Viola d’amore, 18th century

Viola d'amore

Johannes Florenus Guidantus (Italian, 1687–1760)
Viola d’amore, 18th century
Spruce, maple, ebony; 7 15/16 x 22 5/8 in. (20.2 x 57.5 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Amati Gifts, 2009 (2009.41)

The viola d’amore, or viola “of love,” is a bowed stringed instrument which gained great popularity in the eighteenth century. Much of its history, including the derivation of its name, is unknown. It has many characteristics of the viol family such as a flat back, ribs that are flush with the top and back, and a rosette in addition to sound holes. Yet, like a violin, it is unfretted and held under the chin while played. Violas d’amore typically have seven playing strings, though instruments with other numbers of strings are not unusual. Perhaps the most distinguishable characteristic of the eighteenth-century viola d’amore is the presence of sympathetic strings, which are not played but located behind the bowed strings and vibrate “in sympathy.” The sympathetic strings contribute to produce a tone that is clear and often described as “silvery,” as well as creating a more resonant sound with a longer decay. The viola d’amore was popular with eighteenth-century composers and can be found in the works of J. S. Bach, Vivaldi, Telemann, Haydn, and Locatelli.

This festooned viola d’amore survives in its unaltered, original condition. This example has seven playing strings that are bowed, and behind the tailpiece and fingerboard are seven sympathetic strings that ring “in sympathy” with the bowed strings. Violas d’amore often have carved figural heads, usually with either a blindfold or shut eyes—a reference to the adage “love is blind.”

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