Organistrum / Symphonia  keyboard  in Santiago de Compostela cathedral.

Organistrum / Symphonia keyboard in Santiago de Compostela cathedral.

Symphonia / Organistrum


in Santiago de Compostela cathedral.


(Inquiry into a troubling problem of interpretation.

Analysis of possible solutions.)



In former articles I wrote both about different aspects of this problem and about practical means to build a replica of the instrument in order to make it work the best way. My aim is to match  not only with organological and technical subjects, but to  discuss musical ideas connected to them, in the way Music was considered 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 examined the few witnesses related to this instrument. I am not going to repeat the whole list, I just want to offer here a short survey.

The sound box consists as usual in two oval parts plus the neck, there are three strings, 6 to 8 keys  within the half of the diapason, sound holes often in D shape. The keyboard mechanism  appears only once, in a 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. Three letters below the wheel might indicate a tuning: d, D, a

 A 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.

No information about the use of the instrument is available. We can only guess it was played mainly for sacred music along the 12th century. Christopher Page, the only scholar who faced the problem of  the name: Symhonia / Organistrum, has several doubts and no definite answer.


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 it’s absurd to define an evolution of the instrument through these witnesses. I can just study carefully the features.

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; the second musician is touching the third string with his right hand forefinger and with the other hand is turning the corresponding tuning key. There is no evidence of a keyboard (as in  Hortus deliciarum manuscript), and I guess the two musicians are just  tuning a large viella, since no crank and no wheel are there.

In Soria sculpture (Spain) we see 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.

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 large Viella, about twice the size of an 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 closest strings. To have a system of keys might be suggested. In some depictions they appear, 6 to 8 within the half of the diapason. They look like little bars passing beneath the strings (Boscherville and Vercelli) or simply protruding from a box that hides the mechanism. It is reasonable to think about a simple diatonic scale, but we can’t state the keys are touching either only one or more than one string.

The structure of the keyboard depends on which kind of music we are going to play.

Suppose we’ve got a musical instrument which can produce a continuous sound and we want to perform a simple melodic line with it, with drones accompaniment and at a moderate speed, the following sort of keyboard would be

Type 1:

Type 2: you want to play a melody in organum with drone accompaniment. You will provide the keys with double tangents to stop the treble and middle strings tuned a fifth or a fourth apart, leaving the bass string free, tuned an octave under the treble.

Type 3:  according to Gerbert’s drawing:

keys acting on the three strings simultaneously: a) to play in organum prallelum (?) b) to play very loudly a simple melody on  three strings tuned at the same pitch (?).

Type 4:  all strings tuned at the same pitch,  the tangents acting on different strings in order to play double stops within the octave:

Type 5: strings tuned in unison and octave, keys which can be lifted and revolved with tangents on three different positions at 90° around the axe in order to play double stops within two diatonic octaves:

 A tuning is more suitable in my opinion  because it respects both the guidonian gamut and the exachordal system, starting correctly from Protus plagalis.

Which of these  types is the best  has to be determined only considering what we know about 12th century music.

Geographic area includes Spain and France mainly, then England, Germany and Italy. We can guess that his instrument served the sacred music composed and performed in Benedictine monasteries. In fact the monks were developing a new technique in polyphonic singing:  the vox organalis   was no longer in parallelum,  disattending the rules given by Musica enchiriadis and Micrologus,  and became more free.  An instrument like the described “Two men lyre” could fit this kind of music, provided it is equipped with the suitable keyboard: a new instrument for a new repertory. In any case a very limited one, with a rather short life too: at the end of 12th century composers began writing sacred music for three and four voices, a repertory  that can be performed only by organs.


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  24 Elders all around the Lamb, depicting a scene taken from the book of Revelation. This gate is dated precisely the year 1188. This sculpture differs from all others we have examined

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

The sound box consists in two perfect circles connected through  lobes and a rectangular box containing the keys. The length of diapason 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. A long interlace made of 11 knots and 12 spaces is cut all along the rectangular keyboard lid.

All 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 this 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 stated that this number indicates a chromatic division of the keyboard. They pointed out that no chromatic scale was in use during the 12th century, nevertheless they accepted the number as an absolute evidence concluding that this instrument could have been invented for transposition.

Actually, some other chances are conceivable.

Keeping the 11 keys as they are, we can design

  • a chromatic keyboard for melodic playing, as follows:

  • a different  solution allowing us to play discant –like polyphony: double stops within one diatonic  octave + a fifth

  • another mechanism allows to play double stops within two octaves chromatic scale, using keys which can be lifted and revolved, with tangents on three different positions at 90° around the axe. This could be an instrument actually able to transpose whatever two voices polyphony into any desired mode:

 We are performing XII century sacred music using thie former key mechanism, but  with  an  A, d, a tuning, with good results:

Please listen to musical example:

Read more on: 


This report gives rise to more doubts than certainties.

Santiago instrument looks as the more complicated version of the 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. 

Anyone  is problematic.

For example, we use to make wooden wheels covered with colophony, but this is actually characteristic of baroque and modern instruments. Was it the same in 12th century?

Some of the 12th century “Two men wheel  lyres” might even lack the keyboard.

Keyboard can be melodic or polyphonic, using the diatonic guidonian gamut.  In a very special depiction, the Santiago de Compostela one, we can imagine an unusual chromatic scale being adopted. This could be the last step of experimentation.

Then, at the beginning of 13th century,  vocal compositions in sacred music became so complex  that the Organ only could provide the appropriate accompaniment.

Like many other instruments the “Two men lyre”  left the churches to assume a new role in secular music, becoming smaller, equipped with a more practical (melodic or polyphonic) keyboard and playable by one performer.





A new possible method in medieval instruments making.

The reconstruction of a Cetra  from XII century sculpture by Benedetto Antelami in Parma Baptistery,




  1. Carving the instrument “back to front” in one piece of Fir
  2. Refining carefully the soundboard inside and outside, following a curved profile
  3. Gluing a flat back (Poplar).


  Copying a traditionally carved medieval Cetra outline


Inside view of soundboard

Carving the soundboard outside.


An elegant back added (Poplar)

Diapason cm. 34,5

total weight gr.790



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).

Here it is the complete 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 methods used for classic Violin or Guitar buiding,  and “chantournage” method too, being not philological, 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 was used in Citoles like those in  British Museum and Met, NY, and in 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)  You necessarily follow the first method to buid round back instruments like Gittern, Rebab and Rebec,  while  the second method should be adopted to build flat back instruments as 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 two Viellas with this method: one from a XII century sculpture in Graville Abbey (Le Havre) and another one from a XIV sculpture in Nicosia Cathedral (Enna). The body of the first one is of Pine, the back of Beech, the body of the second one is carved in a Spruce plank, the back is of Cypress.  Both instruments have no soundpole, nevertheless they  have a  lively sound. Then I built three Psalteries from Chartres cathedral: the upper part carved from one piece of Poplar, the back of Beech and one of them of Pine. These instruments have brilliant, lively sound and rich resonance too. Eventually, many luthiers nowadays think that Spruce was not used for sound boards during the Middle Ages and they use the same wood of the sound box: this fact could be an additional reason to build the instruments with 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 trois Psalterions en creusant la partie supérieure dans le Peuplier et le fond en Hetre ou Pin. Le son est particulierement clair et riche d’harmoniques. J’ai fait deux Vieles ovales (Graville et Nicosia) avec le corps en Pin et Sapin et les fonds en Hetre et 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). 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. In entrambi 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 in questi strumenti. Ho poi costruito tre Salteri dalla cattedrale di Chartres, tutti  con Tavola e fianchi in Pioppo, due col fondo in Faggio, uno in Pino laricio. 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..

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 Saturn 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


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 quartes.

LA   re/re   la/la

LA   la/re   mi/la

Le deuxième accord est le plus convenable pour une exécution polyphonique de musique sacrée, comme suggéré par le caractèrede la sculpture.


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