A violin of unknown origin and uncertain value becomes a museum piece. A WhatsApp photograph was sufficient for Mauro Bernabei (Cnr-Ibe, Institute for BioEconomy of the National Research Council Italy), who employed dendrochronology - the technique that uses the characteristic patterns of the annual growth rings of trees - to determine the year of manufacture of this musical instrument and to attribute it to Giuseppe Guarneri filius Andreae (c. 1666-1740), the leading exponent of this family of luthiers from Cremona. The results are published in Heritage Science
A violin of uncertain date and origin has turned out to be a masterpiece of Giuseppe Guarneri (c. 1666-1740), the leading exponent of a great family of luthiers from Cremona. The discovery began with the close examination of a WhatsApp photograph sent to Mauro Bernabei at the Institute for BioEconomy of the National Research Council Italy (Cnr-Ibe). A snapshot was enough for the researcher to examine the violin using dendrochronology – a wood-dating technique, based on measuring the annual growth rings of trees – in order to determine the year the instrument was made and its origin. In this way, an old violin that had lain in the attic of a private house has acquired notable value. “Apart from dating wood, dendrochronology can also help to determine the timber’s provenance and to supply technical details regarding the size and regularity of the tree rings”, as Bernabei explains. The results of the study are published on Heritage Science (https://doi.org/10.1186/s40494-021-00521-4).
Giuseppe Guarnieri, the second son of Andrea, head of this famous family of luthiers, worked with his father until, in 1698, he inherited his workshop. His style was inspired by Stradivari, and his instruments are considered to be of the highest quality. “Previous attempts to date the violin and to establish its origins had mainly been based on technical and stylistic criteria but the results were unreliable. Although the violin’s label bears the writing “Joseph Guarnerius Filuis Andreae Cremonae Sub Titulo S. Theresie, 1705”, that is, Giuseppe Guarneri, son of Andrea in the name of St Theresa (made it) in the year 1705 (or 6?), this attribution turned out to be unreliable. First, it was not the original label and, secondly, it had been written in a style of lettering that did not exist at the time of writing. In addition, the label contained a spelling mistake: Filuis instead of Filius”, Bernabei said.
However, the revelation came with the analysis of the tree’s annual growth rings. “The final year ring visible on the instrument's soundboard definitely dates to 1696, corresponding to the heydays of classical violin-making in Cremona. Later, the tree-ring curve of the unknown violin was compared with that of a well-documented violin attributed with certainty to Giuseppe Guarneri filius Andreae, the father of the famous Guarneri “del Gesù”. The results were then also confirmed with the help of international experts, on the bases of technical and stylistic grounds”, continues the researcher from Cnr-Ibe. In this way, “a direct comparison with another violin, made by Guarneri with certainty, has led to the discovery of a “twin” violin that is also privately owned. The two violins are absolutely identical: they share the same characteristics of construction and were made with wood from the same trees”. Generally, violin-makers of the past and present choose their timber according to strict rules: absence of imperfections like knots, reaction wood or fibrous anomalies, and generally coming from high-altitude woodlands. “Once they had found the right timber, they would continue to use wood from the same provenance, if possible from the same batch of supply and sometimes, as we have seen, even from the same tree”, Bernabei concludes. “Taken together, all these characteristics produce statistically reliable results for the study of musical instruments, and sometimes they will transform a violin forgotten in the attic into a museum piece”.
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- A Guarneri in the attic - The power of dendrochronology for analysing musical instruments", Heritage Science