Monday, June 22, 2020

Who Invented the Violin? Sephardic Jews and the Early Days of the Violin

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins, and Mikaela Marget

Who made the first violin? 

With a cursory internet search, you may be convinced that the mastermind behind all modern violin making was Andrea Amati of Cremona; many give him credit for the oldest existent violin, a 1546 instrument that is now lost. The truth, though, is more complicated than that; first of all, we don’t even know if he was responsible for the very first modern violin. Even if he was, Amati didn’t just come up with a great idea out of nowhere! 

ex-Kurtz violin by Andrea Amati

The violin emerged from various other stringed instruments over the course of history, and like many of our ancestries, the violin’s lineage is murky. As instrument makers traveled across the globe, they encountered new ideas and made adaptations to their instruments. Eventually, makers began to create entirely new instruments based on these previous models.

Gasparo da Salo (another early Italian luthier) Viola, Brescia, circa 1609
National Music Museum, SD

So, if Amati isn’t 100% responsible for the creation of the modern violin, who is, and what were their influences? Some scholars believe the answer lies with Sephardic Jews living in Northern Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The Viol and Jewish-Italian makers 

A likely ancestor of all modern stringed instruments is the Arabic rebab. The rebab gave way to many early stringed instruments-- including the viol, which is regarded as a direct ancestor of the violin.

(We did another blog post about the origins of the violin, check it out here when you're done reading!)

Viol, 1730

The viol was developed in Northern Italy in the 15th century out of two similar instruments, the Spanish vihuela de arco and the Italian lira da braccio. How the vihuela de arco came to Italy is disputed. It is possible that it arrived with an influx of Catalan culture to the Papal States through Pope Alexander the VI during his papacy 1492-1503. It may also have arrived with Sephardic (Jews with roots in Spain and Portugal) Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. 1492 is significant in Jewish history. That's the year the Jews and Spain came under a 'Convert, Die, or Leave' edict.

File:Viola de arco (c. 1474).jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Vihuela de arco, 1474 

File:San Zaccaria.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Lira da braccio, 1505, Giovanni Bellini

Andrea Amati (remember Amati?) is rumored to have Jewish heritage. Researcher Carlo Chiesa notes that in 1526 there was a Jewish man named Andrea living in Cremona who had skills as an instrument maker, his father was a converted Catholic. He wrote that it was possible that this Andrea was Andrea Amati and that their family was expelled from Iberia in the 1490s. 

Areas of Expulsion & Resettlement 

Though there is no concrete evidence of the first viols being created by Sephardic Jews, there were Sephardic Jewish instrument makers working in Northern Italy at this time, so it is possible that they were influential in the initial creation of the viol. 

Sephardic Jews in Tudor England

Whether or not the viol is of Jewish origins, it is now widely believed that Sephardic Jews brought the instrument to England in the early 1500s. According to research done by the University of Belfast professor Roger Prior, King Henry VIII’s court musicians consisted mainly of three Jewish-Italian families. The Bassano, Lupo, and Comey families were luthiers and performers in the king’s royal consort.

Tudor Court c. 1545

Dr. Prior cites nineteen of the king’s original consort as Jewish musicians hailing from Italy who all arrived in England by 1540. The six original members of the viol consort traveled to England together from the duchy of Milan, and were Sephardim (Jews with roots in Spain and Portugal), while the wind consort hailed from Venice and were Ashkenazim (Jews with roots in Northern Europe).

England, like many places at this time, was not a welcoming place for Jewish people. In fact, Jews were not officially allowed to live in England until the Restoration, so many musicians changed their names or converted to Christianity to avoid further persecution. This may have been true of the musicians in King Henry VIII’s court, as we have no documented evidence of their Jewish heritage. Professor Prior investigated minor name variations and changes throughout these musician’s lives to assert that they originally possessed Jewish names.

For example, one prominent viol player and composer called “Ambrose of Milan” was known as Ambrose Lupo. In another record, he was “Ambrosius Deolmaleyex” which Prior suggests is a misspelling of “de Almaliach/Elmaleh”. Elmaleh was a well known Iberian Jewish family who settled in Italy (amongst other places) after expulsion from Spain.

King Henry VIII

Why the Bassanos, Lupos, and Comeys chose to leave relative peace in Italy for England is unclear. Prior suggests that they may have had to choose between their religion and their artistry, and the stability of a court position was probably intriguing. In addition, by 1535 the Duchy of Milan fell under Spanish Empirical rule and had become a dangerous place for Portuguese Jews (this is around the time the Comey family traveled to England). This being said, England was not a safe place either. Prior suggests that many of the musicians were imprisoned after claims surfaced that they were secretly Jewish, then let free and allowed to return to the court once their “Christian-ness” was validated.


Italy and England were not the only places in Europe that were influenced by Sephardic Jewish instrument makers in the early 1500s. The town of Füssen, Germany became a hotspot of new instrument technology, especially with recorders, lutes, and other stringed instruments.

Town of Füssen, Germany

According to Dr. John Huber, researcher and author of the book B.C. Before Cremona, a Sephardic man named Jorig Welf was granted citizenship in Füssen Germany in 1493. He was from a well-known family of instrument makers. 

Circumstance and Speculation  

Most of what we know about Sephardic Jewish connection to the creation of viols and (subsequently violins) in the sixteenth century is from Roger Prior’s work with names and lineage. It is difficult to say with any certainty that any of these musicians had Jewish connections or heritage, there were many people at this time working on and developing instruments. Even so, I could be convinced that the viol and violin were created by Jewish-Italian people. When it comes down to it--why not?

Andy with the Amati King Cello
(National Music Museum, SD)

Spanish Expulsion 1492 

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