The Alto Viola

by William Bartruff, Violin Maker

1620 Amati Viola - FrontThe Sixteen Inch Viola

As a violin maker and violist I have been uniquely interested in the role that the 16 inch viola has in history. The instruments that I have been building had to have an antecedent. I had been making many replicas of instruments that were very similar in design and execution even though the originals were of different makers. For the past many years I think I may have been so single minded in my pursuits that I overlooked one very important factor--all of these violas varied in measurements by about the same ratio that violins vary from maker to maker in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. I noticed that the stop on the top and the overall dimensions varied by less than a half centimeter. It occurred to me that this could be no coincidence.

Then The Strad magazine published the poster of the Brothers Amati 1620 viola. I wondered where I had seen it before. It came to me then that I had not seen it once or twice but a dozen times, from Stradivari, Guadagnini, Mantegazza, Vuillaume, etc. This viola, or several like it, had to have been known by every decent maker of the golden period of violin making. Like many modern makers, they may have been copying each other and may have never seen the original. That Stradivari copied it several times would also have influenced every maker of the period. He was being copied by other luthiers even while he still lived.

Similarity of Design

If you were to lay the outline of the Amati Brothers mold over the same mold of the Mahler alto viola by Stradivari, you would find they are identical. Then if you were to do the same with other makers of the period would notice a striking similarity if not outright duplication.

Andrea Amati and Gasparo da SalÚ as well as other Italian luthiers like Peregrino di Zanetto, created the first violas in the period from 1530 through 1590; they were of the 18 and 17 inch tenors. The smaller 16 inch alto instruments were also produced for patrons in France and Florence. These smaller violas were authenticated as original altos, and have not been cut down from tenors, because of the signature outline and purfling of these makers. da SalÚ and Maggini each had their own idea about the alto viola but they again follow the same body size and stop as the Cremonese.

1620 Amati Viola - BackAndrea Amati's Alto Viola

The first commission for the young luthier Andrea Amati was a group of instruments made for the Charles IX orchestra in Paris and commissioned by the mother of Charles, Catherine de Medici, in 1564, upon his ascension to the throne. Amati's ledger documents show an inventory of 38 instruments made for the French crown from 1564 through 1574 when the last cello, viola and three violins were delivered. Eight of these instruments for this orchestra were violas. Of those, two violins and a tenor viola survive. The rest of the orchestra had been destroyed by a mob in the storming of the Bastille at the beginning of the French revolution in 1789. The tenor viola is in the Ashmolean museum with the violin. (There is a Strad poster of one of these violins.)

Now, suppose that Andrea also made an alto of only 16 inches. What would it have looked like? Would his sons have copied it using his form or made a new one on their own? The Brothers Amati viola of 1620 featured in the Strad article is the main player in this scene. It could not have been produced in a vacuum and it is the only known unaltered extant alto viola of this size by the Brothers Amati. All of the tenors made by the brothers Amati were of similar design and execution as Andrea. Yet, have all of Andrea's altos violas disappeared? We do not know if there were any alto violas in the Charles IX orchestra since all records were lost in France. Andrea himself did not distinguish between the larger and smaller of these instruments in his records. (Though he does distinguish between large and small violins.) Only this one Brothers Amati alto viola is left and it does not conform to the ideal of the big tenors.

Or does it? The stop on the smaller viola is exactly proportional to the stop of the larger tenor. If you use a modern photo process, the outline of the larger viola is exactly the same as the alto viola when it is reduced in size. Being smaller in size, a shorter neck could be attached and playability increased. This shorter neck would be one that was proportional to the size of the instrument, much like a violin. We do know from studies by David Boyer that many tenor violas had very short necks. Sometimes only long enough to play first and third position. Some had only three strings since most tenor violists did not play up to the A string.

