Bartolomeo Cristofori, the Man who Invented the Piano

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The Origins of the Piano’s Invention

Bartolomeo Cristofori (May 4, 1655, Padua – January 27, 1732, Florence) was of the most famous harpsichord makers of his time as well as the inventor of the piano.

With its melodic richness, the piano is one of the most popular, evocative, and enjoyable instruments to listen to. Furthermore, pianos are relatively simple to approach; after all, to generate a pleasing tone, one only has to push a key, as opposed to the effort required by other instruments such as violins or wind instruments. When you hit that key, though, you unlock the instrument’s infinite potential. The piano has been and continues to be a vital instrument in musical genres ranging from classical to jazz to blues to rock.

Portrait of Bartolomeo Cristofori, 1726
Portrait of Bartolomeo Cristofori, 1726

The piano has allowed the best composers to express themselves and release their art since its introduction. Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Schubert-the list of artists who have built their musical compositions using the piano as a pillar is endless.

Dongsok Shin performs the Giga from Lodovico Giustini’s (1685-1743) Sonata number 6 in B flat major on the earliest known surviving piano, manufactured in Florence in 1720 by the instrument’s designer, Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731).

Little is known about the youth and life of Bartolomeo Cristofori at Padua, where he worked as a harpsichordist and rose to prominence, so much so that he was hired by Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, son of the then-Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo III, a great admirer of musical instruments and an accomplished harpsichordist. Around 1688, Ferdinando most likely encountered Bartolomeo Cristofori on one of his journeys to northern Italy. Cristofori became involved in the production of harpsichords and stringed instruments in Florence. He was asked to create an instrument that struck the strings rather than plucking them. The first prototypes did not arrive until after his benefactor died.

Anton Domenico Gabbiani, Prince Ferdinand and his musicians, 1685–90, Florence, Palatine Gallery of Palazzo Pitti
Anton Domenico Gabbiani, Prince Ferdinand and his musicians, 1685–90, Florence, Palatine Gallery of Palazzo Pitti. Today, Ferdinando de’ Medici (9 August 1663 – 31 October 1713) is most famous for being a patron of music. Being a talented musician himself (often referred to as “the Orpheus of princes”), he brought notable musicians to Florence and established it as a significant musical hub.

The fortepiano from 1722 stands out among Cristofori’s three that have survived; it first belonged to Benedetto Marcello, then to his brother Alessandro, who bequeathed it to his cousin Countess Lucia Cittadella Rapti, then passed to the Giusti counts of Padua, and is now preserved in the Museum of Musical Instruments in Rome. Among his students were Giovanni Ferrini, who eventually served at the Spanish court, and Domenico Del Mela, the first constructor of an upright fortepiano. Bartolomeo Cristofori died in Florence on January 27, 1732, and was buried in Santa Croce.

Piano forte by Bartolomeo Cristofori manufactured in 1722, Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali di Roma
Piano forte by Bartolomeo Cristofori manufactured in 1722, Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali di Roma (source)

At first, the piano and forte harpsichord is very different from what we are used to: there are no pedals, the hammers are placed below the strings, and the sound still resembles that of a spinet or harpsichord. It would take a century to arrive at a shape and structure more similar to the present one. In Cristofori’s instrument, however, there are already all the basic features of what would later be used by Mozart and Beethoven, explains music historian Sergio Durante.

Grand piano, Italian (Florence), made by Bartolomeo Cristofori 1720 (source)

Part of our understanding of the original reception of Cristofori’s creation comes from an essay written by Scipione Maffei, a significant literary figure, and published in the Giornale de’letterati d’Italia of Venice in 1711. Despite the fact that Cristofori was unable to make his instrument as loud as the rival harpsichord, Maffei claimed that “some professionals have not given this innovation all the credit it deserved” and continued, “its tone was thought to be too mild and dull.” Nevertheless, Maffei was a passionate piano player, and his efforts helped the instrument eventually gain traction and become more widely used.

Cristofori's Piano e Forte, 1726; Kraus Museum, Florence
Cristofori’s Piano e Forte, 1726; Kraus Museum, Florence

The piano took a little to catch on since only royalty and a few affluent private persons could afford to buy one because it was so expensive to construct. Only in the 1760s, when less expensive square pianos were developed and there was a general increase in income, did Cristofori’s innovation achieve its greatest degree of success.

Featured image: Grand piano, Italian (Florence), made by Bartolomeo Cristofori

topics: piano history, the inventor of the piano

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