History of the Online Database of Historical Viols

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 more than 1600 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 decades of intermittent work, in 2011 MacCracken began to prepare the data for public presentation on the website of the VdGSA. The first installment covered viols known or supposed to have been made in England, and was followed in subsequent years by French, Italian, German, and Austrian viols, culminating in a group of instruments from other, peripheral countries of Europe and by those whose place of origin remains unknown. An important feature of this online version is that it 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 and Linda Payzant (the VdGSA’s webmasters from 2007 to 2018) 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.

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.