The architectural highlight of the new Museo del Violino in Cremona: the auditorium. Photo © MDV
Right in the heart of strings
by Martina Metzner
Sep 22, 2013

Hours of practicing, the smell of resin, and an unpleasant screeching noise: that is how I remember my brief foray into the world of the violin. I was young, far too impatient, and the experiment only lasted a year. But the opening of the “Museo del Violino” in Cremona gave me another opportunity to discover this fine instrument, which I now associate with the names of “David Garett” and “Nigel Kennedy.” The “inaugurazione” was swarming with journalists who had flocked to this small northern Italian town, mainly “experts in the field”. They all seemed to know one another, and amongst their excited chatter I found myself a little lost. For me, the main thing was not the violins. I was there for the architecture of the palazzo, and to find out how it had come to be converted into a museum.

A huge violin case

I found my place more easily at the press conference. The violin museum is not only for specialists but for everyone, even children. And it’s by no means a co-incidence that it has opened in Cremona. The town is the birth and work place of Antonio Stradivari, and is now known worldwide for its wealth of violin makers, of which there are around 150. Funding for the museum came largely from the “Fondazione Arvedi Buschini”, headed by Italian steel tycoon Giovanni Arvedi, and the so-called “Friends of Stradivari”, a network of enthusiasts who had built up a collection of instruments from Stradivari’s workshop. Director of the “Museo del Violino (MDV), Virginia Villa describes how the project began in 2009, and was not complete until the day of the press conference itself, the final violin having arrived just that morning.
It is not only the unique collection of historically valuable items from the workshops of Antonio Stradivari, Guiseppe Guarneri and Andrea Amati that make this exhibition, but also the incredible architectural transformation that has taken place. The red stone palazzo with its formerly stark, almost fascist aesthetic has now become a museum. Like an oversized, bulky violin case, the building extends across the Piazza Marconi, a downtown plaza that is now entirely dedicated to the museum. And to great effect. What used to be a car park is now an extensive space, with a park and displays of old Roman walls, some of them covered with glass: a worthy setting for the museum.

First Cremona, then the world

In small groups we were lead around the exhibition space by Professor Renato Meucci, the museum’s Academic Director. As the tour continued, I found myself increasingly drawn into the fascinating world of the “violin.” I learned that the history of violins began with the viola, and that Cremona was the starting point for the violin’s triumphant march, firstly across Europe, and then the world. Katharina de Medici, I discovered, ordered 20 violinists to come to her at her court house near Paris. And, though we all knew the violins we were seeing to be of extraordinary value, Meucci’s revelation that each, on average, was worth around 10 million euros awed us into silence. Learning as we went, we made our way through the ten museum rooms, in which these precious instruments lay protected in glass cases, set out in unevenly spaced display cabinets. The main cabinet contained 10 violins, all from the hand of Stradivari himself, and were all placed in the “scrigno”, the Italian word for “jewelry chest”. Lined with burgundy velvet, it had the look of a regal coffin. The remaining gallery spaces were light and spacious, with gray marble floors and white walls. A wooden construction, as high as the ceiling, provided a sort of room within a room, drawing attention to the contrast between the extensive halls and the delicate instruments. There was also a huge wooden frame which provided space for temporary exhibitions, and a wooden semi-sphere, which, like a cocoon fallen from heaven, played sound clips from concerts, or showed film documentaries, filling the space immediately with life, and, most importantly, sound. Along with the proximity of so many violin makers, it was these interactive elements of the exhibition that bound it to the building itself; the massive palazzo, now home to all of these delicately crafted violins.

From screen to stage

Particularly impressive were the multimedia presentations, which were found throughout the museum. On large touch screens it was possible to see the Stradivari violin archive, take a virtual tour of the historic Cremona or leaf through old books about traditional violin making. There were even images of violins projected onto the ceiling. Some were more enthusiastic than others: Those who had seen the whole exhibition armed with iPads were first in line, lifting and turning the virtual violins on the screens, but others, myself included, were a little disappointed. It might have been good to have some of the real thing: violin parts, copies of his music, manuals. The exhibition highlight came shortly before the end, and captured the imagination of music aficionados and architecture lovers alike. We were led into the auditorium, where pale maple wood partitions rose out in curves from the central stage, intersecting the rows of seats. Everything in the room felt in motion, light and soft, as though flying. The shapes here were in stark contrast to the symmetrical organization of the room. Whilst sitting there, the soft shapes and warm colors of the wood had a delicious, comforting effect; it felt as though the auditorium were in perfect harmony with its surroundings. Ideal, then, for enjoying the short piece which was played, part of Stradivari’s “la Cremonese”, composed in 1715. Listening to the violin, sound and architecture fused. It was as though one was sitting right next to the violinist, able to hear every texture and shape of his music.

Palù and Toyota, a game of ping pong

Giorgio Palù, the architect responsible for the makeover and renovation of the palazzo, explained that this room had been designed in collaboration with Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, in a form of creative ‘ping pong’. Toyota is one of the best acousticians worldwide, and has worked on buildings such as the concert hall for the Hamburger Elbphilharmonie. The first thing he demanded, Palù tells us, was a ceiling height of 14 meters, for which Palù had to sink the floor by four meters. Toyota wanted no convex shapes, and so Palù set to work using only concaves. Toyota placed the stage in the center to allow for a great view and sound for all 480 spaces in the auditorium. This in itself was nothing new, since the fourth century concert halls have been built in this way, one of the first being for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. However, the materials which Toyota required presented a challenge, as Palù had to find materials with able to absorb and reflect sound to just the right degree. The floor, for example, is done in a cedar maple wood from Alaska, and the platform formed from reinforced concrete with a maple wood casing. No effort has been spared, everything is of the utmost quality. And the result? A wonderful celebration of the coming together of architecture and acoustics, a real feast for the senses. Absolutely, unreservedly, worth a visit.


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Devotional moment: an original Stradivari, like exposed, is estimated 13 million dollar in average. Photo © MDV
For the ears, for the eyes: the new Museo del Violino in Cremona. Photo © MDV
The creators of the Museo del Violino: Cremona‘s mayor Oreste Perri, steel mogul Giovanni Arvedi and architect Giorgio Palù. Photo © MDV
Mulitmedia-screens offer virtual tours. Photo © MDV
Inside the sound-cocoon you can listen to violin-concerts. Photo © MDV
Exposed are instruments of the well-known luthier Antonio Stradivari, Giuseppe Guarneri und Andrea Amati. Photo © MDV
A big frame for the borrowed instruments. Photo © MDV
150 luthiers work at the moment in Cremona – and have also their place in the museum. Photo © MDV
The former palazzo was designed by architect Carlo Cocchia in the 40ies. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
Embraced by notes: the sculpture at the entrance was made by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
The most prescious violins are placed in the „scrigno“. Photo © MDV