Violin History and Description

Matisse meets St.Cecilia

History of the violin

Henricus Arnault lute and instrument design

(courtesy of Bibliotheque Nationale , Paris)

     The violin emerged from northern Italy in the early 16th century, preceeded and evolving from three likely fretted and non fretted, stringed instruments : the rebec, the Renaissance fiddle, and the lira da braccio. The rebec derived from the Arab rebab had been in use since the 10th century . The earliest explicit description of the violin, including its tuning, was in the Epitome musical by Jambe de Fer, published in Lyon in 1556. By this time the violin had already begun to spread throughout Europe by the popularity of the court dance and street musicians.  

(courtesy of Fine Art Photographic Library Ltd., London)

     In the first half of the 16th century some of the early violins are attributed to Gasparo di Bertolotti da SalÚ (c.1540-1609) of Brescia, founder of the school of violin making in Brescia. However more convincingly the first violins were by Andrea Amati (1500-1577) of Cremona. There exists documentation of two- 3 string violins he created between 1542 and 1546. The first 4 string violin was dated 1555; likely by order of the Medici family, looking for an instrument with the quality of a lute. The violin immediately became very popular among the nobility , illustrated by the fact that the French king Charles IX ordered Amati to build a whole orchestra in the second half of the 16th century. There are 14 of these Andrea Amati instruments that have survived.

     One of oldest "surviving" dated violin, is the "Charles IX" by Andrea Amati, made in Cremona in 1560 The most famous violin makers between the late 16th century and the 18th century include the Amati School:

Amati school

(orginal image Wiki)

• Amati family of Italian violin makers, Andrea Amati (1500-1577), Antonio Amati (1540-1607), Hieronymus Amati I (1561-1630),
     Nicolo Amati (1596-1684), Hieronymus Amati II (1649-1740)

• Guarneri family of Italian violin makers, Andrea Guarneri (1626-1698), Pietro of Mantua (1655-1720),
     Giuseppe Guarneri (Joseph filius Andreae) (1666-1739), Pietro Guarneri (of Venice) (1695-1762), and
     Giuseppe (del Gesu) (1698-1744)

• Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) of Cremona- and two of his sons,
     Francesco Stradivari (1671-1743) and Omobono Stradivari (1679-1742).

• Jacob Stainer (1617-1683) of Absam in Tyrol


Documented resident apprentices of the Nicolo Amati workshop:

Caravaggio 1602ca

(Caravaggio 1602ca)

Giacomo Gennaro (c.1624-after 1655): (1641 to 1646 and possibly 1647)
Andrea Guarneri (c.1626-1698): (1641 to 1646/7, 1650 to 1653)
Francesco Mola (c.1641-?): (1653 to 1655)
Leopoldi Todesca (c.1625-after 1665?): (1653 to 1654, 1656)
Gio Batta ------ (1653)
The Malagamba brothers: (1654 to 1655, 1666)
  Giuseppe (c.1634-?)
  Gio Batta (c.1637-?)
Giacomo (Antonio?) (c.1644-?)
Bartolomeo Pasta (c.1640-after 1685?): (1660)
Giovanni Battista Rogeri, Bolognese (c.1662-after 1705): (1661 to 1663)
Giorgio Taiper (c.1648-?): (1666 to 1667)
Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655?-1731): (1680)
Gioseppe Segher, Padovane (c.1646-?): (1680 to 1682)
Giuseppe Stucchi, Veneziano (c.1663-?): (1681)
Giacomo Railich (c.1650-?): (1683 to 1685)

(Courtesy research of PhilipJ.Kass VSA)

( It is strongly believed that Antonio Stradivari apprenticed under Nicolo Amati,  however there is no corroborating evidence,  independent of one or two suspect makers labels.)

(Caravaggio circa 1600)

     To this day, instruments from the "Golden Age" of violin making, especially those made by Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu, are the most sought-after instruments by both collectors and performers.  

     Some changes have occurred in the 18th century, particularly to do with the length and angle of the neck, as well as a heavier bass bar. The majority of old instruments have undergone these modifications, and hence are in a significantly different state than when they left the hands of their makers, doubtless with differences in sound and response. But these instruments in their present condition set the standard for perfection in violin craftsmanship and sound, and violin makers all over the world try to come as close to this ideal as possible.

Violin Family Description-

golden section and violin


    Stringed musical instruments made of maple and spruce with slightly convex shaped fronts and backs; the fronts have sound holes which evolved from C-shaped to the present more familiar f-shape. The instruments of the violin family have been the dominant bowed instruments because of their versatility, brilliance, and balance of tone, and their wide dynamic range. A variety of sounds may be produced, e.g., by different types of bowing or by plucking the string (see pizzicato). The violin has always been the most important member of the family, from the beginning being the principal orchestral instrument and holding an equivalent position in chamber music and as a solo instrument. The technique of the violin was developed much earlier than that of the viola or cello.

