Italian Balli of the 15th Century

[ This article appeared in volume 3 of the Letter of Dance. ]

by Master Trahaearn ap Ieuan and Mistress Jane Lynn of Fenmere

"The art of dancing is, for generous hearts that love it, and for gentle spirits that have a heaven-sent inclination for it rather than an accidental disposition, a most amicable matter, entirely different from and mortally inimical to the vicious and artless common people who frequently, with corrupt spirits and depraved minds, turn it from a liberal art and virtuous science, into a vile adulterous affair, and who more often in their dishonest concupiscence under the guise of modesty, make the dance a procuress, through whom they are able to arrive stealthily at the satisfaction of their desires."

Guglielmo Ebreo

The Primary Sources

These dances appear in the works of three Italian dancemasters: Domenico, Cornazano, and Guglielmo. Domenico da Piacenza (1390-1464) is credited by Marrocco as the first dance choreographer to establish an Italian school of the dance, and his students Cornazano and Guglielmo describe themselves as devoted disciples and fervent imitators ("divotissimo discieplo e fervente imitatore" (FN)) of this man with a knightly aura of perfection and famous virtue ("cavagliere aurato per la sua perfecta et famosissima virtute." (V)) The so-called Domenico manuscript from 1455, the earliest surviving treatise on the art of dance, was written by an anonymous scribe or student of dance based on the work of this illustrious man. It includes 23 dances and their music as well as theoretical explanations on the art of dance.

Antonio Cornazano (1430-1484) was an Italian poet and courtier, who presented a copy of his Libro dell'arte del danzare to the daughter of the Duke of Milan in 1455. A copy of this text, c. 1465, survives. It contains a theoretical introduction, a summary of eleven of Domenico's dances, and Domenico's tunes with some additions.

Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro (1410-1481) was a Jewish dance master, choreographer, composer, and theorist. His De practica seu arte tripudii survives in seven known versions, plus three existing fragments. The Sparti translation is from the 1463 version written by the scribe Paganus Raudensis in Milan for Galeazzo Sfroza, believed to be the original source for the various copies. There are significant differences between each of the versions of Guglielmo's work, with varying degrees of completeness and clarity, added or omitted information, and major innovations to some dance choreographies. De practica includes a theoretical introduction proving the moral and ethical worth of dance, a section on the fundamental concepts on which the art of dance is based, and a Socratic dialogue defending dancing and supporting the importance of his principles of dance. This is followed by the practice, which includes choreographies of 31 dances: 14 bassedanze, and 17 balli.

Six Principal Elements of Dance

Guglielmo describes six elements which must be "minutely and perfectly grasped, for if one of these is lacking in any way, the art [of the dance] would not be truly perfect." (Sparti, 93) Similar precepts appear in Domenico and Cornazano, as this form of rhetoric was common to most 15th c. treatises, no matter what the topic. Keeping these principles in mind while performing the dances of this period will lend an additional degree of authenticity to your dancing.

Misura. Measure is the ability to keep time to the music, ensuring that the "steps will be in perfect accord with the aforesaid tempo." (Sparti, 93) The rhythms of Italian balli are not always in regular 4/4 time, and dances are composed of different measures which vary in speed and tempo, so many SCA dancers may find it difficult to have a full grasp of misura.

Memoria. Marrocco summarizes Memory as "the talent to retain melodies... to recall changes in tempi and measures... and to recall step sequences of the choreography." The treatises also emphasize that this includes the ability to adjust your steps as needed to match changes in the music and to respond to your partner's improvised movimenti accidentali.

Partire di Terreno. Partitioning the ground is the ability to "use one's wits to measure and partition the ground and dancing area in such a way that with every kind of rhythm one is able to dance and keep together with the lady without gaining or losing ground." (Sparti, 97) Guglielmo points out that it is especially important to adjust your steps and timing when dancing in a narrow and short room.

Aiere. Air is defined as "... an act of airy presence and a rising movement with one's body which appears, through nimbleness in the dance, as a sweet and most gentle rising up. Thus, anyone dancing a sempio or a doppio... has to lift the body lightly and rise up nimbly on the down-beat." (Sparti, 97) Cornazano describes this as ondeggiare (to wave as the waves of the sea); "ondeggiare in the second short step rising gracefully up on that, and with the same grace lower yourself at the third [step] which completes the doppio" (Sparti, 97) and "nothing else than a slow raising of the whole body and a rapid lowering." (Kinkeldey, 10) Domenico uses the metaphor of a gondola riding calm waves, "the little waves rising slowly and lowering themselves quickly." (Sparti, 97)

Mayniera. Manner is an adornment or shading of the movement of the body to match the movement of the feet. When doing a sempio or doppio, the dancer should "turn his body completely to the same side as the foot with which he takes the step." (Sparti, 99) Cornazano is a bit more literal, saying "if you move the right foot to make a double step, you ought to balance on the left, which remains on the ground, turning your body slightlyin that direction." (Kinkeldey, 10) Or, in Dixon's translation of this same passage, a right foot double is performed by "highlighting the left which remains on the ground, turning a little the body to the former side (the right), and undulating over the second short step, rising smoothly over it, and with equal smoothness lowering yourself on the third which completes the double." (Dixon, 9)

Guglielmo and Cornazano both seem to imply that this is a lateral or horizontal movement rather than the up-down of the ondeggiare. Guglielmo assures us that "this will be understood more fully in practice," (Sparti, 99) but, it remains unclear to us how to do this gracefully, thus we haven't included this adornment in our reconstructions.

Movimento corporeo. Body movement is the principle "in which all the perfection of the art and virtue of the dance is clearly demonstrated both in action and appearance. This must itself be perfectly measured, mindful, airy, well-partitioned, and gracious in manner... These things are far easier to the young, the shapely, the nimble, and those well-endowed with grace..." ... but hopefully the rest of us can fake it well enough!

Dancing in 15th-Century Italian Society

There appear to have been several forms of dancing at Italian festivities: general dancing in which couples and trios danced saltarello and piva, formal courtly dances in which only the hosts, or important guests, danced while all others watched, and moresche - mimed and costumed performances for the entertainment of all.

General dancing is seen during the visit of Pope Pius II to Florence in 1459, "The dancing began with a saltarello... during which `every squire' chose a partner..." The general dancing seems to have been improvised to some degree "some promenading around, some skipping, others changing hands," (anonymous manuscript as quoted in Sparti, 49) and some dropping out as others joined in.

At this same event, important courtiers took their turns displaying their dancing skills with a variety of dances, including balli that were currently in vogue. "Then two charming girls, bowing deeply, asked Galeazzo to join the dancing. When their dance had finished, the young count himself invited two ladies to dance, after which one of his courtiers followed suit." The accounts state that `as he [Galeazzo] passed all stood up.' (quoted in Sparti, 49) The dancing at a marriage celebration in Milan in 1490 began with the bride dancing two dances in the company of three of her ladies-in-waiting. At a festival in 1454, pairs of ladies took turns dancing "bassadanza and Lioncello, some the piva, some the saltarello, others Rostiboli... and others Gelosia." (Gaugello Gaugelli as quoted in Sparti, 51) It is unclear from these accounts whether or not dancers followed a specific order of precedence to determine when their turn had come to dance, or whether your chance to perform alone or with other groups depended upon your rank.

Many large celebrations, particularly those at which nobles wished to display their wealth and improve their reputation, included moresche, theatre-dance pieces performed in costume. Using elaborate masks, scenery, fire, and subtletys, they portrayed allegorical, historical, and exotic scenes. One spectacle is 1474 was "a morality in praise of Chastity (but including Cleopatra leading various `lascivious women of antiquity') culminated in a bassadanza performed around Chastity by six `queens', followed by twelve `nymphs' who danced in a ring around them." (Cod. Palat. 286 in Florence, as quoted in Sparti, 55) These moresca were danced by dance-masters, by professional dancers, by squires and other members of the household, or by courtiers themselves - always properly masked. The steps used are likely to have been similar to those of the bassedanze and balli.

