Gavioli was founded in 1806 in Modena, Italy, by Giacomo Gavioli (1786–1875). Giacamo's hobby was the development of automatic playing musical instruments like bird organs and flute clocks. His son Anselmo was a very clever inventor; he built a large orchestrion organ the "Panharmonico" for the Duke of Modena, who refused to buy the instrument. Ludovico then took it to London and Paris. In 1852 Ludovico Gavioli (1807–1875) moved the business to the trade capital of the organ trade, Paris, France. From 1858 on he started his own organ building company in the Rue d'Aligre. Ludovico had three sons: Anselme, Henry and Claude.
Each contributed to the business, but it is Anselme the inventor whose name is remembered, when in 1892 he patented the use of book music to play organs. Up until this point, pipe organs were played by a large wooden cylinder, using a system akin to the modern musical box. This limited the length of music which could be played to the size of the cylinder, and secondly the number of cylinders which could be stored limited the variation of music and where they could be played. Book music used a series of zig-zag folded sheets of cardboard in a folded book, which allowed mechanical arms to feel the holes and hence open the valves to allow compressed air to play the pipes of the organ. The development marked a turning point in the history of the mechanical organ, by allowing music to be almost infinitely long, and allowed Gavioli to become the most famous and prolific fair organ builders. The Gavioli family had branches in cities such as Barcelona, Manchester, New York City and Waldkirch.
After Anselmo's death in 1902 the business passed to Anselme's son Ludivico II. Then the business took a series of tragic circumstances. Gavioli ceased making organs in 1912 and the remainder of the business was transferred to Limonaire Frères of Paris. Afterwards, a number of their engineers went on to build their own organ companies, including Carl Frei.
The Steam Carousel in the Efteling theme park in the Netherlands features one of the many surviving Gavioli organs. Many Gavioli organs still exist, mainly in the UK (See below). Also, the Gavioli organ from Euclid Beach Park in Cleveland, Ohio still survives and is being restored.