‘I met a traveller from an antique land’ Some thoughts about scratches, bumps and wear

Posted on August 5th, 2023 by

Some thoughts about wear patterns on violins and violas …A letter to a fellow musician (August 2023)



Your fascinating letter offers so many things to mull over: Do you mind, if I step back and begin with a potted overview of the history of patina and aesthetic wear on violins? For me, the ‘turning point’ is 1829. In that year Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume complained in a letter, that whilst he had, for some time, been trying to push forward technical innovation in lutherie, the majority of his customers were now demanding instruments which in some regard or other, were ‘antique-looking’. Now, he had, in some regards, made a rod for his own back, with extraordinary copies of Cremonese and Brescian instruments, which reproduced every aspect of the old examples in absurd detail. (And of course, in 1833, he would trick Niccolo Paganini, with a pastiche of his ‘del Gesu’, so exact, that Paganini did not notice he was not taking his own violin out of the workshop).

With ‘Il Cannone’ in rehearsal, London 2006 (Photo Richard Bram)

Compounding this was growing North-South cultural rivalry, in Europe, over the origins of the violin. This mirrored the much-more-public dispute over the relative superiority of Classical or Gothic architecture, which, it might be said, reached absurd/wonderful extremes with endeavours such as the completion of Cologne Cathedral and the Memorial to Vittorio Emmanuale in Rome. In the somewhat specialised world of string instruments this was mirrored in the ‘race to the orginal’: was it Andrea Amati/the Brescian eccentrics? or some Northern genius? – and perpertrated by Vidal’s ‘Les Instruments à Archet’ in 1876. This offered spurious examples by Tieffenbrucker/Duiffprocgar (literally dozens of spellings), many of which were, guess what, were made by Derazey for … Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. The hunt for the protoplasmic violin was littered with fakery and misdirection, and patina and wear patterns were part of this.

The engine of this all was the Romantic revival (or re-energising) of the hunt for the antique: or perhaps I should say a recalibration. In poetry, I think of the first two lines of Shelley’s ‘Ozymandius’ ‘I met a traveller from an antique land,'[…] which then goes  on to describe the broken statue of Rameses II, or a few hundred metres from where I am writing this, Thomas Cole’s ‘The Course of Empire’. Of course, the classical movements of the 1700s had celebrated the past, but for its nominally classical perfection,  (the trajectory for the Claude Lorrain to David is instructive here).


Violins sit on this divide. I would argue that the Amati family, and then Antonio Stradvari, between 1550 and 1736, evolved a formally unimpeachable dialogue between naturally form  and classical perfection. The ionic scroll of the violin as the summation of the unfurling fern leaf takes the acanthus frond of the Greek entablature to a new height. For real enlightenment on this subject go to to http://johanninternational.blogspot.com/2018/07/a-short-history-of-acanthus-leaf.html

Acanthus leaves on a 3rd Century BC Greek Column (louvre) from http://johanninternational.blogspot.com/2018/07/a-short-history-of-acanthus-leaf.html

And then the 19th century comes along , and venerates the ‘mark of time’s passing’ on both the sight (and sound) of these instruments as a new non-plus-ultra, which I am sure, would horrify their makers – see how it (apparently) horrified Vuilaume. Which brings us to the wear pattern that you are talking about, the ‘christmas tree’ on the back of a violin.


The classic wear pattern on the back of an 17th or 18 Century violin has an interesting, and, in the long run, troublesome origin. Here it is on a pair of Girolamo Amati violins (mine on the right, the other is in the MIM in Bruxelles)

Together Girolamo Amati both. on the ;eft, 1610, on the right, 1629. MIM Bruxelles 9 6 22

This shape resulted from the bare back of the violin rubbing against the shoulder and arm of the player, whilst the instrument was being held relatively low (pre-1800). It’s worth mentioning that Paganini used this low hold too. When makers post-1800 started imitating this rubbing away of the ground, a fascinating problem emerged, which was that the new wear pattern on already ‘worn/antiqued’ instrument did not match the original, not least because, by 1840, the hold of the instrument had changed, to a higher, more left-angled-out posture. Today it is common to find mid-1800s violins with the fake wear rubbed away in a different shape from the original pattern. The ‘wear’ and the wear do not match!


But there’s another layer of problems, and in the long run, this would relate to the high finish which became associated with for instance, the Gibson guitars you have been talking about. If you look at photos taken of instruments in the 19th century, you will notice something striking, particularly under the playing point between bridge and fingerboard. Here’s ‘Il Cannone’, Paganini’s violin, in a photo taken in the later 1800s.

‘Il Cannone’ late 19th century condition


This is not an extreme example, but it will be evident that the instruments were not kept clean/dust/rosin-free in the way that we would recognise today. They are far from being shiny, pristine. Indeed, players such as Joseph Joachim and Karel Halir seemed to have found a virtue in the instrument looking as it was ‘worked on’, and allowed the buildup of rosin on the varnish. There are many ideas as to why this was, but, with my English/puritan background, I suspect that it was something to do with the association of virtue (after all these were ‘virtu-osi’ -and of course the link is real), and hard work. This was, after all, the age of Samuel Smiles, of ‘Self-Help’. So a new kind of patina, wear, performance damage built up, in fact, was clearly encouraged.


In the 20th century (with its absurd inflation of instrument prices) it is worth noting that, not only did violins start being treated and presented as art objects, but their varnish, (and I am talking about very old fiddles) was enhanced, again, in a way that the makers would not have recognised. Whether or not there was a a feedback from the almost lacquered appearance of guitars, I can’t say. However, I would note that a dispute settled in, across the Atlantic, as to how extreme this should be: put bluntly – you will only find the ‘mirror-finish’ on violins which have been restored and maintained in American luthiers. Interestingly this lines up with a set-up issue/disagreement: US violins are set up, in general ‘tight’, with high-tension strings and close fitting sound-posts. This results in more immediate brilliance, but a narrowing of timbral and colouristic range at low dynamics.


But I digress. I hope that I am making sense – this has been a simple overview of some of the issues around the wear and varnish. I have lots to say about decoration, but will save that for my next letter.