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15C-Ital-Dce-art - 9/4/01


"Fifteenth-Century Italian Dance" by Rosina del Bosco Chiaro (Vivian Stephens). These are the class notes from a class she taught at Pennsic 30.


NOTE: See also the files: dance-msg, ME-dance-msg, dance-par-art, Italy-msg, fd-Italy-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


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                              Thank you,

                                   Mark S. Harris

                                   AKA:  Stefan li Rous

                                        stefan at florilegium.org



Fifteenth-Century Italian Dance  

by Rosina del Bosco Chiaro (Vivian Stephens)


The earliest surviving dance choreographies are in Italian dance manuals dating from the mid to late fifteenth-century.  The dances were composed by dancing masters, or occasionally by members of the nobility, and were meant to be performed by  members of the court under the critical eyes of their peers. These dances were usually danced by only one set at a time, and the emphasis was therefore much more on performance than as a social activity.  It is possible, however, that, as many people would know the dances, at less formal occasions they were danced by as many people as wished to.  This is the way we usually do these dances in the SCA.


The two major choreographers whose works survive are Domenico da Piacenza and his student Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro (also known as Giovanni Ambrosio).  Another student, Antonio Cornazano, wrote a dance manual containing choreographies of Domenico. Dance manuals dating from about 1450 to the early 1500s survive, and show considerable similarity.  There are less dance sources thereafter, and by the late sixteenth-century when more sources are again available, the dance traditions have become noticeably different.


The sources for this period are unfortunately somewhat vague, especially regarding the performance of the steps, which are often not described at all.  The choreographies, and the music for them, are usually not identical if they appear in more than one source.  There also seems to have been considerable variation in how the steps were performed in period, and improvisation was expected.  It is important to remember that there was not one, immutable, way of performing dance of this period.  Because of this, reconstructions of these dances vary rather more than for later periods. When taking a class you should expect that things may be taught differently than you are used to, and that this does not make the teacher, or yourself, wrong.  As well, the same or similar step names were often used for steps that were performed differently in the Burgundian or sixteenth-century repertoires, and these should not be confused with the fifteenth-century Italian steps.


At this time there were four dance tempi, being bassadanza (usually notated as being in 6/4 in modern arrangements), quadernaria (4/4), saltarello (usually 6/8), and piva (2/4 or 6/8).  Bassedanze were slow, somewhat processional dances, for which choreographies survive.  No matching music is found in the sources, so it seems that any bassadanza tune of the right size could be used.  (This differs from the related Burgundian bassedanse, where the choreographies had set tenors.)   No choreographies were given for the other three tempi, but the saltarello and piva were also dances.  Both 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 sixteenth-century galliard.  Quadernaria was rarely danced as an independent dance type, but may have been something like the later almans.  Dancers of this period were expected to be able to dance the basic movement of one dance tempo to the other tempi e.g. dancing saltarello steps in bassadanza music.


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, resulting in music that sounds odd to modern ears, as it can even contain half length bars.  The choreographies were often theatrical, with a theme usually suggested by their title.  Most of the balli required a specific number of dancers, which could range from one couple up to twelve dancers.  The dances were not always for couples, often being for trios or larger numbers of uneven genders.  When the sexes were not balanced, there were more likely to be more men than women, the most extreme case being the dance Sobria, which calls for five men and only one woman.


Certain figures and patterns were common in these dances, the most notable being a repetitive structure, usually based on gender.  In couple dances, the man will often perform a sequence of steps which is followed by the woman repeating the same sequence. (Or, if the woman is on the left side, she may be the one required to do the sequence first.) The entire dance is usually repeated, with the woman doing everything first for the repeat.  In dances with more than one couple, a figure may be repeated once for each couple, or the entire dance repeated as many times as it is necessary for each couple to lead the dance. Other common motifs are processional sections, where the dancers move forward together, sections where the dancers move apart and then return, 'arming' figures, where partners take hands and move around each other, and numerous weaves and heys, where one or more dancers weave around other, stationary dancers, or all the dancers move in snakelike patterns around each other.  Some dances, perhaps from later in this period, or showing a different school of dance, use a verse format, where the same music is repeated with different steps, or a verse/chorus format, where a repetitive chorus is danced between each verse.


Ornamentation and improvisation were considered important to the dances, but are unfortunately described as casually as the steps themselves.  The steps were expected to be done with a rising and falling motion, undagiarre, described as being like the motion of a boat in waves.  For another ornament, campegiarre, the torso was swiveled slightly, 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 extra hops and spins.  These modifications to the saltarello and piva dances may also have been found in saltarello and piva sections of the balli. However, in all matters of styling, moderation is important, and in bassadanza it is especially emphasized.


