It is one of the most famous violins in the world: “Il Cannone”, favorite instrument of the great Italian composer Niccolò Paganini, underwent a high-tech medical examination this weekend at the Grenoble Synchrotron where it was scanned under all seams. “Dream” or “fantastic experience”, according to its protagonists, the tests aimed to assess its state of conservation, but also to better understand what makes it an “exceptional instrument”, in particular by analyzing the structure of its wood.

Owned for nearly forty years by the maestro who bequeathed it upon his death to his hometown of Genoa, the “cannon”, so nicknamed for the power of its “voice”, was made in 1743 by the famous violin maker from Cremona, Giuseppe Bartolomeo Guarneri del Gesu. Considered priceless, it is today the centerpiece of the Genoa museum from which it only rarely leaves and under very high security. Among the few people allowed to play it are the winners of the international Paganini violin competition, which takes place every two years in Genoa.

However, he came to Grenoble to benefit from “non-destructive analysis” at the European Synchrotron (ESRF), a fourth generation particle accelerator. This technique, called X-ray micro-tomography, was tested in advance on two other violins for safety reasons. It offers the possibility of reconstructing a 3D image of the violin down to the level of the cellular structure of the wood, with the possibility of zooming in locally anywhere down to the micrometric scale, explained the specialists in charge of the project.

For the study, carried out at the request of the management of the Paganini competition, the instrument was enclosed in a glass tube placed on a machine, itself confined in a larger glass cage so that the conditions of temperature and d humidity remains adequate, “our biggest fear,” confided the members of the scientific team.

The analysis consisted of “a complete scan at 30 microns to make a map of possible defects, we found very few in the end”, then even closer zooms on the important areas, indicated the scientist Paul Tafforeau, responsible for the “BM18 beamline”, the name of the vast engine room where the experiment took place. Using a very low dose of skull of Toumaï, oldest known representative of humanity or extremely rare fossils of the feathered dinosaur Archeopteryx.

“The first objective is conservation. If ever certain defects require repair, we will have all the details” to correct them, explains Tafforeau. For this amateur violinist, “working on this violin was a kind of dream.” “The second aspect is that it remains an exceptional instrument for its sound qualities and with this data, we hope to better understand why it has such sound quality,” he added.

“It’s moving, it’s an exceptional experience,” rejoiced the Consul General of Italy in Lyon Chiara Petracca, invited for the occasion. “This fantastic experience, at the crossroads of science, music, and history (…) opens up new possibilities for studying the conservation of ancient musical instruments,” noted Luigi Paolasini, who led the project at the ESRF. “The logistics were very complicated because we are not a museum: museums are used to transferring art objects,” he underlined, noting that the instrument is “insured up to of 30 million euros.

The results of the violin’s scan will take months to be analyzed in detail. Whatever they are, Alberto Giordano, curator in Genoa of the precious instrument, recalls that it is crucial to exercise “extreme caution, even abstinence” with the violin in order to guarantee that it is transmitted “without alteration to future generations.” “I’m getting older but he remains the same, that’s very good,” he jokes. “It’s like the portrait of Dorian Gray, it stays as fresh as a rose.”