Almost nothing is known about the personal life of Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori, except that he was born in the northern Italian city of Padua on May 4, 1655. He became a harpsichord maker, and by 1688 his reputation brought him to the attention of Prince Ferdinando de Medici, son of the grand duke of Tuscany. The prince owned forty harpsichords and spinets, and hired Cristofori to both curate the collection and build new ones. The harpsichord, also called a clavecembalo or clavecin, dated back to the fourteenth century and took the form of strings stretched over a wooden sounding board. Notes emerged when a plectrum, or pick made from a bird's quill or leather, struck the string. Its main drawback was an inability to emit gradations in tone; striking the keys hard, or barely at all, produced the exact same vibration. Larger harpsichords, instruments that contained three or even four sets of strings, were eventually developed that gave an added depth to the sound. However, even the smallest harpsichord was expensive to build and maintain. They were the sole province of kings and minor nobles who possessed a fondness for the arts, like the Medicis.
The harpsichord was the predecessor of Cristofori's piano, but it also had links to a less rarified instrument. The dulcimer, an ancient stringed instrument probably brought to Europe from Asia by Romany gypsies, was a far more populist musical instrument. It was a simple stringed board, and could be played by those with a rudimentary musical ability. Literature of the era rarely even mentions it, so lowly was it considered to be inside established musical circles.
Improved on Harpsichord
Cristofori likely was aware of all the various musical stringed instrumentsbefore he started to work on his own invention while in the service of the Medicis in Florence around 1698, though he may have begun as early as 1694. A 1700 inventory of the Grand Duke's musical assets listed an arpicembalo che fa il piano e il forte, or "harpsichord that can play quietly and loudly." From there Cristofori constructed what became the first piano around 1709. Instead of the quilled jacks used to pluck the string on the harpsichord, Cristofori's innovation was to devise a way in which the strings were struck from below by individual hammers covered in deer leather. The truly revolutionary part of the process was the way by which the downward pressure of the key, when struck by a finger, was carried to the hammer that struck the string. He called it a gravecembalo col piano e forte, or "clavichord with soft and loud." The clavichord was another type of keyboard instrument similar to the harpsichord. The name was soon shortened to simply "pianoforte."
Cristofori's invention might have languished forever inside Florence's royal palaces had it not been for the Marquis Scipione Maffei, who wrote about it in 1711 in his Giornale dei Letterati d'Italia, a publication funded by the Medici family. An article titled "New Invention of a Harpsichord with the Soft and Loud" appeared in Volume V. "Everyone who enjoys music knows that one of the principle sources from which those skilled in this art derive the secret of especially delighting their listeners is the alternation of soft and loud," Maffei wrote. "This may come either in a theme and its response, or it may be when the tone is artfully allowed to diminish little by little, and then at one stroke made to return to full vigor—an artifice which has often been used, and with wonderful success, at the great concerts in Rome." Scipione then remarked that the harpsichord was unable to produce as many variations as a bowed string instrument, "and one might have considered it the vainest of fancies to propose constructing [a harpsichord] in such a manner as to have this gift. Such a bold invention, nevertheless, has been no less cleverly thought out than executed, in Florence, by Mr. Bartolommeo Cristofali." Unfortunately Maffei misspelled Cristofori's name.
Died in Obscurity
Cristofori made about twenty of his pianofortes between 1709 and 1726. His patron Ferdinando died in 1713, but he remained curator under the prince's successor, Cosimo III. In 1716 Cosimo named him curator of all musical instruments in the Florentine royal collection. He continued to improve on his pianoforte: in 1720, he installed what would become the forerunner of the soft pedal in the form of two knobs at either side. Cristofori failed to win riches or fame for his invention, however. Most who tried the pianoforte dismissed it as far too difficult to master. Those who did possess dexterity for the keyboard, such as accomplished organists and harpsichord players, tried it but were put off by the variations in tone; their attempts, which might have furthered its popularity, emitted clumsy sounds and were soon abandoned. Only in 1732 did the first music written for the piano—twelve sonatas written by Florentine composer Ludovico Giustini—appear in print.
The piano languished in relative obscurity, eclipsed by the popularity of opera, which had emerged in Italy in the last century; music practitioners became more interested in the possibilities of the human voice as a musical instrument. Tuscany was also the center of the violin industry at the time. But Cristofori inspired others in Florence, and there emerged a small piano-making industry for a few years. His most famous apprentice was Giovanni Ferriri, who made several of them. It is thought that George Frederic Handel may have encountered one of Cristofori's pianos on a visit to Florence or Rome, and it is known that five of them were shipped to Spain after harpsichord virtuoso Domenico Scarlatti came to Florence.