ORGANISTRUM.  The book  2020

ORGANISTRUM. The book 2020

The Organistrum is depicted in a dozen works of art of the 12th century, it is rarely mentioned in contemporary written sources and disappears at the beginning of the 13th century. Despite the brevity of its life, this instrument boasts a prominent role within the medieval Organology. This is due to both the originality and ingenuity of its construction, and its prominent position among the sculptures of the famous Portico de la Gloria of Santiago de Compostela cathedral, one of the three most important shrines of Christianity. 

Since musicologists and organology experts dedicated little attention to the Organistrum, we luthiers were to perform the historical survey, though not necessarily equipped with the specialized knowledge necessary. Some of our ideas, mainly those concerning the tuning and the structure of the keyboard, might therefore be rather arbitrary or insufficiently grounded. The negative evaluation given by the specialists of medieval music only adds points to the concerns. In the performances of the last thirty years, the presence of the Organistrum is, as a matter of fact, absolutely marginal. Just consider the discography - were it not mentioned in the sleeve notes, it would be difficult to even notice the instrument’s presence. Its function is mostly reduced to the performance of drones, barely audible at the beginning and end of the rare pieces in which it is used. In live performance, the instrument is often exhibited in the center of the stage as an unusual object, one definitely bizarre: we know how this category of the bizarre is inherent to our vision of the Middle Ages. Even in this case, the acoustic presence of the Organistrum remains unsatisfactory, especially when it is inserted in rather improbable medieval “big orchestras".

Moreover, musicians within the folk / rock scene have used the instrument occasionally, amplifying and distorting its sound, adding no merit to it.

To conclude, the field ultimately came to produce an instrument as showy as it is devoid of musical value: one destined for museum windows rather than concerts.

Such an inglorious outcome can be explained in two ways: either the Organistrum should really be considered an almost ornamental object, or its reconstruction is at least in some points flawed.

To solve these doubts and define the entirety of the issue, it was necessary to undertake a new phase of research, geared towards understanding the actual historical physiognomy of the instrument. 

In the first phase of my study, I carried out research pertaining to an ordinary study of Organology. Failing to solve many of the problems that were arising, I conducted further investigation in new directions.  

The language of symbols emerges from a deep substratum of culture which, through art, reveals the presence of archetypal forms of very ancient origin.

The studies of Jurgis Baltrusaitis, for example, have demonstrated how many elements of medieval European architecture and decoration come both from the Roman world and, through the trade of manuscripts, pottery, jewelry, fabrics, from the Middle East and from even more distant areas, such as Persia, India, and China. From his studies, it emerges that the cultural heritage of peoples is equally composed by images and concepts that have very ancient roots and testify to an ancestral circulation of ideas and experiences dating back to even (occasionally) prehistoric times.

The Organistrum probably never quite made it past particular social and cultural contexts (that of religious communities, monastic or urban, on the way of pilgrimage or inside the cathedral schools), and continued to be used, together with the Giga, for only barely over a century.

Within this context, it had to play a particular function and took on a symbolic value in its representations. It is therefore essential to broaden the investigation beyond purely technical and structural elements. We must turn to the ideology, theology and spirituality that lively characterized its fermenting cultural environment. 

I have identified three main sources of reference: the Christian exegesis of the Bible, the school of Latin Platonism and the Jewish Kabbalah.

To buy the book (Italian ): 

Replica of Compostela Organistrum  by Giuseppe Severini

ORGANISTRUM and its MAGADA  in M.Gerbert's drawing

ORGANISTRUM and its MAGADA in M.Gerbert's drawing

This famous image comes from Gerbert's pubblication entitled: De cantu et musica sacra, written in the 18th century.

The author copied a drawing from a 13th century manuscript, now lost. It is considered the most important written source regarding the instrument called Organistrum : it shows clearly its general shape, the number of strings, the presence of  a cranck and a wheel, the keyboard and the musical scale.


Unfortunately, the information about the tuning is incomplete: only one string out of two is indicated: c.

May be the author judged this indication was enough (intelligenti pauca), so, we could consider two solutions:

- all three strings tuned in c,

- one in c and the other two "in harmony ", i.e. c, g, c'


Since the keys seem to operate the three strings at a time, we would be able to play a whole c-c' diatonic scale in the first case and a sequence of parallel fifths and octaves in the second one.


The last pattern has seduced many luthiers and musicians in the last decades, cheated by the erroneous attribution to Odo de Cluny (10th century) of  a manuscript entitled "Quomodo organistrum construatur".Their idea was that the Organistrum  - certainly devoted to sacred music - could have been related to the contemporary polyphonic technique called Organum parallelum

But the famous text, once considered the earliest source for the studies about this instrument, has been recently recognised as a 13 th c. work by anonymous author.


Since the story of the instrument has been relocated in the right period,  the 11th and 12th century,  we observe that the musical scene looks rather different. Many anonimous composers were developping much more sophisticated and interesting polyphonic techniques: discantus, organum duplum  and organum melismaticum or floridum , organum parallelum  being no longer attested.


A new reason was then adduced by some authors to justify a parallel fifth and octave tuning: the misleading interpretation of the letters written around the instrument wheel in Gerbert's drawing: m a G/ a D a.

These letters could allude to one or more tuning patterns of the instrument: a D a, or d D a.

But it is rather difficult to explain the first part: m a G. Eventually,  all  interpretations based on such letters cannot match with a C scale.


In fact, the letters compose the word magada  that  means bridge. This word was used frequently in latin 11th and 12th century music treatises, to indicate the bridges of the Monochord. It comes from Ptolemeus Harmonikai  and was transmitted  by Boetius in De institutione musica, lib.IV, chapter 18, in his description of the monochord: "duo semisperia, quas magadas greci vocant". Thus, the monochord bridges were half spheres, as stated by Ptolemeus, in order to touch the string in one point only.


It is interesting to point out that 11th c. treatise entitled  Divisiones monocordi, inc. Studiosis necdum in musica provectis hec de monocordo...

