The intonation and stability of the notes require great skill: the historical serpent. Photograph: Museum für Gestaltung Zürich

Sabine Flaschberger, what is a serpent?

Its snake-like form and dark goatskin-cover are the most striking features of the impressive serpent, which also stands out from the circle of European musical instruments in terms of sound. Conceived in France in the 16th century as a bass instrument to accompany Gregorian chorales, the sound volume of such a fingerhole horn was adequate enough even for open-air performances. Standing or on horseback, it was played vertically, but sitting crosswise. Today, the tuba usually assumes its function, while modern reproductions made of wood or carbon imitate the sonorous tonality of the historical serpent. Our specimen is one of around 250 historical instruments donated by Musikhaus Hug to the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich in 1963. The serpent is currently on display at the “Collection Highlights” exhibition on Ausstellungsstrasse. Under the critical gaze of a bizarre widow, it communicates with new neighbours from the collection, whose dark metallic glazes emit mysterious flashes. In the plastic decoration of a ceramic plate, on the other hand, a naturalistic snake is amazed at the hitherto unknown musical relative floating above the display.

Listen to a serpent: «Der schene neue Aufzug»

Sabine Flaschberger ( is curator of the Decorative Arts Collection at the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich. She recommends the “Collection Highlights” exhibition with over 2,000 collection objects as an independent sight training for self-determined visitors. The includes 200 detailed descriptions and tours for adults and children.
„Collection Highlights“
Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, Ausstellungsstrasse 60, Zurich
Tuesdays–Sundays 10am–5pm, Wednesdays 10am–8pm
In this section, experts from around ZHdK offer brief reflections on key terms and concepts in the arts and culture. The steadily expanding glossary is available online.
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