Stradivari offered a glass of wine to a lumberjack one day, the price for a secret code in the Roman calendar. A night when the Moon is unusually not involved.
I immediately anticipate the detractors of Stradivari in favor of Guarneri del Gesù: I, too, prefer the more seductive, robust, and grave sound of Guarneri’s violins rather than the steeper Stradivari, nevertheless this article is not about music aesthetics; it is about the phenomenology of a soundboard, the perfect union between earth and sky.
Although their technical knowledge derived from the same luthier master, Nicolò Amati, and both during the beginning of their careers were making violins in the classic Amati style, as well as they were purchasing the soundboards sourced from the same Paneveggio forest, Stradivarius vibrates with a timbre richer in the higher overtones compared to Guarneri. So rich to be unbearable to some. Suppose the unique geography and weather conditions of the Val di Fiemme-Paneveggio forest produce the best soundboards on the planet. In that case, the revelation that cost a glass of wine might have caused the difference between Guarneri and Stradivari violins. And be alchemically very relevant too.
History of a fascination
Stradivari’s secret has attracted my interest since childhood; perhaps my father instilled this curiosity. As a child, I spent many summer holidays in a little house close to the forest in San Martino di Castrozza. One summer (I was eleven), my father took us from the little house of San Martino to the lake of Paneveggio to an official “finding out what the Stradivari’s secret was about” family outing.
We parked the car in the red spruce trunks deposit and waited for the fate to be accomplished. The actual fate was that my father soon managed to miss the car key, and so we got trapped in the deposit for long hours. But an entire afternoon in a wood deposit was not spent in vain; in fact, many locals arrived and tried to help us with the car. At some point, a man involved with the red spruce industry told us lightheartedly that the secret was just the cutting time, and the official time of November-December was wrong. That fateful man added Stradivari didn’t buy November-December wood. It was strange that my father, a lover of latin culture, didn’t open Ovid’s Fasts and Vergil’s Eclogues once we got home. The fact that Stradivari followed cutting times other than the traditional ones was enough for him. Not for me. I wanted the exact day (but, as a child, I could not suspect it was a night instead). But, before that, I owe the reader the how and why of a soundboard.
For centuries violin makers have tried and failed to reproduce the pristine Stradivarius sound, probably because they continue to trust two traditions: the scientific tradition, which uniquely looks at the biochemistry of wood for both identified and unidentified chemicals, and the official cutting tradition, that stubbornly continues to require the soundboards wood to be cut down as if it was building timber.
The timber red spruce trees in the Paneveggio area are brought in November-December, as most building timber from the dawn of times. Still, today the resonant wood for the soundboard is just chopped down from that bulk after a previous test: so they get the most resonant among already poorly resonant wood pieces. No wonder, today, the people in the wood industry cannot dedicate too much time and energy to harvest a niche product.
The best effort they can make is to await the waning moon of the winter solstice; these trees are then cut down with the top to the valley and left whole with the branches for a few days to make sure that the liquid, the plant has still circulated, be called back in the branches and leaves. This wood is called “Mondholz”, or timber moon.
Biochemistry of wood
Many modern chemists theorize that chemicals used on the instruments – not merely the wood and the construction – were responsible for the distinctive sound of these violins. One for all, Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus of biochemistry, researched the assumption that the wood of the great masters underwent an aggressive chemical treatment, which had a direct role in creating the great sound of the Stradivari and Guarneri. He found many chemicals in the wood, including borax, fluorides, chromium, and iron salts. Borax has a long history as a preservative, returning to the ancient Egyptians, who used it in mummification and later as an insecticide. What Nagyvary probably didn’t want to take into consideration was that actually, “all” luthiers’ soundboards of the same period underwent the same preservative treatments, as the ancient chemistry indicated. Still, not all luthiers’ soundboards were Stradivari and Guarneri’s. And above all, the supposition still doesn’t explain the difference between Stradivari and Guarneri.
There also was much debate on Stradivari’s preference of the red spruce with “indentations”, that’s to say, a wood texture characterized by the presence of many minute inflections more or less marked and lined up in the radial direction in the annual rings.
. Some authors believe it is “one of the secrets of the manufacture of the Master”, but this was the trend throughout the Italian violin school tradition, starting from the Amati brothers and their apprentices, Stradivari and Guarneri families. Currently, many Italian luthiers still prefer wood with indentations for two main reasons – alleged harmonic qualities and better aesthetic value.
