Amazing Leonardo Da Vinci Instrument Brought to Life 500 Years After He Invented It

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 18 2013 2:51 PM

Amazing Leonardo Da Vinci Instrument Brought to Life

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The Viola Organista, based on a late 15th-century design by Leonardo da Vinci, built by Polish concert pianist, Slawomir Zubrzycki.

Photo by TOMASZ WIECH / AFP/AFP/Getty Images

If you caught any of the charming, underrated series Da Vinci’s Demons on Starz—or, I guess, if you are familiar with a more realistic historical accounting—you’ll know that Leonardo Da Vinci designed all manner of devices, from military weapons to flying machines. You may be less familiar, however, with his work in instrument design.

Now, with the help of Polish concert pianist and instrument builder Slawomir Zubrzycki, one of Da Vinci’s creations—never built in his lifetime, according to scholars—is making music for modern ears. Called the “viola organista,” the instrument combines the keyboard of a piano with the sound production mechanism of string instruments like the violin or cello.

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In the selection of pieces Zubrzycki performs in the video above, the viola organista’s particular talents and limitations are both evident. The instrument’s bass end is wonderfully sonorous and cello-like (although, and this could be the recording, a bit muddy in spots). Further up the keyboard, we hear a reedy, organ-like sound with a hint of harpsichord brusqueness in the mix. Though the sound quality overall is pleasing, the instrument’s action—the speed with which a musician’s movement produces a sound—feels slightly delayed.

This is understandable given its uncommon design. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the organist generates sound by bringing steel strings into contact not with quick-acting padded hammers (as with a traditional piano), but with spinning, horse-hair-lined wheels that the player keeps in motion via a foot pump. When a key is pressed, the string touches the wheel-bows, producing the note. (You can see this about 4 minutes into the video below.)

While the viola organista is unlikely to replace pianos or string ensembles (or more practical string synthesizers for that matter) any time soon, it seems compelling as a compositional tool in certain special cases where a dense, acoustic string sound is desirable, but the trouble of hiring multiple string players is not. That’s assuming you can get Zubrzycki to lend you his one-of-a-kind realization. In any case, it’s always good to have a little more music in the world, especially when it comes straight from the 500-year-old mind of a maestro.

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

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