Paolo Cherubini: "This is how fake musical instruments 'fit'"

Paolo Cherubini: "This is how fake musical instruments 'fit'"

Scientist from the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research has innovated the analysis of annual tree rings

Paolo Cherubini is Senior Scientist in Forest Dynamics at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research
Paolo Cherubini is Senior Scientist in Forest Dynamics at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research

Is an Stradivari or not? The answer to this question may apply millions of dollars, euros or francs. THE dendrochronologists like Paul Cherubini, Senior Scientist at Forest dynamics at the 'Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research in Switzerland, can actually help find it.
Very expert in dendrosciences, he studies the wood dating through thering analysis annually at the WSL, establishment of the Swiss Confederation belonging to the network of Federal Polytechnics which is based in Birmensdorf, municipality of 6.313 inhabitants of the Canton of Zurich, in the Dietikon district.
In the scientific journal "Science", Paul Cherubini describes what links his field of forestry research to famous luthiers of the late sixteenth century, and he does so in an articulated interview…

How did you get involved in musical instruments?
“Years ago I was asked to testify as an expert witness in a court hearing. It was a question of establishing the age of a precious viola which was believed to date back to the 1609th century and to have been built by Gasparo da Salò. A violinist had bought it for over two hundred thousand euros, but then became suspicious and asked two laboratories specialized in the study of annual rings to determine the age of the instrument. Both had come to the conclusion that the wood of the viola dated back to the XNUMXth century. Gasparo, however, had died in XNUMX: the viola had therefore been built after his death. This observation reduced its value by about a tenth. At the time, the victim's attorney had asked me to explain to the court as an expert witness the method employed. This is how I started to deal with instrument dating based on the study of annual rings”.

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Paolo Cherubini is Senior Scientist in Forest Dynamics at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research
Paolo Cherubini is Senior Scientist in Forest Dynamics at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research

How does this method work?
“The annual rings of the wood with which the stringed instrument is built are analysed. To this end, the width is measured directly on the instrument or from photographs. The best spot is the top side. It is also possible to examine the wood using computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging, or analyze the images with computer programs”.

And then what?
“At that point, the sequence of annual rings on the instrument is compared with dendrochronological series of already dated trees. The latter must come from the region of origin of the wood with which the instrument was built. Another possibility is the comparison with instruments whose manufacturer is known with certainty. In any case, a series of reference annual rings is always needed”.

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Paolo Cherubini is Senior Scientist in Forest Dynamics at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research
Paolo Cherubini is Senior Scientist in Forest Dynamics at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research

Is it always known where the famous luthiers got their wood?
“This is actually one of the weaknesses of the method. Often there are only legends, stories and myths about it. It is said, for example, that Stradivari himself would have selected the wood for his instruments in Paveneggio, in the Val di Fiemme, in Italy, listening to the sound of the trees rolling downstream after being cut down. A story I had already heard while doing some research in the forest for my doctoral thesis, but which is not documented. It would be interesting to delve into the matter in the archives and look for example for invoices for wood supplies to timber merchants. However, no one has done it yet."

And what if you don't know the region of origin of the wood?
“In that case, public databases are used in which dendrochronological series are archived, for example the International Tree Ring Database of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, ed) in Colorado. However, there are not many chronological series that go back up to 500 years ago and concern the regions of interest. We need new public chronologies, set up for example by analyzing live trees and wooden beams or planks with which old houses are built. However, with this method researchers have already succeeded in establishing the origin of the wood used for some tools. For example, it was discovered that many of the ancient luthiers of northern Italy used wood from the Val di Fiemme”.

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Paolo Cherubini is Senior Scientist in Forest Dynamics at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research
Paolo Cherubini is Senior Scientist in Forest Dynamics at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research

Is it possible to date all wooden instruments in this way?
“No, there must be enough annual rings. It takes at least, say, 70 rings to be able to determine age in a statistically robust manner. For this reason, with a double bass it is easier than with a cello, and in turn a cello is easier to date than a viola… and so on. The top or back of a violin usually has the required number of rings. When the wooden tools are too small this method no longer works”.

How accurate is age determination?
“It is possible to determine the year in which the last annual growth ring visible on the instrument was formed, thus establishing the so-called 'terminus post quem' (Latin expression meaning "the moment after which", ed). The instrument cannot have been built before this date. It can only be later, but it is not possible to say by how much: the wood may have been in storage for years, or during construction the parts with the most recent rings may have been removed. Sometimes luthiers reuse even very old wood. In any case, if Gasparo da Salò lived in the XNUMXth century and a tree grew in the XNUMXth century, his wood certainly could not have been used for a violin by the famous luthier”.

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Paolo Cherubini is Senior Scientist in Forest Dynamics at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research
Paolo Cherubini is Senior Scientist in Forest Dynamics at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research

Has it already been possible to identify fakes in this way?
"Yes. For example, Peter Klein, a dendrochronologist from Hamburg who perfected this method years ago, was able to track down some instruments attributed to the wrong luthier as early as the XNUMXs. However, these are not necessarily fakes: in the XNUMXth century many luthiers tried to imitate Stradivari's instruments to obtain an equally good sound. Nowadays this can be a bit confusing: these tools indeed present themselves as his, but they are not his ”.

Why is this type of dating necessary?
“It is the only method for which not even a tiny fragment of the instrument needs to be destroyed and which, nevertheless, indicates an important date, ie the 'terminus post quem'. Of course, it would be very interesting to analyze the genetic heritage of the wood used for the tools and obtain information on its provenance. However, wood shavings would be needed for such analyses, and no one intends to scratch a Stradivarius. Sometimes fragments of this type are obtained during restoration operations. This could be an option."

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Dendrosciences have made great strides in dating trees through trunk analysis
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