Bassedanze and Balli

"The bassa danza was a solemn, dignified dance, called the queen of dances by Cornazano... without undue raising of the feet or knees, hence the adjective bassa." (Kinkeldey, 17) Women were encouraged to keep their manner "sweet, modest, and suave, and her acting with her body humble and gentle with a bearing befitting that of a refined lady." (Marrocco, 34) However, unlike the rigid structure of French bassedanse, it did sometimes call for interjections of saltarello and other more vigorous dances.

Balli were complicated and expressive dances, including steps from bassadanza, saltarello, and piva, as well as tempo changes. They gave dancers a chance to display a wide variety of skills to those watching. They "were not unstructured ballroom dances which allowed the freedom to enter or leave the dance floor, but highly polished performances... centered around a wordless skit." (Marrocco, 35) Themes often related to "the eternal chase of man after woman represented in situations which often border on the comic, where advance is met with rejection, or acceptance, seduction with capitulation, where coquetry bears no fruit..." (Marrocco, 34)

Timing of the Double Step

A double step on the left involves three main movements: the left foot, then the right, then the left. When doing a double step in bassadanza tempo (6 counts per measure), these movements were apparently divided unevenly amongst the counts, rather than each taking its share of two counts. When discussing Maniera, Cornazano specifies that the second step is short, and the third step ends the doppio. Thus, the first third of the tempo (2 counts) is given to the regular-length first movement. The "short" step takes only the third count, leaving counts 4-6 for the final movement. This timing is difficult to master. If you can't get it to work, you may fall back on even divisions of steps to music, with each step taking two counts.

A double step in quadernaria is described by Domenico as a doppio with a frapamento (ornament), which might be a small ripresa (Cornazano describes the quadernaria step as two singles followed by a little ripresa), or a little stamp of the foot as Brainard suggests, or some other ornamentation. For simplicity, we suggest ignoring the frapamento, and simply pausing on the fourth count.

Step Reconstruction Sources

These treatises do not provide much concrete information on how the steps were done. Our reconstruction is based on information gleaned from the primary sources, from other modern scholars' interpretations of these 15th century steps, and from knowledge of steps from 16th century sources, including Arbeau, Caroso, and Negri.

Primary Sources

Domenico da Piacenza. De arte saltandi et choreas ducendi (On the Art of Dancing and Choreography).

PdParis, Bibliothèque Nationale, fonds ital. 973. c. 1455.

Antonio Cornazano. Libra dell'arte del danzare (Book on the Art of Dancing).

VBiblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Capponiano 203. c. 1465.

Guglielmo Ebreo. De practica seu arte tripudii (On the Practice or Art of Dancing).

FLFlorence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Antinori 13.
FNFlorence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, magliabechiano XIX 88. Translation of instructions done by Jessica Polito is available at:
MModena, Biblioteca Estense, alpha J74.
NYNew York Public Library Dance Collection, MGZMB-Res. 72-254.
PgParis, Bibliothèque Nationale, fonds ital. 973.* Dated 1463.
PaParis, Bibliothèque Nationale, fonds ital. 476.
SSiena, Biblioteca Comunale, L V 29.


Double on leftOne tempo. In six counts: 1-2: step forward with the left foot, raising up slightly on the toe. 3: step forward with the right foot, rising up onto both toes. 4-6: step normally onto flat of the left foot. We call these as "up-up-flat". In four counts: 1: up, 2: up, 3-4: flat (and pause).
PivaTwo pivas take one tempo. A piva is "none other than doubles agitated and accelerated through the speed of the measure which excites the dancer to it." (Cornazano). In other words, it's just a double, done twice as fast.
Riverenza on leftOne tempo. 1: Bring the left foot forward. 2-3: then draw a semicircle with it (from front to left to behind) to bring it behind you. 4: bend both knees and shift weight to the back leg. 5: straighten both knees and bring weight forward while 6: bringing the left foot up next to the right.
Ripresa leftOne tempo. 1-2: Step sideways to the left with the left foot. 3-4: Swing your weight over onto this foot. 5-6: Step sideways to the left with the right foot to close.
Saltarello on leftOne tempo. In six counts: 1-2: step forward on left foot. 3: hop on left foot, right knee should be brought forward and up, rather than hanging backward. 4-5: step forward on right foot. 6: step forward on left foot. Called as step-and-hop-step-and-step. In four counts: 1: step 2: hop 3: step 4: step.
Single on left, rightOne tempo. In six counts: 1-2: step forward with the left foot. 3-4: Pause. 5-6: step forward with the right foot. Called as singles left-and-right.
TempoA tempo is the equivalent of a modern musical bar, and is the amount of time required for a double step. Generally means six counts in the music. May mean four counts in some dances that are played in 4/4 rhythm, or in quadernaria.

[This article is taken from a longer one written for the Music and Dance Ithra (1996). The original article included reconstructions of four dances, of which two are included below. - Ed]

Petit Riense

(Little Nothings, for 3 dancers in a line - Easy)
Giovanni Ambrosiao, De practica seu arte tripudii (Pa), 1470s

A1-16Piva on left, right, left, right, etc (traveling a total of 16 pivas)
B1-41st dancer: Piva on left, right, left, right (moving ahead of the others)
5-82nd dancer: Piva on left, right, left, right (to join the first dancer)
9-123rd dancer: Piva on left, right, left, right (to join the otherdancers)
C1-21st dancer: Double on left (again moving ahead)
3-42nd dancer: Double on left (again to join the first dancer)
5-63rd dancer: Double on left (again to join the other dancers)
D1-21st dancer and 2nd dancer: Riverenza to each other
3-43rd dancer and 2nd dancer: Riverenza to each other
E1-2Double back (away from each other)
3-4Double forward (returning to each other)
5-6Ripresa left and right (this is twice as fast as normal)
7-8Double on left, turning a full circle

Repeat as desired

[Reconstruction by Trahaearn based on Ingrid Brainard and Rosina del Bosco Chiaro]

The Text

Imprima sedice tempi di piva & poi se fermino & poi el primo se parta con qactro tempi di piva & poi se ferme el secondo glie vada appresso facendo il simile el terço glie vada puro appresso facendo el simile. Ancora el primo se parte con un doppio cominciando col pe sinstro el secondo faccia il simile el terço faccia puro el simile el primo faccia una riverencia a quello du meço & quello di meço glia risponda & quello ultimo faccia una riverencia a quello di meço & poi facciano tucti tre insieme una riverencia & poi se tireno in dirieto con un doppio al contrario l'un di l'altro & poi vengano in contro l'uno all'altro con un doppio cominciando col pe diricto & poi facciano doe rimprese l'una sul sinestro & l'altra sul dricto & poi dagano una volta tonda tucti tre insieme in sul pe sinestro.


First sixteen tempi of piva & then stop & then the first parts with four tempi of piva & then stops next the second goes to him doing the same also the third goes to him doing the same. Again the first parts with a doppio beginning on the left foot the second does the same also the third does the same the first does a riverencia to the middle one & the middle responds to him & the last one does a riverencia to the middle one & then all three do a riverencia & then they move back with a double to the opposite from one another & then they come back to one another with a double beginning on the right foot & then they do two rimprese the one to the left and the other to the right & then all three do a volta tonda beginning on the left foot.

Reconstruction Note

First, the choreography seemingly calls for four reverences but the music explicitly has three repeats of phrase D. We reconcile this by having the first two reverences be simultaneous, adding a response reverence from 2nd to 3rd. Another version compresses some of the reverences, but we prefer to keep all the reverences at their standard duration. Second, phrase E provides only 16 counts for steps that would normally take 24. We have chosen to compress the two ripresa into two counts each, and use a doppio for the volta tonda. A volta tonda is normally two singles followed by a ripresa, but there is no following ripresa called for here, and two singles are tricky for a full turn without the ripresa. In some other dances where there is no following ripresa, Ebreo calls for the volta tonda done with a doppio. We have chosen to make this substitution here.

