The traditions that gave us the best violins ever made continue in this northern Italian city. This heritage is even recognized by UNESCO.
It might be hard to understand the shared characteristic between traditional violin craftsmanship in Cremona, Italy and the following: polyphonic singing (Georgia), yoga (India), the hopping procession of Echternach (Luxembourg), the Charreria equestrian tradition (Mexico), wedding costume traditions of Tlemcen (Algeria), tango dancing (Argentina and Uruguay), lavash bread making (Armenia) and avalanche risk management (Switzerland and Austria).
All are on the UNESCO Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which seeks to protect “important intangible cultural heritages worldwide and the awareness of their significance.”
For the Cremonese, the pride they hold in their fine stringed instruments – violins, violas, cellos and bows – is both historical and contemporary. Beginning with the luthiers (violinmakers) of the 16thcentury, family names on instruments that survive today are revered by musicians, audiences and auction houses alike: Stradivari (yes, makers of the Stradivariuses), Amati, Guarneri, Rugeri and Bergonzi.
Some argue that the fine Italian violins, violas and cellos crafted in each violin shop of the early violin makers are due to the specific growing conditions for the maple and spruce woods at the time. A “mini Ice Age” occurred from the 15thto 17thcenturies in Europe, where low summer temperatures led to slower growth of the trees and thus a more dense wood (tree rings were more closely spaced). This finding isn’t universally accepted, but what most people in the world of stringed instruments agree on – seconded by UNESCO – is that the methods of skilled craftsman are the reason violins made in this region have exceptional tonality and overall quality.
The Cremona International Violin Making School (Scuola Internazionale di Liuteria di Cremona), founded in 1938, is a key bulwark in keeping this tradition alive. Students study sound and technique, develop the craft, and learn the cultural background of the Cremona violinmaking heritage. Over 80 years of operations, the school has produced almost 1,000 graduates, a little more than a third of whom are Italians, another third non-Italian Europeans, and the remainder non-Europeans. In a recent year there were 176 enrolled students.
The Cremona technique is considered unique to all other violin making around the globe. As the 70 different molded pieces of wood of each instrument are made and applied, they are adapted to the other parts of the violin. Given the vagaries of wood, a natural product of trees, this means that every instrument varies from one to the next.
Two official bodies supervise the creation of violins in Cremona: the Stradiari Violin Makers Consortium, and the Violin Making Italian Association. Since 2013, the Violin Museum of Cremona, in the Palazzo dell’Arte, has a display of new and old instruments, in addition to an auditorium where performances by masters are held.
So let the Swiss save people from avalanches, the Armenians keep their bread traditions alive, and the people of Buenos Aires tango the night away. In Cremona, the working luthiers, faculty and students all ensure that new violins live up to the legacy of the city’s famed masters.