Filippo Buonanni's Harmonic Cabinet (1722)

The German polymath and Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher 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.

Some of the instruments in their settings seem outlandish; you’ll notice Pan and cherubs among the musicians. Well might they look fantastical, for, as Deirdre Loughridge and Thomas Patteson explain in their essay ”Cat Pianos, Sound-Houses, and Other Imaginary Musical Instruments”, such instruments as the “Tubo Cochleato” did not yet exist; the Gabinetto lists both actually existing and projected instruments; ones that had been, or should one day be, constructed.

As much anthropological as it is encyclopaedic, the book shows not just instruments, but their musicians, too — even women —and as such it fits into the popular tradition of travel writing and catalogues of foreign peoples. In addition to the folk and antiquity traditions of Buonanni's Europe, the Gabinetto covers instruments and musicians from Africa, Asia, and the Americas, often accompanied by details of ethnographic encounters. Readers of sixteenth-century explorers such as John White and Theodore de Bry might find the “Tromba della Florida” familiar, with its depiction of the clothing, hairstyle, and landscape of the musician. Making sense and clarity out of music, peoples, and the world, Buonanni’s Gabinetto can be seen as itself an instrument of harmonious understanding.

You can browse our highlights of the engravings below, and also see them in context in a complete scan of the book here.

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