Courtly Dance in the Early Renaissance

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Courtly Dance in the Early Renaissance

Medieval Dance.

Dance is one of the oldest and most universal of human art forms. European cave art from the Stone Age depicted dancing figures, and dance flourished in the ancient societies of Greece and Rome. The ancient Greek word for poetry, mousike, referred to a series of stanzas that were delivered in song while dancing. The art form of dance is unique from the other Renaissance arts in that the church did not dominate its development, and largely failed in its attempts to regulate it. Although there were some religious dances—particularly as part of the Good Friday celebrations that occurred prior to Easter—dance was largely a secular pastime by the thirteenth century, and every segment of the society participated: peasants, urban townspeople, and courtly societies. Another unique feature of dance was its inability to exist apart from music as an essential part of performance. Changing musical fashions have served to inspire new dance forms on the one hand, but dances have just as easily given rise to new tastes and fashions in music. Medieval sources testify to the vast popularity of dance, although before the fifteenth century no instructional or theoretical manual survives in Europe that allows us to reconstruct medieval dance steps. Our knowledge of the medieval forms of dance that existed in Europe on the eve of the Renaissance comes to us from paintings and frescoes and from literary sources. Two basic forms of dance seem to have been generally performed throughout the Middle Ages, of which there were a number of variations. The first, known as the carole, was common in folk and elite society alike, and was a kind of line dancing in which groups of men and women formed linear or circular patterns. Jumps and hops were common to the caroles, although some involved nothing more than a series of relatively peaceful steps. In addition, singing often accompanied the carole, and these songs were either sung in unison or in response to the chants of a leader. The most common kinds of songs to accompany the carole in the later Middle Ages and the early Renaissance were the virelais, the rondeaux, and the ballades. The second form, often referred to in the documents with the French word "danse," was more elevated and consisted of groups of two or three dancers walking and making a series of elegant steps, struts, and glides. The possibilities of variation were limitless in such dances, and it is for this reason that this form of entertainment flourished in elegant court societies. Many courtly dances appear to have been international and spread from country to country through the efforts of professional entertainers who moved between courts. In France these entertainers were known as jongleurs (jugglers) and in German, spielleute (players). Jews often played a special role as well, since Jewish entertainers known as letzim were prized at court for their knowledge of dance steps. All these figures were itinerant. Traveling from place to place, they entertained nobles with dances, pantomimes, and song, often teaching those in court the latest dance steps. Medieval folk dancing, by contrast, seems to have been subject to a greater degree of regional variation.

Dance Masters.

The appearance of dance masters in Renaissance Italy reveals a new attitude toward dancing in the great courts of the region. Just how and when the dance masters of the Renaissance appeared cannot be determined, but by the mid-1400s many of Italy's wealthiest, most powerful noble and merchant families already had a resident dance master. In contrast to the medieval entertainers who had traveled from court to court, the dance masters were permanent members of noble and merchant households. They trained the family in the latest dance steps as well as instructed them in a variety of other skills. They might be best thought of as a kind of physical education instructor, charged with teaching members of the household, not only dance but gymnastics, fencing, riding, and every kind of athletic endeavor. Beyond physical training, dance masters taught the children about manners and deportment (the proper carriage of the body), and they staged entertainments and choreographed dances and spectacles for the court. The variety of their tutoring duties mandated that the dance masters be highly educated figures skilled in the arts of music, painting, sculpture, poetry, mathematics, philosophy, and aesthetics. The appearance of these masters points to a key change between medieval and Renaissance attitudes toward dance. In the Middle Ages dance had been a relatively straightforward pastime that had flourished in court and village societies, usually at the end of the day as a social entertainment that concluded a festival, a hunt, the harvest, or a tournament. Steps had been so simple that most people probably learned them on the spot. In the Italian Renaissance court, though, dance grew more complex, becoming an art form that must be mastered through careful study. In addition, the dance master's role in teaching skills besides dancing demonstrates the increasingly ritualized and formal character of Renaissance courtly life. Proper manners, good carriage or deportment, and the mastery of a variety of athletic skills were now important signs of social distinction.

Prominent Figures.

