The instrument was first called the bass violin then violoncello which literally means “big little violin” in Italian; the name was eventually shortened to cello. The first known maker (but not the first actual maker) was Andrea Amati who built cellos for Charles IX King of France.
As early as the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, artists began to depict the violin in paintings, giving testimony to its presence in the music world. The cello, however, or 'bass violin' did not come into existence until the fifteenth century. The reason for the late appearance of the deeper voiced member of the violin family was, at least in part, the evolution of the sound ideal in Western European music. Due to the long-held dominance of vocal music over the musical scene, it was natural that this ideal would be determined by the trends of singers of the time. Performance practice in vocal music, until the fifteenth century, demanded a tone which was high-pitched and nasal, producing a sound we would more closely associate with Eastern music nowadays. This changed with the compositions of the Flemish school, led by Johannes Ockeghem, himself a bass singer. The vocal range was expanded on the lower end, eventually reaching low C. At the same time, the sound ideal shifted to the more open-throated tone that we know today.
It was under these circumstances that the 'bass violin' began to make its place in the musical world. Over time, the name violoncello developed, from 'violone,' a large viola, and 'cello' an Italian word meaning small. This it was a little large viola, showing that the people of the time did not really know what to call this new member of the violin family. The instrument evolved completely separately from the viol da gamba, having no frets and a dramatically different shape.
The role of the violoncello was very diverse in its first two hundred years, usually participating in the accompaniment and bass line of various forms of music. In the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, the members of the violin family were considered particularly appropriate for sacred music. However, the instruments were not used exclusively in these roles, and artistic depictions indicate that they were used for all kinds of events, from weddings to the raucous music making in the village taverns.
Edmund van der Straeten, in his History of the violoncello, the viola da Gamba, their precursors and Collateral Instruments, states frequently that the level of technical achievement on the cello was extremely backward, and could in no way compare with that of the violin, or the viola da gamba. At times, however, he points to evidence, which is quite to the contrary. One example is his description of the virtuoso duel between the cellist Tonelli and the violinist D'Ambreville in the early eighteenth century, which was apparently so spectacular that the audience 'broke out in rapturous applause at the end.') If there did exist full-blown virtuoso cellists, it is strange, the utter lack of solo repertoire that existed up through the middle of the seventeenth century. Nona Pyron, in her supplement to William Pleeth's book, Cello, offers one possible explanation for this fact: from AndrewDunnCello.com