Chapter 4: The High Renaissance In Italy and France: 1500 -1600


The High Renaissance begins in Italy in the 1490s as foreign armies from France and other countries invade the Italian peninsula during the decade. This brought on wars that lasted 64 yrs. The sacking of cities, the spread of disease, starvation, and plagues were still common occurrences. In addition, the new disease syphilis becomes a major epidemic from the 1490s on, causing the mortality rate to escalate.1 There are increasingly corrupt popes and religious wars between the Catholics and the Protestants that rage on across Europe. As early as 1478 in Spain, we see the beginning of the Inquisition where people who were forced to become Catholic were burned at the stake if the Church had any reason to believe they were not fully converted.

In 1519 the government in Rome was passed to the Pope's cousin, Cardinal Giulio de' Medici (himself crowned pope as Clement VII in 1523), although the facade of a republic was maintained. Martin Luther had begun the division of Western Christianity by this time. In 1527, German and Spanish Catholic troops, supposedly attacking in the service of Emperor Charles V, had run amok in the streets of Rome, committing horrible atrocities. Churches and palaces, including the Vatican and its contents, were sacked and destroyed; in addition to the killing and maiming of thousands, a terrible loss of irreplaceable works of art, manuscripts and other treasures ensued.

Catherine de Medici, born in 1519, married Henry II of France (second son of Francis I) in 1533 when she was only fourteen. The marriage had been arranged years before and was officiated by Pope Leo X, Catherine's uncle. King Henry II of France became ruler in 1547 after the death of his father, Francis I. Both kings were from the Valois line that reached back in history to Philip VI who ruled France from 1328 to 1350.

Figure 42
figure 42: Catherine de' Medici's wedding to Henry II of France.

After having given birth to seven children, Catherine lost her husband from a severe injury to his eye during a tournament in 1559. It was even more tragic because the tournament was staged in celebration of the marriage of their daughter Elizabeth to Philip II of Spain. After Henri's death, Catherine nearly always dressed in black mourning clothes, even for court festivals.

figure 43
figure 43: The tournament in which Henri II is mortally wounded.

After Henri's death, Catherine ruled France as regent from 1559 to 1589 even though her young sons were kings of France during this period. Son Francis II ruled 1559-60, but died of ill health. Charles IX, who ruled 1560 to 1574, was also frail and died at age twenty-four. Catherine, as strong as she was, must have found it very difficult to lose two of her sons when they were so young. Henri III was king from 1574-89 and was assassinated soon after his mother's death bringing an end to the Valois line.

figure 44
figure 44:

After her husband's death, Catherine continued to produce even more lavish spectacles than she had before. In 1565 the royal printer published a detailed account of the entertainments at Bayonne, which were the climax of a two-year royal progress across France. These included tournaments performed by richly adorned knights in disguise, dancing, concerts, and banquets on barges and in riverside tents. Contemporary political message were combined with various entertainments, medieval romances, and tales from classical mythology to bring about a stunning spectacle that proclaimed the greatness of the French crown.2

figure 45: Pause during a royal progress

In France and Italy there were fierce religious wars between the Catholics and the Huguenots (Calvinist Protestants) that began in 1560 and ended in 1598. Catherine becomes the dominant political personality until her death because her sons were either too young, weak, or ineffective as kings to handle the crises at hand.3 Much of Queen Catherine's time was taken up with the intrigues concerning the issues of handling the Protestants. Because of the importance of having a united France to stave off wars from other countries wishing her territories, at first Catherine had a lenient policy of cooperation and allowed the Huguenots to worship freely in certain places. Later, after several battles and horrific massacres of priests and nuns, the French Catholics had started to reply with counter-massacres and in the mounting fury, Catholic violent acts against Protestants began to equal if not exceed those of the Huguenots.4

In Ross Williamson's detailed account of the religious wars, he quotes an English traveler who reported France's lamentable condition:

"...And with all the dread fullest cruelties ever in the world, plague, hunger and sword - which God in His mercy cease in them and preserve us from! And to this is joined an incredible obstinacy on either side, ever hardening their hearts with malice and fury to the utter extermination one of the other."5

Over time Catherine became more afraid of the Protestants and their ability to disrupt the unity and dominance of the Catholic Church. In 1572, it was she and her sons who ordered the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in which, according to Williamson, over 2000 Protestants were killed in one morning. From that point, things quickly got out of hand. There was killing just for the sake of killing. Mobs of thieves and murderers took advantage of the mayhem, coming out of every hiding place where they had been waiting for the change to rape, murder, plunder, and pillage.6

Figure 46: The Massacre of 1572

Attempts by the Catholic Church to combat the spread of ideas of Protestantism and transform Catholicism began with a Counter-Reformation in 1542 where the Inquisition was re-established and an Index was added to ban publications that went against Catholic teachings. There were frequent bonfires with the burning of books and persons thought to be witches. Church doctrine was clarified and Rome reaffirmed the points that would remain non-negotiable during the Council of Trent that lasted from 1545 to 1563. After this time, however, there begin to be dramatic changes for the better within the Catholic Church. Priests become better educated through the founding of seminaries and religious orders. They are given the work of establishing missions in order to reach possible converts in the cities and towns throughout Europe.

Catherine's third son, Henri III, became king in 1574 but was childless. After his assassination in 1589, the crown passed to Henri of Navarre, a descendent of the Bourbon line who was a leader in the Protestant community. Henri IV (Navarre), who ruled France from 1589 to 1610, was the first Bourbon monarch. It was this king who had been excommunicated for heresy, but in 1593, renounced his Protestantism for the Catholic faith, a brilliant move on his part that was well received by the Catholics of Paris. In 1598, Henri IV achieved some peace and social harmony by signing the Edict of Nantes, which introduced religious toleration.

Italy's High Renaissance was affected by the political and social events that both hindered and stimulated cultural and economic changes. Even though wars in Europe was horrible, they permitted a rich cross-fertilization of ideas among scholars, artists and theologians and it was a time in which humanists, artists, and philosophers established new academies, the focus of which was to teach the cultured elite.7 It was these organizations that served as the models for the French cultural academies a century later.

Most humanist writers believed that women as well men should be educated and took it upon themselves to educate some of the great ladies of the time, Isabella and Beatrice d' Este among them. It was a time in which women of the nobility became more adept and aware culturally. A few women even became poets and writers. However, men and the Church still viewed women as suspect and artificial. If they were too clever, they were condemned as witches whose trickery and seduction caused many a man to go astray.

Although pressed financially as the French religious wars took their toll, Catherine de' Medici was able to continue presenting a glorious and glittering court to the French public throughout her reign. However, after her death and the assassination of her son, Henry III, in 1589, the court re-examined the anguish and trauma caused by years of intense fighting and withdrew more and more to safety within the confines of the castle. They became occupied with presenting a more impassive and elitist style of enlightenment and entertainment through the palace academies, masques and court ballets.8

Influences on High Renaissance Art

In 1503 Pope Julius II was elevated to the throne of St. Peter. He was successful in driving the French out of Italy and he re-established the Medici family under Cardinal Giovanni de Medici who, in 1516, succeeded him as Pope Leo X and set the boundaries of the Papal States for centuries to come. Giovanni's building and reconstruction program inspired the High Renaissance style with a new vision of classical beauty and Christian spirituality and he summoned the greatest artists in Italy to carry out his dreams. Pope Julius II also had collected many of the ancient Greek and Roman sculptures which served as inspiration to Leonardo de Vinci (1452-1519) and other great artists.

Under the beneficial cultural leadership of Cosimo I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany (1537-74), the two hundred year old tradition of granting commissions to great artists, architects and scholars continued. Two of the most important artists of the period were Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) and Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), whose reputations had benefited greatly from their connections to the Medici palaces.

Confirming the paradoxes of the religious upheavals, the Renaissance produced some of the most glorious, compassionate, and spiritual works in Christian art - such as the graceful Madonna figures of Raphael (1483-1520), Andrea della Robbia (1400-1482), and religious scenes painted by Vasari and dozens of other artists. The most notable effort was that of Michelangelo in his triumphant and sublime ceiling of the Sistine Ceiling painted between 1508-12. This masterpiece was characterized by harmony, balance, unity, and grace, and the idea that Adam was made in the likeness of a perfect God.

figure 47
figure 47: Ananias Healing the Blinded Saul

Juxtaposed to the reverent religious art was a style that developed in celebration of the delight in the male and female nude. Seen in both religious and secular contexts, this sensual, even erotic art flourished up until 1564 when the Church sought to attack lascivious art, for example, the works of the Florentine artist Angelo Bronzino (1503-1572), and took a more pronounced puritanical and conservative approach to art and music.9 Bronzino happened to be the court painter for Cosimo I de' Medici. In 1573, Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) was another artist who came under the scrutiny of the Inquisition in Venice because of the licence he took with sacred subjects.

figure 48
figure 48: Satyr mourning a nymph

In addition to influential artists and their glorification of the female nude, erotic themes in literature, unisex public baths, and the lasting traditions of the medieval court of love with its encouragement of promiscuity led to a sexual revolution.10 Men became so preoccupied with young, lovely women that it took both the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter Reformation to subdue the new sexual freedoms and re-establish some sense of decorum by the last quarter of the century.

There was also continued fascination with Neo-Platonic philosophy and classical mythology, which in turn greatly impacted the content and meaning of art, architecture, drama, music, and dancing.11 Even though Roman figure sculpture was copied, new attributes and nuances appear in the artist's quest for perfection and the positive acknowledgements of his patrons.

In place of being always compared to the Virgin Mary, women in late fifteenth century art are often compared to Venus or to any one of a number of beautiful nymphs.12 A nude Venus is seen in the allegorical painting, Parnassus, by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506). Venus (love) is taming Mars (war) so that the arts of music (Apollo) and dancing (the Muses) can flourish. It is possible that the beautiful Isabelle d' Este, one of the noblewomen of Mantua, was the model for Venus.13

figure 49
figure 49: Allegory of Venus (love) Taming Mars (war).

Classicism and the Greek Concept of Beauty

Art historians know the subject of aesthetics was first discussed in Polykleitos's canon, 5th century B.C. "It is the earliest-preserved attempt to define beauty in all of Western thought."14 According to Polykleitos, who was a sculptor, artist and writer, beauty for the human body depended upon the proportions of its anatomical lengths.15 Compared to the art of older periods, in the Classical period we see an emphasis on refinement, gentility, and realism. Polykleitos used the Pythagorean mathematical concepts and his studies in medicine and athletic training to bring substance to these qualities in his work. Because of Polykleitos' knowledge of external physical forces such as gravity, human anatomy and the movement potential of muscles, bones and joints, his sculpture of the Doryhorus seems very real and perfect, almost as if it is alive with energy and dynamism, but posed momentarily. Historian Gregory V. Leftwich proposes that what gives the sculpture its energy is the sculptor's use of the opposites of bent, straight; right, left; forward, backward; active, passive; contracted and relaxed to illustrate the fundamentals of anatomical movement.16 In this instance man is truly a work of art in all of his splendor, grace and dignity. (See Ch. 3, Fig. 32, for illustration.)

The proportions of the human body, first described by Polykleitos, and later by Vitruvius, were elegantly expressed in the art of the High Renaissance by artists such as Giovanni Bellini, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Priaticcio, Bronzino, Michelangelo, and Sandro Botticelli. Coupled with the neo-Platonic philosophy of the unity of the material and spiritual worlds plus the intense study of classically based forms with emphasis on the qualities of a long neck, well-shaped head, sloping shoulders, and long limbs, we see an almost divine beauty manifest itself in the work.17 In fact, the perfect essences in the pagan tradition of the Platonists were translated through the perfect mathematical proportions developed by Vitruvius and intertwined with the Judeo-Christian belief that the first man, made in God's image, certainly must have been perfect.18 Renaissance artists, therefore, used the human figure with spiritual expressions, reverent stances and loving gestures to encourage moral conduct in the viewer.19 The opposite qualities could be used to instil fear as well.

Continuous religious, national and civil war was another strong influence in High Renaissance art. Battles of the gods, pagans and princes were depicted in paintings, etchings, frescos and sculptures. In addition to civil wars, the dangers looming over the Italian states at the hands of the European monarchies of France, England, Spain and Germany initiated constant military alert and assertiveness that was echoed by a new emphasis on action in art. An example is the Battle of the Sea Gods by Andrea Mantegna painted in 1485.

figure 50
figure 50: Adrea Mantegna, Battle of the Sea Gods

War also promoted the designing and crafting of body armor for protection and, because of its prohibitive cost, the elevated status of the wearer.20 In the sixteenth century, it becomes increasingly more elaborate and well made with ornate designs copied and embossed into the metal of the helmets, shields and breast plates, all for the glorification of the knight who wore it. There was even more magnificent display of armor in the tournaments and parades with the addition fancy plumes for the helmets, luxury fabrics and trappings for the horses reminiscent of the Roman Caesars.

figure 51
Figure 51: Body armor for horse and rider, mid-sixteenth century

The High Renaissance was a period when artists and craftsmen of all types; poets, writers, artists, artisans, dancers and musicians generally gained a deeper faith and trust in their own abilities. The magnificent works of art and literature rivalled and even surpassed the works of the ancients in conveying meaning, original ideas and sensitive emotions.21

figure 52
figure 52: Baldassare Castiglione, portrait by Raphael

High Culture: Baldassare Castiglione and The Courtier, 1528

Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529) grew up in the court of Urbino, an important Italian city-state. He was a good friend of the artist Raphael, who painted his portrait in 1514. He was a writer for the Gonzaga family and also frequented the courts of Milan, Mantua, and the Vatican as a diplomat, serving Pope Clement VII in the last years of his life. Based on his preoccupation with reading histories of the ancient Greeks, the poetry of Horace, the speeches of Cicero, and the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, there arose new books on conduct, most notably, Castiglione's. These books may also have been written as a response to the increasingly decadent lifestyles of the period mentioned earlier. Castiglione was an idealist whose book, Il Cortegiano, had great influence on European thought and the civilizing of society. Perhaps his message of peaceful negotiation in place of war had much appeal to the battle weary Italians, and later, most of Europe. In his book, he describes a model of the perfect gentleman and lady, restating the basic humanistic philosophy that Man should be of high purpose, seeking perfection in all aspects of human life.22 Castiglione sets down the rules and qualifications for the noble who wishes to hold the title of 'courtier'.

"He must be, preferably, of noble lineage, well-built, manly yet graceful, a man of thought and action, a soldier and scholar, effective both on the battlefield and in the council chamber. He must keep his body fit with exercises in horsemanship, fencing, hunting, swimming, jumping, fencing, tennis or soccer, and dancing. His mind must be adorned with noble virtues; he must know classic and modern literatures, at least two foreign languages, be a writer, a poet and an orator. He must also know how to draw and paint and is advised to be able to sing and play two stringed instruments. He must use tact, caution and grace and shun affectation. In doing the things he knows best he should act with studied carelessness since true art always appears artless."23

Castiglione envisions the courtier displaying the qualities of grace, dignity, harmony of body and soul, and naturalness in his work and play so that he seems a total master of himself and society's rules.24 He believed these qualities were essential features of civilized behavior and elegant sophistication and that the courtier should be a model to others in his personal qualities and activities. Castiglione also writes about the difference between the male and the female courtier: He must be virile and have a certain weightiness of image. He is energetic and vigorous and more on the offensive rather than the defensive. The lady is, on the other hand, sensitive, tender, delicate, and reserved.25

Spontaneity and ease in the arts of painting, music and dancing required studied effort but ultimately required nonchalance (the technique becomes second nature - it looks easy). If the courtier can accomplish this, he will seem to reveal masterful knowledge and be successful in creating the impression that he is master of every role he takes.26 He will then causes others to marvel at his accomplishments both in his daily activities and in times of festive celebrations and tournaments.

As Rebhorn asserts, the masks worn at the court balls were an aid in achieving nonchalance because they allowed the courtier to choose which role he played the best - with the most charm and wit.27 Castiglione compares the artful creation of a personal image or mask to the painter's creation of a painting. One should strive to imagine himself as his best selves.28 The ultimate goal is for the courtier to become as Adam was before his fall from Eden.29 The mask also allowed courtiers to participate in dances that were deemed unseemly except in private or at a masquerade where one's true identity was hidden. Il Cortegiano becomes widely popular and is published in several different languages and in multiple editions. It is one of the Renaissance masterpieces of literature and culture.

The High Renaissance in France

The French Renaissance evolved along side her military campaigns and the French court was a large, ever-expanding establishment due to its military conquests.30 Battles brought prominent members of the French nobility into direct contact with the classical architecture and art of the Italian High Renaissance. Hired mercenary soldiers and their captains who fought for France were dazzled by what they found and sought to procure in whatever ways necessary the trappings of the Italian dukes.

In addition to war, the advent of printing, one of the major thrusts of the Renaissance, created opportunities for a robust cross-fertilization of ideas between the French and Italians. The French humanist writers, Rabelais (1494-1553) and Montaigne (1533-1592) used ancient texts for guidance but lived during the time when French, in place of Latin, became the official language for all legal documents and soon after became the written language of the French populace.31

figure 53
figure 53: Portrait of Francis I on Horseback

Francis I (1494-1547) became the new ruler of France in 1515 and the High Renaissance could not have had a better patron. After 1528, he began extensive works at the Louvre, Fontainebleau, and other palaces, hiring mostly Italian architects and artists to design, build and embellish these magnificent structures. He loved art from an early age and was accustomed to having his likeness engraved on medals that were struck in honor of his battles and to spread his personal imagery throughout the kingdom.32 He commissioned many works by several of the best artists of Italy who in turn, influenced the French artists, stone masons and architects.

