High and Late Renaissance Courtly Dance

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High and Late Renaissance Courtly Dance


The styles of courtly dance popular in fifteenth-century Italy and Northern Europe favored restraint in the use of the body. The Burgundian bassedance was intended to be an elegant dance procession that displayed the rich splendor of courtly costumes. Sudden jerks, quick steps, and hops were avoided in favor of an understated repertory of subtle footwork that showed off the long, flowing lines of dancers' bodies and their costumes. Despite the greater complexity of Italy's courtly dance, the Italian dancing masters of the time similarly urged restraint in their dance manuals. Changing fashions, both in clothing, shoes, and dance itself, altered the types of movements used in courtly dancing in the sixteenth century. For much of the fifteenth century Burgundian and Italian women's fashions had favored a long flowing gown under which was worn a simple white chemise. The trains of these creations restricted sideways and backward movements because of the great lengths of material that trailed behind a woman as she moved on the dance floor. At the outset of the sixteenth century the corset came into use and was adopted by both men and women. In women's dress, its rise to popularity inspired new styles in which the bust line was flattened and the bodice tapered toward the waist in a funnel-like shape. Bulky skirts then flowed from the waist to the floor, often flaring outward into a bell-like shape. The upper portions of both men's and women's dress, with their whale-boned corsets, restricted the movements of the torso. The fashion that developed later in the century for ruffled starched collars similarly constricted head movements. At the same time, the broad, bell-shaped skirts allowed women's feet to move with relative freedom, as did the tights favored by fashionable courtly men. New styles of shoes, too, allowed greater flexibility in steps. Shoes with soles and heels became common among the nobility, allowing dancers to stomp and stamp their feet and protecting them from splinters and other debris on the floor. Thus while the upper body grew more rigid, the feet at the same time could explore a greater range of movement than before.


Italian courts continued to lead the way in creating complex social dances in the sixteenth century, and Italy's dances spread to many Northern European courts. At the very end of the Renaissance three technical manuals published by the great Italian dance masters Fabrizio Caroso (c. 1527–c. 1605) and Cesare Negri (c. 1535–c. 1604) allow us to gauge the changes that had occurred in attitudes toward courtly dance since the fifteenth century. Both Negri and Caroso laid incredible stress on the proper execution of steps, setting down a large number of rules for the proper performance of each. Caroso continually warned his readers about the possible pitfalls that existed in each dance step, and he spent a large amount of his treatise cautioning his readers about proper deportment at a ball. In addition, he prescribed how men and women should treat their dance accessories—swords, gloves, handkerchiefs, fans and so forth—so that all their movements at a ball were closely choreographed. This increasing emphasis on social refinement was partially inspired by the humanist fashion for Antiquity, as writers like Negri and Caroso argued that modern dance revived the virtues of movement of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In his dance manual, Love's Graces, published in 1602, Cesare Negri contrasted the art of dancing with another popular courtly pursuit: jousting. Jousting, he argued, was the provenance of the ancient god Mars, while the goddess Venus ruled over the dance floor. In his two popular treatises on dancing, The Ballerina (1581) and The Nobility of Ladies, Caroso gave ancient Latin names—drawn from the poetry of Ovid and Vergil—to the new dances he created. The styles outlined in Caroso's and Negri's works were more elaborate than ever before and were now choreographed for groups of up to four couples. Many new steps, too, had been added to the dancing repertoire. In addition to the traditional walking and running steps, bows and reprise steps (which were performed backwards) new foot crossings, leg raisings, and swings flourished, as did vigorous foot stompings. Single-sex dances and solo dances thrived in the period, and many of the new complex creations choreographed by the dancing masters of the High Renaissance bore elaborate titles and were dedicated to noble patronesses.

New Forms.

One of the most popular dances to flourish in the sixteenth century was the branle, a couple's dance that had originated in France, but which soon spread to most of Europe. Branles developed out of the sideways steps that were prescribed in fifteenth-century bassedances. In his dance treatise, Orchesographie (1588), Thoinot Arbeau outlined three kinds of branles that were practiced at the time. These included the simple branle, which consisted of either single or double sideways steps; the mixed branle, which included hops on one leg; and the mimed branle, which incorporated the steps of the other two but also required that performers mime facial gestures and hand movements. Here the Washerwoman's Branle and the Maltese Branle were among the most popular forms. The boisterousness of the branle form, which evolved over time to include foot stomping, hand clapping, and other exaggerated pantomimes, helped to sustain the dance's popularity throughout the sixteenth century. Not all observers, though, found the style worthy of inclusion in court balls. In his famous conduct manual, The Book of the Courtier (1528), Baldassare Castiglione warned courtiers and princes against performing the branle in public, arguing that its extremes of motions were not compatible with the decorum necessary for court life. The branle style seems to have been resisted in England for a time, where its English term—the brawl—suggests some of the noisome and "peasant" qualities associated with the dance. In both Italy and England, though, the branle established itself as a popular court entertainment throughout Europe after 1550. In his dance treatises written in 1602, Cesare Negri included several late sixteenth-century examples of branle or brando as they were known in Italy, that had been performed in some of the most elevated court circles of the peninsula.


introduction: Fabritio Caroso published The Nobility of Ladies, a dance manual, in 1600 at Venice. The work expanded upon another manual he had published about two decades before. In the Nobility, he included dialogues between a dance master and a gentleman disciple in which he set out rules for conduct at balls. His style was lively, and he left nothing to chance, as this exchange over the matter of a man's gloves and cape shows.

Disciple: Please Master, I pray you to teach me the gentleman's comportment at a party.

Master: I will do so, if you are patient. Let me say, then, that there are some gentlemen who go to parties wearing gloves so tightfitting that, upon being invited to dance by the ladies, and preparing to take hands, they must take more time than an 'Ave Maria' to remove [them]; and if they do not succeed with their hands, they even use their teeth! When they do this some accidentally drop their capes (or riding cloaks). This also pays little honour to the lady who has invited one, by making her wait so long. It is better, then, to wear gloves that are fairly loose rather than too tight, for on occasion I have seen [a gentleman] on trying to remove them with his teeth, who has had one finger of the glove left in his mouth, while all in attendance at the party laughed at this behaviour.

Disciple: Is there anything else you wish to advise me of, Sir?

Master: Yes, of course. Let me say, then, that there are others who, while dancing a grave dance, or promenading with a lady, take one side of their cape in their left hands and put it over their left shoulders, leaving the other [end] hanging down so far that it trails along the ground, which is awkward and doesn't look well; for though ladies are permitted to trail their dresses, or trains (if you will), this is not suitable for a gentleman. There are still others who wear their [cloaks] even more improperly while dancing, for they wrap themselves up as if swaddled, which has two unfortunate consequences; first, that they cover their swordhilts; and the other is that the swords are so obstructed that if they should be needed, they could not be [got at], thereby endangering their lives, which is a bad and perilous habit. So I advise you to wear your cape, or any mantle with which you cover yourself, in the style I have shown you above, and always to shun this bad behaviour since it displeases everyone, and could cause the entire company to ridicule you.

source: Fabritio Caroso, The Nobility of Ladies. Trans. J. Sutton (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1986): 135–136.

Galliard and Pavan.

By far one of the most difficult dances that flourished in the sixteenth-century court was the galliard. Of Italian origin, it quickly spread to almost every corner of the continent. Within the galliard, the male dancer makes a series of five jumps, shifting his weight back and forth from side to side. This feat must be performed within a musical interval of six beats. More complex and difficult jumping patterns were also common in the galliard, allowing dancers at court to demonstrate their prowess on the dance floor in a way that had generally been avoided in the more restrained fifteenth century. In his Orchesographie (1588) Thoinot Arbeau included a number of variations on the basic galliard as well as some choreographies that linked together two five-jump variations into an even longer eleven-step variation. By contrast, the pavan was more restrained and dignified. It consisted of two single steps walked forward, followed by a double step. Of Italian origin, the pavan was first mentioned in texts in the early sixteenth century. Its name may derive from the Latin word for the city of Padua, or from the Spanish word for a peacock's tail. The pavan was in many respects similar to the bassedance styles that had flourished in fifteenth-century northern Europe in its restraint and use of staid and grand music.


introduction: The English gentleman Thomas Elyot modeled his conduct book, The Book of the Governor (1531), on Baldassare Castiglione's famous The Book of the Courtier. While Elyot wrote for an elite reader, his work was notable for disseminating the ideas of civility and courtly manners among the English gentry (a wealthy, but non-aristocratic class of wealthy landowners and commercial figures). Elyot's book also included one of the most enthusiastic endorsements of the art of dance in the sixteenth century. For several pages he catalogued the virtues that accrued to those who mastered its complexities, showing the gravity with which Renaissance thinkers considered the art form. In the following excerpt, he celebrates dance's power to achieve a perfect marriage of the contrasting natures of men and women. In dance, he argued, the ideals of the sacrament of matrimony were actually achieved. Each sex on its own is incomplete before the dance, but when joined in its artful motions, their natural qualities are brought into the perfection of the "golden mean."

But now to my purpose. In every dance of a most ancient custom, a man and a woman dance together, holding each other by the hand or the arm, which betokens concord. Now it behooves the dancers, and also their audience, to know all the qualities incident to a man, and also all the qualities that also pertain to a woman.

A man in his natural perfection is fierce, hardy, strong in opinion, covetous of glory, desirous of knowledge, hungers to reproduce his likeness. The good nature of a woman is mild, timorous, tractable, benign, with a good memory, and modest. Certainly, many other qualities of each [of the sexes] might be identified, but these are the most apparent, and for our purposes sufficient.

Therefore, when we behold a man and a woman dancing together, let us suppose there is a concord of all these said qualities, being joined together, as I have set them here in order. And the moving of the man is more vehement, while the woman is more delicate, and she moves with less advancing of the body. These [qualities] signify the courage and strength that ought to be in a man, and the pleasant soberness that should be in a woman. And in this wise fierceness, joined with mildness, severity is formed. Audacity with temerity produces magnanimity; willful opinion and tractability (which is to be shortly persuaded and moved [by the dance]) makes constancy a virtue. [Man's] search for glory adorned with [a woman's] benign nature produces honor. [His] desire for knowledge combined with woman's good memory procures Wisdom. [Women's] modesty joined to the [male] appetite for generation makes continence, which is a mean between Chastity and inordinate lust. These qualities, in this wise being knit together, and signified in the personages of man and woman dancing, do express or set out the figure of very nobility, which in the higher estate it is contained [there], the more excellent is this virtue's estimation.

source: Thomas Elyot, The Boke Named the Gouvernor (London, 1531): L1v–L2r. Text modernized by author.


Little is known about the origins of this form, although the dance's name, the French word for "German," suggests that its origins may lie in Germany. Some have suggested that it developed as a German form of the bassedance. By 1550, the allemande was considered its own independent dance form. In this dance a group of couples stand beside one another and fall into a procession that moves across the dance floor. At the other end of the floor each male partner turns his female partner, and the progress is repeated in the opposite direction. By the end of the sixteenth century the allemande had grown more complex with small jumps or leg lifts worked into some of its surviving choreographies. The allemande's music witnessed a long life. The surviving music composed for the dance in the sixteenth century shows that the form was innovative in its exploration of changes in tonality as well as tempo. It is perhaps for this reason that allemandes continued to be written as music long after the popularity of the dance had faded on the ballroom floor.

Other Forms.

The great popularity of dance as an entertainment in the High and Late Renaissance court gave rise to an almost infinite number of styles. There were couple's dances like the volta in which the dancers held themselves in a tight embrace, moving around the dance floor. At regular intervals in the volta the man thrust his female partner high into the air by grabbing her firmly at the back, and the couple then performed a series of turns in this position. Considered obscene by some authorities, the dance was banned for a time in early seventeenth-century France during the reign of Louis XIII. Its freedom of movement and athleticism, however, inspired its popularity, and the dance spread far from its origins in the southern French region of Provençale. The chiarentana, by contrast, was an elaborate figure dance preceded by a staged chase in which men picked their female partners. The dance that followed made use of complex patterns of line dancing, reels, and figure eights that some authorities, including the great dance expert Fabrizio Caroso, found confusing and difficult to perform. Simpler and easier to learn were the "country dances," figure dances that flourished in the courts and noble households of France and England at the time and which harked back to rural line dances and earlier bassedance forms. Similar to modern square dancing, the country dances might be learned quickly, since only the first couple that stood at the head of the line needed to be certain of the various steps that were to be performed for the dance to begin. Others might learn the dance merely by imitating the actions of the first couple.

Dance Music.

The writers of dance manuals had usually informed their readers about the kinds of musical meters used to perform particular dances, often even including tunes in their guidebooks for performance. Printed music became more popular in the sixteenth century, giving us a clearer glimpse of the kinds of dance music that flourished at the time. The first printed collections of dance music issued from the houses of Ottaviano de Petrucci at Venice and Robert Attaignant in Paris in the early sixteenth century. Printed music was an expensive commodity and thus was likely only to have been used in the wealthiest noble houses and merchant families of the time. Most collections were scored for lute (the most common household instrument), for the keyboard, or for small ensembles of wind and brass instruments. Throughout the sixteenth century printed dance music grew more popular, and toward the end of the century printed dance music popularized dance suites that had been recently performed in some of Europe's greatest households. These dance suites were often specially written to accompany highly choreographed "ballets" created by dance masters in these courts.


The wealth of dance forms that flourished in the sixteenth century points to the rising importance that dance played as a marker of social distinction and cultivation in courtly societies at the time. In the dance manuals of Italy and France, theorists like Negri, Caroso, and Arbeau celebrated the art as a sign of the era's kinship with classical Antiquity, and they left little to chance in the choreographies and recommendations that they prescribed to their readers. Dance as an art form had clearly come of age in Renaissance courts, and the clear distinctions of genres and forms that developed at the time expressed the era's determination to mold the actions of the body to the creative impulses of the human mind.


T. Arbeau, Orchesography. Trans. M. S. Evans (New York: Dover Publications, 1967).

Fabrizio Caroso, Nobilità di Dame. Trans. J. Sutton (New York: Dover, 1986).

M. Dolmetsch, Dances of England and France from 1450 to 1600 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1976).

—, Dances of Spain and Italy from 1400 to 1600 (London, England: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1954).

S. Howard, The Politics of Courtly Dancing in Early Modern England (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998).

see also Fashion: High and Late Renaissance Fashion ; Music: Sixteenth-Century Achievements in Secular Music