Leonardo da Vinci-Designed Instrument Premieres in New York

December 11, 2009  |  2:00pm

Leonardo da Vinci has been dead for about 490 years now, but we still haven’t gotten over the fruits of his boundless creativity. If his art isn’t mysterious, beautiful or functional, it at least leaves people scratching their heads. This is what happened in New York’s Discovery Times Square yesterday, where a group of da Vinci enthusiasts revealed their peculiar instrument that was, according to The Guardian, designed by none other than the Renaissance man himself.

It’s called the “viola organista,” a cross between the viola and harpsichord, and like many gadgets of the Renaissance era, it was drafted for its elegance and practicality. Da Vinci designed this instrument to be played while walking.

The builders constructed the viola organista from da Vinci’s drawings in the Codex Atlanticus (which additionally contains sketches of plants and weapons), a 1,000-page set of notebooks which date back to 1488, before the piano existed. The instrument combines the sound of the viola’s deep bow with a harpsichord, only it is able to play chords by means of a looping bow, something the harpsichord couldn’t do. The player’s movement powers the bow like a car’s fan-belt. The notes sound as the keys are pressed down, which presses their corresponding internal strings to the rotating bow.

The Piffaro Renaissance Band had the honor of demonstrating the instrument in New York, what they claimed as its “world premiere.” However, we know of at least one Japanese harpsichord-maker who would beg to differ. Akio Obuchi has built many instruments based on da Vinci’s drawings, some a spitting image of the viola organista, only none of them are powered by the musician’s striding legs as intended for the original.

The viola organista was part of the Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop exhibit at Discovery Times Square in New York.

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