Portraits, both grand and miniature, become an important aspect of Francois' collection. Portraiture was an essential part of capturing the ideal images of the kingdom and many nobles collected miniatures of their families and other court figures. These are both sacred and secular and many are allegorical. For example, there is a miniature painting by Nicoḷ Bellin that presents the king in the guise of a composite god/goddess with the attributes of Mars, Minerva, Mercury and Diana.33 Historians are not positive as to its full meaning but it is a curiosity. The painting may be reflective of court festival and the fact that it was a common occurrence to dress up in fantastic costumes for court entertainments. A more likely case may be that royals were often shown with the attributes of several different gods and goddesses to illustrate their diverse and divine qualities to all persons fortunate enough to gaze upon them.34

figure 54
figure 54: Francis I as a composite deity

There was a large and varied group of talented artists, both native and foreign, who worked at the French court from about 1530 -1560. The School of Fontainebleau, under the patronage of Francis I, is the name given to the combination of Mannerist painting (the period of art in the late Renaissance, before Baroque) and stucco decoration introduced by the Italian artists Battista Rosso (1495-1540) and Francesco Primaticcio (1504-70) who arrived around 1531 to work at Fontainebleau, the king’s favorite palace. The two men spent most of their careers there. Both of these artists were able to impress the king because of their gentlemanly manners and cultured backgrounds. They quickly became his most preferred artists and were given the work of decorating the royal bed chambers and other intimate rooms in the palace. They worked in fresco, painting, stucco and sculpture in a style that was wholly self-consciously elegant, sensuous, and often erotic. For example, gorgeous female nudes with elongated, slender limbs and delicate hands and feet were used as columns to support canopies over the headboards of a bed. The subjects were still mythological but these artists, especially Primaticcio, add “a sense of suave luminous fantasy anticipating the world of Poussin or Watteau.”35 Although this sumptuous style was largely Italian in inspiration it helped to establish France as a major artistic center.

figure 55
figure 55: a fresco flanked by stucco caryatids

Another leading artist who was creating new works still based on classical models was Giovanni da Bologna or Giambologna (1529-1608). The most gifted and famous Florentine sculptor after the death of Michelangelo, his sculptures exhibit grace through movement, classical beauty and strength. His bronze statue of Mercury, done in 1564, captures the expression of flight in this messenger from Heaven. This graceful and elegant statue, if turned slowly on a pedestal, shows the Mannerist principle that the body must be beautiful from any viewpoint, incidentally, another principle absorbed into ballet theory. Bologna’s Mercury inspired Carlo Blasis, one of the great ballet masters of the 19th century, to develop a new pose, “en attitude”, which is very common ballet position today.

figure 56
figure 56: Mercury

The French thought of Francis I as a true Renaissance man. He had become the personification of Castiglione’s ideal. He understood art, science, and politics and he was a master at military matters. He was skilled and knowledgeable in hunting, painting, literature, and languages and had all of the bodily accomplishments necessary for a true cavalier. More importantly, during his reign, the cultural life of France was transformed in powerful and meaningful ways because of his love of beauty and his ability and desire to acquire the most beautiful art and architecture for France. He paid his painters and sculptors well and the many works he acquired set the stage for the arrival of Catherine de’ Medici as the bride of his son, Henri II. She was as ardent a collector as her father-in-law.

The French Court Ballet, 1500-1600

The Neo-Platonic philosophy eventually united with Copernicus’ radical discovery in 1503 that the sun was the actual center of the universe but most people still believed that planets and sun revolved around the earth. It was long known that some of the pagan Greek philosophers believed the center of the universe was fire. So, at the dawning of this revolution in thought, the notion of a beautifully ordered cosmos as presented in the Pythagorean mystery school continued to help satisfy people’s need for fundamental order and meaning.36 Music and dance were a critical part of this meaning, bringing harmony to civilization.

Ballet de cour (court ballet) was derived from the masquerades and allegorical/ mythological Trionfi, and performed exclusively by aristocratic amateurs instructed by professional dancing masters. By 1500, these staged works were called Balletti, and were versions of the social dances of the day. Some were derived from folk dances but refined and others originated in the protocol of court etiquette.37 The term Balleto was first used by Domenico de Piacenza when his treatise was written in 1450. As the founder of the Lombardic school of dancing and ballet master to the Este court, Domenico writes about a group of four dances (suite) with a finale done to contrasting rhythms.38 He also makes a distinction between ballo and bassa dance, terms which are discussed in detail by Castiglione in Il Cortegiano.

Graceful patterns continue to be the most important element and the costumes worn for these balletti become more elaborate with the passing of time. Though each dance had a theme, it was related to the others only by the mythological or legendary nature of its content. On ballroom floors, dancing masters might have their courtly dancers form the initials of the nobility for whom the event took place or they might form designs in secret code understood to be riddles flattering the virtues of the king or queen. Various interweaving of bodies was common as were the formation of knots, geometrical shapes from earlier periods and various line patterns such as spirals and crossing lines.

Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx (Baldassarino di Belgioioso)

Beaujoyeulx was a multi-talented musician and composer who became court valet to Catherine de’ Medici soon after arriving in 1555 from Italy. His birth date is unknown but he died in 1587, two years before his queen. Catherine found he had a talent for organizing festivals at the royal court and his career quickly advanced in this capacity. He was given the responsibility for arranging and/or dancing in court entertainments, three of which have been well documented, and he is credited with being the founder of the French Court Ballet. Beaujoyeulx rehearsed his court dancers well, as they were praised for remembering everything they were given to dance without making mistakes.

