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During the sixteenth century two families of bowed string instruments were developed in Europe: the violins and the viola da gambas.  Viola da gambas can be recognised by their sloping shoulders and C-shaped sound holes.  The instrument has six or seven strings and a series of frets tied around the neck, to guide the hand of the musician when shortening the strings.  The viola da gamba is always played in a seated position, with the body of the instrument on or between the knees.

A violin on the other hand, has shoulders that form a right angle with the neck, and F-shaped sound holes. A violin has four strings and no frets on the neck.  The highest-pitched members of the violin family are held against the shoulder, which means they can be played while standing.

The viola da gamba is not the ancestor of the violin.  On the contrary, both types of instrument evolved side by side until the end of the Ancien Regime.  The violin was perceived as having lower social standing than the viola da gamba, particularly in France.  The instrument was certainly played, notably by professional musicians employed in the court of Versailles, but amateur musicians from the higher levels of society considered the violin undignified, and preferred the viola da gamba.

However, the violin and its repertoire became increasingly successful during the eighteenth century. In response, French luthiers began to construct smaller viola da gambas with five strings, which were called a “pardessus” or “quinton”.  They were closer in shape and sound quality to the violin, but were still played on the knees.  Technically they were less demanding than the violin and were therefore particularly suitable for dilettantes.  They appealed very much to the taste of female musicians.

This pardessus (inv. No. 1394) was built by Louis Guersan (circa 1700-1770), a Parisian luthier specialising in the construction of bowed string instruments, and particularly well-known for his pardessus.  A label states that the instrument was made by:  “Ludovicus Guersan propè Comœdiam Gallicam Lutetiæ 1753” (Ludovicus Guersan near the Comedy Francais of Paris 1753”).  This pardessus comes from the private collection of the brothers Joseph and Victor-Charles Mahillon, the first curator of the Musical Instruments Museum.

Anne-Emmanuelle Ceulemans

Translation : Fiona Shotter