Leonardo da Vinci's forgotten musical invention has been created for the first time

25 September 2017, 10:55

The viola organista was dreamt up by Leonardo da Vinci but until recently it had never been built. Now, a Polish instrument-maker has painstakingly created the first ever example and it sounds remarkable.

Visit The Encounter exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

The instrument wasn’t built during Leonardo da Vinci’s lifetime, and it was only in 2013 that Polish instrument-maker Sławomir Zubrzycki built the first example.

The unusual instrument is a hybrid of elements from a harpsichord, an organ and a viola da gamba. It looks like a harpsichord and has a set of strings, but rather than being plucked, the strings press against rotating wheels covered in horse hair – the same mechanism that produces sound in string instruments.

Leonardo da Vinci viola organista

“I have no idea what Leonardo da Vinci might think of the instrument I’ve made, but I’d hope he’d be pleased,” Zubrzycki said, at the instrument’s unveiling concert in Krakow. He spent three years and more than 5000 hours bringing Da Vinci’s instrument to life from his Codex Atlanticus, a 12-volume collection of his manuscripts and designs for everything from weaponry to flight.

As well as its unique sound (somewhere between an organ and a string instrument), the viola organista is ornately decorated with a Latin quote in gold leaf by Hildegard of Bingen, saying, “Holy prophets and scholars immersed in the sea of arts both human and divine, dreamt up a multitude of instruments to delight the soul.”

If this has put you in the mood for more of Leonardo da Vinci’s remarkable work (and of course it has), The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt is open now at the National Portrait Gallery, London. The exhibition brings together outstanding masterpieces of the Renaissance and Baroque, many rarely seen, and some not displayed for decades. The Encounter holds 50 drawings from Britain’s finest collections, giving you the chance to see hidden treasures and explore the importance of drawing in the artistic process.

To get tickets, visit our event page.