The Viola da gamba: Origin and History

LVIII) Tu, Violetta, in forma più che umana
Foco mettesti dentro in la mia mente
Col tuo piacer ch’io vidi;
Poi con atto di spirito cocente
Creasti speme, che in parte mi sana
Là dove tu mi ridi

Dante Alighieri, Rime, XIII c.

“If one were to judge musical instruments according to their ability to imitate the human voice, and if one were to esteem naturalness as the highest accomplishment, so I believe that one cannot deny the viol the first prize, because it can imitate the human voice in all its modulations, even in its most intimate nuances: that of grief and joy”

Marin Mersenne, Harmonie Universelle, 1636

Thus praised the French theoretician Marin Mersenne in 1636 the viola da gamba, this most noble of all string instruments, which graced during its flowering – from 1480 to 1780, i.e. from the Renaissance to the Classical Period – court, church and chamber with its presence. Because of its delicate sound, rich in harmonics and in subtle inflections, the viol was considered the most perfect imitator of the human voice, which, in the wake of humanism, had been elevated to be the measure of all things musical, and therefore became a paramount medium for sophisticated music.

The viol was employed principally in polyphony: on the one hand, in connection with the human voice (motet, chanson, madrigal), on the other hand, in the instrumental forms derived from vocal models (Ricercare, Canzona, Tiento and Fantasia). The English masters – Byrd, Ferrabosco, Gibbons, Coperario, Lawes, Purcell – found in the contrapuntally constructed fantasia the form par excellence in which to express the most erudite thoughts and most sublime poetry. In respect to their artistic merit, these works can not only be compared with the remarkable achievements in poetry and drama of their English contemporaries, but also with the very best chamber music of all periods.

The origin of the viola da gamba is to be found in the culturally heterogeneous Spain of the end of the 15th Century, more precisely, in the Kingdom of Aragon. Playing position and technique were derived from the “rabab”, a moorish bowed instrument that is still played in North Africa today. The form of the body, the stringing and the frets, on the other hand, were taken from the Spanish “vihuela de mano“, a precursor of the modern guitar. The viol appears frequently in 15th C. Aragonese painting around Valencia. The year 1492 – when Columbus sailed for America – witnessed a crucial turn of destiny: elected to the papal throne, the Valencian Rodrigo Borja (In Italian: Borgia), now Alexander VI, brought with his entourage the entire court chapel, which employed many violists, from Spain to Rome. The newcomers – pope and instrument – kindled upheavals everywhere: the one, in the allencompassing turmoil and military confrontations of Italian politics, the other in the more serene musical establishment. Already in 1493 the ambassador Bernardino Prospero reported to the art-loving Isabella d’Este about a performance by a Spanish viol consort sent to Milano by the pope: “The Spanish musicians from Rome played viols almost as big as I. Their playing was so sweet, delicate…“, following which, Isabella d’Este ordered a number of “viole a la spagnola” from the renowned lutemaker, Giovanni Kerlino in Brescia. Before long, the tender tone of the viol resounded throughout the entire peninsula, which welcomed it as its new home.

These new, large but sweet viols flourished astoundingly fast on the fertile soil of the Italian Renaissance. Already in his manual for the courtier, “Il Libro del Cortegiano” of 1528 Baldassare Castiglione considers the playing of viols indispensable for the education of a nobleman:

Music is not just a decoration, but a necessity for a courtier. It should be practiced in the presence of ladies, because it predisposes one to all sorts of thoughts… And the music of four viole ad arco is very enchanting, because it is very delicate, sweet and artfull.

The considerable number of manuals and treatises of the beginning of the 16th century – at a time when the printing of books was extremely expensive, one should note – bear witness to the rapid diffusion and the immense popularity of the new instrument. These works amaze us by the incredibly advanced and sophisticated understanding of the expressive possibilities of a string instrument. Indeed, Silvestro Ganassi’s progressive manual for the viol, Regola Rubertina (1542 and 1543), although intended for the common cultured man, was notto meet its equal until Leopold Mozart’s treatise of 1756. Among the technical demands expounded by Ganassi are:

    1. The playing of rapid passages in the highest positions
    2. Artfully integrated double-stops and chords, also in the upper position
    3. Forte and piano
    4. Playing near the bridge – sul ponticello; playing near the fingerboard – sulla tastiera. These very different tone colors are employed according to the expression required by the text.
    5. Vibrato: both with the fingers of the left hand and with the bow
    6. The slurring of several notes with one stroke of the bow (more likely portato than real slurring)
    7. The playing of a melody in different positions (for a change of colour)
    8. Pizzicato: the plucking with the fingers of the right hand
    9. Improvisation and ornamentation
    10. The accompaniment of singing: the player sings one voice and plays the other three on the viol! To do this elegantly, one can imagine, is indeed a very difficul task.

