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The violin is a string instrument, usually with four strings tuned in perfect fifths.
It is the smallest, highest-pitched member of the violin family of string instruments, which includes the viola and cello.
The violin is sometimes informally called a fiddle, regardless of the type of music played on it.
The word violin comes from the Middle Latin word vitula, meaning stringed instrument; this word is also believed to be the source of the Germanic "fiddle".
The violin, while it has ancient origins, acquired most of its modern characteristics in 16th-century Italy, with some further modifications occurring in the 18th century.
Violinists and collectors particularly prize the instruments made by the Gasparo da Salò, Giovanni Paolo Maggini, Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati families from the 16th to the 18th century in Brescia and Cremona and by Jacob Stainer in Austria.
Great numbers of instruments have come from the hands of "lesser" makers, as well as still greater numbers of mass-produced commercial "trade violins" coming from cottage industries in places such as Saxony, Bohemia, and Mirecourt.
Many of these trade instruments were formerly sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co. and other mass merchandisers.
A person who makes or repairs violins is called a luthier, or simply a violin maker.
The parts of a violin are usually made from different types of wood (although electric violins may not be made of wood at all, since their sound may not be dependent on specific acoustic characteristics of the instrument's construction), and it is usually strung with gut, nylon or other synthetic, or steel strings.
Someone who plays the violin is called a violinist or a fiddler.
The violinist produces sound by drawing a bow across one or more strings (which may be stopped by the fingers of the other hand to produce a full range of pitches), by plucking the strings (with either hand), or by a variety of other techniques.
The violin is played by musicians in a wide variety of musical genres, including Baroque music, classical, jazz, folk music, and rock and roll.
The violin has come to be played in many non-western music cultures all over the world.
The modern European violin evolved from various bowed stringed instruments from the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire.
Most likely the first makers of violins borrowed from three types of current instruments: the rebec, in use since the 10th century (itself derived from the Byzantine lyra and the Arabic rebab), the Renaissance fiddle, and the lira da braccio (derived from the Byzantine lira).
One of the earliest explicit descriptions of the instrument, including its tuning, was in the Epitome musical by Jambe de Fer, published in Lyon in 1556.
By this time, the violin had already begun to spread throughout Europe.
The oldest documented violin to have four strings, like the modern violin, is supposed to have been constructed in 1555 by Andrea Amati, but the date is very doubtful. (Other violins, documented significantly earlier, only had three strings and were called violetta.)
The violin immediately became very popular, both among street musicians and the nobility, illustrated by the fact that the French king Charles IX ordered Amati to construct 24 violins for him in 1560.
The oldest surviving violin, dated inside, is from this set, and is known as the Charles IX, made in Cremona c. 1560.
The finest Renaissance carved and decorated violin in the world is the Gasparo da Salò (1574 c.) owned by Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria and later, from 1841, by the Norwegian virtuoso Ole Bull, who used it for forty years and thousands of concerts, for his very powerful and beautiful tone, similar to those of a Guarneri.
It is now in the Vestlandske Kustindustrimuseum in Bergen (Norway).
"The Messiah" or "Le Messie" (also known as the "Salabue") made by Antonio Stradivari in 1716 remains pristine.
It is now located in the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford.