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The instrument

The instrument is located in the choir, above the fifth chapel on the right of the aisle, supported from below by two walled-up beams covered with decorated panels. Above the choir, the organ front with closed doors appears as a big wooden niche. The frame is made up of two ionic columns rotating on their own axis and supporting a trabeation. This is adorned with a high sculptural frieze, on which a broken curvilinear pediment is placed. In the middle, the bust of a blessing god stands out. The opening and closing of the organ doors depends on the rotatory movement of the columns, onto which the doors are fixed by means of three hinges. In the inside of the niche, a painting is nailed to the wooden frames that make up the organ doors. In accordance with a customary choice, it represents the Annunciation. When the organ doors are open, four couples of Musician-Angels become visible, lining up orderly in a closed sky. The organ front consists of 25 tin pipes of the principal register, divided into five spans (5-5-5-5-5) and all disposed in spire-like shapes, with the mouths lined up and the upper lips raised. The spans are separated by pilaster strips, between which an upper frieze and some carving hide the rear frame of the front. The small “dead organs” (with silent pipes, with no blocks) that are located above the lesser span have the same number of pipes, also arranged in spire-like shapes. The main pipe is a C1. Under the three upper panels of the front, a decorated frieze covers the access to the air-chamber of the wind-chest. La keyboard, is of extraordinary value because it is the only specimen known to have been made by the Antegnatis. It has forty-five notes (C1-C5), with a first short octave. The white keys are covered with box-wood, are in one piece with a double horizontal lining, and are characterized by peculiar key fronts. These are made up of elegant, embossed brass flowers, directly fixed to the lever heads by means of a central nail. The Pedal keyboard, of the lectern-like type, is composed of fourteen pedals (C1-F2) with a first short octave, and is constantly linked to the keyboard. The registration is made of eleven knobs that can be slotted in in a column on the right of the keyboard, and can be pulled off in order to be used in the Preset Combination (except for the Human voice). The stop keyboard is furnished with elegant hand-written 19th-century little labels for the following stops:


The Tremulant, which is placed on the principal canal, is worked by a lever that can be slotted in, on the left of the keyboard. The big pedal for the Preset Combination is located on the right of the pedal keyboard and runs in a slot realized right in the case. The wind-raising device is made of three wedge- bellows, placed on a mezzanine behind the organ’s sound-chest, that can be worked by means of ropes and wheels and can be supplied also by an electric fan.

