Book Review: Fifteenth-Century Dance and Music

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

Fifteenth-Century Dance and Music - Twelve Transcribed Italian Treatises and Collections in the Tradition of Domenico da Piacenza (Volumes I and II), Translated and Annotated by A. William Smith, 1995, Pendragon Press, Stuyvesant, NY.

by Rosina del Bosco Chiaro

As the title indicates, these books bring together the sources for fifteenth-century dance. It is an invaluable tool for the reconstructor, and of interest to anyone who does the dances of this repetoire. Note that this work is not, itself, a dance manual, as it does not give a reconstruction of the dances, nor does it describe how the author believes the steps were done. It presents the information that is available to us from the original sources, and leaves the decision making to the reader.

Volume I: Treatises and Music

This volume contains a transcription and facing page translation of three fifteenth-century manuals; those of Domenico, Cornazano, and one of the manuals of Giovanni Ambrosio. Each is preceeded by a biography of the author. Parts of nine other manuals are then given, being the non-choreographic sections which are not duplicated in one of the other manuals. (The choreographic sections are included in Volume II.) Preceeding each source is information on its format, contents, and notes on the scribal shorthand used. There is at least one page reproduced from each source.

The music, from all the sources, is included, with a suggested modern transcription. There are two indexes, one devided by subject, (very useful when you want to look up all the dance terms, but can't remember what they are all called ...), the other general, and there is an extensive bibliography.

Volume II: Choreographic Descriptions with Concordances of Variants

This volume presents the 100 dances of the sources, in tabular form. Each source is given a separate column, while each row is a small section of the dance. This makes it exceedingly easy to examine a dance, comparing all the different versions. The right hand column gives an approximate English translation. Because the sources do differ, it is not possible to give a translation that matches all of them, but this column makes it much easier for a reader who is not fluent in Italian to find a portion of the dance, or get a general understanding of what occurs in it. Differences between sources, and potential problems with the translation are indicated in footnotes. Two appendices complete the volume. The first gives an overall view of the manuals, giving the location of the material, both theoretical and choreographical, in each. The second appendix gives the material from a German source, the Nurnburg manuscript, which contains eight dances found in the Italian repetoire.

There are a few small problems with the work; a couple of footnotes missing, pages in the music section put in the wrong order, a difference in the choreography which isn't footnoted. These are minor problems, and should in no way lessen its usefulness. The translation of the dances should be used with caution, as reconstruction assumptions may have coloured the translation, but the sources are right there to compare with, in cases of doubt.

I would have preferred to see the Il Papa manuscript included, but the decision to exclude it may have been beyond the author's control.

These books are highly recommended. To quote from Master Sion: If one does not have the originals, or having them, does not read manuscript Italian very well, you need this book. In any case, this is a major work in the field of 15C dance, and if one is at all serious about the field, or the subfield, this is a must-have!

The book can be ordered from:

Pendragon Press
RR1, Box 159, Ferry Road
Stuyvesant, NY 12173-9720
(518) 828-3008 Fax (518) 828-2368

The current price for each volume is $64 - $136.56 with postage and handling for both.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (