Polish musician makes a replica of Leonardo da Vinci instrument

A viola organista looks like a piano, but sounds like a string instrument. Originally designed five hundred years ago by Leonard da Vinci, it has been re-created by a pianist from Krakow.

Sławomir Zubrzycki first came across the viola organista, an instrument the Italian genius Leonardo da Vinci designed in the 15th century, thanks to another unusual instrument, albeit with Polish roots. Kazimierz Pyzik, a musician and theoretician of music who has been playing contemporary music with Zubrzycki for 20 years now, told Zubrzycki about a bowed clavier which a certain Father Jan Jarmusiewicz designed in the 1830s. What remained of the instrument was a short press note published by the daily Kuryer Warszawski at around that time. The author described it as a keyboard instrument resembling a piano, which nonetheless sounded like a string instrument.


“As I was examining the origins of Father Jarmusiewicz’s bowed clavier, it dawned on me that it was in fact designed by Leonardo da Vinci himself. The sketch and drawings of the viola organist, annotated in Leonardo’s characteristic mirror writing, are kept in Codice Atlantico, which is the largest collection of his notes from 1489–92 housed at the Ambrosiana Library in Milan,” the designer tells Poland.gov.pl.

It is not the first period instrument Sławomir Zubrzycki has re-created. In 1992, he made a replica of Johann Silbermann's clavichord from 1775. And even though many people were sceptical about his work as clavichords are not loud enough for major performances, the designer found out that they had considerable expressive power.

As he was searching for Leonardo's instrument, Zubrzycki discovered traces of Hans Heyden, a constructor from Nurnberg who was the first-ever designer of the viola organista.  “Heyden is said to have put together as many as 32 violas, which he called ‘Geigenwerks’, but only two of them are documented: one in 1570, and a modified version in 1600. Unfortunately, neither survived. The only preserved instrument was made in 1625 by Raymundo Truchado, a Spanish monk who modelled his piece on Heyden’s. Sławomir Zubrzycki had a close look at Truchado’s instrument, and took detailed photos of it during his visit to the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels. He could not play it, but even if he had, the instrument would not have made any sound.

While building his own viola, Sławomir Zubrzycki relied on sketches by Leonardo da Vinci and a description of Heyden's instrument in Syntagma Musicum, a 1618 book by Michael Praetorius. Zubrzycki is especially fond of the passage where Praetorius says that the viola is good for urban and country music alike, and that it can express various emotions. It can even imitate a drunken man. “I thought I would be able to play a repertoire that pianists cannot normally perform, i.e. pieces for the viola de gamba, the predecessor of the cello. I also wanted to play Renaissance music from the times of Leonardo. I was spurred on by the fact that even though the viola organista was forsaken and forgotten, someone would revisit it from time to time,” says Sławomir Zubrzycki.

Viola organista

Perfect down to the last detail. This eighty-kilogram, two-metre-long instrument on massive legs resembles an Italian harpsichord. Even though you play it with a keyboard like a piano, it sounds like a string instrument.

He worked on his instrument from 2009, during breaks between concerts and lectures in music schools. Zubrzycki decided that his design would be better than Leonardo's idea. He wanted to make sure it would keep its tune, and play louder than the original. “I have devised a concert instrument that’s suitable for Renaissance and Baroque music,” says Sławomir Zubrzycki.

In October 2013, it won over listeners at the International Royal Krakow Piano Festival and the Conrad Festival. An Agence France Presse report from the piano festival attracted the international media’s attention to the viola. The instrument made it to the British Daily Mail, the American Huffington Post and the French Le Figaro.

A Polish viola organista played in concert halls around world. In June, it featured at a festival in Stockholm, followed by events in Finland, Wroclaw and Ghent.

“The music that I am currently discovering for myself and my instrument is sophisticated and beautiful; it evokes powerful emotions,” Sławomir Zubrzycki tells Polska.pl