Cristofori was born in Padua in the Republic of Venice. Nothing is known of his early life. A tale is told that he served as an apprentice to the great violin maker Nicolò Amati, based on the appearance in a 1680 census record of a "Christofaro Bartolomei" living in Amati's house in Cremona. However, as Stewart Pollens points out (see References below), this person cannot be Bartolomeo Cristofori, since the census records an age of 13, whereas Cristofori according to his baptismal record would have been 25 at the time. Pollens also doubts the authenticity of the cello and double bass instruments sometimes attributed to Cristofori.
Probably the most important event in Cristofori's life is the first one of which we have any record: in 1688, at age 33, he was recruited to work for Prince Ferdinando de Medici. Ferdinando, a lover and patron of music, was the son and heir of Cosimo III, who was one of the last of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany. Tuscany was at a time still a small independent state.
It is not known what led Ferdinando to recruit Cristofori. The Prince traveled to Venice in 1688 to attend the Carnival, so he may have met Cristofori passing through Padua on his way home. Ferdinando was looking for a new technician to take care of his many musical instruments, the previous incumbent having just died. However, it seems possible that the Prince wanted to hire Cristofori not just as his technician, but specifically as an innovator in musical instruments. It would be surprising if Cristofori at age 33 had not already shown the inventiveness for which he later became famous.
The evidence--all circumstantial--that Cristofori may have been hired as an inventor is as follows. According to Stewart Pollens, there were already a number of qualified individuals in Florence who could have filled the position; however, the Prince passed them over, and paid Cristofori a higher salary than his predecessor. Moreover, Pollens notes, "curiously, [among the many bills Cristofori submitted to his employer] there are no records of bills submitted for Cristofori's pianofortes ... This could mean that Cristofori was expected to turn over the fruits of his experimentation to the court." Lastly, the Prince was evidently fascinated with machines (he collected over forty clocks, in addition to a great variety of elaborate musical instruments), and would thus be naturally interested in the elaborate mechanical action that was at the core of Cristofori's work on the piano.
Maffei's interview reports Cristofori's memory of his conversation with the Prince at this time:
which Giuliana Montanari (reference below) translates as:
This suggests that the Prince may have felt that Cristofori would be a prize recruit and was trying to charm him into accepting his offer; consistent again with the view that the Prince was attempting to recruit him as an inventor.
In any event, Cristofori agreed to the appointment, as a salary of 12 scudi per month. He moved rather quickly to Florence (May 1688; his job interview having taken place in March or April), was issued a house, complete with utensils and equipment, by the Grand Duke's administration, and set to work. For the Prince, he tuned, maintained, and transported instruments; worked on his various inventions, and also did restoration work on valuable older harpsichords (for this work, see reference by Grant O'Brien, below).
At this time, the Grand Dukes of Tuscany employed a large staff of about 100 artisans, who worked in the Galleria dei Lavori of the Uffizi. Cristofori's initial work space was probably in this area, which did not please him. He later told Maffei:
Concerning how the Prince reacted to Cristofori's unhappy feelings, there is scholarly disagreement. According to Stewart Pollens, the interaction went as follows:
It can be seen that the very same words from the Maffei interview ("rispos' egli il farò volere io") have been interpreted by Montanari and Pollens in radically different ways, one portraying the Prince as charming if imperious, the other as harsh. In any event, Cristofori did eventually obtain his own workshop, usually keeping one or two assistants working for him.
The spinettone, Italian for "big spinet", was a large, multi-choired spinet (a harpsichord in which the strings are slanted to save space), with disposition 1 x 8', 1 x 4'; most spinets have the simple disposition 1 x 8'. This invention may have been meant to fit into a crowded orchestra pit for theatrical performances, while having the louder sound of a multi-choired instrument.
Cristofori also built instruments of existing types, documented in the same 1700 inventory: a clavicytherium (upright harpsichord), and two harpsichords of the standard Italian 2 x 8' disposition; one of them has an unusual case made of ebony.
The term "Arpicembalo", literally "harp-harpsichord", was not generally familiar in Cristofori's day. Edward Good (reference below) infers that this is what Cristofori himself wanted his instrument to be called. Our own word for the piano, however, is the result of a gradual truncation over time of the words shown in boldface above.
The Medici inventory goes on to describe the instrument in considerable detail. The range of this (now lost) instrument was a mere four octaves, C - C'''.
Another document referring to the earliest piano is a marginal note made by one of the Medici court musicians, Federigo Meccoli, in a copy of the book Le Istitutioni harmoniche by Gioseffo Zarlino. Meccoli wrote:
According to Scipione Maffei's journal article, by 1711 Cristofori had built three pianos. One had been given by the Medici to Cardinal Ottoboni in Rome, and two had been sold in Florence.
During the early 18th century, the prosperity of the Medici princes declined, and like many of the other Medici-employed craftsmen, Cristofori took to selling his work to others. The king of Portugal bought one of his instruments.
In 1726, the only known portrait of Cristofori was painted. It portrays the inventor standing proudly next to what is almost certainly a piano. In his left hand is a piece of paper, believed to contain a diagram of a Cristofori's piano action. Unfortunately, the portrait was destroyed in the Second World War, and only photographs of it remain.
Cristofori continued to make pianos until near the end of his life, continually making improvements in his invention. In his senior years, he was assisted by Giovanni Ferrini, who went on to have his own distinguished career, continuing his master's tradition. There is tentative evidence that there was another assistant, P. Domenico Dal Mela, who went on in 1739 to build the first upright piano.
In his declining years Cristofori prepared two wills. The first, dated January 24, 1729, bequeathed all his tools to Giovanni Ferrini. The second will, dated March 23 of the same year, changes the provisions substantially, bequeathing almost all his possessions to the "Dal Mela sisters ... in repayment for their continued assistance lent to him during his illnesses and indispositions, and also in the name of charity." This will left the small sum of five scudi to Ferrini. Pollens notes further evidence from the will that this reflected no falling out between Cristofori and Ferrini, but only Cristofori's moral obligation to his caretakers. The inventor died on January 27, 1731.
All three bear essentially the same Latin inscription:
where the date is rendered in Roman numerals. The meaning is "Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua, inventor, made [this] in Florence in [date]."
Action: Piano actions are complex mechanical devices which impose very specific design requirements, virtually all of which were met by Cristofori's action.
First, a piano action must be arranged so that a key press does not actually lift the hammer all the way to the string. If it did, the hammer would remain in contact with the string and damp its vibrations. In Cristofori's pianos, the hammer travels freely for about 1-2 mm., between the final impetus given by the key and contact with the string.
Second, a piano action must greatly amplify the motion of the player's finger: in Cristofori's action, an intermediate lever was used to translate every key motion into a hammer motion eight times greater in magnitude. Cristofori's multiple-lever design succeeded in providing the needed leverage in a small amount of space.
Third, after the hammer strikes the string, the action must avoid an unwanted second blow, which could easily result from the hammer bouncing up and down within the space confining it. In Cristofori's action, this was accomplished by two means. By lifting the intermediate lever with a jack that disengages in its highest position, the Cristofori action made it possible for the hammer to fall (after its initial blow) to a position considerably lower than the highest position to which the key had lifted it. By itself, this mechanism greatly reduces the chance of an unwanted second blow. In addition, the Cristofori action also included a check (also called "back check") that catches the hammer and holds it in a partially raised position until the player releases the key; the check also helped to prevent unwanted second blows.
Cristofori's action was sufficiently complex and hard to build that it was a barrier to later builders, who tried to simplify it. However, Cristofori's viewpoint ultimately won out; the standard modern piano action is a still more complex and evolved version of Cristofori's original.
Hammers: The hammer heads in Cristofori's mature pianos are made of paper, curled into a circular coil and secured with glue, and surmounted by a strip of leather at the contact point with the string. According to harpsichord maker and scholar Denzil Wraight, such hammers have their origin in "15th-century paper organ pipe technology". The purpose of the paper is to make the hammers softer, thus emphasizing the lower harmonics of string vibration by maintaining a broad area of contact at impact. The same goal of softness was achieved in later 18th century pianos by covering the wooden hammers with soft leather, and in mid-19th-century and later instruments by covering a wooden core with a thick layer of compressed felt.
As in modern pianos, the hammers are larger in the bass notes than in the treble.
Frame: Cristofori's pianos use an internal frame member (bentside) to support the soundboard; in other words, the structural member attaching the right side of the soundboard is distinct from the external case that bears the tension of the strings. This system was also applied by Cristofori to harpsichords. The use of a separate support for the soundboard reflects Cristofori's belief that the soundboard should not be subjected to compression from string tension. This may improve the sound, and also avoids the peril of warping--as harpsichord makers Kerstin Schwarz and Tony Chinnery point out , , a severely warped soundboard threatens a structural catastrophe, namely contact between strings and soundboard. Cristofori's principle continues to be applied in modern pianos, where the now-enormous string tension (up to 20 tons) is borne by a separate iron frame (the "plate").
