Though stringed instruments have been used to play music for thousands of years, the violin as it is today did not exist before 1500 AD. It’s true that almost every culture throughout the history of human civilization has some type of stringed instrument, but all were plucked to create musical tones instead of stroked, except for the horsemen of central Asia. A thousand years ago, the Kazakh and Mongolian horsemen came home to the sound of the kobyz or the morin huur, both of which were upright two-stringed fiddles played with a bow of stretched horsehair.
Use of these stringed musical instruments played with a bow spread from central Asia to India, China, the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire, each region developing its own variation. In China, it was called the erhu; in India, it was called the esraj; the Byzantine Empire had the lyra and the rebab emerged all over the Middle East during the Middle Ages. The Silk Road out of Asia into Europe resulted in various types of these instruments arriving in the Italian city ports of Genoa and Venice where craftsmen were inspired to create a unique musical apparatus of their own.
The first ones had only three strings and were called violettas whose design was an combination of three other stringed instruments of the time: the Italian version of the Byzantine lyra called the lira da braccio, the Middle Eastern rebab and its cousin the 10th century rebec, and the Renaissance fiddle. The first violin was said to be built by Andrea Amati in northern Italy in the year 1555. The early popularity of the violin as a musical instrument is shown by a request from King Charles IX of France in 1560 for the construction of twenty-four violins by Italian violin-makers. Street musicians also became enamored of the violin.
The first violin-makers of Italy was in Brescia, where violas, lyras and violettas were made in the 1300s. The Brescian crafters switched over to violins in the middle of the 1500s. Families were the organizing principle for these violin makers of Italy — among the family names in Brescia that became known as the superior makers of the new instrument were Dalla Corna, Micheli, Inverardi, Gasparo and Maggini. Only a few of the Brescia families continued on with violin-making beyond 1600, the Micheli name being the most well-known one. The nearby city of Cremona in Italy also became a focus for violin-making — the families there were Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari, the three most honored names among all violin-makers. These masters passed on the violin-making traditions within their families well into the 18th century.
In the 18th century, there were significant design changes made to the violin. The neck was made longer, the angle of the neck with the body was changed and a bass bar was added inside the body on the opposite side of the bridge from the soundpost. Most of the violins built before that time were modified to match these new design standards, leaving very few instruments from the dawn of the violin era in their original condition. Still, these re-constructed violins, despite not being what was actually built by the first masters, are still considered the epitome of perfection for a violin. All violin makers since that time have tried to emulate the craftsmanship and techniques both of the original violin-makers and the modified state-of-the-art as of the 18th century.