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The 500 year old Amati "King" Cello

For those interested in the history of the violin family, there is a brilliant museum piece currently on loan at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The “King” cello is the earliest surviving bass instrument in the violin family. This unique piece was crafted in the mid-16th century by luthier Andrea Amati.

The Amati family was renowned for their mastery of the craft and founding of the Cremona school of violin making in Italy. Their instruments set the standard for the modern violins we see today, including their characteristic amber-colored varnish. The “King” cello and other similar Amati instruments were usually intended as diplomatic gifts, and therefore were produced in limited quantities. The name itself refers to the fact that the “King” cello was commissioned for the court of King Charles IX of France. Let’s take a look at what makes this royal cello so distinctive.

An amazing piece of art

The 500-year-old cello is currently the centerpiece of an installation at the Met which honors the Amati family and other notable stringed instrument makers. Amati instruments were often painted with political symbols and royal emblems to represent the family who commissioned it, and the “King” cello is no different.

Decorated with oil paint with an overglazing of metal leaf, the fleur-de-lis is a noticeable motif on this cello, symbolizing the French royal family. Gilded letters spell out “piety” and “justice” on the instruments flanking, and the collar depicted on its back represents the Order of Saint Michael, which was founded by Louis XI. All of these details help us understand the history behind the instrument, giving us a snapshot into the political  landscape at the time of its creation.

It is generally agreed that the Amati family is responsible for significant innovation in the field of stringed instrument design, though they could hardly imagine the influence their craftsmanship would eventually have. Today, some musicians play electric cellos with the signature Amati amber varnish, using technology the famous maker could never have dreamed of to produce beautiful music. Who knows; perhaps a few centuries down the line our descendants will be viewing electric instruments in art museums instead of music shops?

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