M 17 sup (Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan ) still reports the name magada to indicate the monochord bridges, while this word is changed into rotulum in 13th c. manuscript  Quomodo organistrum construatur, in which the word rotulum  logically indicates  the semispherical bridge and not a wheel (rota).


As a matter of fact all these texts and others called Mensura organistri  are concerned with the description of the pythagorean diatonic C scale

and the method used to draw it by ruler and compass following simple ratios and they never describe any musical instrument but the monochord.


I would like to quote some lines from Francis W.Galpin, Old english instruments of music. 1910 (old books are not always the worse ones !):

"The Organistrum, for such was its name at first, is undoubtedly derived from the Monochord, a simple contrivance for ascertaining the intervals of the musical scale by a series of movable bridges".


In medieval Europe the C diatonic scale had an outstanding theorical value both because it offers the essential pattern of the Pythagorean system and because it contains the basic natural exachord of Guido d'Arezzo, but in sacred music practice the more frequently used modes were protus autenticus (D) and plagalis (A), protus autenticus  offering also the musical scale  generally associated to musica mundana or music of the spheres.


Then, even if I would love to say that the wheel instruments were invented to make the continuous "circular" sound of the heavens audible, I definitely can't.

First of all the scale is not the planetary one, secondly the presence of b betrays a practical concern, and finally, you cannot hear all the  sounds together.


So, I guess that, with all strings tuned in C, the Organistrum could be useful in backing the tenor part of compositions called Organum melismaticum, like the Romanesque pull-organ.


Watch the videos:



The book (2020): 






























Organistrum keyboard  from Portico de la Gloria, Santiago de Compostela.

Organistrum keyboard from Portico de la Gloria, Santiago de Compostela.

Symphonia / Organistrum


in Santiago de Compostela cathedral.

(Inquiry into a troubling problem of interpretation.

Analysis of possible solutions.)


In former articles, I both wrote about different aspects of this problem and discussed practical means to build an acceptable replica of the instrument. My aim is to deal not only with organological and technical subjects but to examine musical ideas connected to them, the way Music was considered both as an art and as part of the mathematical knowledge of Nature, since Pythagoras to the Middle Ages and further.


Several researchers have already carefully studied the few witnesses related to this instrument. I am not going to repeat the whole list, I just want to offer a short survey here.

We can find many features common to all specimens: the soundbox, consisting, as usual, of two oval/circular parts plus the neck, three strings are stretched along this body, then a keyboard showing 6 to 8 keys within the half of the diapason, sound holes are often in a D shape. The keyboard mechanism is depicted only once, in an 18th-century copy (Gerbert) of a 13th c. deperditum  manuscript: 8 revolving keys and the list of the notes, from C to c (including Bb and B) are clearly visible.  This drawing tells us clearly that one of the strings, (maybe all the three strings) was in C and that the three strings were touched by each key at the same time following a diatonic scale.

The six letters on the right compose the word magada (latin but having greek origins) written at the right place, around the wheel and the bridge. (In musical treatises, i.e. the manuscript containing the most famous Ad organum faciendum in Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, XI c., magada is the name given to the bridges of the monochord)


Another well known 13th-century manuscript entitled “Quomodo organistrum construatur” illustrates the method to divide the monochord into the eight stops of a diatonic scale starting from Ut, but we don't find a description of the instrument nor information about its use. Scholars guess it was played mainly for sacred music along the 12th century. Christopher Page, the only one who faced the problem of the name: Symhonia / Organistrum, has several doubts about and no definite answers.


We know that almost all depictions and witnesses belong to the 12th century, but the year and the decade are mainly unknown. Since it is impossible to follow an exact chronology we cannot pretend to outline the evolution of this instrument. To study carefully the observable features is the only serious way to face the subject.

In Ahedo de  Butron (Burgos) sculpture, one of the musicians might be turning a crank with his right hand, while with his left-hand forefinger he is actually touching the second string of five; the second musician is touching the third string with his right-hand forefinger and with the other hand is turning the corresponding tuning peg. 


Hortus deliciarum


There is no evidence of a keyboard  in Hortus deliciarum manuscript. In Ahedo, since there is no trace of both crank and wheel, possibly the two musicians are either just tuning a long size Viella or tuning an Organistrum with no keyboard:

Soria Ahedo de Butron

In Soria sculpture (Spain) we observe only one string (?), no bridge, no wheel, no keys. The musicians look as they were actually turning a wheel and pulling the keys, but the damages suffered by this sculpture do preclude a clear observation of details. On the contrary, the similarly shaped instrument in Boscherville capital (France) presents crank, tailpiece, wheel, and keys.

Bosh Boscherville

What was this wheel intended to do, but to produce a continuous sound? This is the first observation with musical relevance in our description. Now, suppose we have built a long size Viella, about twice the size of a usual one, with a wheel in it: one of the two musicians can stop the strings all along the neck with his fingers, but he is not at ease cause his fingers interfere accidentally with the other strings. This is why a system of keys might have been suggested. In some depictions they appear, 6 to 8 within half of the diapason. They look like flat bars passing beneath the strings (Boscherville and Vercelli) or we can see the top of them protruding from the lid that hides the inner mechanism. That these keyboards were designed for a diatonic scale is out of doubt. The question is: were the bars equipped with tangents in order to operate on one string only or more than one?

According to Gerbert’s drawing, all  keys are acting on the three strings simultaneously in order to play a simple melody on the  three strings tuned at the same pitch. No other useful information is offered by the drawing : no indication of drones, no alternative tunings.

Eventually, if we want to extend the c scale, we should tune the lateral strings in c, the middle one  in c'. Then, by lifting the middle string and then the two laterals, (this task carried out by the man in charge of turning the wheel) we can obtain two full octaves.



As we assume that the instrument served to sacred music only, no use of drones have to be admitted, according to western tradition (although many scholars nowadays, influenced by byzantine fashion, perform  gregorian chants also adding drones) 



During the XII century benedictine monks were developing a new technique in polyphonic singing:  

the vox organalis was no longer in parallelum, dismitting the teaching of Musica enchiriadis and Micrologus,  and became freer. 

