The Viol

See works of art
  • Leaf from a Beatus Manuscript: the Lamb at the Foot of the Cross, Flanked by Two Angels; The Calling of Saint John with the Enthroned Christ flanked by Angels and a Man Holding a Book
  • Venus and the Lute Player
  • Bass Viola da Gamba
  • Viola da Gamba
  • Bass Viola da Gamba
  • Viola da Gamba
  • Cittern
  • Bass Viola da Gamba
  • The Francesca Violin
  • The Batta-Piatigorsky Violoncello
  • Seven String Bass Viol
  • Pardessus de Viole
  • Treble Viol
  • Rebab

Works of Art (15)


The viol (also referred to as the viola da gamba, or gamba) is a European bowed and fretted string instrument played on the leg (da gamba), used at court and in the home primarily during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Viols feature frets, arched bridges, sloped shoulders, and flat backs, and either six or seven strings. Ensembles called consorts require sets (or “chests”) of viols in three sizes: treble, tenor, and bass, the latter of which can be used for solo playing. Like its Spanish predecessor, the vihuela, the viol is constructed from flat pieces of wood joined at the seams. Its neck is wider than that of violin-family instruments (the violin [34.86.2], viola, and violoncello [L.2013.71a–g]), so as to accommodate the greater number of strings; its sides are deeper and its back flat and bent in toward the neck. Sometimes viols feature superbly carved scrolls in the form of human or bestial heads (89.4.1343; 2009.42), side bouts with intricate floral patterns, and decorative purfling, or inlaid detail around the belly (1982.324). The viol is ideal for domestic music making and was immensely popular among amateur and professional musicians alike, partially due to the fact that its frets (made from gut and wrapped around the neck) make it comparatively easy to play in tune. The instrument has a unique lineage and repertoire and flourished in Western Europe from the late fifteenth through the late eighteenth centuries, only to be gradually displaced in the eighteenth century by the instruments of the violin family, which met the demands of a rapidly changing musical culture.

Tuning and Origins
Viols are tuned in intervals of fourths, with a major third in the center. Treble instruments (89.4.946) are strung d’-g’-c”-e”-a”-d”’, tenors G-c-f-a-d’-g’ (smaller tenors, called altos, are tuned A-d-g-b-e’-a’), and basses D-G-c-e-a-d’, or AA-D-G-c-e-a-d’, one octave below the treble. The tuning of the early viol varied well into the sixteenth century, however, before the viol consort (and other ensembles with canonic repertoires) established the need for consistency. The only fifteenth-century theorist to write about instruments is Tinctoris, a musician working in Catalonia and at the Aragonese court in Naples, and author of De inventione et usu musicae (ca. 1487), a survey of the origins and evolution of music, theory, and vocal and instrumentation practice. While this early source does not discuss the tuning of the viol specifically, it does contain descriptions of the tuning of instruments used alongside early viols, such as three-stringed tamburas strung in fifths played by captive Turks in Naples; the vihuela de arco; the ghittera (relative of the cittern; see 1985.124) and the medieval fiddle, one of the earliest string instruments with an arched bridge. Some have hypothesized that early viols and their ancestors may have been tuned in a way that resembles these and other instruments.

One likely ancestor of the viol is the rabab (89.4.403), a bowed string instrument played by the Moors of Aragon in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and whose da gamba posture and oblong shape resemble that of early Renaissance viols. Evidence suggests that the rabab survived in Spain while a variant, the rebec, developed and flourished elsewhere in Western Europe. Early examples of rebec playing can be found in Castilian painting from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries (e.g., Juan Correa de Vivar, La Natividad). During this time, the instrument was significantly affected by instrument-making practices of Northern Europe, where it would acquire the distinctive carved heads associated with early Renaissance Italian viols. Another related instrument is the vielle, similar to the rebec/rabab but made of flat wood and strung with more strings. Iconographic evidence suggests that vielles and rababs were held in a variety of postures and played concurrently (1991.232.1–.14 [see last view]). The instrument of Spanish origin that is most closely related to the viol is the large, plucked five-stringed vihuela, which first appears in Spain in the fifteenth century. In the 1480s, in the city of Valencia, two corollaries of the vihuela began to emerge: the plucked vihuela de mano (detail from a Madonna Enthroned altarpiece by Girolamo dai Libri, ca. 1520), the direct ancestor of the modern guitar; and the vihuela de arco, a bowed and fretted instrument held at the lap used for playing drone tones and improvisations to accompany singing (detail, Veronese, The Wedding Feast at Cana, Louvre).

