Hear the Amati “King” Cello, the Oldest Known Cello in Existence (c. 1560)

The Stradi­vari fam­i­ly has received all of the pop­u­lar acclaim for per­fect­ing the vio­lin. But we should know the name Amati — in whose Cre­mona work­shop Anto­nio Stradi­vari appren­ticed in the 17th cen­tu­ry. The vio­lin-mak­ing fam­i­ly was immense­ly impor­tant to the refine­ment of clas­si­cal instru­ments. “Born around 1505,” writes Jor­dan Smith at CMuse, founder Andrea Amati “is con­sid­ered the father of mod­ern vio­lin­mak­ing. He made major steps for­ward in improv­ing the design of vio­lins, includ­ing through the devel­op­ment of sound-holes” into their now-famil­iar f‑shape.

Among Amati’s cre­ations is the so-called “King” cel­lo, made in the mid-1500s, part of a set of 38 stringed instru­ments dec­o­rat­ed and “paint­ed in the style of Limo­ges porce­lain” for the court of King Charles IX of France.

The instru­ment is now the old­est known cel­lo and “one of the few Amati instru­ments still in exis­tence.” And yet, call­ing the “King” a cel­lo is a bit of a his­tor­i­cal stretch. “The ter­mi­nol­o­gy refer­ring to the ear­ly forms of cel­lo is con­vo­lut­ed and incon­sis­tent,” Matthew Zeller notes at the Strad. “Andrea Amati would like­ly have referred to the ‘King’ as the bas­so (bass vio­lin).”

Images cour­tesy of Nation­al Music Muse­um

The instru­ment remained in the French court until the French Rev­o­lu­tion, after which the bas­so fell out of favor and the “King” was “dras­ti­cal­ly reduced in size” through an alter­ation process that “stood at the fore­front of musi­cal instru­ment devel­op­ment dur­ing the last quar­ter of the 18th cen­tu­ry and through­out the 19th,” a way trans­form obso­lete forms into those more suit­able for con­tem­po­rary music. “By 1801,” Zeller writes, “the date that the ‘King’ might have been reduced, large-for­mat bas­sos were obso­lete, dis­card­ed in favour of the small­er-bod­ied cel­los.”

Zeller has stud­ied the exten­sive alter­ation of the “King” cel­lo (includ­ing a new neck and enlarge­ment from three strings to four) with CT scans of its joints and exam­i­na­tions of now-dis­tort­ed dec­o­ra­tions. The reduc­tion means we can­not hear its orig­i­nal glo­ry — and it was, by all accounts, a glo­ri­ous instru­ment, “a mem­ber of a larg­er fam­i­ly of instru­ments of fixed mea­sure­ments relat­ed togeth­er by pro­found math­e­mat­i­cal, geo­met­ri­cal, and acousti­cal rela­tion­ships of size and tone,” writes Yale con­ser­va­tor Andrew Dip­per, “which gave the set the abil­i­ty to per­form, in uni­son, some of the world’s first orches­tral music for bowed strings.”

We can, how­ev­er, hear the “King” cel­lo (briefly, at the top) in its cur­rent (cir­ca 1801), form, and it still sounds stun­ning. Cel­list Joshua Koesten­baum vis­it­ed the cel­lo at its home in the Nation­al Music Muse­um in Ver­mil­lion, South Dako­ta in 2005 to play it. “It didn’t take much effort to find the instrument’s nat­u­ral­ly sweet, warm sound,” he says. “It was incred­i­bly easy to play — com­fort­able, plea­sur­able, for­giv­ing, and user-friend­ly…. I felt at home.” Learn more about the lat­est research on the “King” cel­lo at Google Arts & Cul­ture and the Strad.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Why Vio­lins Have F‑Holes: The Sci­ence & His­to­ry of a Remark­able Renais­sance Design

Watch Price­less 17-Cen­tu­ry Stradi­var­ius and Amati Vio­lins Get Tak­en for a Test Dri­ve by Pro­fes­sion­al Vio­lin­ists

Watch the Mak­ing of a Hand-Craft­ed Vio­lin, from Start to Fin­ish, in a Beau­ti­ful­ly-Shot Doc­u­men­tary

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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