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The Rich History of Musical Instruments in Italy

The music of Italy has traditionally been one of the cultural markers of both national and regional identity and holds an important position in both society and politics. Italian musical innovation in musical scale, harmony, notation and theater enabled the development of opera in the late 16th century and much of modern European classical music, such as the symphony and concerto.

The different ways of creating rhythm and music go back to prehistoric times, but for modern equivalent instruments we can look to ancient Rome where there was an instrument called the crotalum. It has evolved over time to become castanets. Various forms of these rhythm instruments are still commonly used in Italian folk music. Another ancient instrument is now generically referred to as bagpipes. Every region from north to south in Italy, including Sicily and Sardinia, have produced a version of the reed instrument, where air is held in a bladder made from animal skin. The zampogna is the most famous of these and can be found in the regions of Marche, Abruzzo, Molise, Basilicata, Campania and Calabria.

One of the most beloved stringed instruments from Italy is the mandolin. An offspring of the Renaissance lute family, during the 16th century the mandolin evolved into its own distinct family. There were a variety of regional variants, however, the two most widespread became those from Naples and the Lombardy region. But it was the Neapolitan style that spread worldwide.

The different types of mandolins are the soprano, which due to its scale length, plays in the highest register. This is followed by the piccolo mandolin, alto, tenor, baritone and the lowest register, the bass and finally the largest member of the family, the contrabass, which has a distinct low tone, but are quite rare.

The piccolo, which is Italian for small, is a half-size flute and has the highest pitch of any instrument from the woodwind family. The piccolo is sometimes confused with the fife, which is similar in form but creates a louder, shriller sound than the lovely pitch of this Italian favorite.

Perhaps the most esteemed of the musical instruments of Italy are of the violin family, including the viola, cello and double bass and the piano, which was originally called the pianoforte. The most famous luthiers or violin makers between the 16th century and the 18th century were from the Lombardy region. The city of Brescia is considered to be the birthplace of the violin, while in the 17th century, the city of Cremona, 25 miles to the south, became the center of the violin world. The latter is still regarded as the ‘Home of the Violin’

The most important luthiers in Brescia were the Dalla Corna family, who were active from 1510 until 1560. The Micheli and Gasparo da Salò families were both active from about 1530 through 1615. It was the luthiers of Cremona that refined the instrument and gained prominence first with the Amati family, who were active for two centuries beginning in 1550. The Amati King cello is one of the world’s most renowned musical instruments and the earliest surviving bass instrument of the violin family. Andrea Amati made the cello in the mid-16th century and was the founding master of the city’s great violin-making tradition. The cello’s name refers to its royal commissioning. It is painted and gilded with the royal emblems and mottoes of King Charles IX of France, who was the son of Catherine de’ Medici.

The most famous luthier of all was Antonio Stradivari, an extraordinary craftsman of stringed instruments including violins, cellos, guitars, violas and harps. The Latinized form of his surname, Stradivarius, is typically used to refer to his instruments. Of the estimated 1,116 instruments he made, 960 were violins; more than half of which survive today. He is universally regarded as the greatest violin maker in history and the value of his instruments reflect that exalted status. He was born in Cremona in 1644 and produced his instrumental works of art over an astounding 71-year career. With the help of his sons, Francesco and Ombono, the instruments they produced are distinguished by their exquisite craftsmanship, materials and unsurpassed tone quality. His Golden Period lasted from 1700 to 1720, where his instruments had flatter arched tops, beautifully flamed maple backs and a lustrous red varnish.

While most of the remaining Stradivari instruments are violins, he also crafted violas, which are longer and have a lower pitch and cellos, which are much larger and play in the bass range. The violas, of which only eleven remain, have an even higher value than the esteemed Stradivari violins. The highest price paid for a Stradivarius violin to date is $16 million, while his violas can sell for almost double that amount.

A museum dedicated to violins, music making and musicians is located in Cremona. The city has an International violinmaking school and today there are approximately 150 violinmaking workshops. The Violin Museum is dedicated to the origins and history of the violin and stringed instruments, but it focuses on the technical and unique acoustics of violins. The museum displays the works of Antonio Stradivari, as well as other masters of the craft.

The piano is classified as an acoustic, stringed musical instrument. The strings are struck by wooden hammers that are coated with a softer material and as everyone knows, it is played using a keyboard. The word piano is a shortened form of pianoforte, which are actually two Italian words that mean soft and loud respectively, alluding to the ability of the musician to vary the volume based on the force of the keys that are struck.

The piano was founded on earlier technological innovations in keyboard instruments, such as the pipe organ. By the 17th century, the mechanisms of keyboard instruments such as the clavichord and the harpsichord were well developed, but could not modulate volume.

Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua was employed by Ferdinando de’ Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany, as the ‘Keeper of the Instruments.’ Cristofori was an expert harpsichord maker and was well acquainted with the body of knowledge associated with stringed keyboard instruments. It is not known exactly when Cristofori first built a piano, but an inventory of the Medici family shows the existence of a piano in 1700. The three Cristofori pianos that survive today date from the 1720s.

Cristofori’s early instruments were made with thin strings and were quieter than the modern piano, but they were much louder and with more sustain in comparison to the clavichord. Cristofori’s new instrument remained relatively unknown until an Italian writer, Scipione Maffei, penned an enthusiastic article about it in 1711, including a diagram of the mechanism.

Most modern pianos have a row of 88 black and white keys. These different notes range from the deepest bass range to the highest treble. There are two main types of piano, the grand piano and the upright piano. The grand piano has a better sound and gives the player more precise control of the keys and is the preferred choice, but requires significant floor space and is also far more expensive than an upright.

During the 1800s, innovations such as the cast iron frame, allowed much greater string tensions giving grand pianos a more powerful sound, with a longer sustain and richer tone. This Italian invention is considered to be the most versatile of all musical instruments and remains widely used in virtually all forms of music.