Leonardo da Vinci piano invention viola organista Slawomir Zubrzycki 2
Slawomir Zubrzycki has produced what he says is a working version of an unbuilt invention by Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci. YouTube.com/user/SlawomirZubrzycki

This strange and beautiful instrument works like a combination of a viola and a piano. Polish concert pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki says sketches of an instrument designed, but never built, by Leonardo da Vinci inspired him. Zubryzycki even uses da Vinci’s name for the instrument: the viola organista. It attempts to do the work of a band of violas and violins.

The viola organista looks like a shapely version of a baby grand piano, but as its keys are pressed and its foot-petal pumped, the viola organista sounds more like an entire string section.

Here is a video of Zubryzycki playing the viola organista:

Da Vinci, the original Renaissance Man, may have been inspired by the hurdy-gurdy, a stringed instrument played with a hand-crank turning a wheel that rubs the strings, rather than a bow. The Mona Lisa painter drew the viola organista in his Codex Atlanticus, as well as his notebooks from 1488-1489.

Zubryzycki built the viola organista himself, over more than 5,000 hours from 2009 to 2012. He lined the interior with golden spruce and 61 steel strings.

Viola organista YouTube interior
The viola organista features four wheels spun by a foot-pedal that contact steel strings at the press of a key. YouTube.com/user/SlawomirZubrzycki

Each string in the viola organista is connected to the keyboard. Rather than operating a hammered dulcimer, like in a piano, the keys lower one of four wheels wrapped in horsehair. Zubrzycki taps a foot-pedal attached to a crankshaft to spin the wheels.

"This instrument has the characteristics of three we know: the harpsichord, the organ and the viola da gamba,’’ the Sydney Morning Herald reports Zubrzycki as saying.

Norman Lebrecht, writing for the Arts Journal, says at least one musicologist is not impressed. Professor Edmond Johnson says Zubrzycki’s instrument owes more to the Geigenwerk, first built in 1576, than any of da Vinci’s drawings, including the viola organista.

This is a woodblock print of a geigenwerk, first built in Germany in 1576. Wikimedia Commons

Does it matter how Zubrzycki was inspired to create his viola organista? Is he more carnival huckster than concert pianist? What does the instrument sound like to you?

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