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«JENNIFER NEVILE The Eloquent Body The Eloquent Body Dance and Humanist Culture in Fifteenth-Century Italy Jennifer Nevile Indiana University Press ...»

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Eloquent Body

Dance and Humanist Culture

in Fifteenth-Century Italy



Eloquent Body


Eloquent Body

Dance and Humanist Culture in

Fifteenth-Century Italy

Jennifer Nevile





This book is a publication of

Indiana University Press

601 North Morton Street

Bloomington, IN 47404-3797 USA


Telephone orders 800-842-6796 Fax orders 812-855-7931 Orders by e-mail iuporder@indiana.edu 2004 by Jennifer Nevile All rights reserved No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. The Association of American University Presses’ Resolution on Permissions constitutes the only exception to this prohibition.

The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1984.

manufactured in the u nited states o f a merica Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Nevile, Jennifer.

The eloquent body : dance and humanist culture in fifteenth-century Italy / Jennifer Nevile.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 0-253-34453-0 (cloth : alk. paper)

1. Dance—Social aspects—Italy—History—15th century.

2. Humanism—Italy—History—15th century. 3. Dance—Italy—History—15th century. I. Title.

GV1588.6.N48 2004 306.4'846'094509024—dc22 To the two Tims—T. W. and T. M.

Contents Acknowledgments ix Introduction

1. Dance and Society

2. The Dance Treatises and Humanist Ideals

3. Eloquent Movement—Eloquent Prose

4. Dance and the Intellect

5. Order and Virtue Conclusion Appendix 1.

Transcription and Translation of MS from Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Magl. VII 1121, f. 63r–69v Giovanni Carsaniga

–  –  –

The idea for this book originated over a decade ago, and since then its scope has grown considerably. During these years I have been fortunate to receive assistance in various ways from friends and colleagues, to whom I owe a deep debt of gratitude. It is my pleasure to acknowledge their help and encouragement here, as a small recompense for their efforts.

The manuscript was read in its entirety in its various stages by Mary Chan, Timothy McGee, and John O. Ward. Their comments and suggestions greatly strengthened the structure and flow of the argument, and sharpened the focus of the study. Their varying fields of expertise meant that errors both large and small were eliminated, and any that remain are solely the responsibility of the author. All three were very generous with their time, and in their belief in and continuing support of the project. Their efforts in this regard are deeply appreciated.

While the community of dance history scholars worldwide is not large, it is a true community, and I would like to thank Katherine McGinnis, Barbara Sparti, and David Wilson in particular for their prompt replies to my many questions, e-mails, and letters over the years, asking their opinion on contentious issues.

I have also been fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend time with Alessandro Arcangeli, the late Ingrid Brainard, Andrea Budgey, Diana Cruickshank, Yvonne Kendall, Barbara Ravelhofer, Randall Rosenfeld, Barbara Segal, Jennifer Thorp, and Bill Tuck, discussing problems in early dance research and reconstruction in general, and fifteenth-century Italian dance in particular.

Dance and music were inseparable in quattrocento Italy, and this study has benefited greatly from my dialogue with the musicologist John Caldwell, as well as from the advice of David Fallows.

Giovanni Carsaniga provided invaluable help with the translations of the fifteenth-century Italian sources, and his elegant and lucid translation of the description of the 1459 Florentine ball adds immeasurably to this book. I would also like to thank Roberto Pettini, a dear friend, who over many years has always been willing to advise on translation problems with Italian sources, and to enter into my enthusiasms for this period in Italian history. I would like x Acknowledgments to record my thanks to Deirdre Stone for her translation of the twelfth-century Latin passage in chapter 3.

Graham Pont, whom I first met twenty years ago when I was a young and inexperienced scholar, has been a continuing source of inspiration for his pushing the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines, and for his dragging me into a realization of the crucial importance of ancient Greek thought to the intellectual, and artistic, culture of fifteenth-century Italy.

The Inter-Library Loan staff and the Social Sciences and Humanities librarians at the University of New South Wales Library never complained at the volume of requests for manuscripts and obscure sources that they received, and it is partly due to their efforts that the UNSW Library now has such a good collection of pre-eighteenth-century dance history material. I would also like to thank Suzanne Meyers Sawa, Assistant Librarian at the Faculty of Music Library, University of Toronto, for her assistance in lending a microfilm copy of the MS Magl. VII 1121, and Edward Forgacs ´ for encoding the music in appendix 3 into the computer program Finale.

This book would never have happened without the love and support, both emotional and financial, of my husband, Tim Wooller. He read and reread the manuscript in every stage of its long evolution, and was forced to become an expert in topics such as the use of mensuration signs in the fifteenth century, topics remote from his day-to-day expertise and interests. His clarity of thought and ruthlessly logical criticisms contributed to what is, I hope, the lucidity of the final manuscript. Tim, this book is for you.

The Eloquent Body


[T]he courtier must acquire this grace from those who appear to possess it....

However, having already thought a great deal about how this grace is acquired, and leaving aside those who are endowed with it by their stars, I have discovered a universal rule which seems to apply more than any other in all human actions or words: namely, to steer away from affectation at all costs, as if it were a rough and dangerous reef, and (to use perhaps a novel word for it) to practise in all things a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless. I am sure that grace springs especially from this.... Similarly in dancing, a single step, a single unforced and graceful movement of the body, at once demonstrates the skill of the dancer.

... Our courtier, therefore, will be judged to be perfect and will show grace in everything,... if he shuns affectation.1 For Castiglione, author of Il libro del cortegiano, the necessity for a courtier to be skilled in the art of dance was without question. The ability to perform gracefully, seemingly without any effort, was one of the distinguishing marks of a courtier and the absence of this ability exposed a gentleman or lady to ridicule and derision from


Who is there among you who doesn’t laugh when our Pierpaolo dances in that way of his, with those little jumps and with his legs stretched on tiptoe, keeping his head motionless, as if he were made of wood, and all so laboured that he seems to be counting every step?2 2 The Eloquent Body Even though Castiglione was writing his book at the court of Urbino during the second decade of the sixteenth century, his depiction of life at one of the most renowned literary and artistic centers of his day was a retrospective one. The values he articulated in The Book of the Courtier reflected the values held by Italian elite society of the previous century. Correct bearing, carriage, and manner of moving, engendered by years of dance training, were important social skills, since the posture when dancing was a courtier’s natural way of moving. It was not a posture adopted only while performing a dance and then cast aside when the performance was over. The rules according to which courtiers were expected to move on the dance floor applied to every other part of their lives: a noble and temperate bearing helped to distinguish them from those who did not belong to the elite. Thus the instruction the young children of the nobility received from the maestri di ballo was extremely important socially and ethically, as it not only allowed them to obtain approbation when they exhibited their skills in the dance, but also trained them in the patterns of behavior and deportment essential for membership in the social elite. If you moved ungracefully, you immediately demonstrated to others that you did not belong to the right class in society, as you could not perform properly the movement patterns appropriate to that class. As a consequence, you appeared foolish, and would certainly not obtain recognition or esteem in the best circles.

Clumsiness had other implications as well. Movements of the body were believed to be the outward manifestation of movements of the soul. Consequently, if the movements of the body were ungraceful, then the movements of the soul would be presumed to be similarly ugly and inharmonious. The movements of the body would be an outward manifestation of a soul that was full of vice, corrupt, ugly and bad. The belief that movements of the soul are manifest through movements of the body partly accounts for the strong attacks made on the dances of the peasants, and the efforts made by the dance masters to differentiate their noble art from the corrupt and ignoble dances of the poor. The dances of the peasants were condemned not only for their vulgar movements, but also because those performing such movements exposed to others the baser nature of their souls.

The dance practice of the elite section of quattrocento Italian society had an intellectual and philosophical framework: it was not just a set of physical skills. The dance masters were fully aware that


for dance to be included (through its association with music) in the liberal arts, it had to be understood both on a physical level and at an intellectual level. If dance was a liberal art it could then lay claim to be a demonstration of eternal truths, a microcosm of the cosmos, as was its sister and progenitor music. Their argument, that it was essential to understand the art of dance through the intellect, was another way in which the dance masters separated their dance practice from the dances of the poorer sections of society. The latter were often condemned as excuses for riotous and lewd behavior, lacking any desirable moral effects. In order for dance to be a demonstration of eternal truths, mere physical movement was not sufficient. The movements had to be understandable at an intellectual level, and based on the appropriate framework.

Only this could produce the necessary virtuous movements, rather than morally repugnant ones.

Dance was far more socially acceptable to those in the ruling elite as an intellectual activity than as only a set of physical skills.

The intellectual framework moved dance closer to the humanist belief that an education in the studia humanitatis was essential for those entrusted with the governance of the state; that is, those in the ruling section of society had to have a sufficient intellectual understanding and knowledge of the human condition that their exercise of power was restrained by virtue and ideas of the common good. In order to govern wisely, the ruling elite had to have the appropriate intellectual training and skills.

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