The noble violin is descended from a humble ancestor – the “viol” or “fiddle” of the medieval and Renaissance troubadours. This stringed instrument was called in Italian viola da braccio, or “viol for the arm,” an indication of how it was held. It was viewed as less distinguished than a larger instrument held upright, the viola da gamba, or “viol for the leg.” (Note that the name “fiddle” still applies to the violin, but is used mainly in an informal setting or genre, such as folk or country music.)
It was during the baroque period that the violin was elevated to the core of the orchestra. This change was possible, in part, because of the exceptional instruments being crafted in Cremona, Italy. Andrea Amati (c. 1505–c. 1578) is credited with developing the prototypes for the violin, viola, and violoncello – the “violin family” of four-stringed instruments. The violin has the highest sound or “voice” of the group.
Amati’s successors in Cremona included the legendary Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and Giuseppe Guarneri (1698-1744). Exceptional baroque luthiers also worked outside of Italy – for example, the Austrian Jacob Stainer (c. 1617-1683).
The early violin was somewhat different from today’s instrument. The neck was typically shorter and thicker, the bridge flatter, and the fingerboard shorter.
The bow has also experiencing an evolution. Historically, there was the “Italian bow,” which had a tight tension, and the looser “German bow.” The former was well suited to faster playing, such as rapid arpeggios; the later gave the violinist more flexibility to play multiple strings simultaneously.
The modern violin bow is descended from the tighter, “Italian” model. However, there is renewed interest in the German style bow, especially for the music of composers who would have known it, such as Johann Sebastian Bach.