Development in Italy
The election of Pope Alexander VI, a member of the Catalan Borgia dynasty, brought a surge of Catalan culture to Rome during his papacy (1492–1503), and with it an influx of Spanish musicians and instruments. The Valencian flat-bridged vihuela de arco traveled from Spain to Italy at the end of the fifteenth century via these channels, and benefited from both papal and private patronage. In Italy, luthiers brought the instrument into the form that would ensure its survival for the next two centuries, chiefly by arching the bridge: this at once distinguished the instrument from the indigenous Italian lira da braccio (whose similar tradition of playing drone tones to accompany singing was already long established in Italy), and rendered it suitable for solo playing. Once equipped with an arched bridge, a player can easily make one string sound at a time, without touching the others, and develop a mastery of independent musical lines. (Tinctoris notes this important development: “unam tangens: juxta libitum sonitoris: alias reliquat inconcussas,” in De inventione et usa musicae, ca. 1487).

Within a short period of time, early viols began to appear elsewhere in the Papal States. Urbino in the north was particularly receptive to them, and their popularity recorded by Castiglione in Il Libro del Cortegiano: “And no less delightful is the music of four bowed viols which is very sweet and artful.” At the turn of the sixteenth century, Alfonso d’Este in Ferrara commissioned the making of five “viole da archo” with intentions of learning the instrument himself—a few years later, he was proficient enough to play in public, and did so at his own marriage (to Lucrezia Borgia in 1502). Alfonso’s sister Isabella d’Este was also an important early patron of the instrument, and arranged to have numerous viols sent to her at her court in nearby Mantua, including a collection of viols acquired through her personal antiquities dealer, Lorenzo da Pavia. Isabella also collected paintings in which the instrument features as an allegory alluding to good temperament and Neoplatonic ideas about beauty. The viol enjoyed tremendous popularity in Venice in its early days, judging by the sheer number of instruments to have survived from that city, most of them made by Antonio Ciciliano and his son Battista in the second half of the sixteenth century. One of the first musicians to achieve virtuoso status on the instrument was also a member of this family of prolific instrument builders, one “Messer Battista Ciciliano,” whose portrait was painted by Titian’s son, Orazio, in 1546. Titian was also inspired by the instrument and featured it prominently in many of his own allegorical works (36.29 [bottom right]).

England and the Consort Tradition
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, young English composers writing polyphonic, or multipart, music acquired rules of composition and knowledge of theory from Italian musicians employed at the English court, who brought with them their music and the instruments used to play it. Chief among these instruments was the viol. The first viol players probably appeared at the English court around 1515. This group of six men was comprised of three families of Sephardic Jews from Venice, Milan, and Cremona, and the ensemble they formed in 1540 at the court of Henry VIII would serve the royal courts from Henry’s reign until that of Charles II. An inventory of Henry VIII’s instruments compiled in 1547, at the time of his death, reveals that his prized collection of “newe vialles” was substantial in both quantity and quality, and that, by extension, the instrument was rapidly gaining popularity at the Tudor court. It was around this time that the viol was introduced into the curriculum of London’s choir schools. Westminster Abbey, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and the Chapel Royal granted regular tuition on the instrument to their most talented students, and the impact was significant: these schemes would produce a generation of skilled musicians who brought viol consort music into the wider musical community, and eventually into the home.

