When you have a good violin you also need quality strings for it, so check out our article on how to choose the best strings. The creator of the violin is uncertain, with some people pinpointing Andrea Amati as the creator, while others believe Gasparo da Salò to be the one who first made the violin as we know it today.
However, one thing is clear – the violin appeared somewhere in northern Italy and most probably in the town of Cremona.
The violin is not an instrument that appeared overnight, but rather it came into existence as an evolution to other similar instruments. Most of the cultures around the world have their own instruments that they use when celebrating, when gatherings are organized, or just for personal entertainment.
Stringed instruments have been around for a long time and one of the earliest cultures to use them was that of the ancient Hebrews. Creating music with the use of such instruments is thus an old tradition, and early stringed instruments had a great influence on later creations.
Violins were also inspired by older, similar instruments, and the prevailing theory is that they are based on the rabab, which has Arabic origins and is played with a bow, despite it being similar to a lute. The rabab had two silk strings that were tuned in fifths, the same as a violin. These strings were tuned using pegs that were placed along the body. The neck was a very long one.
Those that played this instrument used a bow to play it and they also greased it with resin. Unlike a violin, however, the rabab was held on the player’s lap. A lot of time passed until this instrument had any impact on the Europeans. The rabab began to influence the craftsmen during the middle of the 11th century.
Very similar to a rabab, the rebec appeared in Spain, possibly due to the crusader influence. This new stringed instrument was made of wood, unlike the rabab which was fashioned from a gourd. Another difference between the two is that the successor featured 3 strings and not 2. One thing that brought this type of instrument closer to today’s violin is that the rebec was held on the shoulder.
First records of a violin
Painted in 1530, the “Madonna of the Orange Tree” is the first image where a violin appears. It was painted by Gaudenzio Ferrari, a Northern Italian and it is the first clear record of the instrument. Although there are some differences comparing to the violins today, the instrument that can be seen in the painting has the hallmarks of a violin.
The three instruments that make the violin family, the cello, viola, and violin appear in a later fresco inside a church in Saronno, northern Italy. There are some few differences between the instruments depicted in these paintings and the violins that we have today – they all have 3 strings and not 4 and they have a more extravagant and curvy shape.
Other than that, the similarities are clear – bulging front and back plates, no frets, the presence of f-holes, and the strings that lead to peg-boxes. However, it’s not clear who is the person that created these instruments which appear in the paintings. But there is enough proof that the instruments originate from northern Italy.
Nowadays it is believed that the first person who made a violin was Andrea Amati (1505 – 1577), who lived in Cremona, a town in Italy. What’s really astonishing is that Amati created the world’s oldest violin that is still in existence and can be seen at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Historians believe that he was the creator of the first violin because of historical writings that showcase the sale of 24 of his violins to Charles IX. There are earlier writings that talk about violins, however. The treasury of Savoy’s records shows how the duchy paid for some violins that came from Vercelli, coincidentally, the town where the painting “Madonna of the Orange Tree” is.
Amati and his contenders
Some of Amati’s instruments have survived until the present day and a few of them can be played. Taking into account that they are about 500 years old, that is impressive. He is credited for creating the instrument as we know it today, with 4 chords, as the violins that were present when he was alive only had 3 chords.
While very similar to today’s violins, Amati’s first creations had elegantly curved scrolls and bodies and wide purfling. They were also smaller and had high arches. His sons were keen on following on their father’s footsteps and they were highly-skilled violin makers too.
He also had a grandson that was a great craftsman as well. This grandson later had many talented apprentices, amongst which Antonio Stradivari, known today as the most famous violin maker.
Historians say that Amati may not necessarily be the creator of the violin as we know it today. Some say that Gasparo da Salò (1540 – 1609) was the inventor. He was an artisan that lived in Brescia, a city situated in northern Italy, so it appears that no matter who was the exact person that created the violin, the instrument appeared in that part of the world.
Gasparo had many different talents and he was an expert double bass player. He created many stringed instruments and 80 of them are still in existence today. He came from a family of musicians and that is why he knew about all these instruments and probably had an influence on the violin.
Amati had the great idea of creating a school in Cremona dedicated to teaching the art of crafting violins. The Amati brothers Antonius and Hieronymus, his sons, were some of the best pupils of that school, along with Nicolo Amati, his grandson. That school helped make the violin a popular instrument in Europe in the following 100 years.
One of the best apprentices was Andrea Guarneri. After spending a lot of time at Amati’s school he went on to create some of the best violins today. Guarneri’s creations rival those of Stradivari and some of today’s players actually prefer his violins.
Evolution of the violin through the centuries
While the question ‘when was the violin invented’ doesn’t appear to have a clear answer, it is still evident that the tradition of this musical instrument was first established by Andrea Amati. After him, a lot of luthiers continued to modernize and improve the stringed instrument until it turned into the modern violin we know today.
The masters of Cremona
To have a clear continuity of the history of the violin, we return to the art of creating this instrument, as it was first documented during the 16th century, and in close relation to Cremona, the Italian city where Andrea Amati appears to have made the first models worthy of this name.
Violin makers were not many at first, and even the famous luthiers everyone knows today, such as Antonio Stradivari, have a connection to Amati, as it was from his grandson that Stradivari learned how to make violins.
The history of the violin will continue beyond the 16th century, mainly due to the masters of Cremona, Antonio Stradivari being one of them. Besides Stradivari, names such as Bergonzi, Guarneri, and Ruggeri were the ones to continue the tradition established by Amati.
Let’s start with Antonio Stradivari, who remains, to this day, the most famous luthier in the world, with some of his surviving instruments being sold at auctions today for staggering prices of millions of dollars. It is important to mention that by the end of the 17th century, his craftsmanship was already influencing all the other violin makers.
