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Cremona protecting violin making tradition

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Cremona (Reuters): To craft a violin that will last for centuries, you need red maple, one month of painstaking work and that magic touch that turns wood into an instrument that most resembles the human voice. Master luthier Antonio Stradivari followed this recipe 300 years ago, and this is still how violins are made in his hometown of Cremona in northern Italy. But like Italy's artisan cobblers, bag makers and weavers, violin-makers are feeling the pressure of counterfeits and cheap imports from Asia. ''Cremona is still the world's capital of violin-making. You can sense it by wandering through its old, cobbled streets and by peeking into its many workshops,'' said Gian Domenico Auricchio, head of Cremona's consortium of violin-makers. ''But counterfeiting has now reached the violin-making sector and the damage to our image is big,'' he said.

Cremona, a picturesque medieval town on the banks of the Po river, rose to world fame between the 16th and 18th centuries for its unrivalled expertise in violin-making. Andrea Amati, who made a violin for French King Charles IX in 1566, created the design of the modern violin there. He was succeeded by generations of Cremona-based violin-makers, most famously Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu. The violins made during this period are still prized. In May, a Stradivarius violin made in 1707 sold for 3.54 million dollars at Christie's, becoming the most expensive musical instrument ever sold at auction. Of the more than 1,100 instruments Stradivari is believed to have made, only about 620 violins survive today.

Cremona's supremacy in those times was unchallenged, but modern violin-makers have to adapt to a rapidly changing world. ''Violin-makers have to learn to confront globalisation,'' said Giorgio Scolari, who has been teaching at Cremona's School for Violin-Making for over 30 years. ''Chinese violin-makers pump out violins by the dozens and their craft is starting to improve,'' he said. ''We have to focus on quality, both in terms of layout and sound.'' While a new Cremona violin can sell for up to (15,000 dollars), Asian violins cost just a few hundred euros. Cheap imports are not, however, as big a threat as counterfeiting. ''The vast majority of counterfeit violins comes from the Far East,'' said Auricchio. ''The 'victims' are usually inexperienced musicians and students who learn to play on instruments that don't have the necessary quality requirements.''

To protect their tradition, Cremona masters have introduced a quality trademark and a sophisticated database that enables buyers to track Cremona-made violins all over the world. The town's master luthiers are restricted to a maximum of 15 violins each per year and have to keep the wood shavings of each instrument to prove its authenticity. The market for violin-making in Cremona appears today to be saturated. With 120 workshops, industry representatives say this provincial town of 70,000 can take no more new entrants. Yet students from all over the world, especially from Asia and eastern Europe, keep pouring in to learn Stradivari's art.

Jonathan Hai, an Israeli civil engineer who made a radical career change two years ago, is one of about 170, mostly foreign students who attend Cremona's violin-making school. ''I have always had a liking for old, manual crafts and I come from a musical family,'' Hai, 36, said. ''After 10 years as a civil engineer I decided to try and combine these two passions.'' Cremona's violin-making tradition fell into oblivion towards the end of the 19th century. But interest in the craft picked up again in the 1970s as playing an instrument became commonplace among Italy's middle-class. Unlike the old masters, modern violin-makers learn the ancient craft in specialised schools rather than from their fathers or grandfathers.

''I am an accidental violin-maker. My father was a builder but I liked music and chose to attend the Cremona school. Now I have been teaching here for 33 years,'' says master Scolari. But selling violins can be tough as musicians snub newly made violins, and choose to buy old, second-hand instruments even if are not made by famous craftsmen. This trend has led to a flourishing violin renovation business.

In America, new violins that are made to look like old ones are extremely popular, Scolari says, and violin-makers have had to learn new techniques to meet market demands. Restoring old instruments cannot, however, replace the pleasure of forging a new one with your bare hands. ''I know that outside Cremona demand is greater for renovation of old instruments. But I prefer to build new instruments,'' said Hai. ''When I go back to Israel I will open my own workshop there.''

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