Viol production in London spiked in the late sixteenth century to meet the increasing public demand for the instrument. John Rose, Sr. (fl. 1552–61), had a successful practice in the middle of the century, and exported his instruments to Italy, but under his son, John Rose, Jr. (d. 1611), the instrument would acquire the classic five-piece belly design that would last for a generation (1989.44). Rose’s instruments resemble older Venetian instruments in their shape and delicately sloped shoulders, but are often constructed with elaborate geometric and floral patterning on the belly to reflect the status of his aristocratic clientele. The increasing demands for the instrument among skilled amateur players in the second half of the seventeenth century saw a new generation of instrument builders set up shop in London, in the vicinity of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, a neighborhood that had become an epicenter of instrument making. The workshop of Edward Lewis and John Hare, nicknamed “The Golden Viol,” was located here; down the street was “The Bass Viol,” the shop of Barak Norman. The Metropolitan’s Norman of 1692 (1990.223), made one year before the luthier began monogramming his work, is simply decorated, unlike his other instruments or those of his older colleague—and likely teacher—Richard Meares (1982.324), which often feature intricate latticework on the ribs and around the body. At this time, German composers working in England—such as Gottried Finger (ca. 1655–1730)—introduced England to instruments of German and Austrian descent (1988.365).

Music for viol consort (combinations of between two and six [sometimes more] treble, tenor, and bass viols) would flourish in Tudor England. Henry VIII owned numerous manuscripts of textless polyphony, among them possibly the earliest source of English consort music, a collection that dates to the early sixteenth century. The instrumentation for these pieces is not specified, but it is likely that some of this music—including work by Thomas Tallis, John Taverner, and Christopher Tye—was intended for viols. A new generation of composers associated with the court of Elizabeth I—among them William Byrd, Thomas Morley, Alfonso Ferrabosco II, John Dowland, Thomas Tomkins, and Orlando Gibbons—exploited the possibilities of the instrument through sonorous multipart pavans, dances, consort songs, fantasias, and In Nomines (pieces built over a cantus firmus taken from the plainchant Gloria Tibi Trinitas). By the middle of the seventeenth century, composers such as John Jenkins, John Coprario, and William Lawes had developed these forms into complicated works with extended thematic development and highly complex counterpoint. Techniques of lyra (chords) and divisions (variations) in solo playing arose in England at the end of the seventeenth century and with them appeared instruction manuals to accompany the student in their studies. Playford’s An Introduction to The Skill of Musick (1654) and Musicks Recreation on the Viol-Lyra Way (1669), Thomas Robinson’s The Schoole of Musicke (1603), and Christopher Simpson’s The Division Viol (1659) encouraged a refining of bowing, posture, intonation, and fingering. Bass viols of a slightly smaller size developed to aid with these techniques (2009.42). Yet, as solo playing flourished, consort playing began to die out—the last great collections of music written for the ensemble after the Restoration are Henry Purcell’s fantasias of 1680, and works by Simpson including two cycles of fantasias, “The Monthes” and “The Seasons.”

In spite of the decline of composition for viol consort, the viol would remain popular in England among amateur musicians well into the eighteenth century. Gainsborough was an avid amateur player, and through his extensive correspondence with composer Carl Friedrich Abel, we learn of his love of the instrument, specifically his desire to “take [my] Viol da Gamba and walk off to some sweet Village when I can print Landskips and enjoy the fag End of Life in quietness and ease.” After the Restoration, the instrument would remain a member of the continuo group alongside the theorbo, harpsichord, and other instruments whose purpose was to realize a bass line, until the demands for instrumentation in the newly popular genre of opera saw the cello fill this need. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote three sonatas for the bass viol and gave the instrument prominent solo passagework in the St. John Passion, the St. Matthew Passion, and in numerous cantatas, despite the fact that the instrument was, in his day, already considered somewhat old-fashioned. In France, the tradition of solo bass viol playing would develop into the seventeenth century in the hands of Sainte-Colombe and his student, the virtuoso Marin Marais. A small treble-range viol, the pardessus de viole (2006.504), was invented in France mid-century, likely to allow women to play music meant for newly popular violins and flutes. French luthiers like Bertrand added a seventh string to the viol, increasing its range to the A below the low D (89.4.1343), which dramatically improved the viol’s capabilities for rich sonorities and expressive playing.

Today, the viol is enjoying a resurgence in popularity: students are taking degrees in the instrument at conservatories, ensembles are performing and recording its music, and composers are freshly interested in its timbre. As musicologist Peter Holman posits, it is likely that the popularity of the viol among amateurs and professionals alike has been more or less consistent from the Reformation until the modern day, despite—or perhaps because of—its role as a specialty instrument.

Elizabeth Weinfield
The Graduate Center of the City University of New York

June 2014


Weinfield, Elizabeth. “The Viol.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (June 2014)