The historical violoncello has evolved to become the instrument we now know as the “cello.” The violoncello appeared by the early 16th century, part of the “violin family” of stringed instruments. The violoncello – like its siblings, the violin and viola – has four strings. It is substantially larger than the other two, and has the deepest sound or “voice.” (The bass is even larger, with a even deeper sound; it is often grouped as the fourth member of the violin family, although it seems to have developed separately from the other three.)
The violoncello is played seated, with the instrument upright between the musician’s knees. It might seem, therefore, that the violoncello’s nearest ancestor would be the Renaissance instrument called viola da gamba (“viol for the leg,” meaning that it was held upright when played). But the violoncello, like the violin and viola, is related to the viola da braccio (“viol for the arm”). These instruments share common features in form and construction, depite being held differently for playing.
An endpin or spike – an innovation from the late 18th century – allows the violoncello to be comfortably balanced on the floor. In the baroque era, however, players made do without this useful addition.
The oldest extant violoncello was made in Cremona, Italy, by Andrea Amati (c. 1505 – c. 1578). Other historical examples were made by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and Giuseppe Guarneri (1698-1744), also great luthiers from Cremona.