Some information on the history of early strings



Early bowed instruments have been documented in the Near East since the 10th century. Only little later they appeared in Spain and in southern Italy. When troubadours travelled through southern France bowed instruments had already spread over the European continent: we find them in Russia, Germany, England, ...

Different types were used in different regions, e.g. the tops could be made from wood or from animal skins.


my reconstruction of a mediterranean rebab, 12th cent.


From the 12th century onwards we meet a handful of models, most likely cut out of a solid block of wood. The shape could be oval, club-like or square, stringing from three to five. 

Sculptures from wood and stone show slightly vaulted tops. The ribs were in some cases cut in a c-shape to provide additional strength to the body.



                                                                 Spanish sculpture of the 13th cent.        


Angel playing a vielle, Firenze, detail of the old gothic facade of the dome


About hundred years later, when the Ars Nova was in bloom, long, oval fiddles/vielles with four or five strings dominated. The fifth string often runs aside from the fingerboard; this bordunus string could also be plucked with the thumb of the left hand.


Crowning of the Virgin, detail, P. and G. Veneziano, before 1358


Spanish instrument makers of the early 15th century invented a new method for making bowed instruments: Instead of carving them from a solid piece of wood they would glue thin pieces of wood together, very likely in the way plucked instruments had been made for a long time. We find many depictions of bowed instruments with flat tops from now on. This construction detail turned out not to be ideal: On the one hand it saves time when making the instrument, on the other hand nasty, unstable "wolf notes" appear as a result of irrational vibrations in the flat top. You will find more information on this problem in "History II".



Vielle depicted in the Studiolo of the Count of Urbino, 1474


This kind of construction was also used when, around 1490, new types of bowed instruments were introduced in northern Italy. The immediate predecessor of the violin appears around 1510 in Ferrara: Depictions show this proto-violin with three or four strings, most likely tuned to fifths. It displays a body of three sections (bouts), glued together from several single pieces of wood. Obviously professional musicians in the early years of the 16th century had turned to lighter, more flexible instruments in the descant and alto register.


Ferrara, 1508 - 1512: Musician holding a proto-violin


An angel musician in Bartolomeo Montagnas painting Madonna with Saints from 1499 plays a Lira da braccio:

in this instrument we can see a very modern top with a beautiful arching and elegant fluting towards the edges.

This construction detail was used for tops and backs, it

finally proved to be most successful.





All these elements we find in the depictions of members of the early violin family painted by Gaudenzio Ferrari and his school (Lombardia, starting in 1529). Next to the descant size we already find alto and tenor/bass instruments. With the little exeptions of a mannered style codex all essential details of a true violin are to be found in these depicitons.





Today scholars are extremely careful dating existing early violins: For the sets of the famous instruments made in the Amati workshop in the years around 1560 by Andrea and his two sons we have plenty of safe evidence. At this point of his career the famous violin maker was well established and had several comissions from noble families. We have information from collectors of the 19th century that violins with three strings and the label of Andrea Amati were in their hands, unfortunately no instrument known today fits this description.



AUDIO: Vincenzo Ruffo, Capriccio La Desperata, 1564

Rainer Ullreich, violin, Marcy Jean Bölli, alto viol, Pierre Pitzl, bass viol