Ah, Leonardo da Vinci. The original Renaissance man. Though he’s perhaps best known for the Mona Lisa, one of his lesser-known contributions to the cultural landscape was an elaborate musical instrument he designed called the “viola organista.” As NPR notes, his early 15th century sketches suggest a cross between a harpsichord and a cello, complete with spinning wheels of horsehair running along the instrument’s strings.
Da Vinci never ended up building this bizarre musical instrument, but now the viola organista no longer exists purely in da Vinci’s eternal dreams — thanks to Polish pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki, who spent four years building his own version of it. Last month, he debuted the instrument — which, from afar, looks more or less like a grand piano — at the Academy of Music in Krakow, Poland.
Zubrzycki stayed as faithful as he could to da Vinci’s original blueprint, but as he told AFP, it’s “not a technical drawing. It does not contain all the necessary information.” Still, though, he said it’s “more than enough to understand the concept of this instrument.”
The folks over at Gizmodo explain how this instrument works:
In the place of a piano’s felt hammers, spinning wheels draw across the strings like a violinist’s bow. The player operates a foot pedal to spin the wheels, playing notes on a keyboard identical to a piano’s. But the sound, sinewy like a stringed instrument but with a piano’s direct, well-defined tones, defies comparison to traditional instruments.
The resulting sound is beautifully rich and complex — kind of like a cello, but in a form more comparable to a piano. At last, centuries later, another one of Leonardo da Vinci’s dreams has come true.