A lineage of distinguished masters in fifteenth-century Italy flourished from the training of the early dance theorist and master Domenico da Piacenza (c. 1400–c. 1476). Piacenza served for many years in the urbane, sophisticated court of the D'Este family at Ferrara, where he not only taught dance to members of the court, but also choreographed a number of special dances for the family's entertainments. He was also much in demand elsewhere in Italy, and frequently staged important dance entertainments for the peninsula's wealthiest families. Sometime around 1445, Piacenza completed his dance manual, On the Art ofDancing, the first theoretical and instructional handbook for the art of dance. For his theory of dance, he drew upon the Nichomachean Ethics of Aristotle, the text that outlined the doctrine of the "Golden Mean" and whose Tenth Book discussed beauty and pleasure in movement. Similarly, Piacenza advised his readers that dance provided a "refined and delicate demonstration of … intellect and effort" and he counseled against extremes or jerks in movement. After treating the theory of dance along these Aristotelian grounds, he proceeded to outline the musical meters commonly used in Italy at the time and the various steps needed to perform dances. Piacenza's manner of treating first the theory of dance and then its practice had imitators in the many dance manuals that followed his early handbook. Two of these came from the hands of his students, Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro (William the Jew of Pesaro) (c. 1420–1484) and Antonio Cornazano (c. 1430–1484), both of whom were active in courts throughout Italy in the second half of the fifteenth century. Guglielmo Ebreo was much sought after as a dance master. Born a Jew, he converted to Christianity and took the name Giovanni Ambrosio, perhaps to increase his prospects at court. He spent most of his career working as a dance master at the court of the Malatesta family in Pesaro and Rimini, although he also worked for the ruling dynasties of Milan, Ravenna, Naples, Ferrara, Urbino, and Camerino, and for the Medici family at Florence. Ebreo earned special recognition for the quality of dance spectacles he choreographed for weddings, entries, and the


introduction: Domenico da Piacenza began his On the Art of Dancing (1445), the oldest surviving Renaissance dance manual, by treating the theory of dance before outlining its contemporary practices. His opening chapter defended dance against the charge that it wasted time by pointing to Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, an ancient work that outlined the doctrine of the "golden mean," the notion that human beings should avoid actions and emotions that are extreme, and instead search for the moderate position. Aristotle also treated dance in the Ethics as a way to harness the mind's power over the body, a position that Piacenza also relies upon in his defense.

Thanks to the great and glorious God for the intellects that by his grace are inspired. To Him belongs the honor and glory in all things intellectual and moral. The respectable and noble knight Mister Domenico da Piacenza wishes to petition with great reverence Him who, because of his holy humanism, has always blessed the said practitioner to treat this material to a good end. Although many object to this agile and elegant motion made with great subtlety and effort as one which is a waste of time, the practitioner cites the second [book] of Ethics. The author states that all things spoil or go bad if they go astray, that is, to extremes. Being moderate saves one. The wise Aristotle discusses movement well quite a bit in the tenth of Ethics. In other parts, even with his sensitivity, he could not draw forth the implications of his bodily motion through space. With misura [measure], memoria [memory], agilitade [agility], maniera [grace], misura di terreno [balance], aided by placing the body with fantasmate [imagination], he argues well that this art is a refined demonstration of as much intellect and effort one can find. Not that if you perform this motion in the way that you do not go to extremes, I say that this refined art has natural goodness and many things because of its delicateness in its execution.

Note that no creature who has natural defects is capable of this refined motion. He [Aristotle] states that lame, hunch-backed, or maimed people of all callings will not succeed in this. One needs good fortune—which is beauty. The proverb goes, "The one made beautiful by God is not all poor." Nature must grace and sculpt from the foot to the head the practitioner of this art form. But beauty alone is not all required for this refined art.

Note that aside from being blessed by God with a good mind and body, one has to learn to discern the underlying structure of this refined art. He states that the foundation is misura, which governs everything quick or slow according to the music. Aside from this, it is necessary to have a large and deep memoria, which stores all of the corporal movements—natural and incidental—that are required by all performers depending upon the composition of the dances. Note that aside from all these things, it is necessary to have a refined agilitade and physical maniera. Note that this agilitade and maniera under no circumstances should be taken to extremes. Rather, maintain the mean of your movement, that is—not too much nor too little. With smoothness appear like a gondola that is propelled by two oars through waves when the sea is calm as it normally is. The said waves rise with slowness and fall with quickness.

source: Domenico da Piacenza, On the Art of Dancing in Fifteenth-Century Dance and Music. Twelve Transcribed Italian Treatises and Collections in the Tradition of Domenico da Piacenza. Trans. A. W. Smith (Stuyvesant, N.Y.: Pendragon Press, 1995): 11, 13. Annotations by Philip M. Soergel.

visits of state dignitaries, and his skill in the construction of elaborate entertainments meant that he was very much in demand. In 1463, he completed his own instructional manual on dance, a work that was less theoretical than that of his teacher, Piacenza. Antonio Cornazano, by contrast, was born a nobleman at Piacenza near Milan. Early on, he studied dance with Domenico da Piacenza before joining the Sforza family as a secretary around 1454. In the years that followed he also served as dance master to the young Sforza princess Ippolita, dedicating his first edition of the Book on the Art of Dancing to her in 1455. This work, like Ebreo's shows a great debt to the ideas of Cornazano's teacher, Domenico da Piacenza. Together these three treatises inspired many similar works over the following years that discussed both the theory and practice of dance.

Ballo and Bassadanza.

Each of these manuals outlined two types of dance: the bassadanza and the ballo. The bassadanza was the Italian version of the French and Burgundian bassedance, although it was significantly different from this Northern European style. In a dance of this type lines or circular groups of dancers performed a series of steps in procession. The word "bassa," meaning "low," reveals one feature of the bassadanza: the feet stayed close to the floor. There were, in other words, no leaps or hops worked into the steps and the bassadanza was an elegant, if somewhat severe dance. A ballo or balleto, by contrast, was a highly choreographed dance with a more playful dimension, in which a couple or several couples performed a series of dances involving changes of speed and steps. Oftentimes, balli followed a story line, which required a higher level of choreography. A key difference between the bassadanza and ballo at this time seems to have lain in the music available to each. Balli were choreographed for a specific piece of music that fit with the steps of the dance master's choreography. A bassadanza, on the other hand, was more often performed with any piece that had a suitable tempo, meter, and length for the steps chosen. Although the dance manuals recommended that all dancers develop a fluid and beautiful line, displays of mere technical prowess on the dance floor were generally discouraged in these manuals. These styles of dance constituted courtly entertainment, and thus the authors advised their aristocratic readers to avoid unseemly movements or specific dances that might tarnish their reputations. The dancer's body should become, these writers observed, an expression of beauty and of the dancer's own intellect. Courtly dance was thus a restrained art, different from the athletic proficiency displayed by professional performers. At the same time all three writers allowed men a greater degree of flexibility on the dance floor than women. A male dancer's jumps were to be higher and his steps could be ornamented more vigorously. A woman's conduct on the dance floor was expected to be more modest, and although she was always to stand tall, she was expected to keep her eyes downcast as a sign of modesty.


Unlike Italian court dances of the fifteenth century, which were characterized by great complexity, difficult choreographies, elegant footwork, and other bodily disciplines that expressed the taste of the Renaissance for a language of movement that was refined and difficult to achieve, the styles of dance that flourished in Northern Europe at the time were heavily influenced by the tastes of the court of the Duchy of Burgundy, a powerful territory in the center of Europe. While Burgundian dance was very refined, its steps were simpler and its choreography less difficult to master than the Italian models. It is perhaps for this reason that we find evidence of the appearance of dance masters in Northern Europe much later than in Italy. Burgundy was a territory that was officially subject to the French king, but which had by the end of the fourteenth century acquired a vast amount of land in central and northwestern Europe, including Lorraine, large parts of northern France, and the Netherlands or Low Countries (modern Belgium, Luxembourg, and Holland). These areas included some of the wealthiest commercial centers of Europe, and in the early fifteenth century, Burgundy's style of court life influenced many other European regions. Courts throughout Europe sought out Burgundy's music and musicians, and its dance form—the bassedance—affected tastes in dance in places far from the center of Burgundian power.


The bassedance was a line dance that consisted of only five steps: single steps, double steps, branle, reverence (a bow or curtsey), and reprise. Very strict rules governed the ways in which these steps could be arranged, and dances that followed all these rules were known as common dances. Others that slightly altered these conventions were known as uncommon forms. It is difficult to reconstruct these steps precisely from the few technical descriptions that survive, although artistic evidence does provide some clues. Burgundian dance did not emphasize the technical display of skill, but slow and graceful movements of the feet and the upper body. Like the early Italian bassadanza, which had originally been inspired by the Burgundian bassedance, this form was to be performed "low," that is, without hops and skips. The elegant, controlled steps allowed the lines of the dancers' bodies and the folds and drape of their clothes to be brilliantly displayed. Since it was a highly stylized, dance-like procession, its steps involved simple, short movements of the feet, the raising and lowering of the body, and gentle sideways motions. In the final step—the reprise—dancers moved backwards, and great care needed to be taken so that the women did not trip on the elaborate trains popular in Burgundy at the time. The shoes worn at Burgundy's court at the time were known as poulaine, and they were long constructions in felt that ended with a high-rising point at the toe. While preventing a great freedom of movement, the poulaine allowed the graceful stepping movements typical of the bassedance, and they also accentuated the line of the foot, thus adding to the impression of the dancer's elegance. The range of steps was limited, yet at the same time, modern reconstructions of the Burgundian bassedance have shown that it can be a remarkably expressive form. Like Italian dances, the bassedance inspired its own manuals of instruction, including an anonymous fifteenth-century manuscript written at Brussels around 1420 and a later anonymous dance manual published in Paris in 1488. This later book, The Art and Instruction of Good Dancing, contained instructions about the music that should accompany these dances. It stipulated a tenor line for the music above which up to three layers of instruments might improvise harmonies to accompany the dance. Typically, the sackbut (an early trombone) played the tenor, while shawms (the Renaissance counterpart of the modern oboe) performed the improvised lines.


introduction: All writers of dance manuals firmly insisted on a distinction between the sexes in dance. William the Jew, who converted to Christianity and changed his name to Giovanni Ambrosio, was one of the great fifteenth-century Italian dance masters. In his dance treatise, The Art of Dancing, he gave these rules to his female readers.

For the young, virtuous woman who delights in learning and understanding such exercise and art, it is necessary to have a rule and manner with much more modesty and honesty than for the man … Her moviemiento corporeo [bodily movements] should be humble and controlled, with a worthy and noble body carriage, agile in the feet, and with well-formed gestures. Her eyes should not be arrogant or flighty, looking here or there as many do. Most of the time, they should be honestly glancing at the floor, though the head should not be lowered in the chest, as some do, but should be straight up and corresponding to the body, as nature herself would teach. Her moving should be agile, graceful, and moderate, because when performing a sempio [single step] or a doppio [double step] she needs to be well adapted. Also for the riprese [sideways movements], continentie [sideways steps], riverentia [curtseys], and scossi [rises] she needs to have a human, gentle, and sweet manner. Her mind should always remain attentive to the harmonies and misure [beat of the music] so that her actions and sweet gestures are well composed and correspond to them. At the end of the ballo [dance] when left by the man, she turns entirely around to him and with a sweet glance at him performs a compassionate and honest riverentia [curtsey] to that of the corresponding man. Then, with a modest attitude she goes to rest, noting the actual defects of others, the correct actions, and the perfect movimienti [movements]. If these things are well noted and prudently observed by the young woman, she will be notably adept in the aforesaid art of dancing, worthy of virtuous and commendable fame. So much more, because it is most rare for women to perfectly understand such virtue and art. They use such exercise as a random practice rather than as a science. Some of them often commit errors and oversights and are reprimanded by one who understands. With devoted disposition for their comfort let all attentively read this little work of mine. It will offer them very refined and virtuous fruit.

source: Guglielmo da Pesaro or Giovanni Ambrosio, The Art of Dancing in Fifteenth-Century Dance and Music: Twelve Transcribed Italian Treatises and Collections in the Tradition of Domenico da Piacenza. Trans. A. W. Smith (Stuyvesant, N.Y.: Pendragon Press, 1995): 141–142. Italian terms translated by Philip M. Soergel.

Other Regions.

The Burgundian style of bassedance was already well developed as a form in the early fifteenth century and maintained its popularity in many of the courts of Northern Europe throughout the century. It was performed in France, England, and in certain parts of Germany and Spain at the time. Certainly, other forms of dances may have flourished in Northern European court societies, but the lack of documentation makes it difficult for us to reconstruct many of the precise details of dance in Western Europe during the fifteenth century. In the sixteenth century an increase in sources reveals the rising popularity of dance as a form of entertainment as well as its steadily increasing repertory of forms.


I. Brainard, The Art of Courtly Dancing in the Early Renaissance. 2 vols. (West Newton, Mass.: I. G. Brainard, 1981).

—, "Italian Dance Documents of the Fifteenth Century," Dance Chronicle 21 (1998): 285–297.

A. Michel, "The Earliest Dance-Manuals," Medievalia et humanistica 3 (1945): 117–31.

A.W. Smith, Fifteenth-Century Dance and Music (Stuyvesant, N.Y.: Pendragon Press, 1995).

D. R. Wilson, The Steps Used in Court Dancing in Fifteenth-Century Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

see also Fashion: Early Renaissance Styles

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Courtly Dance in the Early Renaissance

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