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Sound of Venice

Not only the form, and definitely not the varnish and by no means the ground can hide the extraordinary tonal components of the old masters of Cremona. If these components carried some particular secrets, at least one of the numerous Cremona violinmakers would have recorded this, but they made no note of it.

The material used in the 17th, 18th, and 19th century was drastically different in structure and biology from modern-day materials. It was, indeed, maple (Acer Pseudo Platanus), but with a modified grain. I even doubt that the old masters had ever seen a ribbed maple in its original, white color. I am deeply convinced that, by force of circumstance and sheer coincidence, they had no choice but to buy this different kind of maple. And yet it had never even crossed their minds to use the spruce from a freshly cut tree, though dried old spruce was profuse in Italy in the era of carpentry.

But, let us start from the beginning:

In those days, it was believed that maple with rays could only be found in former Turkey (now Bosnia). The Venetian Republic, constantly at war with Turkey, purchased extensively from the independent city-republic of Dubrovnik, while Dubrovnik, besieged by Turkey, was forced to trade with it. It is not far from the truth that Dubrovnik could in fact preserve its independence so that Venice could trade with Turkey, despite numerous conflicts and clashes. The trading was in petty merchandise, labor, weapons, but mostly in meat, leather and WOOD.

The issue of tree-cutting, unlike today, was taken lightly by the Turks: usually, trees were felled in the spring before being sold to Dubrovnik, at a time when the trunk had already began to take nourishment from its bark and soil, when it was becoming “alive” and accumulating fresh sugars, nutrients, but also breeding bacteria.

These trunks were, as a rule, large in diameter - by my estimate, no less than 80 cm, and often over 1 meter. This is not hard to figure out if the ring structure and the depth of curves on the instruments are closely examined. The ribbed deformation then, as now, could not be found alongside any nearby roadside. Like today, one had to go into the remotest mountain areas. However, trunks could not be cut with a chain saw in a forest, hoisted by a crane onto a nearby road and transported by truck to Dubrovnik! Not at all. The cutting was done with handsaws digging deep into 50-100 centimeter-long pieces which were hand-split down the middle into halves, then into quarters and eighths (depending on their weight and transport problems, as the deformation in the rays does not allow wood-chopping).

This process would have taken at least 30 days, and often much longer, interrupted by agricultural works, troop movements, rough weather, injuries, diseases or, at worst, laziness. Then, off they would go to Dubrovnik, on horseback if possible or if not, on foot. There, before the gates, hardened merchants would be waiting, bargaining, offering modest remuneration. Again, due to negligence, the wood would be left lying around under the blazing Adriatic sun and full of moisture, until the Venetians would appear and buy it.

Very similar to nowadays, isn’t it?! Actually, it is precisely the same!

The process of the bacterial decomposing of sugars in the wood would begin. The wood would be stained and gradually change color and therefore, the merchants of Dubrovnik had to lower the price. And the Venetians would simply purchase everything by either trading other goods for it or paying in Venetian gold. The goods would be loaded into a ship’s interior, serving as ballast. In conditions of even greater heat and humidity, the wood would have enough time to crack until, after stopping over in every harbor no matter how small, it would finally reached Venice.

In Venice, or, more precisely, in the “Arsenal” (the commercial port) there was, by our standards, an incredibly large wood-processing “factory”. At the site of today’s customs zone in Venice, by the lake Larghetto de Legname, the wood was stocked, sliced and sold all over Europe. Practically all of the classical age furniture was made from Venetian wood. Furthermore, more than 40.000 people worked there.

In the hundreds of years of wood-processing (slicing), the Venetians had encountered one large problem: they could not prevent the huge stock of wood from cracking or staining under the glaring summer sun. By coincidence, after lying in the water for several years, the trunks from which the pillars for the city of Venice itself were built were pulled out of the lake. Even today, this wood is quite mysterious – still compressible, crack-resistant, watertight, worm-proof. This is the beginning of the marvelous tale of the extraordinary wood from Venice used to make ships, oars, furniture etc.

Later on, the entire Venetian maritime fleet was built from wood from the water – and this is how a legend was born:

The Venetian merchant and naval fleet was lighter and thus faster than those of other, often warmongering nations. These sailing ships were difficult to set on fire or sink.

