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Leonardo da Vinci's Unsung Forays into Music

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We who love opera and music in all genres are known to talk about musical geniuses, whether it is Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Ellington, Sondheim or any name you wish to invoke. There have been geniuses in other fields who have had a propensity for music. We may not know them for that fact but nor should we be surprised when we learn of it.

Such was the case recently with me and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Why would it come as news that one of the greatest geniuses of all time, whose creative imagination led to innovative ideas centuries before they could be applied, turned his attention to the sublime art of music? After exploring music and Michelangelo, Paolo Veronese, and the Vienna Secession school of painters, I was stunned by how different was Leonardo’s approach to music.

Leonardo lived in Milan for 25 years and his impact on the design of the city and its talent for innovation was immense. I made some fascinating discoveries on my recent visit. One of the most wonderful and unsung museums in the world is the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, known in English as the Ambrosian Library, named for Milan's patron Saint Ambrose. This gorgeous late Renaissance building is a ten-minute walk from La Scala but is seldom crowded, especially given the riches it contains. There are famous works by Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio and many masterpieces by other artists too. 

The museum contains unusual items such as the gloves Napoleon wore at Waterloo. The jewel of the collection is the Codex Atlanticus, the 1119-page compilation of Leonardo’s drawings, writings, experiments and ruminations from 1478 to his death in 1519. When Napoleon occupied Milan, he personally saw to it that the Codex was taken to France. Fortunately, it was returned unharmed. Watch this video to have some sense of what it contains:

I lived in Milan for two years and have made dozens of return trips. It has been my custom to visit the Ambrosiana often because there are pages from the Codex Atlanticus on display in a room with carefully controlled lighting, temperature and humidity. And very few people crowd in because they are at the nearby church of Santa Maria delle Grazie to see Leonardo’s "Last Supper" or at Milan’s luxury stores and famous opera house. The museum began an initiative in 2009 to display all of the pages of the Codex between now and the completion of the Milan Expo in 2015.

I just had the remarkable thrill of seeing 22 pages from the Codex that recount Leonardo’s musical interests. He designed several instruments and also theorized about music which, for him, did not always compare favorably to visual arts. For him, music was inferior to painting because it “disappears with the passage of time, much like the beauty of Helen of Troy.” He said, “Music has two defects. The first is that it is mortal and the other being that it wastes away. Its mortality is always joined to the moment following its creation. Its wasting away makes it seem odious and vile in its repetition.”

His analyses of acoustics are among the earliest and most innovative. As a scientist, Leonardo was especially interested in waves, whether in water or in sound. He would throw a stone in a lake and then draw the waves that emanated from the place of impact. He then depicted sound in the same way, fading not only from the place where it is made but in the ear where it is heard. He wrote, "The ear is deceived with the perspective of the voice, which seems to draw further away but does not move from its location."

He made analogies among waves of water, expanding or dimming light, and reflections in a mirror which, for him, were akin to echoes. He was also intrigued that water made a sound when it moved quickly in a stream. When he designed churches and theaters, he believed that echoes (which he knew were different from sound waves) were not desirable for transmitting the spoken voice, but could be useful to enhance the impact of the singing voice and the playing of musical instruments. 

Novel Instrument Designs

Leonardo played musical instruments, especially the lira da braccio, a type of lyre. He participated in performances and also sang and recited poetry. In 1491 he trained a singer/instrumentalist named Atalante Migliorotti to play the title role in La Fabula di Orfeo by the humanist Angelo Poliziano. This early telling of the story of Orpheus and the sovereignty of music, with its combination of singing, acting and musical theater, was a forerunner of opera. The only Leonardo painting in Milan that is not on a church wall is the “Ritratto di Musico" that belongs to the Ambrosiana. It has been determined that this is a portrait of Migliorotti, of whom Leonardo was deeply fond. For this exhibition, the painting was taken from its usual place in the gallery to provide a context for the Codex pages on music.

In the Codex are designs of musical instruments. One was a drum in a large cart with wheels to be used in grand processions and on battlefields. There are other percussion instruments (the striking of which would result in sound waves that Leonardo drew) and stringed instruments such as lyres and violas. I was particularly taken with his flutes and recorders. Rather than have holes along their length, some of them had a long, single slit. The performer would blow into it and slide his finger up and down the slit. He called this a sliding pitch recorder and said it was based on his anatomical studies of the human larynx and trachea. Moving the finger up and down was akin to changing the position and air flow through those parts of the throat and, in so doing, sound and pitch could be changed. 

Among his other designs was a hydraulic organ in which an instrument could be powered through the movement of water. Then there was a water clock with a bell-striking mechanism. Although musical notation is said to have been invented by a Benedictine monk, Guido d’Arezzo (c. 995-c. 1050), Leonardo theorized about how the length of notes in music might be described in measurable time. By charting the speed of rushing water in a musical clock, he claimed to be able to determine the time values of quarter, half and whole notes.

What if Leonardo had devoted most of his time and talent to music instead of painting and inventing technology for war and industry? I suspect that Bach (1685-1750) might have seemed an outgrowth of da Vinci rather than the source of every musical innovation that would follow him.