Rebuilding An Instrument By Leonardo's Design With all the high-tech attractions in Times Square, holiday tourists are flocking to an instrument that was designed 500 years ago. Curators used the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci to figure out how to build it. Among the toughest things to re-create: a viola-harpsichord hybrid that can be played while walking.
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Rebuilding An Instrument By Leonardo's Design

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Rebuilding An Instrument By Leonardo's Design

Rebuilding An Instrument By Leonardo's Design

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More than 500 years ago, Leonardo da Vinci invented a musical instrument. He invented it, but it was probably never heard by the public until today.

Industrial designers from Italy have reconstructed a harpsichord-viola from sketches in da Vinci's notebooks. And as NPR's Robert Smith reports, you could hear it played today in New York City.

ROBERT SMITH: Fans of renaissance music made their way this morning to the Discovery Center in Times Square. The Piffaro Ensemble warmed up the crowd as the spectators peered into this strange-looking musical box on a pedestal. No one in the audience had yet heard it, except for Christa Patton. She'll be playing the harp alongside Leonard's harpsichord-viola.

Ms. CHRISTA PATTON: I think the sound of the viola is very revealing because it's very sweet, and it makes me think that that was the sound he had in his ears, possibly.

SMITH: The harpsichord-viola is about the size of a child's toy piano. It weighs 33 pounds and straps to the player's chest. It's unlike anything else in the orchestra. It has the strings of a violin, but it's played with a keyboard, and it's powered by the player's legs as he walks.

(Soundbite of harpsichord-viola)

SMITH: Before the first performance, I found the designers trying to tune the thing, which isn't easy, because it's built with the materials that Leonardo would have had on hand: wooden pegs and gears run by twine.

Mr. EDOARDO ZANON (Designer, Leonardo3): (Speaking foreign language)

SMITH: Edoardo Zanon and Massimiliano Lisa are with the firm Leonardo3, which has designed a traveling exhibit of da Vinci's inventions. They showed me the fragment from the Codex Atlanticus, where a tiny sketch of a musical instrument was found.

Mr. MASSIMILIANO LISA (Chief Executive Officer, Leonardo3): The thing that made very difficult to make this interpretation and probably prevented other scholars to do it until now is that the left part of the page is missing, forever probably.

SMITH: In the fragment that remains, you can see that the instrument had a harness. So the designers figured it was invented as a way to play a stringed instrument while marching.

Mr. LISA: For sure, during parades or ceremonies or things like that.

SMITH: The leg pumps a wooden motor, which moves a long loop of horsehair through the instrument. When the player presses the keys, the strings move up against the loop.

Edoardo Zanon has been working on the recreation for five years and just finished.

Mr. ZANON: We heard it playing for the first time just last week.

SMITH: It was then that he discovered the problem. What they couldn't have known from the design in Leonardo's notebook was that the motor in the machine made a huge racket.

(Soundbite of motor)

(Soundbite of harpsichord-viola)

Mr. LISA: So it was just the limitation of the technology at the time.

SMITH: So this may explain why we haven't played this for 500 years.

Mr. LISA: Yeah.

SMITH: Nobody solved it yet.

Mr. LISA: Of course. Yeah, the problem was the technology of the engine, and that's why probably this instrument was not produced and used after Leonardo.

SMITH: When the time came for the premiere, the designers warned the crowd about the noise problem, and then Edoardo Zanon began to play.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: Christa Patton played along on harp.

Ms. PATTON: After a while, I find that I don't hear all the noise of the mechanism, and I'm satisfied with the sweet sound of the viola in it.

SMITH: Consider it percussion.

Ms. PATTON: Like the sound of the inventor's mind working�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PATTON: �while the music is going on.

SMITH: The designers with Leonardo3 would eventually like to replace the wooden engine with something a little quieter. Not as authentic, yes, but perhaps, a little closer to what da Vinci was trying to hear.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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