Geography and meteorology of the area
The soundboards are chopped from red spruces, Picea abies Karst., which is the same all over the world; it is not a typical variant of the area. The violins forest lies in the ultimate and the highest part of Val di Fiemme, Dolomite mountain range, which then runs through the gravelly Val Venegia against the Pale di San Martino plateau into Paneveggio natural park. The current cutting area is around the Sentiero Marciò trail (in the picture below, the lower arrow is at around 1540 m.). The unofficial ancient cutting area, which Stradivari was allegedly said to prefer, has been identified in Pian dei Casoni ( the higher arrow at around 1680 m.).
The weather in the area is always windy, and exceptional thunderstorms in the summer months; in fact, the warm mediterranean sea is just 104 km southeast. Winds in the area alternately come primarily from the Sahara region and Siberia. So, it is not an exaggeration to say that Val di Fiemme-Venegia-Paneveggio is a meeting point between two extreme climate regions.
Little Ice Age – A more modern theory attributes tree growth during a time of global cold temperatures during the Little Ice Age associated with the unusually low solar activity of the Maunder Minimum, circa 1645 to 1750, during which cooler temperatures throughout Europe are believed to have caused stunted and slowed tree growth, resulting in unusually dense wood. But, the Little Ice Age affected both Guarneri and Stradivari’s and Nicolò Amati’s works. Additionally, modern theorists should consider that the Paneveggio forest in summer is undoubtedly living in warmer conditions. Nevertheless, the winter temperatures in the higher rocky plateau are experiencing unexpectedly colder conditions.
Below is the official red spruce cutting area, Sentiero Marciò.
Below is the red spruce area in Pian dei Casoni. According to the legend, this was preferred by Stradivari.
It is interesting to note where the winds from Val di Fiemme end their run, running through Val Venegia against the pale di San Martino plateau. The trees in this clip are high mountain short red spruce, stone pine (Pinus cembra), and larch (Larix decidua), as the Val Venegia altitude here is constantly over 1800 m.
Beyond what may look like a lovely Dolomites crown, there is something rather unexpected on the other side of the barrier: a magnificent upland solely consisting of rocks, the Pale di San Martino di Castrozza plateau. So it isn’t a crown at all, but a huge mountain-mass plateau of about 50 sq. km., wider than the entire Val Venegia. But, apart from the aesthetic marvel, what does surprise me is the consistency of what at first glance seems to be a high mountain desert; under the surface, there is a karst phenomenon with vast sinkholes (See my article Busa di Manna, the Sinkhole).
Dolomites origin – Perhaps not everyone knows that the Dolomites mountains range has peculiar origins: approximately 246 to 238 million years ago, there was a tropical ocean in the area. Around the raised areas of the seabed, the first marine animal communities (algae, corals, sponges, sea urchins, etc.) could join each other to build natural islands. It must therefore be in these organisms the birth of the first tropical archipelago of atolls from the Dolomite region. The dolomites are mountains of animal and sedimentary plant origin (1). These magnesia-rich sedimentary rocks are very brittle and, subject to rain and snow physical stress, are slowly crumbling down. The “violin forest” might be an intriguing geotope. So, if not resonant with sounds, the area resonates with life.
Red spruce root system – A feature of red spruce is the radical apparatus, deep-rooted in the ground (very similar to rhizomes). Among all spruces, the red type is the more deep-rooted.
The Light – Let me add a final feature of the area I ignored earlier, but just recently, when strolling along the violin forest paths with my friend photographer, and also mentioned on an information panel on the spot: the unusual bright light conditions the trees are growing in. The panel insisted it is the leading cause of the amazingly good resonance of the wood since red spruce does its best in excellent light conditions. As my friend has pointed out, and as you can see from the presented media, these spruces aren’t growing in the dark.
The Roman Calendar – It’s time to get back to our main topic: the secret code in the Roman calendar, directly related to Stradivari’s soundboard cutting period. Mauro Corona is a writer, wood sculptor, alpinist, mountain lover, and researcher in ancient Dolomites legends, and he also has something to say about the Stradivari mystery:
“From Caesar to Napoleon, from the Roman historian Pliny up to French, German, and Austrian forest regulations, the best season for cutting wood in winter. The most favorable moon phase is the new moon or waning moon. If the wood was cut incorrectly, it was imposed with heavy fines and even confiscation of trees.
