For students who are learning the piano, have you ever wondered when was the first piano created?

The quiet nature of the piano’s birth around 1700, therefore, comes as something of a surprise. The first true piano was invented almost entirely by one man—Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731) of Padua, who had been appointed in 1688 to the Florentine court of Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici to care for its harpsichords and eventually for its entire collection of musical instruments.

A 1700 inventory of Medici instruments mentions an “arpicimbalo,” i.e., an instrument resembling a harpsichord, “newly invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori” with hammers and dampers, two keyboards, and a range of four octaves, C–c”’. The poet and journalist Scipione Maffei, in his enthusiastic 1711 description, named Cristofori’s instrument a “gravicembalo col piano, e forte” (harpsichord with soft and loud), the first time it was called by its eventual name, pianoforte. A contemporary inscription by a Florentine court musician, Federigo Meccoli, notes that the “arpicimbalo del piano e’ forte” was first made by Cristofori in 1700, giving us a precise birthdate for the piano.

Cristofori was an artful inventor, creating such a sophisticated action for his pianos that, at the instrument’s inception, he solved many of the technical problems that continued to puzzle other piano designers for the next seventy-five years of its evolution.

Check out the video below for a brief history of the piano:

His action was highly complex and thus expensive, causing many of its features to be dropped by subsequent eighteenth-century makers, and then gradually reinvented and reincorporated in later decades. Cristofori’s ingenious innovations included an “escapement” mechanism that enabled the hammer to fall away from the string instantly after striking it, so as not to dampen the string, and allowing the string to be struck harder than on a clavichord; a “check” that kept the fast-moving hammer from bouncing back to re-hit the string; a dampening mechanism on a jack to silence the string when not in use; isolating the soundboard from the tension-bearing parts of the case, so that it could vibrate more freely; and employing thicker strings at higher tensions than on a harpsichord.

Pianos by Cristofori

The total number of pianos built by Cristofori is unknown. Only three survive today, all dating from the 1720s.

  • A 1720 instrument is located in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. This instrument has been extensively altered by later builders: the soundboard was replaced in 1938, and the 54-note range was shifted by about half an octave, from F’, G’, A’–c”’ to C–f”. 
  • A 1722 instrument is in the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali in Rome. It has a range of four octaves (C-c³) and includes an “una corda” stop; see below. This piano has been damaged by worms and is not playable.
  • A 1726 instrument is in the Musikinstrumenten-Museum of Leipzig University. Four octaves (C-c³) with “una corda” stop. This instrument is not currently playable, though in the past recordings were made.

The three surviving instruments all bear essentially the same Latin inscription:

“BARTHOLOMAEVS DE CHRISTOPHORIS PATAVINUS INVENTOR FACIEBAT FLORENTIAE[date]“,

where the date is rendered in Roman numerals. The meaning is “Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua, inventor, made [this] in Florence in [date].

Photo Credit: Music Mood – Music Lessons Provider