After 500 Years, Leonardo da Vinci’s Piano Machine Comes Alive

The reconstructed Leonardo da Vinci viola organista (via
The reconstructed Leonardo da Vinci viola organista (via

Leonardo da Vinci had a lot of wild schemes for inventions, like a robot knight and elaborate flying machines that gave humans wings, but one he never got to experience himself has finally been realized by a crafty Polish pianist.

Da Vincis design for the viola organista (via Wikimedia)
Leonardo’s design for the viola organista (via Wikimedia)

Slawomir Zubrzycki spent from 2009 to 2012 reconstructing Leonardo’s viola organista based on an illustration in the Codex Atlanticus, a 12-volume collection of the artist and inventor’s ideas on topics that range from botany to weapons to music. As the Sydney Morning Herald reported, the instrument appears much like a piano, but its mechanics are quite different, which is why you might look twice if you see someone playing what seems like a standard piano while the sounds are that of a stringed instrument.

Leonardo himself was a musician, apparently able to play anything he picked up as well as compose music — as if being a genius artist, inventor, and mathematician weren’t enough to likely give all of his Italian Renaissance compatriots an inferiority complex. As Zubrzycki interpreted from Leonardo’s 15th-century design, the sound of the viola organista comes from the musician powering a pedal located under the keys that causes four wheels inside to turn. These wheels are coated in hair from a horse’s tail, just like many string instrument bows, so that when you press the keys, one of 61 steel rings hits the cushioned wheels, rather than the hard contact of a hammer against a steel string like in an ordinary piano.

The sound, which you can hear below in a video of Zubrzycki’s October 21 concert in Krakow, is vaguely like a cello dreaming of being a harpsichord, with the sustained tones of a string instrument combined with the quick change notes of a piano. People seem to regularly take joy in bringing to life some of Leonardo’s most fantastic creations, such as a mechanical lion and the massive Colossus horse, and although the artist himself never got to hear his viola organista, he surely would have loved the challenges to the perception of what a piano can be and sound like. Now maybe we can have that Ideal City?

There are some other images over at Colossal.

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