Fiddle. Some would say we have one in the foyer of the Old Tullie House; the one that was made in the 1560s by Andrea Amati. Some violinists might be quite indignant if they heard it called a fiddle. Most seem not to mind and many call their own instruments fiddles.
OK then. Fiddle – a word developed slowly through the medieval period that can mean any bowed instrument.
It appears that the Arab world gave us the kick-start on fiddles in the 8th or 9th centuries in the shape of a gourd with strings stretched over it – the ‘rabab’ or ‘rebec’. In Europe it was carved from wood. Maybe all that carving effort was too much and gave the luthiers of old the idea to make a built-up wooden box instead.
If it hadn’t been for that leap forward the Old Tullie House might be graced with something rather different by Andrea Amati. The five instruments – all fiddles if we go by the definition above – that have joined it there might have been all rather different too. But no, the viola, the viol da gamba, the viola d’amore, the pochette violin and the tiny violin are all wonderful wooden boxes of maple, spruce, pine, ebony, ivory, bone and boxwood. Boxes, but ones of just the right shape, weight, thickness, density to be quite wonderful things.
Andrea Amati’s violin, which has stood alone in Old Tullie House for a good number of years, is an amazing survivor from the court orchestra of King Charles IX of France. That it is 450 years old almost beggars belief. When it was made; Elizabeth I had been queen for eight years, the Spanish Armada was not even a glint in Philip II’s eye. It is one of the oldest violins in the world, and it survived the French Revolution.
The five instruments new to Old Tullie House are all rather younger, three of them 18th century, the viola is early 19th century, and the tiny “toy” 16cm-long violin late 19th. All survivors, if only from the ravages of children.
The miniature violin is included in the display to represent the local makers of Cumbria in the Tullie collection – Maghie, Birtles, Scott. I wish we could tell you the names of the luthiers who made the elegant viola d’amore with its 13 strings, the rather rustic viol da gamba that at one time had ten strings but now has just four, and the pochette violin (somebody said “dinky” the other day) which would have been played for the better off as they honed their ballroom skills – but not one of those instruments has a maker’s mark that can be seen.
They are on show now for the first time in more than 20 years. To add to the spectacle, a new Collection Conversation has been developed around them. You can find out more about how a violin is made; what Mr Amati came up with that makes the violin different to its contemporaries, and more about the origins of the instrument, with a replica soprano rebec that you can handle. You can even try to play it if you feel bold and want your cat to write a sympathy card.
For their help in putting these instruments on show, and developing the collection conversation, Tullie House would like to thank:
Anthony Calvert, of the Early Music Shop, Salts Mill, Saltaire, W.Yorks
Corrie Schrijver, violin maker and restorer of Brampton, Cumbria
James Rawes, violin maker and restorer, of Cotehill, Carlisle, Cumbria