This beautifully illustrated treatise on dance was produced by the Italian dance-master Cesare Negri (c. 1536–1604), also known as ‘Il Trombone’. The first part details Negri’s colourful career – largely spent at the court of Milan, but also performing, directing and choreographing for lavish court festivities and processions across Italy and Spain. It shows the growing role of sophisticated, rehearsed dances in the noble and royal circles of Renaissance Europe. Dances like these were imported into England, becoming part of the spectacular masques and entertainments held at the courts of Elizabeth and James.

Dance steps, music and engravings

The remainder of the Gratie d’amore explains the complex patterns of steps for popular Renaissance dances or balli. One section considers the galliard, an energetic dance full of leaps and hops. It is choreographed here for a man, but was also a great favourite with Queen Elizabeth I, who was said to have danced ‘six or seven galliards in a morning’, even when she was in her mid-fifties.[1]

The final section discusses the steps used in 43 choreographed pieces accompanied by lute music. The melody is shown in ‘mensural notation’ (the forefather of modern notation) with the lute accompaniment in ‘tablature’ (a form of notation used for stringed instruments), where each line represents a pair of lute strings and the markings show the fingerings.

The text is illustrated with a lively series of full-page engravings by Leone Pallavicini (fl. 1590–1616) using designs by Giovanni Mauro della Rovere (1570–1640). These evocative images show how dancing was dictated by the costume of the era. Ruffs, corsets and tight lacing restrict upper body movement, placing emphasis on footwork. They also reveal that dancing enabled close but highly controlled encounters between the sexes.

‘Let’s have a dance ere we are married’: Much Ado About Nothing (5.4.117–18)

In Much Ado About Nothing Beatrice describes the disappointing progression from ‘wooing’ to ‘wedding’ and ‘repenting’ using metaphors of dancing: ‘the first suit is hot and hasty, like a Scotch jig …; the wedding, mannerly-modest, as a measure … ; and then comes repentance and, with his bad legs, falls into the cinquepace faster and faster, till he sink into his grave’ (2.1.73–80).

These words resonate in the masked dance scene in Act 2 and again in Act 5 when the characters join in a dance to celebrate two marriages. Here, there is rather an abrupt shift from potential conflict to harmonious dancing as a symbol of restored order. The threat of a duel between Benedick and Claudio is quickly put aside; yet, as shown in the engravings in Negri’s manual, gentlemen of Shakespeare’s time would often carry a rapier (a long sword) hanging from their belt while dancing. The possibility of violence might linger subtly in the air, even if the rapier is now a fashion accessory.

[1] Letter from John Stanhope, gentleman of the Privy Chamber, to Lord Talbot. Cited in Alan Brissenden, Shakespeare and the Dance (London, 1981), p. 5.