(Roughly) Daily

“Different musical instruments provide for different music”*…

The German polymath and Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher [see here] had a lifelong fascination with sound and devoted two books to the subject: Musurgia Universalis (1650), on the theoretical (and theological) aspects, and Phonurgia Nova (1673), on the science of acoustics and its practical applications. It’s no surprise then to learn that his famed museum at Rome’s Collegio Romano boasted— in addition to “vomiting statues”, ghost-conjuring mirrors, and other curious wonders — a vast and diverse collection of musical instruments.

Much of what we know of Kircher’s museum today is thanks to his student and fellow Jesuit priest Filippo Buonanni (1638-1725), who succeeded Kircher as both Professor of Mathematics and, upon Kircher’s death, as chief custodian of the museum for which he produced an epic and exhaustive, near-800-page catalogue in 1709. Following in his master’s footsteps, Buonanni too held a dizzying array of interests and specialisms including numismatics, microscopy, spontaneous generation, Chinese laquer, seashells (on which he produced the first monograph), and also, like Kircher, music.

Inspired by the collection of instruments in Kircher’s wunderkammer, and intrigued by the stories behind them, in 1722 Buonanni published his Gabinetto Armonico pieno d’istromenti sonori (or Harmonic cabinet full of sonorous instruments), an attempt to catalogue, for the first time, the musical instruments of the world. While there’s a short and often illuminating text for each instrument it is the 152 engraved plates — executed by Flemish artist and publisher Arnold van Westerhout — which really steal the show. The featured instruments are divided into three sections — wind, string, and percussion — and preceded by thirteen brief discussions of other musical categories, including: military, funeral, used in sacrifices, and, intriguingly, as used at sea: not sirens, but chantying sailors. While some of the instruments gathered in Buonanni’s book are as simple as the bee-keeper banging his tub, or the clacking of shoes against the floor, some are highly crafted, technical machines; the great organ at Palazzo Verospi requires a fold-out page to show it all. We are also treated to what might be considered more incidental instruments, for example, the bell about a bound criminal’s neck and the sound of a soldier’s sword being struck…

Engravings from an ambitious and beautiful attempt to catalogue, for the first time, the musical instruments of the world: “Filippo Buonanni’s Harmonic Cabinet (1722)

Browse the volume on the Internet Archive; see the full collection of drawings on Flickr.

* Amos Oz


As we celebrate sound, we might send melodic birthday greetings to Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti; he was born on this date in 1685. A composer (and keyboardist), he is regularly classified chronologically as part of the Baroque period (along with his famous father, Alessandro Scarlatti); but Domenico’s work– perhaps especially his 555 keyboard sonatas– were richly influential in the development of the Classical style.


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