Examples of Ballets at Court in the late 16th-Century

Le Ballet Des Polonais (The Polish Ballet) 1573, is the first example of sustained choreography with patterns of music, song and dance. Catherine’s court painter, Antoine Caron (1520-1600), designed images of this and other court festivities to be woven into tapestries. The musicians, as seen in the Valois Tapestries, are dressed as Apollo and the Muses. This tapestry is an elegantly detailed record of the visit of the Polish ambassadors and the reception given them by Queen Catherine in 1573. The work was huge, measuring 30 feet long and 20 feet wide, and was finally finished ten years later in 1583.

figure 57
figure 57: The Valois Tapestry, 1583

The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre had taken place the year before, disrupting court festivals. Perhaps the ballet, in addition to welcoming Polish diplomats, was an attempt on the part of Catherine de’ Medici and the French court to bring peace to France and absolve and distance themselves from this tragedy.

figure 58
figure 58: Henry III (Anjou)

In this ballet, verse and song are more important than dance and it was done for political reasons, to establish good relations with Poland by impressing the Polish ambassadors and to celebrate the election of the Frenchman, Catherine’s son Henry III, as King of Poland. The movements were composed of Danse Figurée or figured dancing (geometric), spoken verse and song.

figure 59
figure 59: Raphael – Poetry roundrel

The music was composed specifically for this production and the court poet, Pierre de Ronsard (1524-85), wrote the lyrics to the songs. Ronsard, along with Jean-Antoine de Baïf (1532-89) was a member of the distinguished Pléiades, so named after a famous group of seven poets of antiquity. Their goal was to capture the forms, rhythms, and richness of the Greek vocabulary by enlarging the French language and making improvements in poetry and drama, which up to this time had been based on the old medieval mystery plays.39

figure 60
figure 60: Poet Pierre Ronsard

Ballet Comique de la Royne (Queen Louise’s Ballet Entertainment), 1582

This ballet was much more extensive and expensive to produce than previous ones. Beaujoyeulx was in charge of an array of musicians, singers, designers for the décor, and dancers, all of whom he had to coordinate in this splendid affair in addition to creating the choreography. The story was based on Greek myth and included virtues, gods, demi-gods, goddesses, naiads, tritons, and satyrs. All of these roles were still performed by aristocrats as they were in the Polish Ballet. The ballet took place in one of the ballrooms in the Louvre, then a palace instead of a museum. It lasted five and a half hours and cost the sum of 3.5 million francs to produce. The choreography was based on geometric floor patterns and done according to the guidelines of the Academy of Poetry and Music founded by de Baïf in 1570.

The word, Comique, in this instance means dramatic, or a story line that tells of the triumph of good over evil.40 This ballet is considered to be the first ballet d’cour or court ballet because of the mixing of song, recitation and dancing all in allegorical action in order to facilitate the plot, which tells of the defeat of Circe, symbol of the evil passions, by reason, represented by Minerva, Jupiter and the Cardinal Virtues. The geometric shapes - circles, squares, and triangles were used as symbolic magic; the circle indicating the infinite, endless, and celestial; the square, a metaphor for the four cardinal compass points, four seasons, four elements; and the triad, (trinity) the symbol of what is perfect.41 A libretto was published to add prestige to the image of France and to impress the Polish diplomats in attendance.42 In combination with spectacular scenery and choreography befitting the nobility of the courtiers, we see the beginnings of French court ballet. In one aspect the Ballet Comique was an allegory of the religious wars that engulfed France.

To these courtiers, music was fundamental in the search for order and unity. “There was a profound, mystic unity between music and numbers.” 43 Just as you needed to tune your instrument in order to get the right pitch, it was believed one had to also tune one’s body and mind in order to turn disharmony into harmony.44 This was facilitated by the new harmonies of Renaissance secular music which were combined with the cadences of French poetry based on the Royal Academy of Music and Poetry, founded 10 years earlier.45

figure 61
figure 61: The Four Virtues

The Wedding of 1589

Not to be outdone by the French, Grand Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici devised a most sumptuous wedding celebration in 1589 that lasted for six weeks. Through James M. Saslow’s research and his book, The Medici Wedding of 1589, vivid glimpses into the preparation, production and social/cultural implications of this event are revealed to us. Ferdinando requested staged intermedi (or intermezzi) as part of a staged performance for his wedding to Princess Christine of Lorraine. She was the grand-daughter of Catherine de’ Medici and Catherine, had she lived, would have been utterly delighted by the occasion.

In this celebration music and dance interludes were performed between the acts of a comedy. In fact, over the six weeks of festivities, four different comedies were performed on different occasions and the same intermedi were done for all of them. Other festivities in celebration of the wedding ranged the entire gamut: ceremonial welcomes in the various Italian cities as the French princess bride passed through, maypole dances, feasts, jousts, allegorical parades, naval battles in the duke’s palace courtyard, games, animal baiting and a solemn mass on Easter Sunday.46

The main creator for this immense task was Bernardo Buontalenti, a professional designer of significant reputation who was from the artisan class.47 He apprenticed with the great Vasari and devoted his life to court service as the engineer and architect of public works and other large projects. He also had a prodigious talent and creative imagination for glamorizing court occasions and was in charge of designing stage sets, costumes, lighting and special effects for the ducal wedding festivities of 1589.48 There was also the nobleman Emilio de’ Cavalieri who held the office of superintendent of fine arts for the Medici court. Because of his status, he was paid more than double what Buontalenti was paid, even though the latter had huge responsibilities. Cavalieri was official producer and, in addition, he choreographed some of the dances for the intermedi and oversaw the cost and administration of the event.49

The costumes for the singers and dancers in the intermedi were of beautiful, inventive design made of luxury fabrics, most of which were procured inside Florence. The skirts were of looser fabrics than the bodices, allowing for free movement of the legs. However, the high platform shoes shown in the illustration, popular at the time for keeping long dresses out of the dirt and mud, must have presented a serious hindrance to the movements if they were actually worn in performance. The costume for the dragon (python) was fantastic. Men hidden beneath its fabric and frame made the monster move and breathe fire.50

figure 62
figure 62: Costume Sketches for Two Dancers

The theme of the poetry was based on classical mythology and the six intermedi were unified by the music and its power to influence both the human soul on earth and the gods in Heaven.51 Because of the passion for writing and setting vernacular verse to music, poetry played a vital role in the de’ Medici court culture as it did for other ducal families. Florentine poetry was inextricably tied to the music of the spheres and dance, which in turn was tied to the theatricalization of princely authority, peace, harmony and prosperity.52 The circular patterns danced around the central figures of Ferdinando and his bride bless the harmonically, harmoniously, stabilized social and physical universe. The couple’s wedding, it was fervently hoped, would bring about peace, abundance, and a continuation of the dynasty.

figure 63
figure 63: fresco of musicians

Performances of these court ballets seemed to attract trouble. There were diplomatic skirmishes, arguments about protocol and until 1600, no front curtain. Performances planned outside were often delayed or ruined by the weather, with royal spectators being soaked to the bone by a sudden cloudburst. Other times performances could not be held because the crowd being too large pushed forward through the ballroom up onto the stage area. Performances done inside could last for several hours. The ballrooms and theaters were hot, smoky and smelly. Thieves took advantage of the fact that the audience was engrossed in the stage spectacles and stole their money and belongings. The amateur performers had trouble maneuvering under the weight of their huge and heavy costumes, but in spite of all these problems, court ballet becomes ever more popular in France, surpassing other kinds of entertainment by 1600.

Technique Development

Sometime after the 1550s, Jean-Antoine de Baif and the Pleiades academy of poets established the philosophy of the ballet: “To unite music with dance, song and measure ....” 53 De Baïf founded his academy to attempt the revival of the chorus of Greek tragedy with its synthesis of theatrical elements. Beaujoyleux carried out de Baïf’s ideas and is credited with creating the first production that had an actual story line.

Thoinot Arbeau (1520-1595) was a musician and dance writer – his dance text Orchesographie was published in 1589. In this book the positions of the feet were named: two in parallel and two at 45 degrees. The turnout was more for elegance (putting one’s best foot forward, so to speak) than to give the performers more freedom of movement and expression, although the vocabulary for stage dancing was growing. This delightful little book includes illustrations, probably drawn by Arbeau himself, and detailed instructions of a long list of dances that were popular during the time including basse dance, pavane, galliard, branle, gavotte, and morris dance. The music accompanying these dances is also given. Arbeau speaks about these forms saying, “I find these pavans and basse dances charming and dignified, and well suited to honorable persons, particularly ladies and maidens.”54 Further he states, “Pavans are also used in masquerades to herald the entrance of the gods and goddesses in their triumphal chariots or emperors and kings in full majesty.”55

The Commedia Dell’Arte, 1520 - “Popular Entertainment”

An overview of Renaissance theater would not be complete without mentioning the Commedia. The Commedia Dell’Arte came into full flower around 1550 and flourished for two hundred years. Its origins are obscure; some experts say it developed from carnival entertainments and others say it came about from the early mime shows and farces of Roman theater. Whatever its source, after the 1559 treaty between Italy and Spain, we see the beginning of professional comedy troupes that flourish.

If we consider the Commedia as an outgrowth of the Lenten carnival in the Christian tradition, there is evidence. “Devils were popular characters in the carnival festivities the week prior to Lent and they were let loose in the streets to play pranks on the citizenry.“56 Masks and costumes were worn by all carnival participants just as they are today for Mardi Gras parades. It was a time for chaos to reign. Social and political hierarchies disappeared and behind the mask, rich and poor, high class and low, male and female sexes could be easily reversed. In Medieval and Renaissance times a masked man was not to bear arms during Carnival season because he was considered not to be himself and therefore he was not responsible for his actions.57

figure 64
figure 64: Carnival Procession

The wearing of a mask or acting out a certain stock character without a mask was the way in which the actor could cause laughter through stereotyping. Everybody knew somebody who had one or more qualities of the individual commedia characters. Other elements borrowed from the Carnival included satire, mimicry, dancing and acrobatics.

The comedies, instead of being written by a playwright, were conceived, directed and acted by the artisti, the actors themselves, who lived and worked in the centuries old traditions of pantomime art. The director had a joke book, the contents of which could be adapted to the various plays, along with other acting bits that were memorized. There was no script but entrances and exits were planned in advance. The actors met with the corago (director) before the performance to discuss, interpret and agree on how the plot would develop. Nothing was written except the scenario or outline of the plot. A reason for not writing dialogue down may have been to make it easier to stay one step ahead of the Church and the censors who were always pursuing them.58

Dialogue was woven extemporaneously, thus creating the impression that the event acted was actually happening at that very moment. Because of the masks they wore, the actors needed a rich imagination, keen wit and extraordinary abilities as mimes in order to express through movement and gesture the full range of subtle gradations of each character’s quirks and qualities. Since the plots depended on the entire group of actors playing off one another, there were rarely solos or monologues.

Through close observation and portraiture of local people, their mores and costumes, actors became specialized in the personification of one of the stock characters. Some of these characters originated in Italy and some in France. Each had a special mask or makeup, costume, characteristics, stance, voice, and walk. These professional artists had the same dancing masters as the nobility and were quick to adapt the overly fussy and ornate movements of the court into their satire and comedy routines.59

There were from twelve to fifteen members to a troupe, three or four women and eight to nine men. This was unusual, as women did not perform in professional theaters playing female parts before the birth of the Commedia. These acting families were close-knit and passed on their trade secrets from one generation to the next. The actors traveled in itinerant troupes from town to town and advertised their performances making claims that there would be new something new and delightful for everyone to enjoy. The skits had great appeal to the common people who sought out theater that was pertinent to their every-day lives and activities.60 Troupes had to be incredibly flexible in order to adapt to the needs of the market place and the best ones were able to gain financial stability through their savvy management practices and they were able to give more performances and stay in the cities longer. They were also in demand far from their home territories and formed permanent professional companies in France, England, Spain and Germany. There is evidence that one of the famous troupes, the Gelosi, performed as part of Duke Ferdinando’s wedding in 1589.61

Due to the small number of performers, each actor also needed skills as a dancer, singer, rhymester and acrobat in addition to being an excellent mime artist. The performances were given outside on an elevated platform or stage wherever people were gathered in the market-square, church plaza or carnival grounds. Occurring about the same time as Church sanctions on lascivious art, in Milan, 1565, there was a prohibition of comedy players, buffoons and charlatans during religious feast days, Lent, or on stages near the church until the service was over. Actors who disobeyed this edict were subject to whippings.62 The Venetian Church, however, seemed more tolerant, as a spectator could see two performances a day of several commedia troupes in the square of St. Mark’s Cathedral, in fact, the players were so adept, they became a tourist attraction.

This dramatic form has greatly influenced ballet in a number of ways. The stock characters of Pedrolino (Perrot), Harlequin (Il Capitano), Colombina (Columbine), Scaramouch, and Pulcinella are often seen in one form or another. Many ballets are based on commedia characters (dolls) in the context of toy shops, puppet shows, or circus stories. They have great appeal to children and keep successive generations coming to the ballet to be enchanted by ballets such as Coppélia.

figure 65
figure 65: Commedia Scene

The Inamorate (lovers) dance together in a form that becomes the ballet pas de deux (dance for two) and the acrobatic nature of the Commedia routines influence the development certain styles in ballet in which capers or tricks are displayed to impress the audience. Mime skill developed by these troupes becomes a virtuoso display similar to recitative in opera and becomes more integrated into ballet in the Rococo Period. Harlequin’s dance, the Harliquinade, becomes a distinct form of dance on its own with a mixture of singing, dancing and recitative - the origin of musical comedy.

figure 66
figure 66: Characters of Harlequin and Columbine

By mid-sixteenth century, dance has become an essential and integral part of court life and will become even more sophisticated and entrenched in French high society and culture during the Baroque Era to come. A main influence was Castiglione’s book, in which he describes in detail the proper music and dance crucial to the role of an upper-class couple. Castiglione takes clues from earlier dance treatises, especially those of William the Jew of Pisaro and his master, Domenico de Piacenza, who was probably the earliest dancing masters to separate dances for the nobility (bassa danza) from those of the common people (ballo danza) around 1450.

It is also to Catherine de’ Medici that we owe the development of court dance, as it was she who introduced Italian pre-classic dance forms to the French court. One example was the Courante or Corrente, (Italian), for which the music consisted of eighth notes in a quick 3/4 time. By 1620, the Courante becomes the second movement in the dance suite consisting of the Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue.63

Upon her death near the century’s end, Catherine left a rich and lasting legacy in terms of the architecture (churches, libraries, and palaces) she had commissioned. Architecture was her first love but she also had a vast collection of paintings, mostly portraits, as one of her main interest was managing people.64 Her personal library was impressive, consisting of 4,500 volumes, 900 of which were Greek, Latin, and Hebrew manuscripts on a number of subjects.65

By the end of the 16th century, Christian ideals returned and were enforced by the Counter Reformation. The erotic art popular in the earlier part of the century diminishes and decrees from the Church printed in 1564 encourage a more conservative approach to the arts although classical paganism is never really out of style.66 Also, by century’s end, the popularity of the Florentine Intermedi and a more dramatic expressing of emotion in singing can be seen as leading to Baroque opera.67

figure 67
figure 67: Ballet d’ Apollon et les Muses

Notes: Chapter 3

1. Chris Murray, ed., Cultural Atlas of the Renaissance, (New York: Prentice Hall General Reference, 1993), 164.

2. Ibid., 182.

3. John Ardagh with Colin Jones, The Cultural Atlas of France, (Oxfordshire, England: Andromeda Oxford Ltd:, 1991), 53.

4. Ross Williamson, Catherine de’ Medici, (New York: Viking Press,1973), 184.

5. Ibid., 184.

6. Ibid., 230.

7. Chris Murray, ed., 78.

8. Ibid., 178.

9. Ibid., 99.

10. Michel Pierre, The Renaissance, (Barnes and Noble: New York, 1999), 86.

11. Chris Murray, ed., 78.

12. Patricia Emison, Low and High Style in Italian Renaissance Art, (New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997), Introduction xvi and xvii

13. Chris Murray, ed., 59.

14. Ira S. Mark, “The Lure of Philosophy: Craft and Higher Learning in Ancient Greece” in Polykleitos, the Doryphoros and Tradition, Warren G. Moon, ed., (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), 28.

15. Gregory V. Leftwich, “Polykleitos and Hippokratic Medicine” in Polykleitos, the Doryphoros and Tradition, Warren G. Moon, ed., (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), 40.

16. Ibid., 40.

17. Chris Murray, ed., 20.

18. Lucy Gent and Nigel Llewellyn, eds., Renaissance Bodies, (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 1990), 3.

19. Ibid.

20. Helmut Nickel, Warriors and Worthies: Arms and Armor Through the Ages, (Hartford, Connecticut Printers, Inc., 1969), 77.

21. Chris Murray, ed., 78.

22. Michele Cantarella, The Italian Heritage, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1959), 155.

23. Ibid., 156.

24. Wayne A. Rebhorn, Courtly Performances, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1978), 44.

25. Ibid., 42.

26. Ibid., 33,34.

27. Ibid., 39.

28. Ibid., 60.

29. Ibid., 50.

30. Chris Murray, ed., 164, 165.

31. Ardagh and Jones, 50.

32. Janet Cox-Rearick, The Collection of Francis I: Royal Treasures, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996) 3.

33. Ibid., 5.

34. Ibid., 18.

35. Desmond Seward, Prince of the Renaissance: The Golden Life of Francois I, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1973), 157-159.

36. Rygg, 100.

37. Cohen, 6.

38. Mabel Dolmetsch, Dances of Spain and Italy from 1400-1600, (New York, Da Capo Press, 1975), 132.

39. Chris Murray, ed., 174-175.

40. Lincoln Kirstein, Four Centuries of Ballet: Fifty Masterworks, (New York, Dover Publications Inc., 1984), 54.

41. Rygg, 92.

42. Cohen, 19.

43. Rygg, 84.

44. Ibid., 79.

45. Chris Murray, ed., 182.

46. James M. Saslow, Florentine Festival as Theatrum Mundi: The Medici Wedding of 1589, (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1996), 19.

47. Ibid., 42.

48. Ibid., 44.

49. Ibid., 40.

50. Ibid., 32.

51. Ibid., 30.

52. Ibid., 158.

53. Cohen, 8.

54. Thoinot Arbeau, trans. By Mary Stewart Evans, Orchesography, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1967), 59.

55. Ibid.,

56. John Rudlin, Commedia Dell’ Arte: An Actor’s Handbook, (New York: Rutledge, 1994), 34.

57. Ibid., 35.

58. Cohen, et al. Eds., International Encyclopedia of Dance, Vol. 2, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 189.

59. Ibid., 190.

60. Cantarella, 201.

61. Saslow, 51.

62. Rudin, 24.

63. Louis Horst, Pre-Classic Dance Forms, (New York: Dance Horizons, Inc., 1968) pp. 35 and 43

64. Williamson, 265-66.

65. Ibid., 265.

66. Chris Murray, ed., 98.

67. Chris Murray, ed., 99.

List of Illustrations: Chapter 4

42. Georgio Vasari, The marriage in 1533 of Catherine de’ Medici to Henri de Valois, son of Francis I, as reproduced in Henry II, King of France1574-1559, Frederic J. Baumgartner, (London and Durham: Yale University Press, 1988) p. 192.

43. Tournament of Henri II of France in Nouvelle Histoire de France, Vol. 10, M. Julien Cain, ed., (Paris: Librairie Tallandier, 1968), p. 1268.

44. Charles IX, son of Catherine de’ Medici, as reproduced in Historic Costume in Pictures, Braun and Schneider, (New York: Dover Publications Inc.,1975), Plate 43.

45. Royal progress of Charles V, king of Spain met by King Francis I of France, as reproduced in Cultural Atlas of France, Chris Murray, ed., (Simon & Schuster Inc., 1993), p. 166.

46. St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, Painted by Francçoise Dubais, a protestant who survived the bloodshed, in Catherine de’ Medici, Hugh Ross Williamson, (New York, Viking Press, Inc., 1973), p. 226, 227.

47. Vasari, Ananias Healing the Blinded Saul, 1551, as reproduced in Giorgio Vasari: Architect and Courtier, Leon Satkowski, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993), Plate 22.

48. Piero de Cosimo, "Satyr mourning a nymph," as reproduced in Paintings in Renaissance Florence, 1500 - 1550, David Franklin, (New Haven: Yale University Press 2001), Plate 28.

49. Andrea Mantegna, Parnassus as reproduced in the Cultural Atlas of the Renaissance, (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1993), p. 59.

50. Andrea Mantegna, Battle of the Sea Gods, as reproduced at

51. Etched body armor for horse and knight, mid sixteenth century, as reproduced in Warriors and Worthies: Arms and Armor through the Ages, Helmut Nickel, (New York: McClelland and Steward, Ltd., 1969), p. 72.

52. Raphael, portrait of Castiglione as reproduced in Castiglione: The Ideal and the Real in Renaissance Culture, Nobert W. Hanning and David Rosand, eds., (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 93.

53. François I, on horseback in Prince of the Renaissance: The Golden Life of François I, Desmond Seward, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1973), Frontispiece

54. Niccolò Bellin, “François I as a composite deity shown with the attributes of Mars, Minerva, Diana and Mercury” as reproduced at

55. Francesco Primaticcio, Alexander taming Bucephalus. Fresco flanked by caryatids as reproduced in Renaissance warrior and patron, Robert Knecht, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 418.

56. Giambologna, “Medici Mercury”, bronze statue, in The Revival of the Olympian gods in Renaissance Art, Luba Freedman, (England: Cambridge University Press, 2003) p. 194.

57. Antoine Caron, “Festivities for the Reception of the Polish Ambassadors”, in Catherine de Médicis, Ivan Cloulas, (France, Cameron Press, 1988), Fig. 23.

58. Henri III (Anjou) on horseback as reproduced in Nouvelle Historire de France, v. 12., M. Julien Cain, ed., ((Paris: Librairie Tallandier, 1968) p. 1493.

59. Raphael, Poetry Roundrel, Renaissance Art in France: The Invention of Classicism, Henri Zerner (Paris: Editions Flammarion, 2003), p. 85.

60. Giraudon, portrait supposed to be that of Pierre de Ronsard, in Nouvelle Histoire de France, Les grandes heures de la Renaissance, Book II, Julien Cain, ed., (Paris: Librairie Jules Tallandier, 1968), p. 1344.

61. The Four Virtues as reproduced in Balet Comique de la Royne, 1582.62. (Torino: Bottega d’Erasmo, 1965), p. 41.

62. Bernardo Buontalenti, “Costume design, two dancing women” as reproduced in The Medici Wedding of 1859, James M. Saslow, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), Plate 8.

63. Pinturicchio, Detail, music fresco as reproduced in Daily Life in Renaissance Italy, Charles L. Mee, Jr. (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1975) p. 58.

64. Lodewyk Toeput, Engraving, Venetian Carnival Scene, c. 1580 as reproduced in The Commedia Dell’ Arte, Winifred Smith, (New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1964), p. 293.

65. Jacques Callot, Balli de Sfessania, Scene from the Commedia dell’ Arte with open stage in the background as reproduced in The Early commedia dell’ arte (1550-1621), Paul C. Castagno, (New York: Peter lang Publishing, Inc., 1994) Figure 35.

66. Harlequin and Columbine, as reproduced in Harlequin’s Stick, Charlie’s Cane, David Madden, (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1975), p.17.

67. Jules Romain (Romano), Ballet de’Apollon et les Muses, fresco, as reproduced in La Renaissance II, Elie-Charles Flamand, (Lausanne, 1965) p.38.