Music for Petit Riense



(For 3 couples longways - Intermediate) Guglielmo Ebreo, De practica seu arte tripudii (Pg), 1463

A11-6Riverenza on left
7-24Saltarello on left, right, left
A21-24Saltarello on right, left, right, left
A31-24Saltarello on right, left, right, left
B1-30Saltarello on right, left, right, left, right (for a total of sixteen)
C11-63rd couple pos: Singles on left, right
7-183rd couple pos: Double on left, right
19-303rd couple pos: Double on left, right
(The third couple goes around the second couple and up between the first couple to move to the top of the set)
1-62nd couple pos: (Take right hands and) Single on left, right
7-122nd couple pos: Double on left
13-182nd couple pos: (Take left hands and) Single on right, left
19-242nd couple pos: Double on right
25-302nd couple pos: Riverenza
(The second couple takes hands and trades places, then trades places back and concludes with a reverence)
C21-30Repeat C1 in new positions
C31-30Repeat C1 in new positions (returning to original positions)
D11-6Men: Piva on left, right, left (to circle partner)
D21-6Women: Piva on left, right, left (to circle partner)
E1-2Men: Turn to face partner
3-4Women: Turn to face partner
5-8Men: Double back on left while
Women: Double back on right (partners back away from each other)
9-12Men: Double forward on right, turning 270° to face up while
Women: Double forward on left, turning left 270° to face up
(Partners come back together, turning to face up to begin the dance again)

Repeat as music permits.

[Reconstruction by Trahaearn based on those of Ingrid Brainard and Richard Powers]

Music for Colonesse


The Text

In prima sedici tempi di saltarello, et poi si fermano. et quella coppia ch'e di dietro vada con doi sempij et quattro doppij partendo col pie sinistro, cioe tramezando le due coppie, tanto che la coppia di drieto si truovi dinanti a tutti. ella donna si truovi dalla man di sopra del huomo. et in quel tempo che la coppia di drieto fa questo, quella di mezo vada al tondo con doi sempij et un doppio partendo col sinistro, cio e pigliandosi colla man dritta ognuno. et poi in quel temp medesmo vadano pur al tondo con doi sempi, & un doppio partendo col pie dritto, et poi facciano una riverenza in sul sinistro. et cosi faccia la coppia di mezo chome ha fatto quell'ultima, cio e con doi sempij & quattro doppij. et in quel tempo che quegli di drieto vanno, la coppia di mezo vada sempre al tondo con doi sempij & un doppio chome e ditto, tanto che le donne si truovano tutte da la man di sopra, elle coppie si truovano tutte a soi luoghi chome stavano in prima. et poi se fermano tutti ad un tempo. et poi vadano intorno alle donne loro con tre tempi di piva. et in quel tempo le donne stiano ferme, et poi facciano quello hanno fatto gli huomini, cio e quegli tre tempi di piva. et poi tutti tre gli huomini facciano un schosso ad un tempo insieme, elle donne gli respondano. et poi gli huomini elle donne si tirano in drieto con un doppio partendo col pie dritto. et poi vengano in contro l'uno all'altro con un doppio partendo col sinistro, cio e voltandosi tondo tutti quanti.


First sixteen tempi of saltarello, and then stop. And that couple which is in the back goes with two sempii and four doppii beginning on the left foot, that is, partitioning the two couples, such that the couple in back ends in front of all. And the woman ends on the side above the man. And in this time that the couple in back has done this, that of the middle goes to turn with two sempii and a doppio beginning on the left, this with each one taking the right hand. And then at the same time also they go to turn with two sempii, & a doppio beginning with the right foot, and then they make a riverenza up on the left. And then the couple of the middle does that which the last couple did, that is, with two sempii & four doppii. And in this time that those of the back go, the couple of the middle go always to turn with two sempii & a doppio as it was said, such that all the women end on the side above, and the couples all end in their places as they were standing at first. And then all stop at one time. And then they go around the women with three tempi of piva. And in that time the women stand stopped, and then they do that which the men have done, that is those three tempi of piva. at then all the three men do a scosso at one time together, and the women respond. And then the men and the women pull back with a doppio beginning on the right foot. And then they go to meet each other with a doppio beginning on the left that is turning all the way around.

