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The story of Francois Girard's international co-production, The Red Violin, begins in 17th century Cremona, in the fictional workshop of master violin maker Nicolo Bussotti. ANDREW L. URBAN visited 20th century Cremona to find the lutemakers still build the world's finest violins, in the tradition of the past masters.

The Red Violin is the fictional story of a unique musical instrument; the film follows the strangely varnished - red - violin as it passes through many hands over the course of three centuries. Shot in five languages and five countries - Canada, Austria, Italy, England and China - it took three years of research to finish the script. Although fiction, the film is an accurate portrayal of the passions - and millions - that fabulous historic violins can generate among the cognoscenti.

"Emphasis is on music, culture and culinary delights"

Cremona, a charming village in north western Italy, is the historic heart of the stringed instrument, home to the great - and best known - violin maker, Antonio Stradivari. He is their patron saint, not only blessing the place with his genius, but - these days - helping to bring tourists. Still, it's not been spoilt, and the emphasis is on music, culture and culinary delights; the atmosphere remains subdued.

In fact, in the inner sanctum of the ancient Town Hall, the atmosphere is almost spiritual. Housed in glass cases, the town honours a selection of some of the most valued violins ever built. But they are not decaying or drying up; their life, their musical soul, is maintained by visiting musicians who are invited to play them - - the great players all come, to the fabulous Teatro Ponchielli. And then there is Professor Andrea Mosconi, a member of the Cremona Violin Trio, whose task is to play each instrument for a few minutes every day - to keep them in top shape.

"Stradivari.... served as a conceptual model for violin makers for more than 250 years. "

"And what a duty it is," he says with charming glee, as he selects a genuine 1715 Stradivari, and puts it to his chin. As he begins to play, the room is transformed by the rich, sweet tones of the violin that has amassed its character over a dozen generations. "In my opinion," he says as he replaces the violin in its glass cabinet, "this is the finest, the most beautiful of the 450 violins Stradivari built." The instrument is in its original condition, but for the strings. (Pictured, 1715 Stradivari violin.)

Born in 1644, Stradivari set up shop in one of the small lanes of the town, and remained active until his death in 1737. His interpretation of geometry and design for the violin has served as a conceptual model for violin makers for more than 250 years.

Stradivari also made harps, guitars, violas, and cellos--more than 1,100 instruments in all, by current estimate. About 650 of these instruments survive today. In addition, thousands of violins have been made in tribute to Stradivari, copying his model and bearing labels that read "Stradivarius." But the presence of a Stradivarius label in a violin has no bearing on whether the instrument is genuine.

"there is no substitute for an experienced eye"

A violin's authenticity (whether it is the product of the maker whose label or signature it bears) can only be determined through comparative study of design, model wood characteristics, and varnish texture. This expertise is gained through examination of hundreds or even thousands of instruments, and there is no substitute for an experienced eye.

But it was not Strad the lad who started it all: Professor Mosconi opens another cabinet to play two ancient Amati-built violins; one made in 1658, the other in 1566. Andrea Amati (1525-1611) is regarded as the founder of the great Cremonese school of violin making. Instruments dated after 1584 are said to be the work of his sons Antonius and Hieronymus (or indeed a grandson), and there are very few instruments known to be made by Andrea himself. It is claimed that he made just 24 violins, 6 violas, as well as 8 cellos for Charles IX of France to be used at the court of Versailles, a few of which survive. (Pic: the 1566 Amati violin)

In the centre of Cremona, in an old building that looks more like a monastery than a school, students from all over the world are taught the art of lutemaking (as it's known) in a four year scholarship course. A maximum of 140 students are taken at a time, under the guidance of 20 technical or scientific teachers in the 'laboratory' and a further eight mater lutemakers - who are all graduates of the school.

One such master lutemaker is Hungarian born Stefan Konya, whose cottage (studio and home) down the road from the school has orders three years ahead for violins. (Cremona's output is 500 instruments a year. Konya knows of a shop in New York that could sell 1,000 a month.)

"Everything has to be crafted by hand"

"Expansion is impossible," he explains. "Everything has to be crafted by hand; each piece for example, has 30 coats of varnish and in all, takes about three months to complete."

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