Bassa Danze


The earliest Italian dance manuscripts are amongst the oldest primary sources of basse danses (or bassa danze, as the Italians called them). Domenico, the earliest Italian dance master wrote a book in 1450 containing a number of basse danze. He was replaced in the 1455 - 1500 period by two of his students, Antonio Cornazano, and Guglielmo Ebreo. Cornazano wrote one fairly extensive text, which contains a number of dances in a similar style to (or copied from) Domenico. Guglielmo Ebreo wrote a much larger number (8, possibly more), smaller texts, of which the first one (fonds it. 973) is considered the main source, with the smaller volumes containing mostly dances extracted from it, or alterations to dances contained in it.

Guglielmo also wrote a manuscript under the name of "Giovanni Ambrosio". It has only recently been established that the two people (Guglielmo and Ambrosio) were the same, and it was thought for a long time that Ambrosio's work was a plagiarism of Guglielmo's. The confusion was partially caused by Guglielmo moving to Florence, changing his name, and converting from Judaism to Christianity at the same time.1

By Guglielmo's time as a dance master, the basse danze was starting to die out, and was being replaced (in Italy) by balli (elsewhere in Europe it was being replaced by the Pavane). The earliest manuscripts (Domenico, Cornazano) list more basse danze than balli, and the balli that they do list are quite simple. Guglielmo lists at least as many balli as basse danze, and by the time of Cesare Negri and Caroso (1580 - 1620), the basse danze had disappeared, to be replaced by a number of quite complex balli, containing long and difficult step sequences.

Even the earliest basse danze in Italy were meant as much for performance in front of an audience (often consisting of visiting Spanish dignitaries), as for dancing. The balli were meant almost exclusively as production pieces, and by the time of Negri and Caroso dancing as a form of entertainment was more common than it had been several hundred years earlier when dancing was (probably) almost exclusively done for fun.

The simplest of the Italian basse danze (eg: La Spagna, Reale) were as simple, if not simpler, than the Burgundian and French basse danses, although they had a very different feel to them. The more complex of the basse danze only appear minimally different from the early balli, and have many more step types than the French and Burgundian dances.

When learning these dances for the first time, or teaching them to a group, it is probably better to learn them in the order that they are presented here. La Spagna and Reale may seem short and simple in comparison to the other dances in this book, but they do provide a good lesson in how the basic steps were done, and give the dancers a better understanding of how the dances of the period were done. The more complex basse danze presented here (Corona, Pietosa, Caterva, Patienza) are best learned after already gaining this background.


1Probably not directly for reasons of religious persecution or prejudice, but more because the order of Knighthood that he hoped to join (and was granted admission to, like Domenico), was only open to Christians. Guglielmo obviously idolised Domenico, and wanted to emulate his feats as closely as possible in all matters.