To portray the proper expression, Ganassi further recommends the player to roll his eyes and to distort his countenance in melancholy pieces, even change the tempo, if need be! Ganassi obviously understands his primary task to be the conveyance to the listener of the manifold spectrum of sentiments and passions through the use of all available artifice – even delving in the theatrical.

From the hand of a Spaniard comes yet another informative treatise: the Tratado de glosas of 1553 by Diego Ortiz discusses the art of diminution (embellishment of a particular type) on the viol to the accompaniment of a harpsichord. Three methods of diminution to the harpsichord are described. The first consists in decorating a given cantus firmus with spontaneously invented counterpoint – by the viol player as well as by the harpsichordist simultaneously. The second method makes use of a pre-existing composition – chanson, motet or madrigal – which is then ornamented according to the rules of the art. The third method completely amazes us: called free fantasie, Ortiz explains that one begins with a few ordered chords on the harpsichord, to which the violist webs an improvised counterpoint. Subsequently, the harpsichord answers with other counterpoints, and so forth. Ortiz cannot describe it any further, since”everyone does it according to his own whim” (similar to modern improvised jazz). This form of art, now regretably lost, imposed the highest demands – both technical and musical – on the performers, and causes us to marvel at the all-encompassing musical training of the musicians of those times.

Although this high perfection of instrumental proficiency of 16th century Italy may at first surprise us, all doubt would be effortlessly dispelled even by a first encounter with the exquisite achievements of that same century in the fields of painting, sculpture, architecture and literature: a culture, which brought forth such Art would never habe been satistied with a primitive musical practice, a field so highly esteemed by Italian Renaissance humanism.

From the instrument building centers in Italy – and there were certainly not few – issued veritable creations which were, as one would expect, in every way the equivalents to the illustrious achievements in the other branches of the fine arts of the Italian city-states. From the beginning Cremona led the way. Thanks primarily to the unparalleled, almost miraculous achievements of the Amati Family, Cremona assumed from the onset of the 16th Century the undisputed leadership in the construction of quality string instruments, a position which it did not forfeit until the end of the 18th Century. The dynasties of the Amati, the Stradivari, Guarneri, Ruggieri, Bergonzi – all poet laureates of their guild – raised the name of Cremona into the spheres of celestial bliss. The City of Brescia entered the stage next to Cremona in the middle of the 16th C. with the outstanding works of Gasparo da Salò and Giovanni Paolo Maggini: their instruments are also considered a first-rate choice for soloists today. Soon thereafter the noble art of the luthier flourished in Milano, Venice, Mantua, Bologna, Florence, later also in Rome and Naples. It is important to note that all these centers brought forth from 1540 until 1780 violas da gamba and violas da braccio of a quality unequalled to this very day.

The art of building and of playing crossed the boundaries of the Italian city-states: into the German principalities, France, England, the Low Countries… Hans Gerle considered it necessary already in 1532 to publish a treatise for the well-off middle-class in the German Lands, who wished to learn to play the viola da gamba: there was obviously a strong demand for this. Spellbound by the ideas of Italian Humanism, the art-loving princes Francis I (1547) and Henry VIII (1547) brought not just the leading Italian painters, sculptors and thinkers, but also Italian composers and musicians to France and to England respectively. At the time when Neoplatonic Thought was in everyone’s head, Petrarca and Ariosto in everyone’s mouth, the viola da gamba was in everyone’s hand!


We had our Grave Musick, Fancies of 3,4, 5 and 6 parts to the Organ, Interpos’d (now and then) with some Pavins, Allmaines, Solemn and Sweet Delightful Ayres; all which were (as it were) so many Pathettical Stories, Rhetorical, and Sublime Discourses ; Subtil and Accute Argumentations, so Suitable, and Agreeing to the Inward, Secret, and Intellectual Faculties of the Soul and Mind ; that to set Them forth according to their True Praise, there are no Words Sufficient in Language ; yet what I can best speak of Them, shall be only to say, That They have been to my self, (and many others) as Divine Raptures, Powerfully Captivating all our unruly Faculties, and Affections, (for the Time) and disposing us to Solidity, Gravity, and a Good Temper, making us capable of Heavenly, and Divine Influences.

Tis Great Pity Few Believe Thus Much, but Far Greater, that so Few Know It.

Thomas Mace, Musick’s Monument, 1676

Note: the viola da gamba is frequently called simply the “viol”in English. The sizes are named: treble, tenor, bass and great bass; the name “pardessus” has been adopted from the French for the smallest member of the family, used principally in France in the 18th Century.