What was the new instrument role in that new music fashion?

To play the tenor part in organum melismaticum or floridum  for instance, as a ground reference for the upper voice.

A similar role (and similar limits as well) would pertain to the romanesque pipe organ (see J.Ferrando's article in: L'instrumentarium du Moyen Age. Paris, L'Harmattan,2015). 

The geographic area includes Spain and France mainly, then England, Germany, and Italy



At the top of the Gate of Glory in Santiago de Compostela cathedral magister Mateus sculpted a wheel instrument in the middle of the range of the 24 Elders of Apocalypse all around the Lamb. This gate is dated precisely the year 1188. This specimen differs from all others we have examined

  1. In its general shape
  2. In quantity and quality of decorations
  3. Having 11 keys within the octave.

The soundbox consists of two perfect circles connected through lobes and a rectangular box containing the keys. The string length is equal to the circumference of circles. Four triangular sound holes with little holes at the edges are cut in the first circle. A large quadripartite rosette with vegetable decoration is carved in the second circle. An interlace decoration made of 11 knots and 12 spaces is cut all along the rectangular keyboard lid.

Some of these features are unique among all depictions of the instrument. In other articles, I examined these characteristics in the light of musical theory, astronomy, and cosmology of the time. In the present paper I would like to focus on the interpretation of the keyboard with 11 keys within the octave, describing a possible reconstruction of it.

Many important scholars believe that this number indicates a chromatic division of the keyboard. Although they are aware of the fact that no chromatic scale was in use in the 12th-century music, they accept as a piece of absolute evidence that this abnormal chromatic keyboard was used for transposition. This is absurd because no full transposition of any melodic line spanning one octave at least can be made within a single octave! 

My idea is that this setting of keys could be only apparently chromatic and might serve a diatonic scale, this way: two lateral bass strings (a), middle treble string (a') whose nut lies a semitone behind the other two. This pattern works only with this tuning, enlarging Gerbert diatonic scale two tones under the c and reaching the g' of the second octave, including all useful notes of tenor parts in XII century organum melismaticum.

Please look at the next picture: notice the first octave blue (no flat here), the second octave red (chance on 8th bar only between e first octave and f second octave obtained by turning 90° the cilindric bar)



Please, watch the video:


About the hypothesis of a chromatic keyboard read more on: 





- Guido D'Arezzo Micrologus, XVIII, 1-18  

"...symphoniae, id est aptae vocum copulationes dicuntur, cum symphonia et de omni cantu dicatur." trad.: "...symphoniae are good sound combinations, but this name indicates all songs"


Then, in Regulae rhythmicae the same author writes:

"Quinque habet ipsa tonos, duo semitonia;

Habet in se diapente et diatessaron;

maxima symphoniarum et vocum est unitas"


"(the diapason) contains 5 tones and 2 semitones/the fifth and the fourth/is the highest unity of symphoniae, or sounds"


SYMPHONIA expresses the highest medieval idea of music, while Organistrum looks like a deformation of the name Organ, and this could be reasonable too.

Anyway, as suggested  by Christopher Page, articles in GSJ 1982, 83, based on phylological studies, the name Organistrum  could indicate as well  the later "one-man Lyre", a diatonic, melodic instruments with drones, sort of early hurdygurdy used for secular music.



This report gives rise to more doubts than certainties.

Santiago instrument appears to be the more complicated version of a wheel instrument documented for few decades during the 12th century, whose main relevance was due primarily to the continuous sound produced by the wheel, secondarily to the keyboard mechanism. 

We know nothing about the wheel and we assume it was a wooden one with rosin on it. Then we don't know whether the performer used to lift any of the strings from the wheel occasionally or not.

We ignore both the tuning and the keyboard mechanism in detail. It is possible that different solutions have been adopted here and there in different moments and places, including a simpler version with no keyboard at all.

At the beginning of  the XIII century the instrument disappeared.  Wheel instruments survived into smaller forms, playable by one performer, being equipped with a more practical  keyboard, to serve secular music.



A new video:



Chartres 12th century psaltery (English/French/Italian text)

Chartres 12th century psaltery (English/French/Italian text)


On 2017, April 20th I was asked by "Instrumentarium de Chartres" to go to Chartres to study one of the Psalteries sculpted in the so called Portail Royal (1144).


In front of the Cathedral I found a van equipped with an elevator, in order to reach the sculpture to study it easily.

There I discovered that the instrument has 10 courses of strings instead of the  9 previously  declared.

I could measure and observe all the details of this object, then I was asked by "Instrumentarium de Chartres" to build a copy of the Psaltery to be held in the Cathedral permanent exhibition of medieval instruments and to be played occasionally by professional musicians.

My instrument is carved in two blocks of poplar and beech. The two halves glued together, poplar at the top, beech at the bottom

The  iron pegs  are fixed in the right side of the back. Two straight bridges in Beech are glued over the top.


The top has been left free from varnish.


Dopo una lunga fase di studio e di sperimentazione si è compiuto il lavoro di ricostruzione di uno dei due salteri scolpiti nel Portale Reale della cattedrale di Chartres.

LE CORDE adottate sono in budello per le seguenti ragioni.

  1. I salteri precedenti il secolo XII, per lo più di forma rettangolare, fanno pensare a una filiazione dalla Kithara greca per tramite di quella romana e quindi a un’incordatura scalare in minugia;
  2. I ponticelli dei due salteri del portale reale presentano entrambi angoli alla base di 72°, non lontani dunque dall’angolo retto, quindi più vicini ai salteri antichi rispetto al successivo e molto più elaborato salterio a “muso di porco”, probabilmente incordato in metallo;
  3. Esaminando il salterio della “Musica”, molto simile a quello del vegliardo da me riprodotto, l’allaccio delle corde al ponticello sinistro fa pensare a un sistema simile a quello del Liuto e quindi indicare corde in budello.


0.55  Re - Do4, 0.60  Si - La,  0.65  Sol ,  0.75  Fa,  0.80  Mi, 0.85  Re, 0.95  Do3,  

1.00  Si2.


ideale per suonare questi strumenti è la stessa che si vede rappresentata nei due casi esaminati: appoggiato sul lato minore e suonando le corde in posizione verticale con un plettro.



Le travail de reconstitution d’un des deux psaltérions du Portail Royal de la cathédrale de Chartres c’est achevé après une longue phase d’étude et d’expérimentation durée à peu près deux ans.

On a décidé d’utiliser des CORDES de boyau, pour les raisons suivantes.

  1. Les psaltérions avant le XII siècle, de forme rectangulaire, rappellent la Kithara grecque et romaine, donc avec les cordes de boyau  de plusieurs diamètres différentes ;
  2. Les chevalets des deux psaltérions du portail royal ont les angles à la base de 72°, pas loin donc de l’angle droit et sont plus proches aux psaltérions anciennes que à ceux du siècle suivant « a muso di porco », à la forme beaucoup plus élaborée et avec cordes en métal;
  3. En observant le psaltérion « de la Musique » du portail, très semblable à celui du Vieillard que j’ai reconstitué, on voit que les cordes sont attachées au chevalet de la même façon d’un Luth, ce que nous fait penser à cordes de boyau.


0.55  Re - Do4, 0.60  S i- La,  0.65  Sol ,  0.75  Fa,  0.80  Mi, 0.85  Re, 0.95  Do3

1.00  Si2.


idéale pour jouer de cet instrument est la même qu’on voit dans les sculptures: l’instrument est appuyé sur la cote mineure et joué par un médiateur avec les cordes en verticale.



The instrument is now kept in the exhibition of instruments of Instrumentarium de Chartres, "sous le parvis de la Cathédrale".




 Saint Trophime Cathedral door gate, Arles, was build  about 1170. In the inner part of the arch we see Jesus and symbols of the four Evangelists.  All around them two rows of identical angels with open arms are sculpted, while at the top three different angels play horns or Oliphants. The angels  at both sides are ordered in two rows of nine, 18 on the right and 18 on the left. They represent the nine angelic choirs, every choir counting four individuals. The three angels at the top are dancing and blowing into their horns, the outer instruments decorated with seven simple lines, the one in the middle, half broken, without decorations. The two lateral angels  are lying backwards in a very uncomfortable position with their legs widely open, while the central one is standing steadily on both feet.

The frame on which all angels lay is made of six ledges. The outer one, thicker than the others, is the extrados of the arch. There are 5 ledges left. The angels of the inner row lay their heads on the second ledge, covering the first and the third with their wings and arms. The angels of the outer row lay their heads in the space between the fourth and the fifth ledge. Musicians feet and wings reach first and fifth ledges.

Since this set of 5 ledges recalls us a pentagram, we are tempted to look for musical notes: angels heads could be considered as such. If we suppose that the first horn on the left is a key of C, the angels in the middle have their heads on G and A and B, all angels on the first or inner row indicate D (except two on E), those of the second row indicate B. So we have the following sequences: D-E, one tone, D-G, a fourth, D-A, a fifth, E-G, minor third and G-B, major third, D-B, the hexachord. The feet of the lateral musicians mark the octave span from C to c.

 Then we should observe that angels ordered in rows are all identical but three:

  1. the fourth of the outer row on the right, keeping his right wing considerably bent towards hims
  2. the second angel of the inner row on the right is bending his head to the left side, while all the others keep their head straight in the center;
  3. the first one of inner row on the left bends his head to the right, while all the others keep their head straight in the center.

We can consider these irregularities as a way  to show  basic musical ratios.

Starting from the right and moving to left on the outer row we count 5 angels, then we meet the angel with a bent wing and we count 4 angels, arriving to the 3 musicians. Thus we have three main ratios: 5/4,  4/3 and 5/3, that are the major third, the fourth, the major sixth or hexachord.

Then starting from the first irregular angel on the left and proceeding to the right on the inner row we count this angel plus the 3 musicians plus 2 angels including the irregular one on the right. Their sum is 6. Thus we have 3/2 and 6/5, the fifth and the minor third.

From the center, left to right again, we find 9 angels versus 8 angels on the inner right row, that gives 9/8, the Tone.

This way we have found the same intervals indicated by the heads of the angels on the pentagram.

Finally, we divide the total of 39 angels into two groups as equal as possible:  20 and 19. 20/19 is one of the ratios used by Boethius to indicate the semitone (De institutione musice, lib.4, XIII).

We can match these data with the list of musical consonances exposed in Guido d’Arezzo’s  Micrologus (IV, 12-13): “tonum, semitonium, ditonum, semiditonum, diatessaron et diapente”.








Shells are just an image to show new ideas about medieval methods in medieval Lutherie. It is a sort of revolution in some stringed instruments buiding. Descarding the methods used for classic Violin or Guitar buiding,  and “chantournage” method too, being not philological at all, we have only to ways to build the instrument: hollowing the body-neck block out of one piece, then adding the sound board, or carving the whole block including sound board, adding the back. We can observe that the first method is adopted in Citoles making, for example those in  British Museum and Met, NY, and the Gittern found in Poland or in Caterina de Vigris’s Viella (Bologna), while the second one is used in Irish harps (Trinity College, Dublin). In folk instruments we observe the same buiding methods: the first one widespread through Asia and Northern Africa, to build all kind of plucked and bowed instruments, often with  sound board made of skin, while the second one can be detected in British Clarsach, Norwigean Langeleik and Finnish Kantele, the last two sometimes without the back, as they were used lying them  on a table (H.Panum, Stringed instruments of the middle ages.London,Reeves,1971). We follow necessarily  the first method to build round back instruments like Gittern, Rebab and Rebec, while  the second method could be adopted to build flat back instruments like Harp, Psaltery, Viella and Citole. The reason is that since the most important part of the instrument is the sound board, the first attempt the medieval luthier should make, whenever possible, is to give unity to the block  neck -sides - sound board, leaving the back as the last piece to be added at the end. This idea is suitable both for plucked instruments and bowed instruments as well, since Viellas had no soundpole at the time. I built four Viellas with this method: one from a XII century sculpture in Graville Abbey (Le Havre), one from a XIV sculpture in Nicosia Cathedral (Enna), another one from a XII c. sculpture in Torme, Burgos and the last one from Toro Cathedral. The best results I obtained using Fir for the body and Cypress for the back.  Then I built four Psalteries from Chartres cathedral: the upper part carved from one piece of Poplar or Fir, the back of Beech, Pine or Cypress. These instruments have brilliant, lively sound and rich resonance too. Anyway, we are not sure that Spruce was used for sound boards during the Middle Ages, so that some luthiers use other kind of wood: this fact could reinforce the idea of the "back-carving method".



La coquille est un point de depart pour  ma reflection autour des techniques de la lutherie medievale. On a abandonné de très long temps la technique moderne (Violon, Guitare)  dans la réconstitution des instruments à cordes du Moyen Age. La technique du “chantournage” n’est pas philologique. Donc nous restent deux voies pour faire l’instrument: creuser le manche et la caisse dans un seul morceau de bois et après ajouter la table d’harmonie, ou creuser le manche, la table d’harmonie et les cotés dans un seul morceau et à la fin ajouter le fond. Les Citoles du British Museum et du Met NY, la petite Vielle de Caterina de Vigris (Bologna) et le Gittern du XIV siècle  retrouvé en Pologne sont faits avec la première technique, tout comme les instruments traditionnels d’Asie et du Nord de l’Afrique, souvent avec des tables d’harmonie en peau.  Les Harpes du Trinity College (Dublin), XV siècle,  sont faites avec la deuxième technique, tout comme les Langeleik de Norvège et le Kantele de Finland (H.Panum, Stringed instruments of the middleages, London,1971). S’il  est necéssaire travailler dans la première facon pour faire des instruments au fond courbe, comme le Gittern, le Rebab, la Rebec,  dans les instruments au fond plat comme la Harpe, le Psalterion, la Citole et la Vielle,  on pourrait bien renverser le processus, l’élément le plus important étant la table d’harmonie, creé avec le manche et les cotés dans un seul pièce, en recevant le fond à la fin. On ajoute aussi deux observations faites par plusieurs luthiers: jusqu’au XVI siècle on n’avait pas d’ame dans les instruments à archet et les tables d’harmonie n’étaient pas forcément en Epicea. Donc est particulierement interéssant essayer la construction des instruments à cordes du Moyen Age de cette facon. J’ ai construit cinq Psalterions en creusant la partie supérieure dans le Peuplier ou Sapinet le fond en Hetre, Pin ou Cyprés. Le son est particulierement clair et riche d’harmoniques. J’ai fait quatre Vieles ovales (Graville, Nicosia, Torme, Toro) avec le corps de Sapin et les fonds en Hetre ou Cyprés, pas d' ame, le son étant vif et clair.



Con questo paragone intendo presentare una nuova ipotesi sulla tecnica costruttiva nel campo degli strumenti a corda del Medioevo. In pratica si tratta di un ribaltamento rispetto ai procedimenti usati finora. Se la tecnica di assemblaggio dello strumento in pezzi separati: fondo, fasce, tavola, manico è stata da tempo abbandonata, poiché considerata non filologica, anche la tecnica chiamata “chantournage” non  sembra essere documentata storicamente e quindi da accantonarsi. I procedimenti rilevati dall’esame degli strumenti sopravvissuti sono due: scultura dell’intero corpo dello strumento dal massello con aggiunta di tavola armonica  e scultura dell’intero corpo con aggiunta del fondo. La prima tecnica si vede applicata nelle Citole (British Museum, London; Met, NY) , nel Gittern trovato in Polonia e nella Viella di S.Caterina de Vigris (Bologna), la seconda nelle Arpe irlandesi (Trinity College, Dublin). Esaminando la liuteria di tradizione osserviamo che il primo procedimento è ampiamente usato in tutta l’Asia e nel Nord Africa per costruire ogni tipo di strumento a corde pizzicate o ad arco, con tavole armoniche per lo più in pelle. Il secondo procedimento si riscontra nelle Arpe tradizionali del Nord Europa (Clarsach) e nelle cetre da tavolo scandinave come Langeleik e Kantele. Per gli strumenti a fondo bombato - Gittern, Rebab, Ribeca - il primo procedimento è irrinunciabile; per gli strumenti con fondo piatto –  Arpa, Salterio, Citola, Viella -  credo sia preferibile il secondo. La ragione nasce come risposta a una domanda: qual è in questi strumenti la parte più caratterizzante? Certamente la cassa bombata negli strumenti del primo gruppo, in cui talora troviamo anche tavole armoniche in pelle. Nel secondo gruppo invece sia la tavola sia il fondo sono piatti o lievemente convessi, dunque bisogna identificare quale sia la parte determinante per la formazione del suono, tenendo conto che la tavola armonica ha il principale ruolo vibratorio e il fondo quello di semplice riflessione. Questo vale a maggior ragione negli strumenti a corde pizzicate, ma soprattutto nelle Vielle, dove ancora l’anima non andava a congiungere le due parti della cassa. Quindi si può credere  che il costruttore, volendo dedicare un’attenzione speciale alla formazione del suono, prediligesse lavorare con grande cura al blocco: manico, tavola armonica, fasce laterali, mantenendo in tal modo una vantaggiosa unità della struttura ai fini della migliore propagazione delle vibrazioni. Il fondo poteva essere lavorato a parte e applicato infine a chiusura della cassa. I riscontri pratici di questa procedura sono, come già detto, nei Clarsach,  in Kantele e Langeleik, (H.Panum, The stringed instruments of the Middle Ages. London, 1971). dove talora il fondo è mancante, perché lo strumento veniva poggiato su un tavolo di legno per essere suonato, e in alcuni esperimenti da me fatti su Vielle e Salteri. Ho ricostruito una Viella ovale da una scultura del secolo XII nell’Abbazia di Graville (Le Havre) e un'altra da una scultura del secolo XIV nella cattedrale di Nicosia (Enna), altre due da sculture di Torme e Toro, in Spagna, Nel primo caso ho utilizzato Pino silvestre tagliato di quarto per il corpo e Faggio per il fondo, nel secondo Abete bianco tagliato di quarto per il corpo e Cipresso per il fondo, negli altri Abete e Cipresso. In tutti gli strumenti non è inserita l’anima. I risultati sono stati più che soddisfacenti, in particolare osservo che vengono esaltate le frequenze acute e medie, evitando la timbrica cupa che spesso ho sentito nelle ricostruzioni di Vielle. Ho poi costruito quattro Salteri dalla cattedrale di Chartres,  con tavola e fianchi in Pioppo o Abete, due col fondo in Faggio, uno in Pino laricio, uno in Cipresso. Anche questi strumenti hanno dimostrato sonorità brillante e grande risonanza. Se pensiamo che di recente molti liutai dubitano che nel Medioevo si utilizzasse l’Abete rosso per le tavole armoniche, e le fanno con altri legni, ad esempio gli stessi usati per la cassa, e se pensiamo che quasi tutti sostengono che l'anima non venisse usata fino al XVI secolo, assume più valore la mia tesi della costruzione "al contrario" degli strumenti ad arco a fondo piatto.





Nel 2012 iniziai a studiare la possibilità di ricostruire una Viella - un antenato medievale del nostro Violino - basandomi su iconografia siciliana. Ricordavo di aver notato alcune raffigurazioni di strumenti musicali durante una visita alla cattedrale di Nicosia (EN), così, anche approfittando del desiderio di due registi acesi, Daniele Greco e Mauro Maugeri, di girare un documentario sulla mia attività di liutaio, mi recai con loro sul luogo, dove potemmo verificare che i miei ricordi erano esatti. Sul capitello del primo pilastrino sul lato sinistro del portale centrale della cattedrale dedicata a S.Nicola si vedono scolpiti due musici. Uno di essi, acefalo e molto rovinato, imbraccia una Citola, strumento a corde pizzicate simile a una piccola chitarra, di cui si intuisce ormai solo un vago contorno, e l’altro, alla sua sinistra, pure acefalo, suona una Viella ancora perfettamente visibile. I miei due ottimi amici, entusiasti quanto me per la scoperta, decisero di incoraggiarmi e di aiutarmi a continuare le mie ricerche documentandole con fotografie e video professionali. Proseguimmo così alla volta di Messina e di Palermo, dove potemmo raccogliere altre testimonianze sulle Vielle: due sculture nelle rispettive cattedrali delle due città e un dipinto sul soffitto ligneo del palazzo dello Steri. Mentre i registi iniziavano a confezionare un vero e proprio documentario con le riprese effettuate, che vide la luce l’anno successivo col titolo di “SUONI D’OC”, io mi diedi da fare per iniziare lo studio e la ricostruzione della mia Viella.

Iniziai ad esaminare attentamente tutte le testimonianze trovate: tre del periodo compreso fra 1350 e 1380 e una, quella di Messina, del secolo successivo. Alla fine mi resi conto che la testimonianza più attendibile era proprio la prima da cui ero partito, ossia la piccola scultura della Cattedrale di Nicosia. Vi si vedono perfettamente raffigurati tutti gli elementi decisivi: il contorno “a otto” della cassa, i fori di risonanza, la cordiera, il ponticello, il manico e le corde. Unica pecca, la mancanza del cavigliere, andato distrutto nel tempo. Decisi che per questo particolare sarei ricorso al modello visibile nelle pitture dello Steri, coeve al portico di Nicosia, anche se la Viella colà raffigurata era ovale e non “a otto”. Superato questo scoglio dovetti stabilire le dimensioni da dare allo strumento e ricorsi al solito calcolo delle proporzioni tra esso e il corpo del suonatore. Arrivai a definire un oggetto del tutto simile a un Violino attuale per lunghezza e per diapason, ma con la cassa un po’ più larga e profonda. A questo punto bisognava scegliere il legno, anzi i legni e mi decisi per una bella tavola di Abete bianco spessa 4 cm. da cui intagliare il blocco Manico/Tavola armonica/Fasce laterali e una tavoletta da 1 cm. di Cipresso per il fondo. Qui urge una sosta per spiegare una particolarità che contraddistingue l’arte liutaria medievale da quella attuale. Nel Medioevo si usava scolpire lo strumento da un unico pezzo di legno quasi per intero. Negli strumenti a fondo curvo si usava scavare in un unico blocco la cassa e il manico, aggiungendo poi la tavola armonica. Negli strumenti a fondo piatto o lievemente incurvato si poteva procedere anche al contrario, scavando in un solo pezzo manico e tavola armonica e applicando poi il fondo. Entrambi i procedimenti sono accertati in sede storica, ma su tipi diversi di strumenti. Io propendo per applicare il secondo procedimento ogniqualvolta sia possibile e anche questa Viella è stata fatta così. Diversamente, nella liuteria classica e moderna, il Violino viene assemblato incollando le varie parti lavorate separatamente: tavola e fondo scavati, manico con cavigliere e riccio, fasce piegate a caldo ciascuna in tre pezzi giuntati con rinforzi interni in Abete. Così dopo un po’ di giorni di intenso lavoro ottenni la mia ricostruzione della “Viella di Nicosia”, non ancora verniciata ma pronta per comparire nelle ultime scene del documentario. Montai le corde in budello: doppio cantino, altre due corde a distanza di quinta e ottava dalla prima e infine una corda fuori dalla tastiera come si vede chiaramente nella scultura. Questo particolare è interessante: la corda esterna serviva per accompagnare l’esecuzione con un pizzicato o, suonata con l’arco, fungeva da bordone, visto che, per il suo spessore, difficilmente poteva essere tastata. Altra particolarità: lo strumento è sprovvisto di “anima”, quel cilindretto di legno che, in tutti gli strumenti ad arco dal 1500 ad oggi collega internamente la tavola col fondo, raddoppiando quasi l’intensità delle vibrazioni, poiché per i secoli del medioevo non è in alcun modo documentata. Il suono dunque risulta più diffuso e smorzato, adattissimo per accompagnare il canto, cosa molto apprezzata all’epoca dai Trovatori. Lo strumento era pronto ma senza vernice appariva rustico e non finito, però il suono era già bello. Nel corso del Duecento e del Trecento la verniciatura e la colorazione dei legni in liuteria non erano ancora pratiche affermate, spesso una mano di olio di mandorle veniva considerata sufficiente. Mi incoraggiai a suonare la Viella per la scena finale del documentario e così si concluse la prima parte del lavoro. L’anno seguente il film partecipò a diverse rassegne e ricevette un riconoscimento europeo in Slovenia. Io portai lo strumento in Francia al festival TROBAREA di musica medievale a Grasse (Nizza) e alle Journées de musiques anciennes di Venves, Parigi, dove lo strumento fu apprezzato e si dimostrò all’altezza dei suoi simili d’oltralpe, anzi brillò per il suo suono vivace e limpido. A un certo punto mi decisi a dare alla Viella una colorazione noce scuro e tre mani di gommalacca a spirito, con cui oggi si mostra al pubblico. Abbiamo avuto la gioia di presentare il documentario a Nicosia in una riunione pubblica presso il Municipio e ho suonato con la Viella alcuni brani tratti dal Laudario di Cortona proprio sotto la scultura del portale in un momento pieno di emozione e di suggestione. Oggi il nostro strumento si può vedere e ascoltare presso la Casa della Musica e della Liuteria di Randazzo, ( aperta tutti i giorni dalle 11 alle 17. Per prenotare le visite tel.349 4001357. Contatti: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Oppure direttamente guarda il VIDEO:

Organistrum de Compostela. An astronomical approach

Organistrum de Compostela. An astronomical approach


An astronomical approach

published in:

Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, vol. 18, n° 4 (2018), pp.345-352.


1 : Gate of Glory:

Gate of Glory extrados in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is crowded by statues bearing different kinds of stringed instruments. At the very top of the gate two of them are playing a beautifully carved and decorated instrument, the so calledOrganistrum.

2 : The top instrument:

This curious object has been largely studied and several reconstructions have been proposed and carried out by scholars and luthiers during the past 40 years, nevertheless some aspects are still uncertain, such as its symbolic significance and its peculiar musical role.

3 :: Symphonia::

Let’s start considering its special location.The statues of the extrados represent the 24 elders of Apocalypse. They can be symbols of Time (24), Music (musical instruments) and Divine symphony (they are heavenly creatures) too.

4 :: Two Performers::

The two performers at the top are very close to Christ’s head, position as usual occupied by angels. If we compare them to the other musicians we observe they look to be the only two actually playing and they are playing the most complex instrument of all. The idea that it could be given a deeper symbolic significance is strengthened by closer observation of its features. A revolving object, the wheel, creates the sound from strings stretched over a sound box made of two equal circles, to which an unusual keyboard is added, equipped with 11 keys, so that the octave is divided into 12 parts.

All this is strange enough and absolutely unique, in XII century atleast !, and we need referring to any kind of theological, philosophical, mathematical and musical theory of the age to give a reasonable interpretation of it. Medieval Latin Platonism, for example, mainly related to Chartres cathedral school, well connected with Paris and Santiago, brings to us interesting suggestions.

5 :: Ordering the Heavens::

Platonists thought that at the beginning of creation, making the World Soul, Demiurgos was dealing with three abstract elements: Being, Sameness and Difference. Establishing the right proportions among sameness and difference, he gave the World Soul the shape of two circles one inside the other and put them into the material World, thus creating both the Sphere of fixed stars and the plane of planetary orbits. Circular motions of planets and stars were thus connected in perfect harmony, like the strings of a well tuned Lyre or the pipes of a well cut Pan flute[1].This set-up is reflected in our instrument.

6 :: Symphonia Coelistis::

A circular sound box, theCircle of Sameness, contains the wheel , that represents planetary motion: the Circle of Difference. This is the origin: the invisible World Soul. Thenanother circle is added, the visible world, Cosmos, with its charming beauty. At lastwe find the keyboard, with 11 keys dividing the octave in parts, the symbol of human mind, which divides and measures in order to understand Natural phenomena. Therefore, the widespread philosophical principle “Veritas est adaequatio intellectus et rei “ (translation: truth is an adjustement between intellect and things) is well represented here, as we can observe that the vibrating string-length (rectilinear thought) is equal to the circumference of each circle of the sound box (Nature and abstract world).

Further suggestions come fromthe analysis of instrument decorations.

  1. A long line of DOTS runs all around the outline of the instrument. They are symbols of the stars. From left to right: first circle, the idea of the stars in the abstract world; second circle, the visible stars; keyboard, our knowledge of the stars (straightened).
  2. The large ROSETTE in the middle represents the Visible World, a circular figure divided in four equal sections by two perpendicular axes. Each section is occupied by a five lobes leaf and twigs (these leaves are similar to those sculpted all around the 24 Elders). The division in four sections may refer to the four elements of material world.

7 :: Diagram of the Seasons

This figure recalls diagrams of the seasons frequently drawn in glosses of IX-XII century astronomical manuscripts or even more elaborated drawings.The main goal of any scholar was to calculate accurately the length of each season in order to obtain an exact and affordable calendar to establish with great accuracy both the dates of Christian feasts and the right hours for prayer in monasteries[2].

8 :: IX-XII centuries decoration patterns ::

Finally, KEYBOARD LID decoration, unique among all other decorations sculpted in the Gate, shows a rare pattern, which had been popular in some areas around the Alps and in Ireland between IX and XI centuries, rather neglected in the XII[3].

9 :: Keyboard ::

Each knot of the interlace corresponds precisely to one key of the 11keys protruding out of the rectangular box. This division in fact is the most puzzling feature of all, as nobody could justify the introduction of a chromatic scale in XII century, when only strict diatonism was allowed. But we discovered that, curiously enough, both the unusual decoration and the division of the octave in 12 semitones can be referred to diagrams of planetary latitudes, related to musical scales as well, in astronomical manuscripts of the age.

10 :: Planetary latitudes diagrams ::

Such diagrams were intended to represent planetary latitudes across the zodiacal band, divided vertically in 12 degrees. As usual the horizontal line of these grids was divided in 30 parts, but since XI century we often find 12 in order to signify the 12 zodiacal signs. The Sun and Saturn were given a serpentine path within the two middle degrees of the zodiac, Jupiter had three degrees, Mars four, Mercury eight, the Moon covered the zodiacal band with its 12 degrees of latitude. Venus was assigned a latitude of 14 degrees, one degree beyond the zodiac on each side.

11 :: Planetary latitudes diagrams ::


Then, in a manuscript by Abbo de Fleury (c 940-1004) we find a horizontal column list of the Plinian intervals between planetary orbits attached to planetary latitudes grid[4]. Whether 14 semitones can be counted in total, the musical octave spanning from Moon to tha Stars is divided into 12 semitones (semitone being the unit of measurement of the scale, clearly enough).Thus, our XII century chromatic scale shouldn’t be considered as a scandal any longer! Besides, experimenting with our special keyboard with keys ranging about two full chromatic octaves demonstrates that this arrangement fits quite well XII century two voices polyphonic music.

12 :: The name

For these reasons we feel the name of Symphonia or Symphonia magna or Symphonia caelestis would be more appropriate for this instrument than the usual, uncertain and rather mocking name of Organistrum.

Its representationin Santiago could have been an exclusive message for a restricted group of scholars capable of understanding the cosmological and musical implications of a non-traditional object that had been invented of course by monks  trained in the liberal arts of Quadrivium.


[1]Bruce S. Eastwood.Ordering the Heavens. Roman astronomy and cosmology in the Carolingian renaissance. Brill, 2007   Reasoning about circular and rectilinear motions in: Guglielmo di Conches, Glosae super Platonem. See: Martello Concetto,Platone a Chartres. Palermo, Officina di studi Medievali, 2011, p.86.

[2]Stephen C. McCluskey.Astronomies and cultures in early medieval Europe.Cambridge University Press, 1998, p 97-113.

[3]Giulia Marrucchi e Riccardo Belcari, La grande storia dell’arte. Il Medioevo. Firenze, E-ducationS.p.A., 2005, p 146-7

[4]Bruce S. Eastwood.,Astronomy in Christian latin Europe c.500-c.1150.

in JHA, xxviii (1997) Science History Publications Ltd. p 250-3

VIDEOS:  Diatonic keyboard   Chromatic keyboard



Vielle ovale de Graville

Vielle ovale de Graville

Reconstitution d’une vièle ovale d’après une sculpture du 12ème siècle de l’Abbaye de Graville au Havre, Normandie.

La sculpture :
La petite sculpture (30x35x20cm) en pierre blanche, abîmée à gauche, a été retrouvée, après la guerre, dans les ruines de la tour centrale. On ne connaît pas sa position initiale et on pense qu'elle est de la fin du 11ème siècle.Toute la composition et même l'instrument sont inspirés par la forme ovale.La figure entière est inscrite dans un ovale, la tête, les yeux, la bouche ovale, l'instrument a une caisse ovale, l'une des ouïes est une demi-lune et l'autre a une forme presque ovale.La figure est très bien modelée, les traits fins, gracieux, on dirait qu'elle a quelque chose de féminin et de lunaire.
La reconstitution de l'instrument
Les bois :J'ai choisi deux qualités de bois qu'on pourrait aisément retrouver en Normandie au11ème siècle: sapin et hêtre.Sapin (très vieux et avec des taches pour rappeler la surface de la lune) pour le corps de l'instrument: table d'harmonie, éclisses, manche et chevilles. Hêtre pour le fond.
Un instrument creux :
Puisque les instruments au Moyen Âge n'avaient pas d'âme, la résonnance est premièrement due à la table d'harmonie, le fond ayant pour fonction de refléter le son.J'ai donc creusé l'instrument dans du sapin à partir de la table d'harmonie car c’est la partie la plus importante de la vièle, d’une épaisseur d’environ trois millimètres, sans aucun barrage.Le manche est creusé dans la même planche, même s’il est un peu plus haut que la table.Les flancs son concaves. Le fond en hêtre est creusé, arrondi à l'intérieur comme à l'extérieur, l'épaisseur est d’à peu près trois millimètres.
Les ouïes :
Dans la sculpture, on voit que les deux ouïes ne sont pas symétriques, l’une en forme de demi-lune, l'autre presque rectangulaire, creusée plus bas sur l'autre moitié de la table. On pourrait penser que l'auteur a voulu faire ce perçage bizarre pour une raison de perspective, mais j'ai pensé qu'il a reproduit un instrument réel, fait de cette façon.Y-a-t-il d’autres exemples de cette asymétrie sur les vièles médiévales ? NON.Mais il y a d'autres instruments de musique avec des perçages asymétriques, certaines harpes, des psaltérions et des monocordes.
Quelle pourrait être la motivation de cette asymétrie ?Donner au musicien une ouïe (plus petite) plus proche de son oreille ou, proposition presque hérétique, pour placer une âme au-dessous du chevalet ...Après réflexion, j'ai décidé de faire les deux ouïes exactement comme elles sont représentées sur la sculpture.
La touche, le cheviller, le cordier :
La touche est un petit morceau de buis de 2mm d'épaisseur, collé sur le manche.Le cheviller est hexagonal, comme dans les vièles de Boscherville. Le cordier est en buis.
Le vernis :
Je n’ai employé aucun vernis. On sait qu’à l'époque il n'y avait pas de gomme-laque, aussi, pour protéger le bois, j'ai employé de l'huile d'amande pure.
Les cordes :
Les cordes sont en boyau de mouton. J'ai choisi de faire un accord complexe avec deux chœurs et un bourdon. Les chœurs sont accordés à l'unisson ou en quintes.

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