The Tenor Violas become "Altos"

When the tenor and alto voiced violas were merged into one voice in the eighteenth century, the tenor instruments were diminished and then later cut down into the altos we see today. I personally think that all of these cut downs led to the rather poorer 16 ½ inch viola copies we see at the moment, which are neither tenor nor alto but masquerade as an alto with a quasi tenor voice. Maybe that is where the idea that the viola has no real size comes from, and why there has been so much variation. No one in the nineteenth century had any clear idea what altos should look like because there was little or no scholarship of instruments on which to proceed. Today that is not so, since now, almost three centuries later, we can see the real evidence.

The key, of course, is the stop (i.e., the distance from the top to the notch of the f's). No matter what size neck a maker used, the stop for every one of these violas is between 22.2 and 22.7 centimeters. There is the same variation in stops for a range of violins made by these same makers in all of the sixteenth through the early nineteenth century. Towards this end many large tenor violas, used by only the tallest and most stalwart violists, were cut down to 16 and 16 ½ inches to be more playable. These instruments assumed the role of the alto and had an A string added. Even though few of those unaltered large instruments exist today, they are much sought after by players today who perceive them to have a weight of sound comparable to the cello. The intent of the luthiers, however, to maintain a distinction between alto and tenor violas is apparent with a survey of surviving instruments from the past 400 years. The brothers, Hieronymous and Antonio Amati, created a viola that is, for lack of a better word, perfect.

Copies of the Alto Viola

Copyists, starting with Andrea Guarneri and ending with J.B. Vuillaume, created many replicas. Guarneri's alto of 1696 (also known as the Primrose) is almost identical to the 1620 alto except for the box scroll. Even the 1699 Tononi viola, played by Lee Lane of the Chicago Symphony, is exactly similar--only with a violin style scroll. Andrea Guarneri built his five surviving violas on the design of the brothers Amati allowing for a lot of artistic license. Though again, not varying by more than a half centimeter.

Guadagnini liked it so much that he made a one off, bench copy in 1768 (the Vieuztemps played by Li Kuo Chang, co principal of the Chicago Symphony) and described by Charles Beare to be unique to Guadagnini's output. Most of Guadagnini's other instruments were altos. Yet even those had the same stop as that 1768--though not as elegantly done. I would surmise that once Guadagnini saw the Amati viola, his copy was homage to him as well since it is better executed and finished than any of Guadagnini's other violas.

The Mantegazzas, both Francesco and Pietro, made copies (Walter Hamma, Master Italian violin makers. pp458 and 464.) These instruments are again as close to the 1620 Amati as practically possible. When discussing Carlo Landolfi, he is of course following the lead of the Mantegazzas living across the street in Milan. Matteo Goffriller also copied this same design. Two of his known violas, one belonging to Robert Swan of the Chicago Symphony and the other in the collection of Helmut Nicolai, have that same variation of form and artistic license; but they conform to the parameters of the Amati alto in size and stop.

Antonio Stradivari must have known of this Brothers Amati viola because all of his violas--except two--follow that 1620 pattern. They all have box scrolls except for the last viola of his career, the Gibson of 1734, which has a violin like scroll. The two that are different are the large Tuscan, and the Medici viola in the Ashmolean which looks very similar to the Brothers Amati tenor of 1592.

Last in the list is one of the modern eras most prolific makers and copyists--J.B. Vuillaume. In 1874 he made a viola with a two piece back that is a an exact duplicate of the 1620 alto: the outline, scroll, and every other measurement are the same. Although he did manage to include a family medallion painted on the upper bout of the back to impart a more singular quality.


I have now made three copies of this brothers Amati viola and I have found that each one has the facility and carrying power I would expect from a fine alto viola. Even the replica I made of the Guadagnini had the same character as the original. Content follows form in these cases.

In conclusion, I feel that violin makers should develop their own styles utilizing the ideals of the Brothers Amati viola of 1620 and all of those other golden age luthiers and develop a viola that can be truly called their own. We are copyists, yes, but so were the luthiers of ages past. A great design never dies.