Vihuela de Arco: Unlocking the secrets of the past

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A popular instrument of the Middle Ages, the vihuela de arco is only known today from contemporary references and pictures. Javier Martínez explains its significance in the history of bowed instruments, and debunks some of the myths surrounding it

The vihuela de arco was a bowed stringed instrument that originated during the medieval period in the Iberian Peninsula. Although no original examples have survived, the instrument is depicted in illuminations, sculptures, stained glass windows and miniatures, which give an idea of the wide variety of models on which the instrument was made. The vihuela de arco (often referred to by its alternate spellings bigüela, vigüela  or bihuela) is also mentioned in a wealth of literary works and documents from that time, and is one of the instruments for which the 13th-century Cantigas de Santa Maria were written (possibly by King Alfonso X of Castile). The word ‘vihuela’ became ‘viola’ in Italian, and the vihuela de arco is regarded as one of the ancestors of another six-stringed instrument: the viola da gamba.

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