Mercanzia and Sobria - Two 15th C. Italian balli by Domenico da Piacenza

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

by Mistress Rosina del Bosco Chiaro

"Mercanzia and .. Sobria which are opposites in meaning: namely, in one the woman gives her attention to everyone even if there were to be a thousand, and in the other, she does not attend to anyone except the one with whom she was first paired." - Antonio Cornazano(1)


A ballo is a dance for a set number and gender of dancers, usually with one or more changes of tempo, and often with considerable possibility for interplay and dramatics. Mercanzia and Sobria are among the most theatrical of the balli and because of this they make particularly good performance pieces.

The formats of the two dances show considerable similiarity. Both start with an intrada (normal for many of the balli). They continue with a section in which the men at the rear separate. The woman and her partner then separate, and the other men approach the woman and attempt to touch her hand (successfully in the case of Mercanzia). The remainders of each of the dances differ, but they still show some similarities. There is a section in both in which the men change places, although in Sobria this is done by only the courting men, while in Mercanzia all three men are involved. This coincides with a voltatonda for the dancers who are staying still. In both dances the woman and her partner meet again, one or both performing a reverence. Sobria is lengthened by a second courting section, and then by another section in which the woman and her partner meet, after first performing figure-eights around the other men.

Both dances appear in the treatises of Domenico da Piacenza and Antonio Cornazano, and Mercanzia appears in six other manuscripts as well. Cornazano's manuscript dates from 1465, and probably is very similiar to an earlier, now lost, version from 1455. In it, Cornazano states that these dances were recently choreographed by Domenico, so they probably date from around 1455. The reconstructions given below are based on the Domenico manuscript, although the other sources have been consulted.

Steps Used in These Dances

The original sources for 15th-century Italian dance steps are unclear, and often contradictory. I also believe that there was enough regional and temporal variation, and improvisation, that there is no One Right Way of doing these steps. The ones given here are merely one possible way of doing them. So be forewarned that when doing these steps with any teacher, including myself, you will probably be taught another method. As well, some of the steps have the same or similiar names as steps done in the Burgundian or 16th-century Italian repertoires, but they are not necessarily the same.

L=Left, R=Right. Steps are described for the left foot in each case; for the right, just switch feet.

Sempio or Single. Takes a half measure of 6/4: 1=Step forward onto L foot. 2=pause, 3=Close (i.e. bring R foot beside L but keep weight on L).

Doppio or Double. Takes one measure of 6/4: 1=step L, 2 pause, 3=step R, 4=step L, 5=pause, 6=close.

Saltarello. One measure. In these dances the saltarello step is done in three different tempi: saltarello, bassadanza, and quadernaria, being approximately equivelant to 3/4, 6/4, and 4/4. The basic movements remain the same, but they are modified to match the different tempi. In (3/4) 1=step L, 2=step R, 3=step L and then hop on L (end standing on L); in (4/4) 1=step L, 2=step R, 3=step L, 4=hop on L; in (6/4) 1=step L, 2=pause, 3=step R, 4=step L, 5=pause, 6=hop on L. The main thing to remember is to dance with the music. If it tells you to hop somewhere else, hop where it tells you!

Piva. One measure in 2/4: 1=Step L, And=Bring R foot behind L foot, 2=step L, and=pause.

Ripresa. One measure.
If done all in one direction, on the same foot, step sideways onto L foot, close with R.
If done singly (here in 3/4), 1=Step sideways onto L foot, 2=close R, 3=step sideways onto L.

Continenza. Half measure: Move foot very slightly to left and shift weight to left side.

Reverenza One measure (usually): Kneel on L knee, keeping upper body straight. If there isn't enough time for a complete reverence, or if the dancer's knee strength isn't up to it, a partial reverence is acceptable.

Mezavolta or Half Turn: For a Mezavolta Left, the turn is done over the L side, i.e. counterclockwise. The mezavolta can be done while doing another step, such as in measure 19 of Mercanzia, where the woman turns with a doppio. In that case, the dancer performs the step indicated, but turns to face the other way as he does it.

The mezavolta is also often done on the first or last beat of another step. An example of this is in measure 26 of Mercanzia, where a doppio right ends with a mezavolta right. This would be performed as 1 = step R, 2=pause, 3=step L, 4=step R, 5=pause, 6=pivot clockwise. It is very common for the mezavolta to occur at the beginning of a ripresa. A mezavolta left into a ripresa right, in 6/4 time, would be performed as: 1=pivot on L foot counter-clockwise and step sideways on R, 2=pause, 3=close L, 4=step R, 5=pause, 6=close. During measures 31 and 36 of Mercanzia, the mezavolta is performed as a simple pivot.

Volta Tonda or Full Turn: There are two types of voltetonde performed in these two dances. The first is the volta del gioioso, which is always performed starting on the right foot. It consists of a counterclockwise circle done with two sempii and a mezavolta leading into a ripresa, as follows: 1=step R, doing a quarter turn counterclockwise, 2=pause, 3=close L, 4=step L, doing a quarter turn counterclockwise, 5=pause, 6=close R, 1 (2nd measure)=pivot on L foot counterclockwise and step sideways on R, 2=pause, 3=close L, 4=step sideways R, 5=pause, 6=close.

The second voltatonda is a circle done with one type of step, either 2 saltarello or 4 pive, performed in Sobria. For this type of voltatonda, do the required steps in a small circle. The direction of the circle is not specified, so it can be done clockwise or counterclockwise.


Start: Man 1 and Woman are in front, holding hands, Woman on the right. Man 2 and Man 3 are 4 steps behind them, also holding hands, Man 3 on the right.

Section I (4 measures in 6/8, played 3 times)

2-1211 Saltarelli.

Section II (6 measures in 4/4)

13-18Man 2 = 6 Riprese to the left, and Man 3 = 6 Riprese to the right.

Section III (4 measures in 6/4)

19Woman Mezavolta (Doppio Left, counterclockwise),
20-22Man 1 Doppio Left, Doppio Right, Doppio Left, away from the others.

Section IV (8 measures in 6/4)

23-24Man 2 goes up to Woman with Sempio Left, Sempio Right, Doppio Left, touching her right hand,
25-26Man 2 returns to his place with Sempio Right, Sempio Left, Doppio Right ending with a Mezavolta Right, as Woman Volta del Gioioso,
27-30Man 3 repeats what Man 2 did, Woman repeating the Volta del Gioioso.

Section V (1 measure in 3/4)

31Man 1 Mezavolta Right (pivot on right foot),

Section VI (2 measures in 6/4)

32-33Man 2 and 3 Saltarello Left, Saltarello Right, taking right hands, and switching places. They end side by side.

Section VII (2 measures in 4/4)

34-35Man 1 Saltarello Left, Saltarello Right, ending behind and to the left of the woman, and looks at her jokingly. (He switches his weight to the left at the end, as he will need his right foot free.)

Section VIII (1 measure in 3/4)

36Woman Mezavolta Right (pivot on right foot) to face Man 1, as Man 1 Ripresa Right. (They end face to face.)

Section IX (4 measures in 6/4)

37Man 1 and Woman Reverenza Left, but ending with weight on left foot,
38All Continenza Right, Continenza Left,
39-40Man 1 Sempio Right, Sempio Left, Doppio Right, passing by the left side of the woman, into Man 3's places, as Man 3 uses the same steps to get to the left side of the woman, as Man 2 and Woman Volta del Gioioso.

Man 1 is now Man 2, Man 2 is Man 3 and Man 3 is Man 1. Repeat dance twice more.

Notes on Mercanzia

Measure 1: Domenico says to start with a movimento. This may refer to the hop of the saltarello, as the hop may have been on the upbeat of each bar, rather than the end. Since I teach the saltarello as having the hop at the end of the bar, I have chosen to ignore this. The other manuscripts do not give this initial movimento. (When the dance is repeated, do 12 measures of saltarelli, instead of a one measure pause and 11 saltarelli.)

As well, only one source gives a foot to start with, that being the left. The other sources do not give a starting foot, which is often the case in saltarello sections. I believe that saltarello sections were often used for improvisary footwork, which can include changes of foot, and that this may explain why the starting foot is often not given. I have left it out, but (unless improvisation is actually done), suggest that having everyone starting on the left foot (both the first time, and for the two repeats), will be easiest to remember. The only other consideration is that in the next section, Man 2 and 3 are moving on different feet, so it is possible that they start the saltarello section on inside feet instead.

Measure 19: None of the sources specify how the woman does her mezavolta, except to note that it takes one bar, and that it is done on or from the left. I decided to use a doppio, as that leaves the woman free to use her right foot the next time she moves, in measure 25. This isn't too important, however, as in the intervening measures she presumably stands with her weight on both feet. Other possibilities include a turn with two sempii, a mezavolta followed by a ripresa, or a simple pivot.

Measure 25: Cornazano states that he turns to the right without loosing time, presumably along with the first step of the sempio.

Measure 31 and 36: Again, no step is given for these mezevolte. They could also be a sempio, or a pivot followed by a ripresa, especially in measure 36, where it would match the step done by Man 1.

Music for Mercanzia



Start: Man 1 and Woman are in the front, holding hands, Woman on the right, Man 2 and Man 3 are 4 steps behind them, holding hands, Man 3 on the right, and Man 4 and 5 are 4 steps behind them, also holding hands, and with Man 5 on the right.

Section I (5 measures in 3/4, played three times)

2-1514 Saltarelli.

Section II (10 measures in 2/4)

16-19Man 2 and 4 do 4 Riprese Left, Man 3 and 5 do 4 Riprese Right,
20-22Woman and Man 1 take right hands and circle with Piva Left, Piva Right, Piva Left, ending with Woman facing other Men, and Man 1 facing as he started,
23-25Woman Piva Right, Piva Left, Piva Right ending with Mezavolta Right, ending in the center of the other 4 men, facing her partner's back.

