Bartolomeo Cristofori, who would have celebrated his 360th birthday today, is generally credited with being the sole inventor of the piano. The fact that his name is largely forgotten is a reflection of his times, when a genius could be just another employee.
The piano eventually beat the harpsichord by solving its biggest problem
The first official record of the piano appears in 1700, though Cristofori may have been working on it for a couple of years before then. Cristofori’s most recognizable piano dates later, to 1720. But more important than the date was the step forward the piano represented.
At the time, the harpsichord was the dominant keyboard instrument. The biggest problem was that it couldn’t play notes with differing degrees of softness. To play a note, a tiny device called a plectrum plucked a string, and the note played. There wasn’t an easy way to modify the sound and give it additional nuance. Though there were some hacks (and other instruments) that tried to fix the problem, they never worked well enough.
The piano was clearly indebted to the harpsichord — in early records, Cristofori called the piano an Arpicembalo, which means “harp-harpsichord,” and he frequently worked on and invented other harpsichord-like devices. But the piano took one big step beyond that instrument by using a hammer instead of plucking a string. That allowed for a better modulation of volume thanks to its hammers and dampers, which could more artfully manipulate sound than the plucking motion of the harpsichord.
The earliest surviving piano is from 1721, and it’s clear it was a transitional instrument: there are hints of the harpsichord in its sound. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art notes, it had a narrower range, thinner strings, and harder hammers than modern pianos, which are part of the reason it sounds a bit like a harpsichord.
But even then, it’s obvious why the piano changed music forever:
Soon, the piano got its name. Cristofori also referred to his invention as “un cimbalo di cipresso di piano e forte” (a keyboard of cypress with soft and loud), and over time it was shortened to piano forte, and eventually just piano.
It’s rare that such an old instrument has so clear an inventor and is so obviously a revelation. So why do we have to be reminded of Bartolomeo Cristofori’s name? After all, there must be a reason pianos aren’t called Cristoforis.
Court employment, centuries of improvement, and slow adoption all probably made Cristofori’s name fade
We may know so little about Cristofori because he was just a hired hand (albeit a well-respected one). As an employee of Ferdinando de’ Medici, an Italian prince and member of the famous Italian family, Cristofori was hired to serve the court, not music alone.
As an employee of the Medicis, Cristofori was a cog in a royal machine. Though he was earnestly recruited to work for the Medicis, he was initially shoved into a workspace with about 100 other artisans (he complained about how loud it was). Ferdinando de’ Medici encouraged Cristofori to innovate, but the inventor was also tasked with tuning and moving instruments, as well as restoring some old ones. Unlike musicians, who circulated royal courts and could become famous far beyond their borders, Cristofori was a local commodity. He wasn’t seen as a revolutionary genius — rather, he was a talented tinkerer.
At the same time, without the Medicis Cristofori may never have been able to invent the piano. The royal family gave him a house to work in, space to experiment, and, eventually, his own workshop and a couple of assistants. As the wealth of the Medicis declined, Cristofori did sell some pianos on his own, but he didn’t possess anything like a modern patent — other people were free to sell their own improvements on the instrument. He remained in the court until his death in 1731.
The piano’s relatively slow adoption may have stolen Cristofori’s credit, as well. Even if an invention went “viral” in the 18th century, it still had to travel at a glacial 18th-century pace. Queen Maria Barbara de Braganza purchased five pianos of Cristofori’s design, and after that the instrument slowly spread in elite circles. There were early objections to the piano — Johann Sebastian Bach thought it could use some tweaks — and even Mozart, born in 1756, played the harpsichord as a child. It probably lessened Cristofori’s fame that his invention took 100 years to truly oust the harpsichord from elite musical circles.
Finally, there were a lot of improvements to the piano, and those improvements were crucial to its success. Organ builder Gottfried Silbermann added a sustain pedal, and he also boosted sales of the piano. Other inventors added materials better suited to the piano’s unique abilities. Finally, composers eventually came around to the piano, which helped it replace the harpsichord as the premier musical instrument.
Though Cristofori was clearly the inventor of the piano, it’s less clear exactly why he’s forgotten outside of musical circles. It may be a combination of his employment, the piano’s slow adoption, and the subsequent improvements. He wasn’t famous when he was alive — that’s the reason we only have one portrait of him — and he isn’t particularly famous today. But in a way, that nuance is appropriate for an inventor who introduced new shades of sound to music. Cristofori’s legacy isn’t the sharp plucking of a harpsichord — it’s a piano, playing still.