Medieval Dance in Poetry: Simon Prudenzani's Il Solazzo

[ This article appeared in volume 2 of the Letter of Dance. ]

by Leah di Estera

Lord Geffrei's excellent article [in issue seven and in the First Book of Dance -- Ed] on reconstructing a medieval dance was the inspiration for this one, which concerns medieval dance from a non-pictoral source: sonnets by Simon Prudenzani. Although Prudenzani is not a poet in the lofty class of Dante or Petrarch, this late 14th - early 15th century Italian composed a series of sonnets describing an extended Christmas party, in which one musician extraordinaire -- named Solazzo -- is the hero of the party for reason of his great skill. This party goes on for eight days, and each day the guests do something different to amuse themselves.

On the first day, the guests dance to ballatette sung by Solazzo (sonnet 22):

... then he heard: Off with your cloaks,
Let everyone get ready to dance,
This man will inspire us to make merry!

He had already said the [song] of monna Lisa,
But when he followed it with the badessa,
They all stopped dancing because they were dying of laughter.

He then sang the one about donna Fior;
Until ten o'clock they carried on in that fashion,
Then each one prepared to go to bed.

Prudenzani unfortunately does not describe the type of dancing being done here, but one can imagine a round dance, with the solo performer in the middle or to the side, as is depicted in many miniatures showing group dancing.

[image of dancers]

Figures from Music in the Garden of Delight (Illus. in McGee, Medieval Instrumental Dances)

Many of the compositions mentioned in these sonnets still exist today, a marvelously happy chance. For instance, I heard a reconstruction of a badessa [bad abbess] performed by the Newberry Consort: in this, an abbess who sets stern rules for her nuns, and then does not follow them herself, is caught out in her duplicity when, in haste to leave her own lover to go and chastize an erring young nun, puts her drawers upon her head instead of her wimple. This song indeed left the audience "dying of laughter".

The second day (sonnet 23), describes more dancing:

We come now to the second evening,
I say, indeed, that in torchlight
They danced a rigoletto very sprightly,
Leaping forward and backward and side-to-side.

Whoever would have seen each of them in the circle
Rise to dance the bicchieri,
No acrobat was ever seen
To make such wonderful moves and to go about to the ghironda

With slavonic dips and whirling about and leaping
Backwards and forwards; others were performing different moves,
Still others on tiptoe to do their dance steps.

Others bend their heads to their backs
So that they may walk on their hands with feet in the air,
As sailors do, or Greek folk.

This sonnet has more meaty information for how dances were actually performed, although rather ambiguous information. Mary Springfels, director of the Newberry Consort, suggests that here Prudenzani describes three dance steps (as opposed to dances themselves): the rigoletto, the bicchieri, and the ghironda. Thus the rigoletto = leaping forward then backwards, then side to side. I have no idea what moves the bicchieri would have, other than they would seem to be lively. Ghironda could be translated as `zither', and this plus Prudenzani's description, could indicate a swooping effect (like a hand tripping down the instrument) of the steps. My best guess for a ghironda would be: step left, dipping toward the foot, and swoop your body upright again (hips first, then rib cage, then head). Repeat right, then volta (step quick leaping turn) into the circle, and volta out again.

And, obviously, some are doing their own thing during the dancing, showing off and having fun. A passage like this indicates that not all courtly dancing was theatrical dance, and that in Medieval Italy at least, a lot of self- expression and invention was present in the dancing done at court.

The third day of the party describes couple dancing rather than individual or round dancing (sonnet 26):

On the third evening they danced two by two,
First the ranfo and then in horse style;
There was Little Dog and Lady Mea
Who did not leave each other through all that dance.

And the local vicar danced too;
He took Lady Tomea by the hand.
And no woman there, either good or bad, remained
Without a partner of her own ilk.

Then came the dance of the pertusata [button hole?] And after a while came the palandra [sailing ship?] This last one was performed for women in love.

Never was the calandra [lark song?] heard so well sung As Solazzo did this time Who seemed a shawm player come from Flanders.

No really detailed information here for those of the 14th century who would like to do these dances, except for some tantalizing names of these dances, which, by their descriptive character, give a slight idea of what these dances were supposed to depict. Also notice that everyone is dancing, not just one noble couple.

The fourth day is Christmas Eve, and everyone goes to church, where many delightful pieces are performed, both vocally and on instruments. The fifth day, people again dance (what else?) in sonnet 31, and many instruments are played expertly by Solazzo (sometimes others join in the playing), to everyone's pleasure:

With the bagpipe that evening Solazzo did La Pastorella
And La Picchina,
La Forosetta and then La Campagnina,
A la Fonte io l'Amai, La Marinella,

You would have said it was a woman speaking,
So well he did La Palazina
And La Guiduccia too, La Montanina,
La Casa Bassa and La Patrona Bella.

To this melody they danced Roman style,
A prolonged dance with pauses face-to-face,
Which is much nicer for the women than Tuscan style.

Then they cut that one short and did a rigoletto
And a le braccia [the arm, or perhaps `arming']. Even though it is popular,
Everyone there took great delight in it.

Here too are simply fascinating hints, but several things can be clearly derived from this sonnet. First, regional variations in a dance were accepted, and the dancers simply did the type they preferred. Also, dances or dance steps of the common folk were incorporated, at least sometimes, in the courtly milieu.

As an aside, for those who have not heard a medieval bagpipe, this instrument has a reedy sound much softer and sweeter than that of a modern bagpipe. Thus it is not unreasonable that a good player could make the medieval bagpipe sound like a woman singing.

This is the last sonnet that mentions dance. For the rest of the days, the guests go hunting or falconing during the daytime, listen to concerts in which various instruments are played, and join in the singing of madrigals after dinner. And of course, feast, feast, feast! Our ancestors certainly knew how to have a good time.


Notes from workshop on "Performance Practice of Medieval Italian Music", given by Mary Springfels and the Newberry Consort, at the Amherst Early Music Workshop, August 1990.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (