Leonardo da Vinci, Presumed self-portrait

Leonardo da Vinci, Presumed self-portrait

i am going to italy for a month this summer! holy crap! i can’t wait. i will study michaelangelo and drawing in florence for three weeks and rome for a week. in preparation, i have been reading about my favorite figures from the Italian renaissance including one my childhood heroes Galileo this astronomer, and of course Leonardo Da Vinci, the painter, inventor, and yes–musician! you may already know from the dan brown book that da vinci was obsessed with puzzles and hidden meanings. but did you know he could sing and play a kick ass lira? This is an often overlooked part of Da Vinci’s life, mostly because he was an improvisational player, and did not compose much or write music down often. da vinci wrote more about painting. but that may have more to do with the state of affairs in those days than a personal preference for painting as an artistic medium, as it is clear that his creative interests were as intensely varied as they were intense. painting however, required more philosophical attention. in those days, painting was still seen as a craft, not a fine art like music or poetry. through the use of new ideas like linear perspective, da vinci and others sought to elevate the status of painting. he never had to argue for the value of music. that’s not to say he did not think deeply about it. he referred to music lovingly as “figurazione delle cose invisibili” or “the shaping of the invisible” and invented countless new kinds of musical instruments, some of which he may have actually built. today i was pleasantly surprised to stumble across a few musical notes written in one of his own rebuses. Rebuses are typically word puzzles, using images to spell out words or syllables of words. but in this case, to uncover the puzzle you have to dig for words within the music notes.


Da Vinci Musical Rebus

if you assumed, as i did, that this is a standard trebble clef, and were to try to play this melody it would sound something like this:

(please disregard my absolute lack of concern for rhythm)

yikes! interesting, if only in an eyes wide shut soundtrack kind of way. surely this is not the work of da vinci. fortunately i learned from the book the “unknown leonardo” and some wikipedia sources that this music cannot be understood in the way we read music today. the staff was still developing. measures and time signatures did not yet exist in the way we see them. the notes in this rebus are written in Guidonian syllables (ut re mi fa sol la. yes, kind of like the sound of music movie). i determined that the first note of the scale “ut” must start on the first space and for the sake of convenience, today i say that “ut” = middle c. i found that if i looked again at the staff, i got this:

now since i can’t see a specific meter, i just played with it a little bit until something more musical took shape. i found that by moving the second note in each phrase a little later, it gave it more emotion and chracter. da vinci’s instrument, the Lira, was kind of like a fiddle. it was usually played with a bow but had seven strings–five for melodies and two for droning. da vinci’s Lira though, was even more unusual because he built it himself; it was made mostly of silver. da vinci only gives us two phrases of the melody. if the song were to keep going, the third phrase felt right repeating the first, but i felt the fourth phrase melody should resolve. from there i imagine he would have just played with it. here it is on a lira with lute accompaniment:

that’s more like it!

now alex i would like to solve the rebus. (this part is from books, not my work) what i thought was the treble clef is not a treble clef at all (i don’t even know if it existed then) but a crude drawing of a fishhook. the italian word for fishhook is amo. the notes used, re, sol, la, mi, fa, re, mi, are followed by “rare”. the second phrase of the melody is la, sol, mi, fa, sol followed by “lecita”. when you put it all together, it reads in italian- Amore sol la mi fa remirare, la sol mi fa sollecita. “Love only makes me remember, it alone makes me alert” so here is this beautiful phrase wrapped in a beautiful melody. interestingly, these words cannot be easily sung TO the melody, they ARE the melody, in an odd sense. that is today’s exercise in shaping the invisible, brought to you by renewed interest in the Italian renaissance.