Louis XI Enjoyed an Abominable Orchestra of Squealing Pigs - the Piganino
Believe it or not, but it appears that the ruthless 15th century King Louis XI of France, nicknamed the Spider King or l'universelle araignée , took pleasure in the torture of animals. One particular story tells of a pig organ, a.k.a. a hog harmonium, piganino, pigano, or even the porko forte, which created music using the squeals of a selection of carefully chosen pigs.
Looking at the date, however, this should come as no surprise. According to Lisa Kiser, in A Cultural History of Animals in the Medieval Age , it was common practice in Europe to use animals for entertainment between 1000 and 1400. From royal menageries to animal performances, including anything from juggling apes, talking bears or even a rooster dancing on stilts, animal cruelty and sadism was an everyday affair during the so-called Dark Ages. Bear-baiting, where a chained bear was made to fight against dogs, was a popular blood sport in Britain until the 19th century, while France was home to a lovely game known as getter au cochon , where four blindfolded players would enter an enclosure and beat a pig to death. The more well-known cockfights and cat burning were also par for the course.
Cover illustration for the piece of sheet music 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 Little World . It appears that he made a comment to the Abbot of Baigné, known to be an amateur inventor, about the musical nature of pigs. Taking this as a challenge, the Abbott proceeded to invent one of the more sadistic musical instruments on record, whereby a keyboard was connected to a series of cages containing pigs categorized by the sound of their voices. On pressing a key, the poor creatures would be poked with metal spikes, creating “ music” made up of their fear and pain-driven grunts and squeals. All this to the delight of the king.
An Austrian caricature depicting the katzenlavier or cat organ, a descendant of the French piganino or porko forte. ( Public domain )
This is not the only time that an unbelievably bizarre musical instrument is said to have been created using live animals. Musurgia Universalis , the 1650 music-related compendium by Athanasius Kircher, mentioned the katzenklavier, or cat organ, created to “raise the spirits of an Italian prince burdened by the cares of his position.” The concept was pretty much identical to that of the piganino, with eight cats in cages, tails pulled taught and, on pressing a key, slammed with a nail to produce “a melody of meows.” While some believe the cat organ to be mere myth, it was also reported by historian Juan Calvete de Estrella, in a description of the procession of King Phillip II in Brussels. This time the cat organ was being played by a bear.
Top image: A man playing a fantastic pig organ, or piganino, composed of screaming pigs. Source: British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
By Cecilia Bogaard