The Most Controversial Violin in History: Stradivari's 'Messiah'

In the salons of Parisian violin dealers of the early nineteenth century, a legend formed about a Stradivari violin made in Cremona in 1716: a violin so perfectly preserved, so exemplary of the best qualities of the best period, and so enigmatic in its provenance that it came to be known as ‘Le Messie’.

For centuries, this violin has been scrutinised by collectors, dealers, violinmakers and copyists as it travelled from Italy to Paris to Oxford. Rumours immediately emerged that it was an audacious fake made as a publicity stunt to boost then-owner Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume’s reputation as the greatest violin dealer in the world. Conspiracy theories have followed ever since, culminating in 1998 when a renowned conservator formally declared the violin a fake, despite emphatic insistence of its authenticity by experts from the commercial violin trade. 

In 2017, St Cross alumnus and Chairman of the British Violin Making Association Benjamin Hebbert convened a conference of expert scholars to discuss and compare traditional connoisseurly arguments on the craftsmanship of the violin with new forensic approaches to determining its authenticity; where and when was it made? Who could have made it? More significantly, who could not have made it?

In this special event for St Cross, Hebbert will discuss the history of the violin and the nature of connoisseurship, then address the extraordinary circumstances in which forensic methodology and traditional expertise can demonstrably stand shoulder to shoulder.