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Title: Begli occhi io non provo: Music of Girolamo Frescobaldi; Ensemble de'Medici. Label: RCM. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 94001-2. Track: 5.

Contextual Associations

The violone is a bowed box-lute chordophone, the lowest member of the viol family of European string instruments that are played in a vertical position; the Italian name for the instrument is ‘violone da gamba,’ which means ‘leg bass viol’ and describes how the instrument is held between the player's calves. The viol pictured and described on this page is a recently made (1997) replica modeled after a surviving 17th century instrument. During the Renaissance period and well into the Baroque, viols were played as consorts (see ensemble page for ‘Renaissance Viola da Gamba Consort’) to perform polyphonic music often in accompaniment of voices. It is not clear to what degree the violone was used in viol consorts, but it is known to have been used extensively during the Baroque era to reinforce the bass line of continuo parts in orchestral, sacred, and chamber music. Viols are most strongly associated with European court life, a context in which they would be performed upon by professionals and some courtiers. Upper class amateurs, such as members of wealthy merchant families, might also own and play these relatively expensive instruments. An inscription is painted on the back of this instrument (see detail image) that translates as "On the bass notes I summon man, man hears my voice."


The violone has two basic sections that are joined together--the resonator (constructed from several thinly-shaven pieces of wood glued together) and the neck (comprising of the neck proper, the peg box, and the scroll all carved from a single piece of wood, and the fingerboard, made from another piece of wood). It has steep sloping shoulders, a flat back the top third of which slopes toward the base of the neck, deep ribs, and an arched belly with F-shaped sound holes. Inside the resonator there is a long strip of wood (bass bar) glued vertically underneath the left side of the belly to boost the instrument's bass frequencies, and a sound post is fitted snugly between the belly and the back to augment in the transmission of energy to the back. The wide fingerboard attached to the neck is arched longitudinally and extends over the resonator well past the bottom end of the neck. Seven moveable frets made from gut are tied around the neck and fingerboard. Six strings (gut, with the bottom two aluminum wound) run the length of the instrument, attached at their bottom end to a tailpiece and at their top end to tuning pegs mounted laterally into the peg box. Just above the tailpiece, the strings pass over the broad and arched bridge. A wooden concave bow with horsehair is used to set the strings into vibration.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

A seated player rests the resonator between their calves with the neck extending beyond their left shoulder. The fingers of the left hand are used to stop the strings against the fingerboard, aided by the frets. The right hand holds the nut end of the bow with an underhand grip (palm facing up) and sets the strings into vibration with a bowing motion just above the bridge. The six strings of the violone are tuned from low to high to: G1 - C2 - F2 - A2 - D3 - G3. A range of two octaves and a fifth (G1 to D4) can be produced with the available frets. It produces a quiet but reedy and resonant sound.


The term ‘violone’ was used generically in 16th-century Italy to refer to the viol family, but the first clear application of it to a contrabass instrument was in 1609. By the mid-18th century it fell out of use, but exactly when is difficult to say again because of terminological ambiguities; its often not clear if the term referred to the violone as described here, the violoncello, or the double bass, the latter instrument being a descendent of the violone.

Bibliographic Citations

Borgir, Tharald, and Alfred Planyavsky. 1984. "Violone," NGDMI v.3: 814-815.

Gillespie, Wendy. 1994. "Bowed Instruments," In A Performer's Guide to Renaissance Music. ed. Jeffery T. Kite-Powell. New York: Schirmer Books, pp. 109-124.

Randel, Don. 1986. "Violone," In The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Cambridge: Belknap Press, pp. 923-924.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.322 chordophone--necked box lute or necked guitar: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - joined

Resonator design, chordophone: box with wood soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: pressure bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: friction peg

Method of sounding: bowing (direct)

Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretted fingerboard)


59.5 in. height 34 in height of resonator 19.1 in. greatest width of resonator 7.8 in. height of resonator sides 35.1 in. length of acoustically active segment of strings

Primary Materials

string - gut
string - wire-wound gut


Dominik Zuchowicz, Ottawa

Entry Author

Roger Vetter