Italian musical masters took the violin from fiddle to first chair

Strummed, plucked, or bowed, violins had been making music for centuries before Andrea Amati and Antonio Stradivari brought them to new heights in the 16th and 17th centuries.

A vielle, an ancestor of the modern violin, appears in a 1330 fresco. Museum of Navarra, Pamplona.
Photograph by Bridgeman/ACI

The violin is arguably the world’s most popular instrument. Its expressive tones suit a variety of musical styles, from fast and furious to slow and sanguine. Becoming popular in the 16th century with both commoners and nobles, the violin has remained a democratic instrument, universal and versatile. (See also: 1,700-year-old musical instrument found, and it still works.)

The development of the modern violin was gradual and complex, evolving from a variety of other stringed instruments. The pear-shaped lira, found in Europe as early as the ninth century, was played in an upright position and bowed. The influence of the two-stringed rabab, an Arabian fiddle introduced to western Europe in the 11th century, and the three-stringed rebec, which appeared in Spain between the 11th and 13th centuries, likely as a result of the Crusades, is also reflected in the modern violin. The French vielle, like the rebec, was usually supported on the chest or under the chin and was widely used by troubadours in the 13th to 15th centuries to accompany singing and dancing. Stringed instruments have a long history in folk music, but the violin became more standardized after it went to court.

Most historians agree that today’s violin emerged in the early 16th century in northern Italy, an area which would maintain the violin-making tradition over the coming centuries. Maple and spruce, the two types of wood most favored by violin makers then and since, were readily available in the Lombardy region. The city of Brescia, located at the foot of the Alps, was the earliest to excel in the crafting of violins, but Cremona, home to the world’s most famous luthiers, Giuseppe Guarneri, Antonio Stradivari, and the Amati family, became synonymous with the art of violin making. (See also: Inside Einstein's love affair with 'Lina'–his cherished violin.)

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