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Thread: The Siena Pianoforte

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    Senior Member Victor Redseal's Avatar
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    Default The Siena Pianoforte

    I’m sure most of you have heard of the Siena Pianoforte so I shouldn’t bore you with a huge recounting of its history but for those of you unfamiliar with it, I suppose some amount of background is necessary. The trouble is, we have a difficult time trying to separate fact from fancy so if parts of it sound too good to be true, well, it is what it is.

    The Siena Pianoforte was made in Italy around 1800 by a family in Turin called Marchesio (or Marchisio). The patriarch of the family, Sebastino, took advantage of an earthquake in Siena that toppled the ancient spruce pillars of a church. Sebastino examined the wood and thought it would make a perfect sounding board for a piano and received permission to take the wood as the pillars were too splintered to be restored.

    The pillars, called Jachin and Boaz, were reputed to have come from Jerusalem after Emperor Titus ordered the Solomon’s Temple to be sacked in 70 CE. Anything of value was taken from the rubble and brought back to Rome. The pillars were then used for the church of Siena until it toppled in the earthquake.

    Sebastino could only work on the piano in his spare time and died before he could finish so his son took up the task. Not until, Nicodemo Ferri, Sebastino’s great-grandson, would the instrument be finished. Ferri’s cousin, Carlo Bartalozzi, a great wood-worker, carved a beautiful case.

    Sometime before 1825, the piano was given to Rebecca Marchesio as a wedding gift after she married a Sienese farmer. The couple took it to Tuscany where, according to another version of the story, Rebecca hired a wood artisan to carve an ornate case for it.

    In 1867, the piano went to the Paris Exhibition and, in 1868, the municipality of Siena acquired the piano and it was given the Crown Prince Umberto as a wedding gift. Sometime, presumably in the 1880s, Umberto was in Jerusalem and heard a pianist named Mathis Yanowsky, a Ukranian immigrant. He told Yanowsky about his piano back in Italy and invited Yanowsky to visit and he could play it. Umberto, however, was assassinated before Yanowsky could do so but he told his grandson, Avner Carmi, to request permission from Victor Emanuel III to see the piano. Carmi acquired some photos of the piano but only succeeded in getting himself arrested trying to get an audience with Victor. Apparently, the great pianist, Artur Schnabel, for whom Carmi worked as a tuner, pulled some strings and got Carmi released. According to everyone Carmi had spoken to, nobody knew of any such piano at the king’s palace. Carmi met an old priest who claimed that the piano was brought to the church once a year but had not seen the instrument for decades.


    Photographs taken in 1868 of the Siena Pianoforte. The carving above the keyboard depicts drunken cherubs merrily dragging their drunken queen. To where is anyone's guess.

    Shortly after World War II, Carmi was in the British Eighth Army marching through the deserts of North Africa looking for swag pilfered by the Nazis. They came across what looked like a big white coffin half-buried in the sand. It turned out to be a piano coated in hard plaster and baked under the North African sun. Carmi could see the piano’s mechanism, clogged with sand, and that extra strings had been added by a different technician to the original work. Thinking it might be valuable, Carmi received permission to take the piano about 200 miles into Egypt to a depot for evaluation. There, Carmi restored the piano as best he could and then returned to his unit. The piano was used to entertain troops.

    After the war, Carmi and his wife moved to Tel-Aviv and he decided he wanted to found a piano workshop. His kids then told him that they had found him his first job and took him to an old street where Carmi saw, to his astonishment, the plaster piano he had left behind years before in Egypt. He learned that a musical troupe had used it and took it on tour over much of Europe, through Asia Minor and into Palestine where they gave it to a Tel-Aviv junk dealer. He tried to get it restored but no one could figure out how mechanism worked but because a piano in Palestine was a rarity, the junk dealer did not trash the piano but sold it to someone and it apparently ended up being used for such diverse purposes as a beekeeper’s hive, as an incubator presumably of bird’s eggs and even as butcher’s meat refrigeration unit!

    Apparently, a truck-driver and music-lover hauled the piano to Carmi’s shop and laid a down payment on having the piano restored. Carmi began working on the restoration but then the truck-driver came back and told Carmi he could not afford the work after all and wanted his money back. He and Carmi argued and the man became so angry that he smashed his fist on the plaster piano so hard that some of the plaster actually cracked. Through the crack, Carmi thought he could make out a cherub playing a drum carved in wood. Intrigued, he gave the man back his money and pushed him out of his shop and started to work on removing the plaster with acetone. When he was finished, to his astonishment, the piano before him was the Siena Pianoforte his grandfather had told him about as a quick comparison with a photograph he kept of the instrument told him.

    Carmi painstakingly rebuilt the piano using parts from 12 other pianos of French, Italian and German manufacture. He had to carefully lay out the strings of the sound board and gently stretch them. Even so, there were a few minor disasters during the restoration. Finally, on November 30, 1947, the same day that the United Nations decided that Palestine would become the new nation of Israel, Carmi announced to his family that the work was finished.

    By the 1953, Carmi brought the Siena Pianoforte (what he calls “the Harp of David”) to the U.S. and had a number of artists play it. They found the sound of the instrument quite intriguing. Although the mechanism is no different than other pianos, the instrument has an uncanny ability to change its tonal characteristics for different pieces of music. At times, the piano sounds like a cembalo, a harp, a lute, a guitar, etc. Word went around and Time magazine did a write-up of the instrument in 1955. When French pianist Lazare Levy played the Siena Pianoforte, he was so intrigued by the sound that he told Carmi, “Carmi, I think the entire piano industry is on the wrong track!”

    In 1955-56, a spate recordings were made until a trill developed in the strings that required a rebuilding of the soundboard. The Sohmer Piano Company invested money to rebuild the piano’s action but, by then, the writing was on the wall: the spruce soundboard was rotting away from both age and all the years of exposure and abuse it took following the war. In spite of meticulously filling in cracks and splits, the ancient wood (regardless of where it really came from) was falling apart and it would only be a matter of time. So as many recordings as possible were done.

    I’ve found only two available on CD. Several are on vinyl. I’ve snatched a number of them off YouTube with a downloading app. I don’t know what has become of the Siena Pianoforte although I imagine it is no longer playable.

    Some questions remain: Was the piano taken by the Nazis? Did they cover it in plaster to protect it? Carmi believed so. What were they going to do with it when they decided instead to dump it as Allied forces moved in? Where did they find it in the first place? Where had it gone all those years that Carmi spent looking for it?
    Last edited by Victor Redseal; May-01-2015 at 23:21.
    "God," asked Adam, "why did you make Eve so beautiful?"
    And He replied, "So that you could love her."
    "But God," asked Adam, "why did you make her so stupid?"
    And He replied, "So that she could love you."

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    Senior Member Victor Redseal's Avatar
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    Avner Carmi and his wife Hanna at the Siena Pianoforte.







    "God," asked Adam, "why did you make Eve so beautiful?"
    And He replied, "So that you could love her."
    "But God," asked Adam, "why did you make her so stupid?"
    And He replied, "So that she could love you."

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