Section III (4 measures in 6/4, played three times)

26Man 2 and Man 3 Doppio Right up to Woman,
27Man 2 and 3 Reverenza Left and try to touch Woman, but she indignantly steps back and turns away and they turn with a jump.
(Breaking this down by beats produces the following:
Woman: 1-4 = none, 5 = step back, 6 = pivot;
Men: 1-3 = reverenza, moving down, 4-5 = rise more swiftly, 6 = jump in the air, turning around.)
28 Man 2 and 3 Saltarello Right, back to place.
29Man 2 and 3 turn to each other, and shrug.
30-33Man 4 and 5 and Woman repeat measures 26-29.
34Man 1 pivots, and he and Woman approach with Sempio Left, Sempio Right,
35Man 1 and Woman come together with a Doppio Left ending with a fast Reverenza Right (in the same measure), touching hands,
36-37Man 1 and Woman pivot and Doppio Left, Doppio Right, so back in place, Man 1 outside of group, and Woman in the center of the other 4 men.

Section IV (3 in 4/4, 3 in 6/4, 2 in 6/4, all repeated)

38-39Man 2 and 3 Saltarello Left and Right towards each other, passing right shoulders,
40Man 2 and 3 Saltarello Left up to Woman, so side by side, behind her,
41Man 3 motions with his right hand at Man 2 and points at Woman,
42Man 2 motions back with his left hand that he doesn't want to,
43Woman turns, angrily, and Man 2 and 3 turn with a jump,
44 Man 2 and 3 Saltarello Right to each other's places,
45Man 2 and Man 3 turn to each other and shrug.
46-53Man 4, Man 5 and Woman repeat the above.

Section V (10 measures in 3/4)

54-61Man 1 and Woman do 8 Saltarelli, starting Left, each in a separate figure 8. Man 1 starts by passing between Man 2 and 3, goes clockwise around Man 3, counterclockwise around Man 2, and ends in the middle, facing down. Woman starts by passing between Man 3 and 5, goes counter-clockwise around Man 5, clockwise around Man 4, and ends in the middle, facing up. Man 1 and Woman touch hands at the end,
62-63Woman Voltatonda (Saltarello Left, Saltarello Right), ending in the center of the square, as Man 1 pivots and does Saltarello Left, Saltarello Right, out of the square.

Section VI (4 measures in 2/4, played three times)

64-67Man 2 and Man 3 switch places with 4 Pive, starting Left, as Man 4 and Man 5 do the same, as Man 1 turns in a circle with 4 Pive, starting Left,
68-71Man 2 and Man 4 switch places with 4 Pive, starting Left, as Man 3 and Man 5 do the same, as Man 1 comes to the woman with 4 Pive, starting Left, as Woman turns in a circle with 4 Pive, starting left,
72-75Men 2, 3, 4, 5 close in with 4 Riprese, all on the same foot, as Man 1 and Woman escape with 4 Pive, starting Left.

The direction Man 1 and Woman escape in isn't specified. If they escape forward, the dance ends with Man 1 and Woman in front, Man 4 (on the left) and Man 5 in the middle, and Man 2 (on the left), and Man 3 at the rear.

Notes on Sobria

Measure 1: Again, Domenico starts the saltarello section with a movimento, and no starting foot is given. (See note for measure 1 of Mercanzia.)

Measure 27-29: The timing for all of this is quite unclear, and different interpretations are possible.

Measure 29 and 45: The shrug is, in the original, a posada or a possa, which might be translated as a pose or a pause. I am interpreting it as some sort of mimed gesture between the two men, probably indicating that they really weren't all that interested in the woman.

Music for Sobria(2)



Domenico of Piacenza, De arte saltandi & choreas ducendi, c. 1455.

Madelaine Inglehearn & Peggy Forsyth, trans., The Book on the Art of Dancing, by Antonio Cornazano, London:Dance Books Ltd., 1981. ISBN: 0-903102-63-3.

Barbara Sparti, ed., On the Practice of the Art of Dancing, Guglielmo Ebreo., Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1993. Paperback ISBN: 0-19-816574-9.

A. William Smith. Fifteenth-Century Dance and Music, Pendragon Press, Stuvyesant, NY. 1995


Mesura et Arte del Danzare. Balli Italiani del Quattrocento. Accademia Viscontea i Musicanti. Ducale CDL 002. This CD includes Mercanzia and Sobria, both of which work with these reconstructions. Sobria has an extra 5-measure introduction.

La cour du Roi Rene (At the Court of King Rene). Ensemble Perceval, Arion ARN 68104. Has Mercantia which works with this reconstruction. The first four measures sound like an introduction but aren't.

Music from the time of Richard III, The York Waits. Saydisc CD_SDL 364. Has Mercantia but only 2 repeats. I found the speeds chosen to be uncomfortable, and the last 5 sections were sufficiently hard to follow that I can't vouch for their usability.


1 Translation from Smith, p.90.

2 There were a number of places where Domenico's music and dance instructions didn't match, and where the music was highly ambiguous (e.g. extra notes that didn't fit any time signature he might have meant at that point). We didn't have access to the Cornazano manuscript, but decided to follow Smith's transcription for the most part, which in turn relies on a combination of Domenico and Cornazano. The one area in which we retained a difference is that of key signature; Domenico's notation suggests the key in which we have transcribed this, while Smith offers two (other) interpretations. - Ellisif Flakkari, transcriber.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (