The 15th-century Italian dances described in these pages belong to a tradition popular in Northern Italy from the middle of the 15th-century through to the early 16th-century. The earliest choreographies are from about 1450, but the roots of the dance form appear earlier. The saltarello, for instance, which is one of the dances of the 15th-century, was also danced in the late 14th-century. Italian dances from the end of the 16th-century still show the influence of these dances. The 15th-century Italian dances were also related to the bassedanses found in Burgundian sources from the late 15th-century, and to the dances from the English Gresley dance collection from about 1500.
The choreographers of this period were mostly dancing masters attached to a court, although members of the nobility were known to create dances as well. The dance manuals that survive (all handwritten) were sometimes presentation copies, carefully calligraphed, illuminated, and made for a specific individual, while others are presumably personal copies, having been scrawled out in casual script.
The most important choreographer of this period was Domenico da Piacenza, and one dance manual, dating from c. 1450, is attributed to him. Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro was a student of Domenico, and is the only other choreographer whose dances survive in any great number. His two most important manuals were one dating from 1463, and a later one from c. 1475, written after he had changed his name to Giovanni Ambrosio. Antonio Cornazano, another student of Domenico, was not himself a choreographer, but did write one of the other surviving manuals in 1465. It seems to be mostly a copy of an earlier work from 1455.
These four manuals are the only ones that contain music for any of the dances: 23 tunes are specific to certain dances (sometimes more than one dance was created for a given tune) and three are not meant for a particular dance. The other manuals that survive do not have music, and contain very little theory that is not included in one of the other four manuals. Most of the dances in the other manuals are also by Domenico and Guglielmo, though there are a few dances by other choreographers.
At this time there were four dance tempi, each one being equivalent to a dance type. The slowest of these was the bassadanza (usually notated as being in 6/4 in modern arrangements). Choreographies for bassedanze survive, but no matching music is found in the sources, so apparently any tenor of the correct size could be used. (This differs from the related Burgundian bassedanses, where the choreographies had set tenors.) The other three tempi were quadernaria (4/4), saltarello (usually 6/8), and piva (usually 2/4 or 6/8), the fastest of the tempi. No choreographies were given for these, but the saltarello and piva were lively, improvised dances, probably danced by any number of people, in couples or perhaps larger groups, at the same time. The saltarello seems to have been the ancestor of the 16th-century galliard. Quadernaria was rarely danced as an independent dance type, but may have been something like the later almans. The ballo used all four of these tempi, sometimes all in the same dance, though some of the balli remained in one tempo throughout. The choreography of the dance and the music matched exactly, with individual sections of very varied length.
The balli and bassedanze usually each required a specific number of dancers, which could range from one couple up to twelve dancers. A few dances could be extended by adding more couples to the end, and some balli had another version of the dance for a different number of people. The dances were often for couples, but many were for trios or larger numbers. When the sexes were not balanced more men than women were usually required, the most extreme case being the dance Sobria, which called for five men and only one woman.
The choreographies of the balli, and to a lesser extent, the bassedanze, were theatrical, and meant to be performed by members of the court under the critical eyes of their peers. Thus they seem to have been usually danced by only one set at a time, although they may have sometimes been danced by as many people as wished to.
Certain figures and patterns were common, the most notable being a repetitive structure, usually based on gender. In couple dances, the man often performed a sequence of steps followed by the woman repeating the same sequence. The entire dance was generally repeated, with the woman doing everything first during the repeat. In dances with more than one couple, a figure might be repeated once for each couple, or the entire dance repeated enough times for each couple to lead once. Other common motifs were processional sections, where the dancers moved forward together, sections where the dancers separated and then returned, arming figures, where partners took hands and moved around each other, and numerous weaves and heys, where one or more dancers traveled around other, stationary dancers, or all the dancers moved in snakelike patterns around each other.
The step vocabulary for this repertoire was not extensive, usually including only about a dozen steps, although they were modified slightly for different tempi. The major obstacle to performing them now is that they were often not described in the sources, or, when they were, they might be described differently in different manuscripts. This leads to considerable diversity in reconstructions, and also suggests that the steps may have varied by location or changed over time.
Ornamentation and improvisation were considered important in dancing, but were unfortunately described as casually as the steps themselves. The steps were to be done with a rising and falling motion (undagiarre), described as being like the motion of a boat in waves. As well, the torso was swiveled slightly (campegiarre), to lead with one side. At the end of steps extra movements could be added, and, in the saltarello at least, the basic step could be replaced at will with other steps. In the piva men were expected to throw in hops and spins. These modifications to the saltarello and piva dances were probably also found in saltarello and piva sections of the balli. However, in all matters of styling, moderation was important, and in bassadanza it was especially emphasized.
The manuals also touched briefly on other subjects, such as the use of space,
music, exercises for dancers (not our modern stretching exercises, but
trying to dance with or against rhythms, etc.), how to dance in different
clothes and how a woman should dance.
Two excellent sites on Renaissance dance, that should lead to just about all the other websites out there, are the Renaissance Dance page and the SCA Dance page. The Rendance page has a large bibliography. The two books I have found to be most useful for 15th-century dance are:
Joy and Jealousy is a book on balli which I co-authored with M. Cellio. It has been made mostly available on the web by Eric. If the webbed page isn't enough, you can also order a hardcopy of Joy and Jealousy (and also CDs of Renaissance dance music) on Eric's website - ordering info for Joy and Jealousy is somewhere near the bottom of the page.
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