Inverted wrest plank: On two of his surviving instruments, Cristofori employed an unusual arrangement of the tuning pins: they are inserted all the way through their supporting wrest plank. Thus, the tuning hammer is used on the top side of the wrest plank, but the strings are wrapped around the pins on the bottom side. This made it harder to replace broken strings, but it provided two compensating advantages. With the nut (front bridge) inverted as well, the blows of the hammers, coming from below, would seat the strings firmly into place, rather than threatening to displace them. The inverted wrestplank also placed the strings lower in the instrument, permitting smaller and lighter hammers, hence a lighter and more responsive touch.
According to musical instrument scholar Grant O'Brien, the inverted wrestplank is "still to be found in pianos dating from a period 150 years after [Cristofori's] death." (). In modern pianos, the same basic principle is followed: the contact point for the vibrating length of the string that is close to the hammers is either an agraffe or the capo d'astro bar; these devices pull the string in the direction opposite to the hammer blow, just as in Cristofori's original arrangement.
Soundboard: Cristofori used cypress, the wood traditionally favored for soundboards in the Italian school of harpsichord making. Piano making after Cristofori's time ultimately settled consistently on spruce as the best material for soundboards; however, Denzil Wraight has noted some compensating advantages for cypress.
Strings: In Cristofori's pianos, there are two strings per note, throughout the compass. Modern pianos use three strings in the mid and upper range, two in the upper bass, and one in the lower bass, with greater variation in thickness than Cristofori used. The strings are equally spaced (), rather than being grouped with strings of identical pitch closer together.
In two of the attested pianos, there is a forerunner of the modern soft pedal: the player can manually slide the entire action four millimeters to one side, so that the hammers strike just one of the two strings ("una corda").
The strings are somewhat thicker than harpsichord strings of the same period. This was a physical necessity, given that they had to be tenser in order to bear the hammer blows properly, and that their length was necessarily about the same as that of harpsichord strings.
It is difficult to determine what metal the strings of Cristofori's pianos were made of, since strings are replaced as they break, and sometimes restorers even replace the entire set of strings. According to Stewart Pollens, "the earlier museum records document that all three [attested] Cristofori pianos were discovered with similar gauges of iron wire through much of the compass, and brass in the bass." The New York instrument was restrung entirely in brass in 1970; Pollens reports that with this modification the instrument cannot be tuned closer than a minor third below pitch without breaking strings. This may indicate that the original strings did indeed include iron ones; however, the breakage might also be blamed on the massive rebuilding of this instrument, which changed its tonal range.
More recently, Denzil Wraight and Bartolomeo Cristofori, who have built replica Cristofori pianos, have taken the view that Cristofori favored brass strings, except occasionally in very demanding locations (such as the upper range of a 2' harpsichord stop). Chinnery suggests that "cypress soundboards and brass strings go together: sweetness of sound rather than volume or brilliance."
One reason why the piano spread slowly at first was that it was quite expensive to make, and thus was purchased only by royalty and a few wealthy private individuals. The ultimate success of Cristofori's invention occurred only in the 1760s, when the invention of cheaper square pianos, along with generally greater prosperity, made it possible for many people to acquire one.
Subsequent technological developments in the piano were often mere "re-inventions" of Cristofori's work; in the early years, there were perhaps as many regressions as advances.
The later instruments, dating from Cristofori's old age, probably include work by assistant Giovanni Ferrini, who went on after the inventor's death to build pianos of wider range using the same basic design.
An anonymous 18th century music dictionary, found in the library of the composer Padre G. B. Martini, says of him
After his death, however, Cristofori's reputation went into eclipse. As Stewart Pollens has documented, in late 18th century France it was believed that the piano had been invented not by Cristofori but by the German builder Gottfried Silbermann. Silbermann was in fact an important figure in the history of the piano, but his instruments relied almost entirely on Cristofori for their design. Later scholarship (notably by Leo Puliti) only gradually corrected this error.
In the second half of the 20th century, Cristofori's instruments were studied with care, as part of the general increase in interest in early instruments that developed in this era (see authentic performance). The modern scholars who have studied Cristofori's work in detail tend to express their admiration in the strongest terms; thus the New Grove encyclopedia describes him as having possessed "tremendous ingenuity"; Stewart Pollens says "All of Cristofori's work is startling in its ingenuity"; and the early-instrument scholar Grant O’Brien has written "The workmanship and inventiveness displayed by the instruments of Cristofori are of the highest order and his genius has probably never been surpassed by any other keyboard maker of the historical period ... I place Cristofori shoulder to shoulder with Antonio Stradivarius."
Cristofori is also given credit for originality in inventing the piano. While it is true that there had been earlier, crude attempts to make piano-like instruments, it is not clear that these were even known to Cristofori. The piano is thus an unusual case in which an important invention can be ascribed unambiguously to a single individual, who brought it to an unusual degree of perfection all on his own.
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