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Hear, For the First Time, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Curious “Viola Organista”

Based on da Vinci's designs, a modern instrument maker built a viola organista

Leonardo da Vinci—artist, scientist, brilliant polymath, budding super villain—dreamt up a staggeringly long list of crazy contraptions and useful devices. Many of those inventions were captured in a tome called the Codex Atlanticus, a set of drawings and writings spanning the years 1478 to 1519. (If you’re curious, parts of the codex are now available online.)

For modern inventors and tinkerers, da Vinci’s ideas are a fun target. Earlier this year, a Canadian team built and flew a human-powered helicopter based on da Vinci’s designs. And, in Poland recently, concert pianist and instrument maker Slawomir Zubrzycki pulled a very curious instrument from the archives, da Vinci’s “viola organista,” a piano-like instrument that sounds like a violin. Here’s Zubrzycki playing the instrument at the International Royal Cracow Piano Festival last month:

The Age describes how the instrument works:

Sixty-one gleaming steel strings run across it, similar to the inside of a baby grand.

Each is connected to the keyboard, complete with smaller black keys for sharp and flat notes. But unlike a piano, it has no hammered dulcimers. Instead, there are four spinning wheels wrapped in horse-tail hair, like violin bows.

To turn them, Zubrzycki pumps a pedal below the keyboard connected to a crankshaft. As he tinkles the keys, they press the strings down onto the wheels, emitting rich, sonorous tones reminiscent of a cello, an organ and even an accordion.

Da Vinci’s drawings were not full designs, and Zubrzycki had to make some changes of his own to get the viola organista working, he said in an interview with Agence France-Press.

The History Blog points out this video, where Zubrzycki describes how the instrument was built. (The video is in Polish, but if you click the “cc” button you can get English subtitles.)

Zubrzycki’s take on da Vinci’s viola organista wasn’t the first working stringed, keyed instrument. That award goes to German organist Hans Hyden, who, in 1575, designed and built his own variant (likely unaware of da Vinci’s sketches).

More from Smithsonian.com:

Leonardo da Vinci – Paleontology Pioneer
Mona Lisa’s Body Might Soon Be Exhumed

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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