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Mandolins evolved from the lute family in Italy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the deep bowled mandolin produced particularly in Naples became a common type in the nineteenth century. The original instrument was the mandore which evolved in the fourteenth century from the lute. As time passed and the instrument spread around Europe, it took on many names and various structural characteristics.  Further back, dating to around 15,000 BC to 8,000 BC, single-stringed instruments have been seen in cave paintings and murals. They were struck, plucked, and eventually bowed. From these, the families of stringed instruments developed. Single strings were long and gave a single melody line. To shorten the scale length, other strings were added with a different tension and pitch so one string took over where another left off. In turn, this led to being able to play dyads and chords. The bowed family became the rabob, and then the rebec fiddle, evolving into the modern violin family by 1520 (incidentally also in Italy). The plucked family led to lute-like instruments in 2000 BC Mesopotamia, and developed into the oud or ud before appearing in Spain, first documented around 711 AD, courtesy of the Moors. Over the next centuries, the strings were doubled to courses, and eventually (in Europe) frets were added, leading to the first lute appearing in the thirteenth century. The history of the lute and the mandolin are intertwined from this point. The lute gained a fifth course by the fifteenth century, a sixth a century later, and up to thirteen courses in its heyday. As early as the fourteenth century a miniature lute or mandora appeared. Similar to the mandola, it had counterparts in Assyria (pandura), the Arab countries (dambura), and Ukraine. From this, the mandolino (a small gut-strung mandola with six strings tuned g b e a d g sometimes called the Baroque mandolin and played with a quill, wooden plectrum or fingerstyle) was developed in several places in Italy. The mandolino was sometimes called a mandolin in the early eighteenth century (around 1735) Naples. At this point, all such instruments were strung with gut strings.

The first evidence of modern steel-strung mandolins is from literature regarding popular Italian players who traveled through Europe teaching and giving concerts. Notable is Signor Leone and G. B. Gervasio who traveled widely between 1750 and 1810.[2] This, with the records gleaned from the Italian Vinaccia family of luthiers in Naples, Italy, lead some musicologists to believe that the modern steel-strung mandolin was developed in Naples by the Vinaccia family. Gennaro Vinaccia was active circa 1710 to circa 1788, and Antonio Vinaccia was active circa 1734 to circa 1796.[3] An early extant example of a mandolin is one built by Antonio Vinaccia in 1772 which resides at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England. Another is by Giuseppe Vinaccia built in 1763, residing at the Kenneth G. Fiske Museum of Musical Instruments in Claremont, California.[4] The earliest extant mandolin was built in 1744 by Gaetano Vinaccia. It resides in the Conservatoire Royal de Musique in Brussels, Belgium.[5]

These early mandolins are termed Neapolitan mandolins, because of their origin from Naples. They are distinguished by an almond-shaped body with a bowled back which is constructed from curved strips of wood along its length. The soundtable is bent just behind the bridge, the bending achieved with a heated bending iron. This "canted" table aids the body to support a greater string tension. A hardwood fingerboard is flush with the soundtable. Ten metal or ivory frets are spaced along the neck in semitones, with additional frets glued upon the soundtable. The strings are brass except for the lowest string course which are gut or metal wound onto gut. The bridge is a movable length of hardwood or ivory placed in front of ivory pins which hold the strings. Wooden tuning pegs are inserted through the back of a flat pegboard. The mandolins have a tortoise shell pickguard below the soundhole under the strings. A quill or shaped piece of tortoise shell is used as a plectrum.[5][6]

Other luthiers who built mandolins included Calace (1863 onwards) in Naples, Luigi Embergher (18561943), the Ferrari family (1716 onwards, also originally mandolino makers), and De Santi (18341916) in Rome. The Neapolitan style of mandolin construction was adopted and developed by others, notably in Rome, giving two distinct but similar types of mandolin Neapolitan and Roman.

The twentieth century saw the rise in popularity of the mandolin for Celtic, bluegrass, jazz, and classical styles. Much of the development of the mandolin from Neapolitan bowl-back to the flat-back style (actually, gently rounded and carved like a violin) is attributable to Orville Gibson (18561918). See above.

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