Parthenon golden section and violin      The smallest of this group of instruments is the violin, and its four strings, tuned in fifths, run from the tailpiece at the base of the body over a bridge in the lower center, along the fingerboard, and into the pegbox. The violin is played by drawing a horsehair bow, held in the right hand, across the strings; the body is supported by the shoulder and held firm by the chin. The fingers of the left hand are used to stop the strings against the fingerboard, thus changing the pitch by shortening the vibrating length of the strings. Within certain limitations more than one note can be played at once, and the instrument is capable of producing harmonic effects with ethereal tones. It is the most agile of the family, and it has the greatest variety of tone color.

     The instrument first appeared about 1510 as the viola da bracchio (arm viol) and soon spread through Europe. During the 16th cent. Virtruvious Man and proportional similarities to the violin three sizes were known, a soprano (corresponding to the modern viola), a tenor (a fifth lower), and a bass (a tone lower than the present cello). The present-day violin appeared only near the end of the 16th cent. The earliest-known makers of the new instrument worked in Lombardy in the mid-16th cent; they were followers of Andrea Amati, founder of the "Amati School" of violinmaking made famous by the Guarneri family and by Antonio Stradivari. In Stradivari's work the peak of violinmaking seems to have been reached barely a century after the emergence of the instrument itself. An object of beauty.

     Musical instruments are connected to archaic definitions of beauty and
measurement (see Denis 2006). From Vitruvius to Mersenne, it was believed that musical instruments should be made according to the rules of music. The "monocord" comes to mind cf. Fludd. In the same way as Renaissance architecture, the dimensions of forms are related to the dimensions and intervals of our musical composition, nature and beauty, rather than to the more familiar divisions of our contemporary yardstick. proportional design The demonstration of this principle involves the processes of the old world craftsmen which was the underpinning of design, form and proportion. During the 16th century, the philosophical foundations of Greek mathematics gave way to new modern concepts which altered the whole basis of measure. From the 17th century, growing numbers of thinkers opposed those of the ancient methodologies. By the end of the 18th century, the separation of art and science occurred and the ancestral art of measurement was lost; and the organic representation of form, associated with the Euclidean definition of the unit, was basiclly left behind.
This is all part of the fine art of the craft, and the territory of the contemporary violin maker.  violin geometry

     From the point of view of the ancient violinmakers, the violin was designed around the string lenght, and constructed to this reference. The violin was conceived, designed and built according to the principles of harmonic proportions; drawn with divider and compass.

    Recent interest has been focused on the curtate cycloid to define the arching shape; seen in this computer generated graph of a successful violin top plate c-bout cross section. Research and analysis is ongoing. You can read more about the curtate cycloid algorithm here.

curtate cycloid violin arching shape        

 violin proportional design (courtesy of Otis A. Tomas)


     The viola is about one seventh larger than the violin and tuned a fifth lower. It is the only original member of the violin family to exist continuously in the same size. Its tone is deeper and less brilliant than that of the violin. In the 17th and early 18th cent. it was used mainly as an accompanying instrument in the orchestra, but the classical period made it much more independent. It is used mainly in the orchestra and chamber music, but recently has become increasingly popular as a solo instrument.

cello sketch by Leroy Douglas

(pencil sketch by Leroy Douglas)

Cello or Violoncello


The cello, originally called the violoncello, is about twice as large as the violin and has four strings tuned an octave lower than those of the viola. As the bass viola da bracchio it was originally tuned a tone lower than it now is, but the present tuning had become standard by 1700. Because of its size, it is played between the knees like members of the viol family. The bass viol was favored for solo playing in the 17th and early 18th cent., and the cello became an important solo instrument only after the disappearance of the viols and the subsequent refinement of cello technique by Jean Louis Duport (1749-1819). The cello was, from its beginning, an important member of the orchestra and is also indispensable in chamber music. It now has an extensive solo literature of its own.

"The King" Violoncello by Andrea Amati, Cremona,  after 1538 ca.      Body Length: 75.5 cm.

King Amati cello

(photo courtesy RawlinsCollection, NationalMusicMuseumND)

If you are interested in reading more historical information you are invited to download the ebook
"The Violin Its Famous Makers and Their Imitators" by George Hart, ©1909, approx. 509 pages. London Dulua and Co.,
Courtesy of Project Gutenberg-tm eBooks, confirmed as Public Domain in the U.S.
Text (298.9 Kb .zip) or Html (2.2Mb .zip) version with illustrations, here .


[ref. for this page ColumbiaUniversityPress, AndrewDipper, FrancoisDenis,
PhillipKass, KevinCoates, PaoloCecchinelli, Otis A. Tomas and ccycloid software StephenMann.