VIDEO - Leonardo da Vinci's Viola Organista

Painter, anatomist, engineer... A man of many talents, Leonardo da Vinci was also a passionate musician and even invented a variety of hybrid instruments, such as the Viola Organista.

VIDEO - Leonardo da Vinci's Viola Organista
VIDEO - Leonardo da Vinci's Viola Organista, © AFP / TOMASZ WIECH

Leonardo di ser Piro da Vinci, more commonly known as Leonardo da Vinci, died on 2 May 1519 at the Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise, France. Known today for his contributions to the world of anatomy and mathematics, his military genius, and of course his paintings, to name but a few, da Vinci was also a learned musician and inventor of instruments.

A skilled player of the lira da braccio, da Vinci also imagined a variety of new instruments, many of which were ahead their time: one of these technically advanced instruments was the Viola Organista.

At first glance, this experimental instrument looks like a large keyboard. However, upon examining the inner mechanics, we find an entirely different system. The strings are not plucked nor struck, but rather bowed! The Viola Organista is played with a pedal, like an old sewing machine. The pedal in turn sets off a system of spinning bow-wheels and when a key is pressed, the associated string is pressed against the wheel,  creating a vibration and thus emitting a sound.

Between the keyboard, the organ, and the hurdy-gurdy

The Viola Organista draws upon the characteristics of three instruments (if not more!):  it is played like a keyboard instrument, capable of holding notes like an organ, using the same mechanics as a hurdy-gurdy.

Though the instrument was never built during Leonardo da Vinci's lifetime, a model from 1625 is stored at the Bruxelles Museum of Instruments, and a prototype was built in 2013 by Polish instrument-maker Sławomir Zubrzycki. He worked using manuscript sketches found in the Codex Atlanticus, a collection of drawings, blueprints, and descriptions by da Vinci. 

It is only a sketch, not a technical drawing. It doesn’t contain all of the necessary details but we are nonetheless capable of understanding the basic concept of the instrument. Sławomir Zubrzycki

Almost 500 years later, one of Leonardo da Vinci's countless and wild dreams has finally come to life.