JAVS Fall 2023

you don’t need to calculate, it is marked on it. If you look at the different parts of a violin or a viola, you can see that many of them are in such ratios to the total size of the instrument. In other words, if you take the total measurement of the instrument from the button to the scroll, you will find that one part at the bottom of the body is half the size, another at the top is a third, and so on. Those who know the viola, will have understood what I am getting at. For the others, the suspense has gone on long enough. Here is the meaning of this whole demonstration: the total length of an average viola is: seventy-two cm. or, precisely, an arm of Brescia! If you build an instrument from this unit, you save yourself a lot of complicated calculations, since they are already included in the unit itself. The term viola da braccio can therefore be understood as “viol built from the unit of measurement called arm.” And once again we come back to the viola, which is thus revealed as the first representative of this family of instruments. The two arguments I have just presented, although they may be open to question, are logical and coherent. But the title of my article suggested an incredible and fantastic history of the viola. So, we shall now venture into the murky and disturbing waters of the occult, witchcraft, and other magic… To tell you the truth, at the beginning, this field seemed to me to be quite distant from my concerns and questions. What I was trying to find out, in investigating the viola, were the circumstances of its birth and the meaning of its conception. The stories of magicians, alchemists and other wizards seemed far removed from my subject. This was without considering a primordial detail: if one wants to understand the viola, or any object whose meaning and origin one seeks, one must reason, not as a 21st century person, but according to the mentalities of the period concerned. In this case, it is the period between the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th century. Our story takes place in Florence in the 1480’s. At the court of Cosimo de’ Medici, there is a circle of scholars, scientists, and artists, constituting what is called the Platonic academy and gathered under the authority of a master, Marcilio Ficino. These were the most educated, learned and undoubtedly the most intelligent men of their time. They concentrated on all types of knowledge:

each of them was a translator as well as a doctor, mathematician, musician, artist, philosopher, engineer, and so on. Therefore, when they approach magic, they do so with as much seriousness, intelligence, and reasoning as in any other of their activities. The magic they use is mainly based on two disciplines: Hermeticism and Kabbalah. When I told you that we were going to tackle obscure regions... According to these beliefs, there is a plan, an original and universal scheme, from which the world was conceived. Heaven, the planets, the Earth, Man, everything would have been created according to the same mathematical and geometrical design. One thing particularly interested these Florentines: whoever knows this plan can make objects—called animated statues or, more commonly, talismans—which would give their owners the power to act on the World and Man. And these scholars have a project: to make an animated statue. In his work entitled “How to obtain Life through Heaven,” Ficino describes the making of such an object. And we understand from this text that this object is a musical instrument: it is the first viola da braccio which, for philosophical reasons, will be called the “Orphic reading” or more simply, “reading with an arm,” lyra da braccio in Italian. Its size is a Florence arm, a little smaller than the Brescia arm: an alto! It was Ficino who conceived it. It was one of his spiritual sons who made it: Leonardo da Vinci. And it is his other spiritual son who gives us the code for its magical dimension: John Pico della Mirandola. The latter is both a Christian and a Kabbalist. Kabbalah is a magical practice (some say an art) that consists of interpreting the Torah (the Hebrew Bible). By interchanging the letters of different texts, according to very rigorous rules, new and hidden meanings emerge. By doing this with the first sacred text, called in Hebrew “Bereshit,” Pico della Mirandola gives it the following meaning, simplified and commented on by myself for the purposes of this article: “The Father and his sons made an object from the origin of all things.” For those who know the links between the various protagonists of this story and the invention of the viola da gamba , this sentence takes on a very particular meaning:


Journal of the American Viola Society / Vol. 39, No. 2, Fall 2023

Made with FlippingBook Digital Publishing Software