Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali: where art resonates

Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali: where art resonates

museo nazionale degli strumenti musicali roma
museo nazionale degli strumenti musicali roma

Nestled a short distance from the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano and from Stazione Termini, in Rome, stands the Samoggia building, formerly the caserma Principe di Piemonte. It houses one of the capital’s most important museums: the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali, which boasts a remarkable collection of ancient and contemporary instruments of all types from around the world.
A captivating heritage that not only illustrates the evolution of technique but also – directly and indirectly – reveals different ways of living and conceiving music. This is why a visit is recommended not just to those well-versed in the subject, but also to the less experienced public: here, there are works that will captivate both.

Evan Gorga and the birth of the museum

The Museum owes its creation to Evan Gorga (born Gennaro Evangelista Gorga), an Italian tenor who lived between 1865 and 1957. Gorga quickly exhausted his musical career, retiring from the stage after only four years. Intense years in which he covered prestigious roles, like that of Rodolfo in the first performance of La Bohème – on February 1, 1896, at the Teatro Regio in Turin – chosen directly by Puccini and conducted by Arturo Toscanini.
Besides being a great tenor, Gorga was a passionate, we might even say compulsive, collector. Having abandoned opera, he dedicated himself exclusively to collecting objects of various natures: medical tools, archaeological finds, marbles, furnishings, weapons, ceramics, toys, and books, totaling over 30 collections and about 150,000 pieces.
The collection of musical instruments, one of his favorites, today forms the museum’s core.

An initial selection was revealed to the public in 1911 at Castel Sant’Angelo during the Esposizione Internazionale of Rome, organized to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the unification of Italy. On that occasion, it seems that the billionaire Pierpont Morgan offered as much as two million lire to purchase it. Despite growing financial difficulties, Gorga refused and continued to do so even later, in the face of other similar offers, convinced that the collection should remain in Italy. Distributed across ten apartments (which Gorga had rented at Via Cola di Rienzo 275 in Rome), instruments and artifacts were, however, in precarious conservation conditions. Between 1929 and 1943 the collections underwent various vicissitudes: subjected to administrative seizure, they were distributed among the deposits of several museums.
In 1949, the collection of musical instruments was purchased by the Italian State, which agreed to settle Gorga’s debts and pay him an annuity, but it was only in 1964 that it was gathered in the Samoggia building. The site was then subjected to renovation works, which ended ten years later with the inauguration of the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali.

museo nazionale degli strumenti musicali

The collection: a journey from antiquity to the present

The approximately three thousand pieces – of which eight hundred are on display – that make up the museum’s collection come mainly from the Gorga collection, as well as from subsequent acquisitions or bequests.
Today’s visitors to the museum can admire historical pieces ranging from antiquity to the Middle Ages, from the Renaissance to the 19th century, and up to the present day, following a program to enhance the heritage of instrumental and musical art that aims to engage even the youngest audiences.
The collection also includes instruments from far-flung traditions, not only in time but also in geography, with specimens from Asia, Oceania, and Africa. There are also thematic references to the various occasions when the instruments were used: in church, on the battlefield, and at home.

Among the most curious instruments for their rarity, shape, or origin, which we recommend not missing during your visit, you can find:

  • the aes thermarum, a kind of gong used to signal the opening and closing of the Roman baths;
  • the quijada, a donkey jawbone that sounds when struck by hand and is still used in Afro-Cuban orchestras;
  • the Turkish ribechino with a body made of ivory slats, ebony, and tortoiseshell inlays, so coveted by Gorga that he undertook three trips to Vienna to purchase it;
  • the 1904 mandolin with its bizarre Liberty shape, crafted by Nicola M. Calace, a member of a family of artisans active since the mid-19th century; 
  • the serinettes, from the French “serin” (canary), small mechanical table organs used in the 18th and 19thcenturies to encourage canaries to sing; 
  • the p’i-p’a, a classic Chinese four-stringed lute with a sleek profile, featuring a flat body and a neck that bends backward. The instrument’s face depicts four Chinese female musicians playing various traditional instruments, and they are shown with bound feet, following a custom that persisted until the last century; 
  • the mute violin from 1893: an instrument reduced to its essential parts for support and rest, facilitating transport but diminishing sound output; 
  • the folding travel harpsichord in three parts, crafted by Carlo Grimaldi at the end of the 17th century and decorated with colored figurines. This instrument is rare because it’s the only one, among the eight surviving and preserved in various museums around the world, made by an Italian. The others were almost all made by Jean Marius who, in 1700, received a patent from King Louis XIV for its construction and sale;
  • the glass armonica, an instrument invented in 1761 by Benjamin Franklin, consisting of a series of glass bowls aligned along a horizontal axis. Thanks to a central pivot connecting them, the bowls are rotated by means of a pedal, and when touched with a moistened finger, they produce musical notes. The principle is the same as when, for amusement, we make crystal glasses resonate by running wet fingers around their rim;
  • the harpsichord built in 1573 in Leipzig by Hans Müller, the oldest surviving German harpsichord in the world, an object of extraordinary antiquarian value;
  • the vertical harpsichord (or clavicytherium), this one Italian, from the second half of the 17th century with a truly unusual shape. To date, only one other similar specimen is known, preserved in Vienna.

Certainly not lacking are strings, percussions, winds, and keyboards of diverse periods and styles; all objects that testify to the vocation and necessity of music that has always united peoples and cultures.

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3 unique pieces to dwell on

The Museo degli Strumenti Musicali preserves a wealth of unique items, but these three alone are worth the visit: the piano by Bartolomeo Cristofori, the Barberini harp, and the violin by Andrea Amati.

The piano is one of the most important in the entire museum. Built in 1722 by the instrument’s inventor, the Paduan Bartolomeo Cristofori, it is the only one remaining in Italy of the three that exist in the world (one earlier, preserved in New York, and a subsequent one, now in Leipzig). This piece is particularly valuable for its uniqueness and the innovative system of shifting the keyboard that is at the origin of the pedal found in contemporary pianos. Thanks to a manual mechanism, it is possible to slide the keyboard and hammer assembly about half a centimeter to the left. This means that the hammers strike a single string instead of two, reducing the sound: an effect known as una corda, often referred to in piano literature from the beginning of the 19th century.

A true work of art, the Barberini harp is named after the family that owned it, although not continuously. The harp was commissioned in the first half of the 17th century by Cardinal Antonio Barberini for Marco Marazzoli, one of the most beloved musicians and composers of the time. Upon Marazzoli’s death, the instrument – magnificently carved by Giovanni Tubi – returned to the cardinal and, following the line of family inheritance, came to Prince Don Maffeo. He replaced the cardinal’s coat of arms with his own, modifying the cardinal’s hat with a crown and adding the Toson d’Oro, an honor that had been conferred upon him. The value of this instrument is therefore measured on three levels: the historical – which we have just mentioned; the artistic, given by the extraordinary decoration on the column, with carved and gilded wooden statuettes, and on the shoulder, where a marvelous lion’s head stands out. And finally, the musical, since the three rows of strings allow for the performance of chromatic notes, an effect otherwise made possible only a century later with the introduction of the pedal.

il portoghese violino

The Portoghese, a violin among the most precious in the world and a recent acquisition of the museum, was created in 1567 by Andrea Amati, the father of the liuteria cremonese. It was Caterina de’ Medici who commissioned the work to gift it to her son Carlo IX, King of France.
On the maple ribs, there are still visible remnants in gold of the motto pietate et iustitia, while on the back there is a trace of a rich pictorial decoration, which, however, some speculate to be of a later period.

With this masterpiece, our introduction to the visit concludes. If we’ve piqued your curiosity, seize the opportunity and purchase your ticket now to access the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali!

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