Introduction to the Online Database of Historical Viols

1. History

This project originated in the late 1970s, when the American viol maker Peter Tourin travelled to numerous American and European museums and private collections, systematically gathering information on old viols. The result was an electronic database of his own devising (several years before the advent of personal computers and off-the-shelf software), entitled "VIOLLIST: A Comprehensive Catalogue of Historical Viole da Gamba in Public and Private Collections", which ultimately grew to contain nearly a thousand entries covering all sizes of viol from pardessus to violone, all countries of origin, and all time periods before the 20th century. Customized printouts were available on request, arranged by any desired combination of the fifteen data fields describing each instrument. Half of these were devoted to a set of basic measurements and the rest to answering the fundamental questions of Who, What, When, and Where, along with a few highly abbreviated comments.

In the early 1990s Tourin generously turned the database over to the musicologist (and amateur gambist) Thomas MacCracken, who has managed it since then, seeking both to add additional instruments and to provide more information about each one in a more accessible format. The still-growing list currently contains about 1660 viols, with more than thirty data fields for each; as a result, it is no longer practical to make complete printouts, though selected subsets have been freely shared with individual players, builders and restorers, curators, and other interested people over the years.

After two more decades of intermittent work the time finally seems right to begin making this information more widely available. A first installment, containing viols known or supposed to have been made in England, was made available here on the website of the VdGSA in late 2011; this was joined in mid-2013 by a second group consisting of French viols with more than five strings, and then by the remaining French viols in autumn 2014. These will be followed by further installments covering instruments from other European countries until the whole database is online. Most importantly, this is an active database which website visitors can manipulate themselves, rather than a list "frozen" in one particular order, equivalent to a paper printout or publication in book form. Many thanks are due to Peter Payzant, one of the VdGSA's webmasters, for creating the programming required to make this possible over the internet, which is quite a different matter from using a standard database program installed on a personal computer.

2. Content and Conventions

While many viols have been personally inspected by either Tourin or MacCracken, other entries are based on published sources of varying completeness and reliability, as well as many private communications from owners and other collaborators, for whose kind cooperation we are most grateful. Additions, updates, and corrections are very welcome, indeed actively requested: please contact the compiler at

In this online version of the database only ten fields are shown initially for each instrument, though the others may be added to (or subtracted from) the display at any time. These ten fields give information about

Additional data fields, viewable in any combination as desired, provide information on the exact wording of the label, names of previous owners, the shape of the body and soundholes, whether the instrument (now) has a scroll or carved head, and additional body dimensions (widths and depth).

The order in which these fields appear—both in the "Choose Fields" box (reading down each column) and in a list of search results (reading each line from left to right)—begins with the basics of Who/What/When/Where before turning to questions of "What does it look like, and how big is it?" These are followed by citations to published descriptions, photographs, and recordings of the instrument, and then by a catch-all field containing comments on any and all points of interest known but not specifically indexed elsewhere. At the end are found two fields that allow the user to distinguish between privately and institutionally owned viols, and to identify those that have been sold at auction over the past four decades.

An empty data field means that no information is currently available about that aspect of the instrument. For a complete list of the fields used and the conventions or limitations relevant to each, click here.

Once a list of instruments has been sought and found, any of the data fields—whether visible at the moment or not—can be used to sort the results, based on up to four criteria in any desired order of priority. As usual with databases, records with no information in a given field chosen for sorting appear in the resulting list before those that do contain data. Note that in this case any subsequent searches will automatically be sorted according to the criteria selected previously, unless a change is deliberately made.

In addition to the basic columnar display and expansions thereof, it is possible to view complete information on any individual viol by clicking the symbol in the left-most column of its line, entitled "Full data." This opens a new window with a layout designed to present the data both logically and compactly. Both single records and columnar lists can be printed out if desired.