The manuals also touch briefly on other matters important to a dancer, such as use of space, music, exercises for dancers (not our modern stretching exercises, but trying to dance with or against rhythms, etc.), dancing in different clothes and how a woman should dance.



Annotated Bibliography


This is a very short list of some of the works available on 15th-century Italian dance.


         Ingrid Brainard. The Art of Courtly Dancing in the Early Renaissance; Part II: The Practice of Courtly Dancing. West Newton, Mass.: I.G.Brainard, 1981.  Includes information on both Italian and Burgundian dance, with reconstructions of the steps and of 9 dances (5 being Italian.)

         Madelaine Inglehearn and Peggy Forsyth. The Book on the Art of Dancing by Antonio Cornazano. London: Dance Books Ltd., 1981.  A translation of one of the original sources. It does not include a transcription of the original.

         W. Thomas Marrocco. Inventory of 15th C. Bassedanze, Balli & Balletti. New York: CORD, 1981. This lists where the different dances occur in the sources, with some notes on them.  It gives all the music present in the sources, but unfortunately in modern notation.  Since the original music is open to considerable interpretation, this is not as useful as a transcription of the music would have been.

         A. William Smith. Fifteenth-Century Dance and Music.   Stuvyesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1995.  This comes in two volumes. The first contains background information and a transcription and facing page translation of three of the four major sources, and of the theory parts of seven other manuscripts where they differ from the others. It also contains a transcription and modern interpretation of the music. The second volume gives all the dances from eleven sources, in tabular form, so the dances can be easily compared between sources. The dances from a twelfth, German, source, is given in an appendix. Anyone who wishes to reconstruct dances from this period will find this work to be invaluable.

         Barbara Sparti, ed.  On the Practice of the Art of Dancing, Guglielmo Ebreo., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.  This contains considerable background information, and a transcription and facing translation of one of the major sources, and those parts of another that differ from the first. It has the music, both reproduced from the original and a modern interpretation, and also has a glossary, with detailed notes on the steps. This should be read by anyone working with this repertoire.

         Vivian Stephens & Monica Cellio. Joy and Jealousy: A Manual of 15th-Century Italian Balli.  Pittsburgh: Real Soon Now Press, 1997.  This gives reconstructions of the 23 balli for which there are music in the sources (and one other with music found elsewhere), and of the steps, with notes explaining the reasoning for the reconstructions. It also contains arrangements of the music. It is meant for people who are not ready to do their own reconstructions.

         D. R. Wilson. The Steps Used in Court Dancing in Fifteenth-Century Italy.  D. R. Wilson, 1992. An in-depth examination of the steps, giving evidence of their execution from the sources. A very useful tool for anyone reconstructing the steps.




Because there is considerable variation in reconstructions of the music, (and of the dances, which then may change how the music is played) not all recordings of a dance will fit all reconstructions of that dance. Some of these recordings were not made with dancers in mind, and the musicians may have decided to trim off repeats, play it much slower or faster than required, or otherwise make the piece unusable for dancing. The three most highly recommended recordings are Alta Danza, Mesura et Arte and Forse Che Si. They are all professionally made, meant for dancing to, and available commercially on CD. The contents given are only those pieces used for fifteenth-century Italian dance.


         Alta Danza - Dance Music from 15th-century Italy.  Les Haulz et Les Bas (Alta Cappella). Christophorus  (Heidelberg, Germany): CHR 77208.  Contents: Rostiboli gioioso; Gratioso; Fiore de virtu; Colonnese; Leoncello; Prisonera; Ingrata; Marchesana; Bassadanza (1); Bassa franzese; La fia guielmina; Amoroso; Bialte di castiglia; Gelosia; Pizochara; Vercepe; Tesara; Damnes; Voltati in ca Rosina; Castelana; Spero; Legiadra; La vita di colino; bassadanza (2); Saltarello; Piva.

         Il Bel Danzare, Dances of the Courts of Europe circa 1500, Sirinu.  Dolmetch Historical Dance Society, 1995. Cassette. A book is available to accompany this.  Contents: Bel fiore, Gioliva, Figlia gulielmina, Partita Crudele, Fioretto, Helas madame, Bel reguardo, Amoroso, Laltra fia guielmina, Venus, Corona gentile, Rossina, Giove, Ginevra, Bialte di Chastiglia, Chirintana.

         Between the Lines, On the Mark, 1996.  CD.  Contents: Mercantia, Petit Vriens.

         La cour du Roi Rene (At the Court of King Rene). Ensemble Perceval, Arion ARN 68104.  CD.  Contents: La spagna, Jelosia (Gelosia) (repeats the last section five times), Lioncello, Lauro, Falla con Misuras, Mercantia.

         Dances by the Marian Ensemble, Heather M. Dale (Lady Marian of Heatherdale). CD. Contents: Amoroso, Vita di Cholino, Petit Rien.

         Danzare et Sonare, The Longslade Consort. The Longslade Consort TLC 7.   Cassette. A book is available to accompany this.  Contents: Petit Vriens, Annello, Gelosia (2 versions), Figlia Guielmina (2 versions), Amoroso, Verceppe, Gracioso, Rossina, Leggiadra,

         Eloge du vin et de la vigne,  La Maurache.  Arion CD ARN 68248. CD. Not recommended for dancing.  This CD has three dances, Gelosia, Amoroso, and Anello, but they are played as a suite, with the wrong internal repeats (usually none at all).  None of them are therefore usable.

         Forse Che Si, Forse Che No, Ferrara Ensemble.  Fonti Musicali fmd 182.  CD.  Contents: Verceppe, Lioncello, Pazienza, Cupido, Pellegrina, Voltati in ca Rosina, Tessara, Rostiboli gioioso, Anello, Giove, Pinzochera, Laurao, Venus, Alessandresca, Gelosia, Petit Riense, Spero, La figlia di Guielmo

         Mesura et Arte del Danzare. Balli Italiani del Quattrocento. Accademia Viscontea i Musicanti.  Ducale CDL 002.  CD  Contents: Leoncello, Marchesana, Anello, Colonnese, Vercepe, Petit Riense, Voltate in ca Rosina, Rostiboli Gioioso, Grazioso, La fia Guglielmina, Gelosia, Mercanzia, Sobria.

         Music in the Age of Leonardo da Vinci, Ensemble Claude-Gervaise, Musica Viva  MVC 1022.   Cassette, also available on CD, but there are only 4 tracks for the 22 pieces, so can be difficult to use.  Contents: Rostiboli Gioioso, Giloxia (Gelosia), Pizochara, La fia Guilmin.  Also includes La Vida de Culin (La Vita di Cholino), but the song, which has a third part not needed for the dance.

         Music from the time of Richard III, The York Waits. Saydisc CD_SDL 364. CD.  Contents: La Spagna, Anello, Amoroso. Mercantia is also included, but not usable for the dance.

         Musica del XV secolo in Italia, Ars Italica, Tactus TC 40012201.  CD.  Contents: Rostiboli gioioso (with an extra 20 bars thrown in - very pretty, but not advised for beginners), O partita crudele, A Florence/Helas la fille/en ma chambre (Fia Guielmina).

         La Musica Italiana del XV Secolo, Sine Nomine.  Quadrivium SCA 040.  CD. Contents: Amoroso.  Also has La Vida de Colin (La Vita di Cholino), the song related to the dance.

         Musica Subterranea, Musica Subterranea, CD.  Contents: Gelosia, Rostiboli, Petit Rien, Amoroso, Anello.

         Renaissance Dances, Lionel Rogg, positif organ and The Ancient Instrument Ensemble of Zurich.  CBS Records, YT 60036.  Cassette.  Contents: La Fille Guilmin (Fia Guielmina).

         Return of the Pipers, The Philadelphia Renaissance Wind Band.  Newport Classics NPD 85567.  CD. Contents: Amoroso.

         SCA Dance Musicke Vol II, The Companions of St. Cecilia, privately produced.  Cassette. A book is available to accompany this.  Contents: Gelosia, Lauro.

         Sonare et Balare, Dances from 15th c. Italy and France, The Bedford Waits.  The Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society, 1990.  Cassette.  A book is available to accompany this.  Contents: Anello, Belreguardo Novo, Laltra fia guielmina, Giloxia, Gratioso, Legiadra, Pizochara, Rostiboli Gioioso, Spero, Castelana, Caterva,Corona, Damnes, Pellegrina, Pietosa. (Also 5 French basse dances.)

         Tape of Dance CD, Vol 3. Contents: Sobria, Anello, Colonesse, Mercantia, Petit Riens.

         To Celebrate a Prince, Dances of the time of Lorenzo de Medici, Alta.  Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society, 1992.  Cassette.  A book is available to accompany this.  Contents: Petit Rose, Vercepe, Prexonera, Ingrata, Leonzello, Colonese, Duchesco, Fiore de Vertu, Principessa, Tesara, Mignotta Nova, Marchexana, Gratioso, Cupido, Mignotta Vecchia.

         La Vida de Colin, Sine Nomine.  Quadrivium.  CD.  Not recommended for dancing. The only ballo on the CD is Petit Vriens  It is nice and lively, but the repeat pattern is wrong, so is unusable.



For any further information, please feel free to contact me at:  rosina at pathcom.com


Copyright 2001 by Vivian Stephens. <rosina at pathcom.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in

the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also

appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being

reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org