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Boffin: Lost Stradivarius violin tech reverse-engineered

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A retired Texas university professor says he has successfully reverse-engineered the long lost violin-making technology of Antonio Stradivari, the legendary 17h-century builder whose instruments are still considered the finest ever made - and which command prices of $5m apiece.

Joseph Nagyvary, emeritus biochemistry prof at Texas A&M and himself a keen violinist, says he first proposed his theories on Stradivari's unique methods in 1976 - but he has lacked proof of his arguments for decades.

“All of my research over the years was based on the assumption that the wood of the great masters underwent an aggressive chemical treatment and this had a direct role in creating the great sound of the Stradivarius and the Guarneri,” says the prof.

Guarneri del Gesu, a contemporary of Stradivari, was not so widely recognised during his own lifetime: but nowadays one of his violins is often considered as good - and as valuable - as a Stradivarius.

Nagyvary collaborated with colleagues at Texas A&M to analyse minute Stradivarius and Guarneri wood samples cadged from violin restorers ("it took a lot of begging to get them," he says). The wood was checked intact, with the results yielding an article in Nature magazine* for Nagyvary in 2006.

However, the exact nature of the substances used by the old-time Italians to grease up their wood remained unknown. Now, Nagyvary and his collaborators say they have obtained more detail by burning the wood samples and analysing the smoke using a Texas A&M "electron microprobe".

According to the Texan profs, Stradivari's secret violin special sauce contains "borax, fluorides, chromium and iron salts".

“Borax has a long history as a preservative, going back to the ancient Egyptians, who used it in mummification and later as an insecticide,” adds Nagyvary.

“The probable intent was to treat the wood for preservation purposes. Both Stradivari and Guarneri would have wanted to treat their violins to prevent worms from eating away the wood because worm infestations were very widespread at that time.”

The prof, originally from Hungary, says he has encountered widespread scepticism from the musical and antiquities communities in his quest to rediscover the lost Stradivarian violin tech.

“When you use science to prove a point, it often demystifies the glory of the legendary masters, and for that reason, there has been some reluctance to get to the truth," he says.

Not to mention the possible financial reluctance of existing Stradivarius owners to admit that their irreplaceable multimillion-dollar instruments might one day be replicated relatively cheaply. Stradivari is thought to have made around 1200 violins, and just 600 remain serviceable today.

One should bear in mind, however, that Nagyvary too has financial reasons to believe his own side of the argument: he runs a violin-making business offering instruments "based on 28 years of research on Stradivari, Guarneris, and Amatis" which sell for as much as $25k.

Nagyvary and his fellow profs' latest research can be viewed online here. ®

*Nature is perhaps the most prestigious journal for a boffin to be published in - such a byline is a major feather in any scientific cap. Rather as though one were a specialist in cynicism and pre-lunch drunkenness, and got published in the Reg.

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