“The violin family appeared in essentially its modern form in northern Italy, specifically in Brescia and Cremona, about 1550. Andrea Amati (ca. 1511–1580) of Cremona was among the first generation of makers to add a fourth string to the violin and to create the standard sizes of cello, viola, and violin in their classic modern shapes.” –Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City
Not many in the world know what a viola is, much less an Amati viola, but if it could be summed up in one word, to me it would be treasure.
Last week, I found an opportunity to visit the Cincinnati Art Museum — a place I’d always wanted to visit, but hadn’t had the chance. Having visited many art museums around the world (Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, the Louvre in Paris, the Vatican Museum in Rome, etc.), I wasn’t expecting what I found. The Cincinnati Art Museum is fantastic — a Met on a smaller scale , but no less grand in collection.
The entry collection is outstanding, with two Degas dancer sculptures and a gorgeous Van Gogh (two of my favorite artists). But a few pieces further, I found a stunning Amati viola.
What is a viola?
A viola is a stringed instrument held like a violin, but with one string lower, which draws a fuller, deeper, and many times richer sound. Viola music is written in the Alto clef, which is rare, and difficult. The strings are the same as a cello (C G D A), but are one octave higher. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Dvorak played the viola. For more information, an excellent explanation can be found here.
I’ve played the viola since I was a child, which I talked a bit about here. I love the viola for its rich sound, and enjoy the freedom of expression a stringed instrument provides.
After I watched the movie The Red Violin, my interest in Stradivari violins and violas grew. The history and supposed beauty of sound accomplished with instruments created by Stradivari are fascinating to me. Antonio Stradivari was a luthier (violin and stringed instrument maker) known for his perfect instruments. The luthier in the movie The Red Violin was based on Stradivari.
Stradivari was the pupil of Nicolo Amati, who was the son and pupil of Girolamo Amati, one of the brothers who created the viola on display in the Cincinnati Museum of Art.
The Amati Viola
The patriarch of the Amati family, Andrea Amati (1511 – 1580), is credited with having created the modern design, form, shape, and sizes of the stringed instrument family. Andrea was the father and teacher of his sons, Girolamo and Antonio. In 1560, he created a set of instruments for the French royalty including Catherine de Medici and Charles IX, which were in use until the French Revolution, when only 14 survived. Today, an Amati violin sells for upwards of $600,000. Amati violas are even rarer, and have more value. The instruments are regarded as having superior sound, and therefore, high value which has increased over time.
The Amati viola in the Cincinnati Art Museum is a treasure.
Many thanks to the Cincinnati Art Museum for their generosity in allowing photography on most of their works. This piece would not have been possible without that gracious allowance. Thank you.