21 November 2013

A musical instrument invented by Leonardo da Vinci... maybe (updated)

A bizarre instrument combining a piano and cello has finally been played to an audience more than 500 years after it was dreamt up Leonardo da Vinci.

Da Vinci, the Italian Renaissance genius who painted the Mona Lisa, invented the ‘‘viola organista’’ - which looks like a baby grand piano – but never built it, experts say.  The viola organista has now come to life, thanks to a Polish concert pianist with a flair for instrument-making and the patience and passion to interpret da Vinci’s plans... 
 ‘‘This instrument has the characteristics of three we know: the harpsichord, the organ and the viola da gamba,’’ Zubrzycki said as he debuted the instrument at the Academy of Music in the southern Polish city of Krakow...

Sixty-one gleaming steel strings run across it, similar to the inside of a baby grand. Each is connected to the keyboard, complete with smaller black keys for sharp and flat notes. But unlike a piano, it has no hammered dulcimers. Instead, there are four spinning wheels wrapped in horse-tail hair, like violin bows. To turn them, Zubrzycki pumps a pedal below the keyboard connected to a crankshaft. As he tinkles the keys, they press the strings down onto the wheels, emitting rich, sonorous tones reminiscent of a cello, an organ and even an accordion.
More details at The Age, with a hat tip to reader Shirin for the link.

Addendum:   Some doubts have been raised as to the historical relevance of this instrument:
Basically, it appears that the instrument built by Slawomir Zubrzycki is not so much a realization of a design by Leonardo da Vinci as it is a reconstruction of the instrument described as a “Geigenwerk/GeigenInstrument, oder GeigenClavicymbel” in the second volume of Michael Praetorius’s Syntagma Musicum...

Now it’s certainly true that da Vinci made some sketches of a continuously-bowed keyboard instrument (which he dubbed the “viola organista”) , but the sketches are pretty rough, and most of them show an action that’s quite different from the one in Zubrzycki’s instrument (which uses the same rosin-coated wheels as Haiden’s geigenwerk). In short, Zubrzycki’s instrument seems to me to be a nice reconstruction of a 16th-century German instrument that just happens to share some of the characteristics of da Vinci’s imagined “viola organista” (which Haiden almost certainly knew nothing about).
More at the link, found by reader Pam!


  1. An interesting counterpoint that I found, after seeing the video... http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2013/11/leonardos-instrument-no-its-an-obscure-german-contraption.html

    1. Interesting, Pam! I'll post an addendum tomorrow. Tx.

  2. Sure the "Da Vinci" mention is better for buzz, but in his defence, the artist who built it clearly explains in interviews where the inspiration/concepts came from, ie not just Leonardo's idea: http://tygodnik.onet.pl/zmysly/the-da-vinci-tone-in-english/qw5s9


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