Creating a Dance in the Style of Maestro Domenico da Piacenza

Although this is not the first Renaissance-style dance I have created, it is the first I’m trying to teach and spread widely. I wrote a dance a few years ago called “Penny’s Farthing” to the song “The Great Velocipede Migration” from S.J. Tucker’s Album “Wonders”. I was listening to it in the car and my feet decided the tune needed an English Country Dance written to it. The album is inspired by the book “The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” by Catherynne Valente, and the particular song is in reference to a scene where wild, living old-fashioned bicycles (high wheelers or pennyfarthings) are migrating, hence the song and dance name. It’s a circle dance for four couples and I’m still not quite sure about the middle.

This dance, which I’m calling Il Ballo d’Eleanor con Fettuccie per Cinque (Eleanor’s Ribbon Dance for Five), was inspired by a series of events over the past several months. My local dance practice regularly has an odd number of people, most often 5 or 7. This is somewhat frustrating when one really wants to do 3 couple or 4 couple English Country Dances, but does lend itself to 15th century Italian dances which do come in odd numbers of dancers. Eleanor duChester had been bothering me for more 5 person dances we could do. I had been intending to revisit the original directions for Verceppe in particular, but kept forgetting to work on it before practice. It had become something of a running joke, she would “remind” me at practice which was less than helpful.

So, there we were at Winter University, in a class on Tessara, which is a ribbon dance. There were more participants in the class than dance spots, so Eleanor and I were sitting and watching and chatting a bit. Watching them dance Tessara and thinking about her request for five-person dances created a spark of inspiration and I started writing this dance. It is very much Eleanor’s dance – if you know her, you will see how her personality inspired it very easily.

In the courts of the high families of Renaissance Italy, noble children were taught to dance by masters such as Domenico da Piacenza. When they were old enough and judged ready, sometimes a specific dance would be written for them to perform to show that they had attained the skills and bearing of a noble. Nobles learned to dance as part of learning deportment – dance in the late fifteenth century in the courts of the Italian city-states was intentionally being used as a class marker, a distinction to help consolidate the power of the ruling families. Anyway, this dance is dance for Eleanor to show that she has learned grace and deportment. (Did I type that with a straight face? Wow)

I mostly had the dance written by the end of University. Eleanor and I discussed and tweaked it the next day and even got some victims volunteers to walk it with us to make sure that it worked. It starts out with the dancers in a line entering with pive, then we have a little section where they make arches and Eleanor steals their ribbons (but bows to thank them after, of course). Then there’s a saltarelli section in a wheel. Then some slow and dramatic ribbon waving and turning around before they line up again to dance off with a fun piva snake. (I’ll write up a full how-to page on it when I’m ready to disseminate the whole thing.)

Eleanor’s approach to learning dance is very kinesthetic and very much based on musical cues. She is a firm believer in the music tells her what to do, and we make up songs to the tunes to help remember dances. With that in mind, actually writing the tune for her dance has been a bit of a struggle. I wanted it to clearly fit the steps and be singable.

I was able to fairly quickly write a tune for the bassadanza sections. Whenever we do a dance with a bassadanza voltatonda del gioioso, Eleanor sings it as “very slow and boring turn” so I had to work that into the bassadanza section of the music since she does one after the entrance. Once I figured out that it wanted to be in D minor that piece of melody practically wrote itself, along with variations for later bassadanza sections.

The melody for the piva sections took longer. I listened to and played through several of the existing 15th century dance tunes for inspiration, especially Amoroso. I was trying to write something in F major and it just wasn’t coming together. I switched from trying to write on my recorder to my gemshorn this week, and thus to D major (the gemshorn defaults to F#), and suddenly something started to click. I’ve even got several variations on it. Now all I need is to figure out the final melody, for the saltarelli section in the middle, and we’ll be ready to go!

The next steps are to work on arranging the music (which I already have people offering to help with, yay!), practicing the dance, and planning outfits. Our hope is to dance this for everyone at our Baronial Birthday event in September. I’m excited!

Blue Silk Cioppa (and new sleeves!)

Atlantian 12th Night in 2018 was themed around the “Palio di Atlantia” and was generally Renaissance Italy themed. I took this as an opportunity to revisit some of my favorite Italian garments and upgrade them a bit.

