments such as the one we are considering. He began with timer or four coats of oil varnish, containing some common gum. He then laid on several coals of red varnish, made by simply dissolving some fine red unadulterated gum in spirit; the spirit evaporated, and left pure gum lying on a rich oil varnish, from which it chips by its dry nature and its utter want of chemical affinity to the substratum. This solution of the process will apply to almost every Cremona varnish. The beauty, therefore, of varnish lies in the fact that it is a pure glossy oil varnish which serves as a foil to a divine unadulterated gum, which is left as a pure film on it by the evaporation of the spirit in which it was dissolved. The first is a colorless oil varnish, which sinks into and shows up the figure of the wood; the second is a heterogeneous spirit varnish, which serves to give the glory of color, with its light and shade, which is the great and transcendent beauty of a Cremona violin. Gum-lac, which for forty years has been the mainstay of violin-makers, must never be used, not one atom of it. This vile flinty gum killed varnish at Naples and Piacenza a hundred and forty years ago, as it kills varnish now. Old Cremona shunned it, and whoever employs a grain of it commits wilful suicide as a Cremonese varnisher. It will not wear; it will not chip; it is in every respect the opposite of the Cremona gums. Avoid it utterly, or fail hopelessly, as all varnishers have failed since that fatal gum came in. The deep red varnish of Cremona is pure dragon’s blood; not the cake, the stick, the filthy trash, which in this sinful and adulterating generation is retailed under that name, but the tear of dragon’s blood, little lumps, deeper in color than a carbuncle, clear as crystal, and fiery as a ruby. The yellow varnish is the unadulterated tear of another gum (Gamboge), retailed in a cake like dragon’s blood, and as great a fraud, as presented to you in commerce; for the yellow and for the red gum, grope the city far eastwards. The orange varnish of Peter Guarnerius and Stradivarius is only a mixture of these two genuine gums.”

The foregoing letter is the fourth in a series written by Reade which were first published in The Pall A fall Gazette in 1872. The letters described the violins exhibited at the South Kensington Museum in 1872 where some of the finest examples of stringed instruments made by the great Italian makers were assembled. The other three letters contain little data on the varnish, how¬ever, the following excerpt from one of these letters is highly pertinent:

“That fragment of top varnish is a film thinner than gold leaf. The lost secret is this: The Cremona varnish is not a varnish but two varnishes—and these varnishes always heterogeneous, that a to say, first the pores of the wood are filled and the grain shown up by one, by two and sometimes, though rarely, by four coats of fine oil varnish with some common but clear gum in solution. Then upon this oil varnish when dry is laid a heterogeneous varnish, viz. a solution in spirit of some sovereign high colored and tender gum.”


    1. Broadhouse, The Violin, How to Make It (1910).

    2. Bull, Sara, Ole Bull, a Memoire (1883).

    3. Heron-Allen, Violin Making (1885).

Joseph Michelman, Violin Varnish, (1946)         

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