Unveiling the violin-making secrets of past master luthiers

(Virtual stratigraphy of the materials coveing an ancient violin obtained using synchrotron light)


An Italian study published in the journal EPJ Plus carried out a 3D X-ray microtomography imaging analysis of the various paint layers which provide historical violins with outstanding musical qualities and looks

Italian past master luthiers developed painting techniques that provided their instruments with extraordinary sound and looks. There is little evidence left of the recipes of the old days, which date back to the 17th century. Back then, such techniques were passed on orally to apprentices. Consequently, only little information on the original methods used for the finishes of the instruments has survived up to today.

In a new study published in EPJ Plus, a team of researchers from the Universities of Pavia and Turin, in cooperation with Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste of Area Science Park, used a non-invasive 3D scanning technique through X-ray micro computed tomography (micro-CT) to acquire new information on the main morphological features of the overlapping layers of paint used on violins. Micro-CT is similar to a hospital CT system, though with far more detail. It makes it possible to produce a virtual micrometric resolution 3D model of the external and internal parts of the samples, as well as virtually separate the different components.

This method may help scientists to rediscover the procedure and the materials used in the past and reproduce the layered painting methods of past masters. Indeed, on the basis of morphological images, it is possible to reconstruct the distribution of materials which may be identified through spectroscopic techniques.

“For years we’ve been working on the study of the materials applied on the most important historical pieces from the Cremona violin-making tradition, such as Stradivari, Amati or Guarneri violins – explained Marco Malagodi, head of the Arvedi Non-Invasive Diagnostics Laboratory at the University of Pavia – and the presence of materials like oleoresinous paints used for the superficial finishes has now been confirmed by several studies. In addition, red natural pigments such as red soil containing ferric oxides have been identified, as well as various organic colourings made with ruby shellac. Regarding wood treatments, it’s interesting to notice that research has confirmed the use of protein-based adhesives with the addition of fillers like sulphates or silicates which worked on the porosity of wood to provide higher thickness and prevent the paint applied on the surface from being absorbed. The fundamental contribution of the non-invasive study carried out at the laboratories in Trieste has made it possible to reconstruct a layering model for the materials applied on the violins. This definitely helps researchers to correctly identify the various layers and reconstruct violin-making techniques now lost for centuries.”

“The technique employed by our colleagues in Pavia and Turin takes advantage of the ability of the Elettra light source to ‘see’ materials which are usually X-ray invisible, as they are not particularly dense and made up of light atoms – highlighted Franco Zanini, manager of the Cultural Heritage Project at theElettra Laboratory. The same technique was also adopted for other historical musical instruments from the Italian and European tradition. However, more generally, it has been used in other cultural heritage fields, often in synergy with other beamlines, taking advantage of the unique properties of synchrotron light and the wide array of non-invasive analysis techniques deployed at the Trieste laboratory. So, we’ve progressed from the study of human evolution (through the analysis of Sapiens, Neanderthal and Erectus fossils) to the study of the deterioration of rare ancient artefacts in order to design new strategies for restoration or conservation or discover how human populations would build their artefacts in ancient or even prehistoric times.”

In this case, the researchers used X-ray techniques to scan two sets of prototypes prepared in a laboratory to reproduce the paint layers present on historical instruments. The model used was a fragment of a violoncello built by Andrea Guarnieri, one of the most important Italian luthiers of the 17th century.


Press releaze AREA Science Park, Leo Brattoli, Press Office



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Last Updated on Monday, 18 March 2019 12:16