Historical sketch

In 1588, exactly one century after the laying of the foundation-stone of the church and seventy years after its consecration, the Augustinian Hermits decided to provide the church of Santa Maria della Consolazione – later called of San Nicola – with an organ whose main function was to be that of setting the tone to and taking turns with the choir in the performance of the mass in the Gregorian chant and of the various officiating hours. The friars, who were living in the adjacent monastery, decided to commission the new instrument to the Antegnatis. These were a family of organ-makers from Brescia, who, during the Renaissance, were famous as masters in the art. They were the symbol of the excellence of the Italian classical tradition of organ-making. In their times, they were surely the most valued artists, and they were preferred by the best organists and the most refined commissioners. When Costanzo (1549-1624) – who was the best-known representative of the noble organ-maker dynasty, and the builder of the 1588 organ – was put in charge of the shop under the guide of Father Graziadio (1525-post 1590), he clearly mentioned the instrument in L’Arte Organica (The Art of Organ-Making). Costanzo’s famous treatise is now the direct and fundamental source in approaching the Italian organ-making practice of the classical period. The organ, eight-feet high, and “proportioned to the church”, was placed above the fifth chapel on the right. The women’s gallery that runs at mid-height along the aisle was thus interrupted in order to make space for the choir and the case. The latter one was furnished with two doors, each carrying two paintings, both on the inside and on the outside, so that the beautiful front was suitably covered. The rigorous selection of the Antegnatis’ sound conception – expressly narrowed down in order to reach with a few registers “such an excellence, that the organs should be perfect, resonant and consonant” – consisted of the following register specification: Principal, Octave, Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Octave Fifteenth, Twenty-sixth, Octave Flute, Twelfth Flute, “Fiffero” (later renamed as “Human Voice”). The keyboard range was of forty-five keys (C1-C5), with a first short octave, while that of the pedal keyboard (always with a first short octave) was of fourteen pedals (C1-F2). The bellows (probably three), equipped with a lever wind-raising device, supplied the nine-slide wind-chest, which was surmounted by a pipe-rack with a leather surface. These bellows were probably placed on the women’s gallery’s floor, against the steel work of the supporting structure of the same wind-chest. The only “sound attachment” was the Tremulant, located on the left of the keyboard. The friars – and the whole population with them – undertook a remarkable economic task, which was nonetheless justified by the evident fact that the organ “for the times, was valuable both for singing the mass and for the choir, all painted and golden”. During the whole span of the 17th century, there are no specific or detailed news about the instrument. Anyhow, it is interesting to know that on January 31, 1662, in Almenno – and precisely in the house of Gian Maria Arrigoni – a certain Constantius Antegnatus Brixiensis died. This could have been Costanzo II, the son of Giovanni Francesco (the interlocutor in the dialogue of L’Arte Organica) and the grandson of Costanzo I, already active (together with his brothers Faustino and Girolamo) in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo between 1648 and 1649 – and maybe also at work in Almenno during some repairs made on the organ built by his grandfather seventy-four years before. It is likely that around the middle of the 18th century, under the spur of the inventions devised and spread by the transalpine school inspired by the works and teaching of the Jesuit Wilhelm Hermans (who had moved to Italy around the middle of the 17th century), the instrument underwent some radical maintenance work. Two new tone colors were added to the original Antegnatis’ register specification: the Cornet, with three pipes for each key, and the Contrabasses. The author of the work is unknown, but he surely belonged to the Lombard School. In this period, in the Bergamasque area, similar works were done by Giuseppe Serassi, the founder of the celebrated family of organ-makers, and by Giovanni Antonio Bossi, his prominent colleague and competitor in the craft of organ-making. To make room for the eight wooden pipes (from C1 to B1), the old bellows were substituted with new ones that were placed on a mezzanine behind the resonance-case of the organ, while the old lever-worked wind-raising device was preserved. The conveying system was also modified and supplied with a new wind-channel for the wind-chest of the Contrabasses. The Cornet was placed on two small slider chests of twelve notes each, furnished with a lever, and surmounted by correspondent pipe-racks made of cardboard. Al this was located behind the Octave Flute, at the bottom of the wind-chest. Due to the addition of the two new stops, the original nine knobs were put aside and substituted by eleven new levers, that were provided with the correspondent stop keyboard, directly applied over the previous one. Moreover, according to the practice of the times, the external device of the great coupler of the secondary stops was also added. It can be said that the whole operation proved respectful of the Antegnatis’ work, and that it did not alter, but rather preserved the original appearance of the organ. Starting from 1772, the year of the closing down of the monastery, the church of Santa Maria della Consolazione was only discontinuously served. The parish organists, at the moment they assumed their assignment, engaged themselves to play in the church “of the monastery” every year, on the feasts of Sant’Anna, San Nicola da Tolentino, and of the Madonna della Cintura. On the occasion of these festivities they had some maintenance work done on the instrument. Probably in the first half of the 19th century, an unknown organ-maker modified considerably the blocks and the mouths of the Contrabasses, repaired the wind-raising device, adjusted the bellows, substituted the old lever supplying system with a new, wheel-operated system, took the Tremulant and the great coupler away. He also eliminated the F2 pedal to make room for the big pedal of the Preset Combination, which he inserted in the interior, at the side of the stop knobs. In 1879, the routine maintenance was assigned to Giuseppe Colombo, “organ-maker and pupil of Serassi”. After the work done on the instrument by the “Serassi’s pupil”, a period of decay began for the glorious Antegnati. Already at the beginning of the century, it was in poor conditions. About 1930, it became inefficient for lack of use. Then some of the pipes were taken away, so that we were left – till recently – with an instrument bearing the pitiful marks of its being completely abandoned. The results of some research that were made public in 1990 began to spread and fuel a certain interest in the organ. It was the beginning of its “renaissance”.

The restoration

The restoration of the instrument was completed in 1996 and lasted six years, including the preparatory studies. The execution of the works was approved by the competent Superintendence. The work was demanding and rigorously done, and was finally dedicated to the memory of Giampiero Lurani Cernuschi. The most distinguished personalities among organists – Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini in the first place – and in the fields of organ scholarship, architecture and painting were engaged in the ambitious project for free. They all acknowledged the rarity of the instrument and recommended that it should be absolutely and urgently restored. The parish of Almenno San Salvatore, the Lurani Cernuschi family and the Bergamasque section of the association “Italia Nostra” – who were the promoters of the “Committee for the restoration of the Antegnati organ” – followed with care all the stages of the works until its final completion. They were supported by the already mentioned, highly-qualified consulting. Among those who strongly believed and financially backed the project of the “Committee” there must be mentioned: the Lurani Cernuschi family, the Banca Popolare di Bergamo-Credito Varesino, the Credito Bergamasco, the Cariplo Foundation, the society of the “Friends of San Nicola”, and many other institutions, associations and private citizens, who were deeply convinced that such an “engagement” would be a sign of great civilization. A thankful word must be addressed to the Regione lombardia, the Provincia of Bergamo, and the Comune of Almenno San Salvatore, that sponsored, also economically, the complex project. The restoration began with a preliminary operation aiming at getting rid of wood-eating insects by means of a fumigation of the whole area of the church and of the sacristy. It was carried out with painstaking care by the organ-maker Marco Fratti from Campogalliano (Modena), who employed techniques and materials that could guarantee the absolute reversibility and readability of the work. He treated every detail with great accuracy in order to return an instrument that would be in the best possible conditions of efficiency and integrity. Considered the enormous interest of the instrument in the field of organ-making, it was deemed convenient to use modern methods of analysis and for the gathering of data, so that reliable information could be derived, and thus more materials provided for the study of the manufacture under examination. The restoration concerned the case, the choir, the four paintings on the doors, the portion of ceiling over the organ, and part of the two internal walls of the adjacent arches. The works were executed by the Laboratorio of Antonio Zaccaria and Marzia Daina of Bergamo. To crown the whole project, an elegant publication – presented the reports, the studies, the analyses, the data gathered during the works, and a rich photographic documentation of this major exemplar of the art of organ-making. It was published by the Ateneo delle Scienze, Lettere e Arti of Bergamo.