Research Seminar Series: Musical string instruments, tree-ring dating and provenancing to verify their authenticity

May 16, 2022 1pm - 2pm

Online & In-Person

Research Seminar Series: Tree Ring Dating of the Stradivari's "Messiah" Violin

When: May 16, 2022, from 1pm – 2pm
Where: Online via Zoom or In-person at the CAWP Caseroom (FSC 2916)
Speaker: Dr. Paolo Cherubini

UBC Faculty of Forestry is pleased to invite tree & music lovers to reveal the mystery date of the Stradivari’s “Messiah” violin creation.

Join a world-class team of tree ring detectives and learn how tree rings affirmed the authenticity of the $20-million-dollars-worth elusive and controversial violin, the Stradivari’s “Messiah”.

Paper Authors

Paolo Cherubini (1,2) | Bruce Carlson (3) | Wolfgang Talirz (4) | Malcolm H. Wiener (5)

(1) Dendrosciences, Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL, CH-8903 Birmensdorf, Switzerland

(2) Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences, Faculty of Forestry, University of British Columbia, Vancouver BC, Canada

(3) Carlson & Neumann, Luthiers, via Robolotti 14/16, I-26100 Cremona, Italy

(4) Philarmonie Berlin, Herbert-von-Karajan-Strasse 1, D-10785 Berlin, Germany

(5) Institute for Aegean Prehistory, Greenwich, CT, United States of America

Authenticity is the prime factor affecting the market value of a work of art. String instruments are among the most valued works of art, particularly those made by the old violin-making masters of northern Italy in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. However, it is difficult to verify the authenticity of string instruments on the basis of style and design alone, as these are often forged. Uncertainties related to authorship can lead to financial and legal controversy, sometimes with even millions of dollars at stake.

The authenticity of the Stradivari “Messiah” has long been disputed. Controversies at the end of the 1990s concerning its authorship have enhanced interest in dating this violin. After different dendrochronological analyses provided conflicting tree-ring dates for the front of the violin, a scientifically-sound dendrochronological study eventually established 1682 as terminus post quem, i.e., the year when the last ring of the violin front was formed, before which the violin could not have been made. This date is consistent with the attributed date of manufacture, 1716, supporting Antonio Stradivari as the maker of the “Messiah”. However, this controversial dating of the “Messiah” sent shockwaves through the violin community. Here, we present the main facts which played a role in this controversy and we show how dangerous the use of dendrochronology can be if investigators do not adhere to well-established techniques and are not versed scholars in the literature. Such controversies threaten the reputation of dendrochronology. Today, many false theories and conceptual mistakes continue to circulate in the violin community.

A thorough and scientifically-sound dendrochronological analysis of the wood used to make the instrument is the only analysis that can objectively indicate, if not the exact year an instrument was made, at least the date before which it certainly was not made. Here, we describe the importance, in terms of acoustics, of the wood-anatomical characteristics of the wood with which instruments are made, and its possible geographical provenance. We review the dendrochronological studies undertaken to assess the authenticity of the instruments made by the old Italian masters. Such studies help to establish the earliest date the tree from which the wood was taken could have been felled and to determine the source region of the wood.

We present the main achievements and challenges that have arisen in the past 50 years of studying the authenticity of string instruments and discuss the limitations and advantages of using dendrochronological methods to establish the provenance and time period in which a work of art was created. Finally, we describe needs of research in history, wood anatomy and dendrochronology, proposing several new methods that may open up new avenues of research and aid in the assessment of the authenticity of old string instruments.

Paolo Cherubini’s research interests lie within tree physiology, forest ecology, and evolution, with relevance to the knowledge and sustainable management of natural resources, and nature conservation. He strives to understand the key processes behind tree growth, to gain a thorough understanding of the influence of environmental stress on tree physiological processes, with a particular focus on the impact of environmental stress on wood formation. Linking dendrochronology, and dendroecology with ecophysiology is the main aim of his research.

Dr. Cherubini is Senior Scientist in the Dendrosciences group at the WSL Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (Birmensdorf, Switzerland), a research institute of the ETH Domain. He is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at the Faculty of Forestry of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver BC (Canada), a Lecturer at the Department of Geography of the University of Zurich (Switzerland), Adjunct Research Scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of the Columbia University in New York City (U.S.A.), Adjunct Faculty at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (U.S.A.), Guest Professor at the Institute of Earth Environment of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Xian, China. He is editorially very active: he served for 20 years (2003-2022) as Editor in Chief – and is currently Honorary Editor – of the journal Dendrochronologia,  2002-2011 as Associate Editor of Tree-Ring Research, 2011-2021 as Associate Editor of the Canadian Journal of Forest Research, 2007-2018 as member of the Editorial Board of Geochronometria, and has been a member of the editorial board of iForestJournal of Vegetation Science, and Tree Physiology.

Seminar Registration

Registration is free but required. Online registrants will be sent a Zoom link and in-person attendance is limited to 40 people.

Takeaway snacks will be provided to in-person attendees.

UBC Forestry Research Seminar Series

Back by popular demand, the Faculty of Forestry Research Seminar Series has returned with a 2022 line-up that truly showcases a selection of outstanding research projects currently underway. Hosted by Professor and Associate Dean of Research & Innovation Dr. Sally Aitken, this year’s series will cover crucial research issues of regional, national and international concern. The seminars will be presented both virtually and in person.

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