The Rainbow Hunters:
One Mother. Two Boys. A trip around the world in search of seven colours, the first pigments, made by the first colour men, raising money for the charity War Child as they go.
As we walk down the windswept Via Francesco Robolotti, the sounds of sanding, sawing and chipping come through the open doorways of the violin workshops that line the street. The air is filled with the scents of turpentine and maplewood shavings.
Here in Cremona, northern Italy, countless stringed instruments have been made over the centuries, but the most famous were undoubtedly made by the Stradivari family, who made their name in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even to this day, no one knows what makes a Stradivarius violin sing the way it does; some believe it’s the wood used and the cut Antonio Stradivari developed. Others that it’s the Cremona varnish, flame coloured, bright as a tiger’s pelt that he made. The locals believe that once they discover the secret of the instrument’s colour, they can master and find the soul of any song.
So it is here that the boys and I find ourselves, on a blustery day, in search of a sunset orange, with only an age-old recipe for Cremona, dating back to 1747. Already we have got lost, and been turned away from three violin workshops, and now we are standing despondently outside The Stradivari Museum which is closed for the holidays. The boys press their faces to the glass, leaving smudge marks. You can see a Stradivarius locked in a tall glass cabinet at the back, but even from this distance you can see the shimmering stripes of gold and amber that run down its spine.
“You look for the Stradivarius?” an old man asks us, his eyebrows arched questioningly.
“We’re looking for Cremona,” I tell him. “The varnish that colours it.”
“Go to the pharmacy on Via Ceresole,” he advises. “Turn right across the Palazzo Comunale.”
We set off as he has directed, to where a neon cross flashes above a doorway. The pharmacy is cluttered with all things modern, with rows of toiletries and medicine. Not at all the sort of place where we might discover the secret of Cremona.
A short, bald man stands behind the counter, his chin covered by a thick, unruly beard, which seems to be compensate for the lack of hair on top. Tentatively I tell him of our quest, and immediately he waves us out across a small courtyard and into a dark, pokey outhouse. Our eyes blink in the dimness. Shelves, crammed with jars of aged amber flakes, powders of burnt yellow and red, liquids of rusted brown. It’s like walking from the present into the past; even the walls smell ancient, must scented with dust that has dampened and dried a thousand times over.
Dow, my eldest son, places our order: a cup-full of shellac flakes, half of sandarac and some wine spirit. “We have to crush the gums and then melt them over a fire,” Dow informs him, reading from our recipe.
“And I think you should try a little of this, and some of this,” the pharmacist says, reaching for a jar of amber, a jar of myrrh and ash. “And lastly,” he adds, “you must listen to this.”
The violin recording that he plays is Vivaldi’s Spring Allegro, full of hope and celebration. “Perhaps,” he says, “you will be the ones to discover the soul of the Stradivari.”
The Rainbow Hunters are raising money for War Child (warchild.org.uk) as they travel. War Child work in countries that have been devastated by armed conflict and help children suffering the worst effects of violence; child soldiers, victims of rape and abduction, disabled and street children. They provide vital care to a traumatised child and help them to rebuild their lost childhood. Their aim is a world in which the lives of children are no longer torn apart by war. If you would like to donate something please go to www.justgiving.com/Lindsay-Hawdon.
Lindsay Hawdon’s debut novel, Jakob’s Colours, a story about a young gypsy boy during WWII, who uses a legacy of colour making, to survive, is out now with Hodder and Stoughton in the UK and with Quercus in the US.