A Palo Altan's quest to recreate Leonardo's horse-head lyre


While Stanford University is marking the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci's death with a series of lectures and exhibitions, Palo Altan Jane Moorman has decided to celebrate the visionary artist's innovative spirit in a hands-on way: creating a replica of a unique musical instrument Leonardo was rumored to have used.

In addition to his skills at visual art, design, writing and engineering, Leonardo was also an accomplished musician and music lover. Moorman, an art teacher at El Carmelo Elementary School and violist with the Baroque Concerto Chamber Orchestra at Lucie Stern, used the Rinconada Library to research the relationship between Leonardo and music. She discovered that he was a student of acoustics and harmony, and invented many instruments, including a musical water fountain and a cart equipped with a mechanical drum. It was a mention in a biography of a lyre made in the shape of a horse's skull, played under the chin with a bow, though, that really caught her attention. Intrigued by the acoustic properties of a skull, Moorman was determined to make and play a "horse head viola" of her own, although no drawing or further description of Leonardo's legendary instrument exists.

First, she ordered an actual horse's skull online, but after a meeting with Larry Haussler, the luthier at Palo Alto Violins, it was decided that real bone was too heavy and fragile. Next, she leaned on her art-teacher skills to make skull-shaped papier-mache prototypes and biked them over to Gryphon Stringed Instruments, where she explained her quest to the guitar makers there. They offered a sawed-off ukulele, which Moorman dutifully brought to Palo Alto Hardware. There, staff helped her use cement to attach the instrument neck to the skull and screw in the bridge. Then, she explained in an essay describing her experience, "I had a horse head ukulele, good enough to play a muffled version of 'A Bicycle Built for Two.'"

But as a violist, she still wanted something closer to Leonardo's bowed instrument. Back to the library she went, where she ordered a small violin, later forming the papier-mache head around the neck of the instrument and painting it while looking to Georgia O'Keeffe's work to get the shading right.

"It actually sounds like a violin. I can't play a Bach Partita on it, but then, as the old joke goes, I could never play a Bach Partita before, either," she said. She's pleased with the result but, as is often the case, it was the journey of discovery that was the true reward.

"It was a touching adventure to find that many people in Palo Alto took the time to help me try to recreate Leonardo's horse skull violin."

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