The Venetians were very proud of their fleet, which was much feared by their enemies. Naval authorities and ship-builders had specifically demanded that even the oars should come from the lake. Over time, the Venetian navy became the greatest maritime power, with sailing ships that no other state could rival, while Venetian pillars go down in the history of architecture as a conundrum.

Venetians immersed their stock of trunks in the nearby lake of “Larghetto de Legname” (Wood Lake), knowing that it was the only way of preserving it from further drying and cracking after which the stains, affected by bacteria, would grow bigger and, if there was enough patience to wait, would completely cover the wood, giving it a new color – darker and “more intense”. This was the wood sold to violinmakers!

In my opinion, the wood must have remained in the lake for at least two years. Sometimes it would wait for the customers from Cremona for seven years. Many different types of wood were soaked in water: beech, oak, maple, ash, and spruce – anything that could be purchased along the long way from Egypt to Venice.

Once in the water, the wood was heavily exposed to bacteria commonly named microaerophile, which systematically fed on substances from the wood. The bacteria were so active that the water of the lake was black and had a pungent smell. But, as much as this would have upset us nowadays, with so much concern about health and the environment, the Venetians were unperturbed by this, living amidst all kinds of “smells”.

Finally, usually at the time of the great summer “siesta”, the violinmakers from Cremona would come to buy the wood while the processes in the wood continued to develop on the way to Cremona.

And then, at last, the wood arrived in Cremona where it could not dry completely, since Cremona lies in a valley below sea level, and the air is therefore very humid. Consequently, the process of sugar decomposition continued in Cremona.

Had Cremona been located in a different place or had, God forbid, the Stradivariuses and Amattis lived elsewhere; I doubt that we would have such tonally fine instruments.

My thinking is corroborated by several facts:

The old Cremona violins have a generally lower atomic weight than newly made instruments (as the decomposed sugars no longer dwell in the wood). The wood of old instruments does not transmit ordinary lamp light, unlike that of the new ones (due to sugar loss, the wood had self-compressed and, like a drawn curtain, does not transmit light). The wood color of the instruments made by old Cremona masters is different from that of, for example, German violins from the same age (Germans had their wood brought from Bosnia by land and it reached the customer much faster in its “healthy”, pale condition).

Due to the substances lost, the wood is not only lighter, compressed, but is also much more flexible, and the supple back plate can “breathe” much better with the membrane (front plate). Thus the tone is completely different than in new violins. I am convinced that violinmakers had no other option than to buy what was available and the Venetians had to soak the wood in water to stop it from decaying further in order to sell it.

We can further trace the journey of the wood up to a finished instrument. Though we may find many coincidences, flaws, much negligence, we will not be able to encounter a single arcane system.


I would like to dedicate the following section to the process of instrument- making itself.

Again, I see no particular mysteries, especially since the old Italians traditionally had a high sense of the aesthetic and, in accordance with another time-honored tradition in carpentry passed on by one generation to the next, cherished the piece of wood they were working on. The wood had its intrinsic laws that needed to be recognized and observed:

No piece of wood is straight in its inside line of splitting; within each piece there is a slight arc which the old masters used to create curves on the instrument. The wood itself decides about the curves on the front and the back plate and only if this inside line of splitting is followed will the wood have maximum flexibility and enable the tone to develop in the instrument.

Paradoxically, the old masters in most cases made instruments from wood of poorer grain which can no longer be sold to the “spoiled” violinmakers of today. Still, these instruments sound better because the cut through the wood was ALWAYS perfect.

I only hope this text will help violinmakers to move away from dogmas, mystery searches and in this century dedicate themselves to the tone as a starting point. The tone is here, within our reach, in the material. We just need to stop looking at violin making in a complicated way from an obscure perspective. Moreover, with a little more patience, we need to consider the tone as the crucial issue.

Violin making is and should remain an art. An inner feeling will guide us in the creating of a high-quality instrument much faster and more poetically than a heap of precise measuring instruments. We must not give up, as the time is coming when the old Italian masters will disappear from the scene. But we can reach them. And surpass them.

I am very glad to her a positive reaction from violin makers about my text “Sound of Venice”.

It is very important to now: It is to keep wood full of moisture. The process of the bacterial decomposing of sugars in the wood works only on this way.

It is wrong to dry the wood too quickly.

It is best to keep it moist as long as possible.

Best Regards,
Milomir Stamenkovic