Me in the blue linen gamurra with matching navy sunglasses.

Remember this dress? Remember how I hated the sleeves so very much? I decided to make new sleeves as well as an overgarment to go with this. Since I decided that this gamurra looks much more 1480s Florentine than 1500s Venetian, I took my inspiration for the overgarment from appropriate images, in particular Domenico Ghirlandaio’s fresco of the Birth of Mary.

Birth of Mary by Domenico Ghirlandaio, fresco in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Florence

Notice in the image that most of the women are wearing at least three layers – shift (camicia), dress (gamurra), and overdress (cioppa) – some are also wearing a mantello or drape as well. I decided to make a cioppa based on the woman in the middle left, with the green gamurra and the gold-trimmed red cioppa. I wasn’t trying to imitate the colors, just the cut and style, including the gold trim.

There were two main styles of overdress in Florence in the 1480s. The cioppa, seen on most of the women in that fresco had sewn together side and front seams and sleeves. Some had a bodice with a sewn-in skirt, others were all of a piece, similar to the pellando (houpellande) from earlier in the century. The other overdress was the giornea. These were sleeveless, with no side seams and often open fronts as well. There were both men’s and women’s versions of both garments. The giornea was generally considered more appropriate for spring and summer than the cioppa.

I decided to make an unlined cioppa out of sari silk knowing that the event would be indoors in a hotel with the heat no doubt turned up. A fully lined cioppa would have left me too warm to dance, and we can’t have that. I cut off the trim from the sari and then resewed it on at neckline and hem. The trim on the garment in the fresco was probably actually goldwork embroidery.

Cutting in progress…

The pattern was adapted from my existing pattern for a mid-1400s pellando. This turned out to be a mistake, as the wool I had sewn that pellando out of stretches a lot more than silk and the front center seam of this cioppa lays a bit oddly. In future I will probably cut an angled front center seam for the cioppa. I may also need to widen it just under the arm as well.

Construction was mostly simple, sewing the long straight seams of the body together and sewing the sleeves. The sleeves are only attached at the top of the shoulder. The most complicated part was sewing the trim down, since I was taking a straight woven item and forcing it around the curve of the hem and the curve of the neckline. I had to do some interesting miters and darts to make it work.

New sleeves with hand-sewn finishing.

The new sleeves for the gamurra I made out of the palu of the sari, and I did line those with linen as they needed some body. Very little of the work on that was done by machine, as I ended up completely hand finishing them and doing hand-sewn eyelets so that they would look right to me.

Sewing eyelets in the sleeves.

The pattern for the sleeves I took from an existing sleeve pattern. I pinned the muslin on and had a friend draw a circle around my elbow so that I could figure out how to place the cut out for the elbow poof.

No cioppa! I never wear the old sleeves anymore.

All in all this project was a success. There are some bits of fitting that I would do different next time, but I like the garments and they are pretty comfortable to wear. Plus they look great!

Photo taken for the Atlantian Garb Runway challenge that I entered at the event.

Venetian gown from 1500 for Atlantian 12th Night 2015

I did not write up a dress diary at the time I was working on this project, but I did take some process photos at the time, planning to write one. I almost never remember to take process photos! So excite!

The Concept

Atlantian Twelfth Night that year was themed around Venice in 1500. I got pretty excited and ended up teaching  some people in my local Barony about it and a bunch of us made appropriate garb. We were very pretty! I had done some more research since the blue and teal gamurre on what differentiated Venetian fashion from Florentine since then, so this was my next big attempt at the “make my garb actually match my persona” idea. I continue to use Realm of Venus for art inspiration – in this case this page in particular. I focused in on the ladies in Gentile Bellini’s Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of S. Lorenzo.

I came up with two dress ideas, one for a linen gamurra as a test run in pale green, and one for 12th night itself in silk with a velvet vestito (overgown).

Patterning

In December 2014, I worked up a new bodice pattern by cutting a copy of the old one from two linen gamurre and modifying it to be self-supporting and with the wide v neckline. I then cut the bodice for the pale green linen test gown and put it together quickly by machine-sewing, flipping, ironing and top-stitching. I interlined it with a woven modern interfacing for additional stiffness. There are some textual sources that mention interlining in bodices of the period – it seems that wool felt and linen “cardboard” (stiffened with glue) were both used. I put the sleeves together in the same way. I gathered and sewed on the skirt by hand.

