Believe it or not, but it seems that the ruthless 15th century King Louis XI of France, nicknamed the Spider King or the universal spider , enjoyed torturing animals. One particular story tells of a pig organ, aka a pig harmonium, piganino, pigano, or even the porko forte, which created music using the cries of a carefully chosen selection of pigs.
Looking at the date, however, this should come as no surprise. According to Lisa Kiser, in A Cultural History of Animals in Medieval Times , it was common in Europe to use animals for entertainment between 1000 and 1400. From royal menageries to animal shows, juggling with monkeys, talking bears or even a dancing rooster on stilts, animal cruelty and sadism was a daily affair during the so-called Dark Ages. Bear baiting, where a chained bear was made to wrestle dogs, was a popular blood sport in Britain until the 19th century, while France was home to an adorable game known as pig getter , where four blindfolded players entered a pen and beat a pig to death. The best-known cockfights and cat burns were also on the agenda.
Cover illustration for the score entitled La Piganino, illustrating the porko forte. ( Public domain )
The story of Louis XI and his piganino comes from Nathaniel Wanley’s 1678 The Wonders of the Small World . It seems that he made a comment to the Abbé de Baigné, known to be an amateur inventor, on the musical nature of pigs. Taking this as a challenge, the Abbott invented one of the most sadistic musical instruments ever recorded, in which a keyboard was connected to a series of cages containing pigs classified by the sound of their voices. By pressing a key, the poor creatures were pricked with metal spikes, creating “music” made up of their grunts and cries of fear and pain. All this for the greatest pleasure of the king.
An Austrian cartoon depicting the katzenlavier or cat organ, a descendant of the French piganino or porko forte. ( Public domain )
This isn’t the only time an incredibly bizarre musical instrument has allegedly been created using live animals. Musurgia Universalis Athanasius Kircher’s musical compendium of 1650, mentions the katzenklavier, or chat organ, created to “boost the morale of an Italian prince weighed down by the cares of his position”. The concept was much the same as the piganino, with eight cats in cages, their tails pulled and, at the press of a key, slammed with a nail to produce “a meow melody”. While some believe the cat organ to be just a myth, it was also reported by historian Juan Calvete de Estrella, in a description of King Philip II’s procession through Brussels. This time the cat’s organ was played by a bear.
Top image: A man playing a fantastic pig organ, or piganino, made up of howling pigs. Source: British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
By Cecilia Bogaard