The violin as we know it today likely evolved over many centuries dating possibly right back to the 9th century. It has its origins mainly from the Arabic instrument, the rebec, which was first brought to Europe in the 13th century but there were also likely bowed string instruments before this time in Europe dating as far back as the 9th century. The rebec was played resting on the arm or under the chin and had between 1-5 strings, played with a bow. The rebec was much smaller than the modern day violin but was tuned in a similar manner, so it is likely the modern-day tuning method for the violin derives from the rebec.
Over time, the Rebec was replaced by the viol family and was no longer played past the end of the Renaissance period. The Lira de braccio ( viol for the arm) most resembles the modern day violin, since it was played resting on the player’s arm. The Lira de braccio generally had seven strings, with two strings which acted as drones. In art, the earliest examples of violins can be seen in Italy around 1530.
The earliest known maker of the modern day 4-string violin was Andrea Amati, who was recorded to make a violin under the modern style in 1555. The violin as we know it today underwent a huge transformation during period between 1520-1560, where the current proportions were tried and fixed. Amati’s earliest surviving violin is the Charles IX, so-called because in 1560 Charles IX, the king of France at the time, commissioned Amati to make him 24 violins, of which this is the only surviving instrument, and therefore the oldest known modern-day violin. Amati ran his workshop in Cremona in Italy, the main hub of violin-making craftsmanship, where he trained his sons in his trade. At around the same time, Gasparo de Salo of Brescia was also working in Italy, and it has been argued that his instruments were actually the first modern-day violins.
Since Cremona was the major luthier hub, it attracted a number of Amati disciples, one of which is alleged to have been Antonio Stradivari, who is said to have been trained by Andrea Amati’s descendent, Nicolo Amati, although there seems little evidence to support this. However, Antonio Stradivari is without question considered to be the most influential and masterly luthier in history. He is thought to have made over 1000 string instruments, including violas, cellos and double basses, although many of these are thought to be lost or destroyed. It is not yet clear just quite how Stradivari’s instruments have such an unparalleled sounds quality despite many luthiers having tried in vain to recreate the proportions and varnish of his instruments. Because of this, Stradivari intruments are highly valuable and south after amongst violin soloists across the globe, and they often fetch over $1 million dollars at auction.
Despite their seeming perfection, it is known that Stradivari continued to experiment with the dimension and form of the violin for many years. However, the instrument was still largely positioned relatively low down the player’s arm, since the chin rest and shoulder rest were yet to be invented. Violins in Stradivari’s time would not have been used to perform the virtuosic works we hear them play today; in fact the performed would have been limited to the first position area of the instrument, unable to reach round to the higher departments for fear of dropping the violin. Much baroque music is largely centred in the lower areas of the violin, and it was not until the invention of the chin rest and the shoulder rest that players were able to expand their technique and reach into the higher realms of the instrument.
The chin rest was invented by Louis Spohr in the 19th century and gave violinists much more control over stabilising the violin on their shoulders horizontally rather than have it pointing to the floor and allowed them to have their elbow free to manoeuvre under the belly of the instrument and play in the higher realm of the violin. This was a major breakthrough which in turn encouraged composers to write much more challenging and virtuosic solo works for the violin, culminating in works such as Sibelius’ highly demanding violin concerto.