There was no court in Europe that didn’t want to have a stringed instrument created by a Cremona luthier. However, things wouldn’t remain the same, and the glory of the 16th century and 17th century would fade. With the disappearance of Amati and Stradivari, there was a decline.
Cremona would still produce some well-known luthiers, and it was in the second half of the 18th century that it would experience a restoration of some of its old glory. Carlo Bergonzi and Lorenzo Storioni are two exponents of this late golden era of Cremona lutherie, as they were the only violin makers who still cared about using the high-quality materials and the dedication to perfection that had made the instruments made by Antonio Stradivari so coveted by the royal courts of Europe.
The last famous Cremona luthier was Giovanni Battista Ceruti. He was the one to make the transition to the 19th century, and his violins are known to this day as having a classical allure and an elegance that cannot be matched.
The history of the violin in the 17th century
It would be unfair not to talk about other famous luthiers who shaped the look of the modern violin, as we know it today, despite them not being from Cremona or Italians. A few names are worthy of being mentioned, after the golden era of Cremona belonging to the 16th century. The stringed instrument obviously made history in other countries, as it will be shown right away.
Jacob Stainer was the earliest Austrian luthier, and he conducted his work in the 17th century. It should be mentioned that very few of his instruments – he also crafted cellos and basses – are still in existence today. Therefore, they are very coveted, in particular by people who prefer period instruments for playing early music.
It is believed that Jacob Stainer also had connections with the Amati family in Italy, from which he might have learned the craft. Throughout his active years, he crafted musical instruments for court musicians, as well as cathedral orchestras.
Less known may be the French luthiers from this period. The oldest musical instruments ever made in France were believed to be those crafted by the Pierray–Boquay school, at the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century. However, later, it was discovered that Nicolas Bertrand created beautiful viols – also known as viola da gamba – during the 17th century. These instruments could have the string tension adjusted just by modifying the pitch of each of the strings.
The Musée de la Musique de Paris displays a few of these instruments that may be the only survivors of the instruments created by the French luthier.
The French lutherie is particularly famous through the Médard family. No fewer than 10 luthiers carrying this family name crafted violins over a span of almost two centuries. However, the only remaining instruments appear to have been executed using rustic patterns and display poor-quality varnish that might not be the original.
The 18th century and the 19th century in the history of the violin
The art of the lutherie wasn’t lost throughout the ages. However, after the star of the Cremona masters began to fade, there was quite a competition for producing violins in great numbers. With that also came a decreased interest in creating perfect instruments, in the tradition of Amati and Stradivari.
Still, even during this period, when luthiers were mostly manufacturers of series instruments, some names emerged. One of them was Nicolò Gagliano, who lived in Naples, Italy, during the 18th century. In his work, he took mostly after Stradivari, which is why, today, his instruments cannot easily be identified.
The quality of his work wasn’t always consistent, but he did introduce some important elements that helped the stringed instrument evolve once more. The bold archings and the elongated pegbox are a few distinctive elements he introduced. His brother was also a luthier.
The most important name worth mentioning for this period is, however, Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi. Born in Milan, he had his apprenticeship done in Cremona, the capital of violin making. After he finished his apprenticeship, he returned to Milan and started making violins of his own. He is considered the last famous luthier to create violins in the Cremonese tradition.
Giovanni Battista Guadagnini was another proof that Italian lutherie had something to say. Considered the most famous violin maker after Stradivari and Guarneri, he worked in different Italian cities, throughout his life, and that influenced his work greatly. With a different arching built for each style he developed, he created an impressive number of well-crafted violins that are still in use today.
Many famous violinists today prefer a Guadagnini to the modern violin, such as Li-Kuo Chang, the assistant principal viola of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Geraldine Walter of the Takacs Quarter.
During the 19th century, the French school of luthiers at Mirecourt can be considered the most important in the history of the stringed instrument. Here, the Vuillaume family established as a household name in the making of violins. At Mirecourt, other makers of musical instruments would establish over the years.
The modern violin today
A lot has happened over the centuries with this musical instrument. From the lira da braccio that emerged during the Renaissance period as an accompaniment to the poet-musicians who performed at the European courts, the instrument went through a series of transformations. While pictures of a lira da braccio might make you think that it was a violin, you might want to reconsider at a closer look.
This stringed instrument had a wider fingerboard and a flatter bridge compared to a violin, hence the differences. A bass version of it was created later, and it was kept between the legs. The string tension of this variation could be easily modified by adjusting the pitch of the strings.
The art of making violins went through troubled times after the 19th century. With the names mentioned earlier, the tradition was lost, and for a long time, mass-produced violins appeared to have taken the place of the artists who created instruments that are still performed on today.
Commercially-produced violins are here to stay, but it is worth knowing that there is now a market for artisans who can modify instruments. For instance, there are craftsmen who can convert instruments to their original design, as often, old violins no longer have the tonal potential required for proper performance.
Violin making appears to go through a rejuvenation period. There are schools of violin making, competitions, and events where craftsmen can compare and improve their craft. Besides working on old violins to make them adequate for performance, these new luthiers are now also interested in creating new instruments, which is why this could be seen as a new age of violin making.
Not only people who make new instruments are motivated by competitions and accolades, but bow makers are also stimulated to improve their work. The Violin Society of America is one of the essential organizations in charge of events and competitions in this field.
While it’s a great thing that everyone can have access to a decently-priced instrument in this day and age, the fact that luthiers and bow makers continue to hone their craft can only make music lovers everywhere glad. From the tradition established by names like Amati and Stradivari, a new trend stems, and with that, more interest in musical instruments and musical performance also emerges.
2) Andrea Amati