Viola da Gamba

Date: 1640–65

Geography: London, United Kingdom

Culture: British

Medium: Maple, spruce, gut

Dimensions: Height: 45 1/4 in. (115 cm)
Width: 14 3/4 in. (37.4 cm)

Classification: Chordophone-Lute-bowed-fretted

Credit Line: Purchase, Robert Alonzo Lehman Bequest, 2009

Accession Number: 2009.42


In England after 1600, small bass viols such as these began to displace larger consort instruments. Viols of this size remained dominant until the viola da gamba began to go out of fashion in the late eighteenth century (at which point many small bass viols were converted into cellos). This example is part of a small group that escaped modernization. Remarkably, it retains its original neck, fingerboard, tailpiece, and bridge. Because its label is lost and no comparable seventeenth-century viol has yet come to light, dating this instrument and attributing it to a particular maker or workshop is difficult. The date 1640–65 is based on construction details and decorative style. The viol's top is assembled from five bent staves, instead of a carved single board, and the ornamental carnation inscribed with a hot needle just below the fingerboard imitates embroidery patterns fashionable in England about 1600 and after. Furthermore, the portrait of a young man that decorates the viol's finial, or head, is intriguingly similar to one in The Yarmouth Collection, a still life commissioned in 1665 (Castle Museum, Norwich, England).