A tree’s biological winter, or dormancy, does not coincide with the calendar. Lymph circulation stops in the last week of August and starts anew at the end of January. The winter of a tree goes from September to January, and in the high mountains reaches the end of February.
During this period, chlorophyll is limited in the inner of the ligneous tissue, a substance attractive to many species of insects and mushrooms. With the crescent moon, the translocation of chlorophyll increases, while it decreases in the waning moon.
For this reason, the ideal period for cutting a tree are the days of the waning moon in the winter. So, every month there are fourteen available days based on these rules, starting from the first day after the full moon; choosing the days closer to the new moon is better.
These were the official regulations, but the woodcutters did follow a more mysterious and ancient, calendar, ancient calendar of woodcutters: November was the best month because the sap is motionless. The tree is still and twists less. You have to choose the waning moon for cutting, but if you have to make planks for bridges where we must not slip, adds Corona, it is better the crescent moon. These are the ancient traditions in which the rule was to wait for the right time. For example, if you cut a tree in the first three days of March, it will not burn, but gets black on the outside and does not burn because it is compact and therefore is used to build blades for furnaces or chimneys.”
Corona concludes: “Stradivari knew the secret of the night between May 21 and 22 (2), the right time – one in which “the forest does sing” – to cut the resonance trees which are set to become musical instruments.”
From “Tempus Sacrum. Introduction to Roman Calendar Operative Practice”, Victrix 2001: “Maius, May, is the month dedicated to Jupiter’s fructifying power, the condensation of Flos ligneous sap, an epiphany of Iovi Maiestas, Jupiter’s majesty. The month is sacred to the divine word Mercurius, sprung from the father’s mind, who pronounces the word which makes to fructify. Maia, the birth of the divine word directly from the ripe stage of the Sun, raised from the obscurity, Mercurius consequence of the Spiritus of Anima Mundi, marks the dawn of knowledge. The divine child is being born, the messenger of gods, agent word.
Maius XXI Agonalia Iovis Dies, the Rex, king, sacrifices a ram to Janus. Being the days sacred to Vediove, one should repeat the cycle that started in march. Ovid (Fasts): the constellation of Canis raises and also the constellation of Pleiades (Sirius and Alcyon)”. Ovid, in the annals, puts the birth of Pleiades on the 13 of May and Alcyon when the Gemini is bending. Agonalia, in which a ram sacrifice was expected, was codified by King Numa Pompilius, the other two pinnacles were January 9 and December 11.
The astronomical alignment on May 21first
On May 21first, the Sun is said to align with the Alcyon star in the Pleiades. Alcyon is said to be the center of the solar orbit. So Earth, Sun, and the Pleiades do align on this day. Note the rising of Canis according to Ovid ( he doesn’t mention Minor or Maior, but when not mentioned, ancient did mean Maior). We know Sirius is α Canis Maioris.
In Alchemy, the divine child is the Philosophical Egg (3) that emits weird sounds at intervals of 24 h. The Hebdomas Hebdomadum, the week of the weeks which gives birth to the Philosophers Stone, is traditionally placed in the second part of May.
The Philosophical Egg’s sounds represent the alchemical “word”. Would that valley be so attractive if deprived of its “Ice factories” and proximity to the Mediterranean sea? Heat and chill, movement and stillness, is the alchemical machine of our Secret Fire. How many assonances with our Great Work.
The Air Consistency
In his ‘Historia Naturale’, Ferrante Imparato says that when Orion is born, the sun no longer rules, and there is calm after the winds raised by the sun… and this phenomenon also happens with the birth of other celestial bodies, for example with the Pleiades and Arthur. In that week of May, Orion has that particular alignment.
- See Dolomites Unesco Project ;
- Some state the real night is the night before May 21;
- See also Canseliet, the Art of Music & Weight ; Hieronymus Bosch and the Concert in the Egg, Piero della Francesca and the Philosophical Pendent Egg, Brouaut’s Frontispiece, the Organ Pythagorean Proportions, Atorène, Music Theory Course for Alchemists. Part 1.
- Ferrante Imparato, Dell’Historia Naturale, Book Eighth, In which passing to the element of air, we are dealing with the various qualities; Chap. VII, Author’s speech on the things said by Anthillo.