Da Vinci's Viola Organista

Leonardo da Vinci was a talented musician who dreamt of complex ideas for instruments. Da Vinci did not write down music compositions in his notebooks because he was more of an improvisational musician, skilled especially at the lyre. Da Vinci designed his own silver lyre that had five strings, with three to be played with a bow like a fiddle, and two to be plucked. 

Da Vinci had sketched in his twelve volume set of drawings and writings, called Codex Atlanticus, an idea for an instrument named the viola organista. It wasn’t until centuries later, however, that his idea came to life. In 2013, a Polish instrument maker by the name of Sławomir Zubrzycki built this instrument based on da Vinci’s drawing. 

Zubrzycki logged nearly 5,000 hours and $100,00 over the course of 4 years to produce this modern version of what Leonardo had thought of 500 years earlier. The instrument looks like a harpsichord, but instead of the strings being plucked, they are pressed against rotating wheels covered in horse hair, producing the sound a stringed instrument makes when played with a bow. 

The viola organista is similar to a stringed instrument because sound is created from the friction of hair on a string, yet different because the rotating wheels allow the instrument to make continuous, polyphonic sounds just by using one’s fingers. The creation is similar to a piano because the keyboard contains black and white keys, yet the sound produced is very different; rather than small hammers hitting the strings when a key is pressed, the mechanical wheels wrapped in horse-hair, spurred by the pumping of a peddle, rub against the strings. 

Zubrzycki’s viola organista looks as beautiful as it sounds. The one-of-a-kind sound produced by this one-of-a-kind instrument can be heard on Icelandic singer and songwriter Bjork’s Vulnicura Strings album, in which a sound da Vinci could only imagine in his head is produced, capturing the full beauty of both the instrument, and Leonardo’s creative mind.

Spencer, Mel. 2019. “Leonardo Da Vinci Invented This Musical Instrument – and It Sounds Remarkable.” Classic FM. https://www.classicfm.com/music-news/leonardo-da-vinci-viola-organista/ (February 3, 2020).

Isaacson, Walter. Leonardo Da Vinci: the Biography. Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Photo ofSławomir Zubrzycki and the viola organista was obtained using Wikimedia Commons.

Winternitz, Emanuel. Leonardo Da Vinci as a Musician. Yale University Press, 1982.

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