I then took this rough draft of a dress up to Pennsylvania when visiting my parents for Christmas and enlisted mom to help make it fit right. It was too lose and not as supportive as I wanted. She took in the side seams and changed their angle as well, and recommended I raise the bottom of the bodice. I copied these changes to the pattern and took it home to cut the final gown. For the pattern of the vestito I used the back of the gamurra bodice, and altered the front to deepen the neckline. I added a very small amount of ease to the side.

Cut and construction

The silk fabric for the gown was a sari someone had gifted me years before, saying that I would find something to sew with it. I lined the bodice in black linen as well as using the same interfacing as I had for the pale green gown. For the vestito, I had polyester velvet (looks more like silk than cotton) and a polyester brocade lining fabric. I did not have money at the time to buy fabric for this project and I was looking for something in the right color scheme (red/gold/black) while my stash was full mostly of shades of blue and green. The velvet and brocade were a gift from my mother.

For the final gown I wanted to use a more period construction than the machine sew-and-flip. Note that the lining and interfacing pieces are cut with no seam allowance in certain spots. After sewing the back center seam, the lining and interfacing were stitched together for reinforcement, and then the fashion fabric was turned over to the inside and sewn down. This particular silk was stiff, so rather than a double turn, I used a blanket stitch over the raw edge to sew it down, planning to tack twill tape over it if fraying became a concern.

The skirt was one long rectangle which I sewed up the side, leaving a slit by where they side lacing would be. I cut a slit in the opposite side and finished the edge. I then pleated it onto the bodice and sewed it down by hand. Here you can see the biggest mistake – I did not line the skirt. I had black linen underskirt I wore with it. (I actually  have this dress taken back apart with a lining pinned to the skirt, waiting to be sewn on. I spent the entirety of that event terrified I would kick a hole through my skirt.)

The sleeves I did up at least partially machine sewing and flipping before sewing on the trim and ties. Unlike the test green gown, I did not use interfacing on these sleeves. I hadn’t liked how stiff it made them.

Here, I stop having process photos as time before the event got more rushed. The vestito was cut and sewn next. The bodice of the vestito was constructed the same as that for the gamurra. The skirt was made of 3 straight panels of the velvet, although I had less of the lining fabric so only lined the two panels towards the front. Pleating the lined velvet was a pain, I ended up sewing down the pleats to themselves and then to the bodice.

The last step was sewing on lacing rings for the side-lacing of the gamurra, which I did a lot of on the car ride down to the event. I did not do lacing holes mostly because I was unsure of being able to do them with the odd texture of the silk.

Results

This was how it looked on the day of the event. I did not get a new camicia sewn in time for the event, so the one I wore had the wrong neckline for the gown.

Reflections

The vestito was too heavy and my shoulders hurt by the end of the event. I also already mentioned the concern about the gamurra skirt. I ended up remaking the vestito skirt by taking out the center back panel. I wore it again for another event over my teal gamurra. Other than those issues, the dress came out well. I did eventually finish the camicia I had cut for this event although I haven’t worn it with this outfit as I still haven’t finished remaking the gamurra skirt. I learned a lot from this project, that’s for sure.

Also a year later I finished fixing the green gamurra, sewed on gold ribbon as trim, sewed some lacing holes in (although a friend helped with that) and wore it to the SCA 50 year event. I really like how it turned out.

Some Gamurre for Pennsic (Dress Diary from 2013)

Last year I posted about my intention to post all these dress diaries. I even wrote most of the up at the time. What held me up was figuring out how to get photos into them. No more! I have figured it out and will be posting these dress diaries every couple of weeks until I’m caught up.
My description at the time of what was going on in my SCA life at the time:
Having taken something of a break from the SCA from about 2008-2011, I have been working on doing some serious revamping of my wardrobe lately. When I got active again, my garb collection was pretty sad, full of really old garb made for Pennsic (ie: in a hurry) while I was in high school, and a few newer, better-fitting pieces I’d made after graduating college. My persona has always been something of a split personality – because my parents are in the SCA, I have a certain amount of loyalty to the idea of being their daughter, however, mom’s persona is 1470-1540 northern Italian (she tends to model herself after the D’Este sisters) and dad’s a 9th-10th century Danish nobleman. My own preference is for late quattrocento Venice.  So last year, for Pennsic, I decided it was time to start dressing like it!

The Concept

 I had decided to focus on the 1480s-90s in Venice for my first foray into more persona-appropriate garb. Finding resources on what was worn specifically in Venice versus in northern Italy in general or Florence was  somewhat difficult. I relied heavily on the images collected at the Realm of Venus. I did end up wandering from just the Venetian images and also drawing some inspiration from Ghirlandaio’s Florentine frescoes.
I’m primarily writing about the blue linen one today (the middle concept sketch). The teal one isn’t finished and I haven’t even cut the brown one. 🙂  (The teal gown is finished now and I ended up making a Norse dress out of the brown herringbone linen instead.)

Patterning

Like my Greenland Gown step 1 was to take my measurements and an existing pattern to cut a muslin draft, then baste it and pin to adjust. There are no extant Italian gowns of this era that I am aware of, and the images don’t really make the construction clear, other than the fact that there are side and/or front lacings and no obvious seams that would indicate complicated piecing to shape over the bust. Based on this, I went with 4 pieces – 2 front/sides and 2 back/sides. I don’t know that you even have to have a back center seam, but I find that ANY garment in a woven fabric without a back center seam simply does not fit well on me. I have to add it to modern dresses pretty often.
In pinning to fit we ended up with curved front and back center seams and straight side seams. I have since seen other people describe their patterning process for these dresses as based on the gothic fitted gown style, where you start with the back and side seams pinned straight and then pin up the front seam to be very tight and supportive of the bust.  I may try this method at some point, although I’m not convinced that these gowns fit quite like that. (I have some different ideas on how to shape and pattern this now than in 2013, heh.)
For the camicia, I took the neckline of my gamurra pattern and made a neck piece which I gathered the full neckline into.
The bodice was lined and machine sewn then flipped and top-stitched. The skit was gathered to the waist. In order to use less fabric but still get a fairly full skirt at the hem I used a suggestion I found online in someone’s dress diary (don’t remember who) and cut the skirt panels as trapezoids (you can see in the cutting layout sketch above). I found Venetian glass lacing rings at Pennsic and sewed them on with buttonhole stitch. The lacing is “ladder” style which you see in some portraits and  it is a piece of lucet cord that I made.
(2019 me!) I hate these sleeves. I made them without lining them and the trim started falling apart. They don’t fit how I wanted. The teal ones are a little better but also should have been lined. They were my first attempt at interesting sleeves.

The finished Gowns

Although both turned out fairly well, I end up wearing the blue a lot more often than the teal. It’s just very striking with the deep blue against the white camicia, and off course, sets off my blue eyes. I never did end up doing the planned trim on the teal, it’s ended up being more of a camp dress than something I want fancy trim on. Both fit fairly well but are not self-supporting, so I wear modern undergarments with them. Actually, I was wearing an early 18th century pair of stays with them for a bit (same silhouette) but the stays no longer fit.

Reflections from the future

(2019 me!) The blue gamurra came out much closer to plan than the teal, and I still wear it very often. The teal mostly gets brought out at Pennsic or when I particularly want that color for something. I honestly failed at the “make it look particularly Venetian” part of the plan – the blue gamurra looks very 1480s Florentine to me now, especially with the natural waist placement and center front lacing. I don’t actually mind that, but it definitely was not the goal. (I will be posting a recent project to make new sleeves and a Cioppa overgown to go with it soon.)

If I were making it now, I would actually  have side-lacing in addition to the decorative front-lacing. I have seen some evidence of this in paintings and on statues since and it makes a lot of practical sense. I would also be altering the pattern to make it self-supporting, and I would not cut the skirt panels as trapezoids. More fullness! All the skirt!

Dress Diaries

Introducing the Diarii di Abbigliamento di Signora Helena Hrolfsdottir…aka my dress diaries. I have something of a backlog of half-finished dress diaries going back to (*gasp*) 2013, as well as several more current projects I’d like to do a better job of tracking. It has been five years of me saying that I would write this stuff up, but this year it’s really happening. My hope is to post once a week, whether an old dress diary or an update on current projects. That may not be a sustainable schedule long-term, but I feel like I have enough material to make it last for a few months.

I will be marking the year of the older projects in the title, but not back-dating the posts. I have learned A LOT in the last five years of sewing, that’s for sure. Hopefully this project will help me see just how far I’ve come. I also want to work on some formal write ups of all the research I’ve been doing on late 15th century Italian women’s clothing, but I need to dig a lot of my sources back out for that.

In the mean time, a teaser for my current project:

 

What in the world is a “bassduppel behennt”?

One of my major research interests over the past several years has been a letter written by Johann Cochlaus from Germany while visiting Bologna in 1517. In this letter he describes several dances he witnessed. The source is useful in that we otherwise have something of a gap in Italian dance manuals- we have several undated ones from somewhere in the late 15th century that are mostly copies of earlier works by Domenico and Guglielmo, and then nothing really until Caroso and Negri publish in the late 16th century, with a very different set of terminology and dance patterns. So what happened in the middle? This gives us one view.

Interpreting this manuscript has been interesting for me, as my Italian is way better than my German and we don’t have a lot of other descriptions of dance steps in German to compare it to. It also has some peculiarities-  for example, he consistently describes the man as “the one on the right” and the woman as “the one on the left” despite all other traditions reversing that. Rather than concluding that they suddenly decided to do every dance improper in 1517, I think he was describing it from the point of view of an observer, looking at the faces of the dancers.

Most of the step terms he uses are pretty easy to convert to familiar Italian and English steps and terms, as you can see in the table below. 

English Italian German
Double Doppio Bassduppel or duppel
Closed 4/4 double Quaternaria Doppio Duppel mit un repress (representing the fact that these are closed)
Syncopated 6/4 double Bassadanza Doppio Bassduppel
Single Sempio Basssimpel
Rise Movimento Altzada
Set or Close Ripresa / Continenza Repress
Hopped double Saltarello doppio Bassduppel behennt
Fast double Piva doppio Bassduppel behennt

So why am I confused about the term bassduppel behennt? The Smith book translates this as “fast double”. This seems to imply a piva doppio. I further went along with the idea of it being a piva doppio because of the dance Angelosa. Angelosa is a dance that does not appear in the main 15th century manuscripts we usually reference, but in two of the later fragmentary ones as well as in this letter. We do not have known music for it. The version in the German letter is a bit confusing and possibly missing steps, but the version in “Giorgio’s” manuscript in the NY Public Library is quite a cute little dance. The relevant point is, the final section of the dance is clearly stated to be “take right hands and turn with 4 pive, then take left hands and turn with 4 pive.” Cochlaus uses the term bassdupel behennt there, so I originally went along with this translation for the other dances the term appears in.

The term is found in two other dances in the letter, Bellregwerd (his version of Belriguardo) and Rostibin (his version of Rostiboli Gioioso). These dances are found in many of our 15th century sources, making comparisons easy and interesting. In both of those dances, the term “bassdupell behennt” is used in a section of music that is clearly in saltarello tempo (that is 3/4 or 6/8) and is stated to be saltarelli in ALL earlier versions. Doing pive in saltarello tempo isn’t impossible, and how to do it is described by Domenico in De arte saltandi but why assume that it is pive and not saltarelli?  I cannot find a modern German word that is equivalent to “behennt” (German speakers, help?) Perhaps instead of meaning fast it means “hopped” or “skipped”?

At this point I do not have a conclusion. It makes sense for the term to mean pive in Angelosa and saltarelli in Rostiboli and Belriguardo. Perhaps it was a more generic term that could be used for either step. They are similar in that they are done on the balls of the feet and more bouncy than other doubles.

Evolution of my Analysis of Leoncello

Leoncello is the first dance that I ever decided to sit down and analyze the evolution of from the primary sources. I was fairly new to this at the time I did it, and in preparing to teach the Leoncello class again for the first time in a while, I went back to the sources to double check a few things, only to find that my growing understanding of Italian grammar and the evolution of dance terminology caused me to change my interpretation. I wanted to share this since various people told me they were interested when talked about it on social media. Here is my original Leoncello handout.

My original interpretations of the three versions are there.  The major change in my understanding since then is of the step sequence contrapassi and the entrance of the dance.

When I first compared the different descriptions and music for the dance, one of the major areas of interest was the entrance. The music in Domenico specifies 5 repeats of the entrance music (which is 2 4/4 bars, so 10 bars or 40 beats), whereas Guglielmo specifies 4 and then in the later “Ambrosio” manuscript adds an A1 section. There is no music in the German letter. So I approached my interpretation assuming that there were reasons for the differences in the music.

Domenico’s entrance has six saltarelli (which takes 6 bars of 4/4) and then a sequence in which the man and woman rise, then the man goes around his partner with one saltarello right and turns into place. The woman then goes around her partner with a saltarello right and turns into place. Rather than insert a second set of movimenti as later versions do, I thought about how this might fit the music as Domenico wrote it, and why it might not be symmetrical. I have concluded that while the man turns into place with a mezavolta as part of the end of the saltarello double, the woman gets a whole bar to turn into place. (The mezavolta is used both at times where it is not a full turn but gets time in the music and at times where the turn is part of a previous step, such as the end of this double. Figuring out which use is meant in any specific dance gets interesting.) This makes sense if you think about the fashionable clothing of the 1440s- women wore houppelandes with long trains that require a little more maneuvering than a man’s shorter version.

I originally thought that Guglielmo’s entrance was three doubles (left, right, left), movimenti, man in front of partner with a double right and turn into place, movimenti, the woman turns in place. This fit the music:
1-2: Double left, double right
3-4: Double left, movimenti
5-6: Man double right in front, turn into place
7-8: Movimenti, Woman turns in place

However, rereading it several years later, I realized that the description of the three doubles is something Guglielmo has used elsewhere to mean a contrapassi sequence, as well as the fact that all of the later fragmentary manuscripts use contrapassi there as well. Furthermore, where he states that “the woman does the turn” is really him implying that she does the same turn as her partner, that is, goes in front of him and turns into place. So how does this fit the music?

1-2: Contrapassi sequence
3-4: Movimenti, man double right in front
5-6: Man turns into place, movimenti
7-8: Woman double right in front, turn into place

It is a little odd to have the movimenti  in two different places in the melody, but it does work. I’m going with it for now, unless I figure out something better.

So what about those contrapassi?  A lot of people in the SCA have been doing a version of the contrapasso based on the description found in Cornazzano. I originally started with the assumption that that version is what was meant in the 15th century, and the description in the German letter represented an evolution in the 16th century, much as Arbeau talks about his dance master inventing the close on the single around 1520. This seems to be upheld by Guglielmo’s description (neither he nor Domenico use the term, it seems to have come in around 1470). Also the term literally means “counter-step”. The question is: counter to what?

The German letter always describes it as “2 contrapass and one with a repress.” Taking “repress” to be equivalent to riprese, I saw this as 3 doubles not in normal tempo with the music and a sideways step to close. Descriptions earlier of the same dances that specified “3 doubles in 2 measures” in the place where that term was used in the German letter, I thought the evolution was the addition of the close.

In later readings through the theoretical section of Domenico to try and fully understand his descriptions of the tempos and steps, I later came to realize that the whole idea that “there were no closes on doubles in the 15th century” so widely accepted in the SCA was flat out wrong. Domenico, in describing the differences between doubles in quaternaria (4/4), bassadanza (6/4) and piva (2/4 or 6/8 cut time), discusses the different ways they relate to the measure and beats and the difference in movement. Part of that is stating that the quaternaria double has a frappamento on the final beat, which makes the most sense if you interpret it as a close. I also have compared the descriptions of steps in several more dances where later manuscripts use the term contrapassi to Domenico or Guglielmo’s step descriptions. Domenico mentions doing 3 pive in 2 quaternaria measures several times, and uses that final close/step to have you turn or do a quick bow as well. Finally, in NYPL/Giorgio, it gives a description of a contrapassi that matches this interpretation. Based on all of this, I now believe that the contrapassi step sequence was 3 pive and a close in 2 4/4 measures throughout the 15th century.