Reconstruction Note

Thrice through A and once through B is time for 17 steps, but the dance only calls for 16 saltarelli. A movimento (movement) is often called for at the beginning of a sequence of saltarelli; little is known about how this step would have been done. Sparti says that Coronazzo describes the movimento as "a most virtuous question and answer between the man and lady." We have substituted a reverence, which captures the spirit of this definition.


Brainard, Ingrid. The Art of Courtly Dancing in the Early Renaissance. Published by the author, 1981

Cruickshank, Diana. Danzare et Sonare. 15th century Italian Dances. Published by the author, 1992.

Available for £s;6 (including postage) from the author. Companion audio tape is £s;7. Diana Cruickshank, Hunter's Moon, Orcheston, Salisbury, Wiltshire, SP3 4RP England. (Note, this is from her as a private individual, separate from her role as DHDS Secretary.)

Dixon, Peggy. Nonsuch Early Dance, vol. II. Italian Renaissance (15th c.) and Caroso & Negri Dances. Published by the author, 1986.

Available from the author for £s;7 plus shipping. Companion tape is £s;4. Peggy Dixon, 16 Brook Drive, London, SE11 4TT

Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society. Sonare et Balare. Dance and music of the 15th Century. Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk: Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society, 1989.

Available for £s;5 plus £s;2 shipping from DHDS. Companion audio tape is £s;7 plus £s;1.25 shipping. DHDS Secretary, Diana Cruickshank, Hunter's Moon, Orcheston, Salisbury, Wiltshire, SP3 4RP England.

Kinkeldey, Otto. A Jewish Dancing Master of the Renaissance: Guglielmo Ebreo. Brooklyn: Dance Horizons, 1966, reprinted from 1929.

Marrocco, W. Thomas. "Fifteenth-Century Ballo and Bassadanza: A Survey." CORD, XIII, 1981.

Sparti, Barbara. De practica seu arte tripudii. On the Practice or Art of Dancing. Includes Sparti's translation of the 1463 de practica* now in Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Wilson, D.R. "`La giloxia'/'Gelosia' as described by Domenico and Guglielmo." Historical Dance, 3(1), 3-9, 1992.

This issue of Historical Dance is available for £s;6 plus £s;2 shipping from Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society. See address above.


Dances from the Courts of Europe (2). Nonsuch.

Companion tape to Peggy Dixon's book. See bibliography. Includes a working version of Mercantia. The Gelosia is very difficult to follow!

Danzare et Sonare. 15th c. Italian Dances. Longslade Consort.

Companion tape to Diana Cruickshank's book. See bibliography. Includes a nice Petit Riense. Has two versions of Gelosia, one which matches our reconstruction for three dancers, and one which works for an alternate version done with five couples. In this version, the 3rd gentleman progresses down the bottom half of the set at the same time the 1st gentleman weaves down from the top in Part C. Part F music repeats 5 times so all couples turn out separately.

Forse Che Si Forse Che No. Musique de Danse du Quattrocentro. Ferrarra Ensemble.

Fonti musicali fmd 182, 1989.

Includes a nice Petit Riense, and a Gelosia. Note that in Gelosia the music for F figure repeats 5 times. This is based on one interpretation of an obscure symbol in the primary source. This can be used for five couples, or three if you want to fudge the extra F measures with some embellishment.

Mesura et Arte del Danzare. Balli Italiani del Quattrocento. Academia Viscontea I Muicanti. Ducale CDL 002, 1991.

We got ours by calling the Public Radio Music Source 1-800-75-MUSIC. Includes Colonnese, Petit Riense, Gelosia, and Mercanzia. All line up correctly with the choreographies contained here. Nice sounding, easy to dance to. Very highly recommended.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (