05.07.12, Nevile, The Eloquent Body

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Katherine Mcginnis

The Medieval Review baj9928.0507.012


Nevile, Jennifer. The Eloquent Body: Dance and Humanist Culture in Fifteenth-Century Italy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. Pp. x, 247. ISBN: 0-253-34453-0.

Reviewed by:
Katherine Mcginnis
University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Jennifer Nevile's The Eloquent Body; Dance and Humanistic Culture in Fifteenth-Century Italy deserves a wide readership. The scholars who should be reading it may not realize the importance of the field that Nevile explores. At a time when scholarly focus leads to shrinking specializations, Nevile traverses intellectual, social, and cultural history. Although her topic, the humanistic understanding of dance in fifteenth-century Italy and the influence of humanistic thinking on courtly dance, might appear to be a dance-historical one, The Eloquent Body will reward readers in many other areas of medieval and early modern European history. What Nevile does is embed her argument in the assumption that history is not made up of verbal exchange alone, written or otherwise. Rather, the inherent physicality of human history is nowhere so politically fraught as in fifteenth- (and sixteenth) century courtly dancing.

The first chapter, "Dance and Society," is a straightforward social history of the important role that dance held in the courts of fifteenth-century Italy. Both information and argument will be familiar and unremarkable to dance historians, but should be beneficial for intellectual historians, and even those who view courts as political entities or centers of artistic or musicological activity. In this chapter, Nevile is concerned, in clearly identified subsections, with dance as an aristocratic pastime and as an expression of power.

By explaining the social context of dance, Nevile arrives at its significance, arguing that courtly dance functioned as a "sign of communal identity," affirmed familial ties, and could be used to express social position of both dancer and spectator. In fact, in one of the many examples Nevile includes, the dances provided for the visit of Galeazzo Maria Sforza to Florence in 1459 made clear statements of both Florentine and Milanese values and virtues. (An anonymous Florentine commented on Sforza's ability to dance "without error," a reminder of the essentially formal and performative qualities of courtly dance.) Nevile does not neglect the possibilities of courtship or at least the opportunities for seeing and dancing with attractive members of the opposite sex, a pleasure bordering on luxury for the somewhat sequestered maidens of the period.

For readers unfamiliar with the dancing in which fifteenth-century Italian elites participated, Nevile introduces the trio whose treatises are the primary sources of information about the activity: Domenico da Piacenza, Antonio Cornazano, and Guglielmo Ebreo. Cornazano's fame extends beyond his manual, Libro dell'arte del danzare, and his relationships to Ippolita Sforza and Secondo Sforza, to whom he dedicated his treatise. The majority of medieval and Renaissance scholars know him as a humanist and courtier. Guglielmo is possibly the best known of the three, due primarily to the frequency with which his manual was redacted, although the extent and clarity of his writing have further recommended him to generations of musicologists as well as dance historians. However, it is Domenico who was the teacher to both and who is considered the "father" of the ballare lombardo that swept the courts of Italy.

In itself, the fifteenth-century Italian innovation of writing treatises about dancing demonstrates the influence of humanistic ideas and ideals on dance and dancing masters. In Chapter 2, "The Dance Treatises and Humanist Ideals," Nevile discusses the treatises in terms of humanist dialogue, taking into consideration "Informed versus Uninformed Viewers," "Matter and Form," "Sensuous Pleasure and Useful Pleasure," and "Nature and Art." The range of Nevile's sources is remarkable. In addition to the inclusion of works by a wide selection of philosophers and humanists, both ancient and early modern, her bibliography includes art history and musicology, works on the history of the body and the study of festivities as well as extensive secondary material on both humanism and dance.

In Chapter 3, "Eloquent Movement--Eloquent Prose," Nevile arrives at the heart, the very difficult core of her argument. How did the dancing masters tie their physical activities to the intellectual program of the humanists? They were, she posits, "acutely aware that for dance to be included as a liberal art, with a claim to true knowledge and wisdom, then it had to be more than just a body of physical skills; it was now essential to be able to talk about dance in addition to being a good practitioner." (75) To understand the necessity for dance rules is to appreciate the profound changes that swept Italian courts in the fifteenth-century and turned condottieri and bankers into princes and dukes. Humanists argued that verbal eloquence led to wisdom and to a well-run society. The writers of dance manuals, in turn, insisted on an intellectual or theoretical basis for their art. Just as Valla and Guarini emphasized the need "to understand and to manipulate language" (76) for success in public affairs, dancing masters articulated the elements, the steps, patterns, and movement qualities that made formal description and analysis possible. Theory, as a basis for both practice and teaching, made it possible to elevate dance from the "mechanical" repetitions abhorred by dancing masters to an essential and noble skill for prince and courtier.

Chapter 4, "Dance and the Intellect," is almost entirely taken up with Nevile's discussion of the misure. The categorization of dances by musical proportion, although linked to the theories of Pythagoras and Plato in the minds of dancing masters and humanists alike, is a complex topic and this chapter will primarily interest musicians and dancers. The following chapter, "Order and Virtue," although equally closely related to the humanistic ideals, in this case of geometry, is an essential one for any understanding of Renaissance dance, but particularly for Nevile's purposes. Physicality is an inherently spatial quality. In order to appreciate dance as a medium of expression (at any time), the shapes and moving patterns must be legible. Whereas Chapter 4 may be said to be concerned with time, in Chapter 5, space is the theme. No Rockette was ever more constrained by spatial relationships, by the necessity to be in the right place at the right time, than the Renaissance dancer as he or she moved through triangles (especially well explained and diagrammed in The Eloquent Body), circles, and other figures. To attempt to understand these dances without grasping the shapes and their mutations is as superficial as reading a cookbook without tasting food. It is precisely through the presentational implications of the figures that the dancer achieved performative success.

Three appendices complete The Dancing Body. First, the author provides the entire text of an anonymous poem, written on the occasion of the visit of Galeazzo Maria Sforza and the pope to Florence in 1459 (Fl, BN, Magl. VII 1121, f. 63r-69v), both in transcription and in a side-by-side translation by Giovanni Carsaniga, whom she also credits with help in translation of fifteenth-century materials. The second appendix, "The Use of Mensuration Signs as Proportion Signs in the Dance Treatises," expands on her discussion of the four misure as they were explained by Domenico da Piacenza. The third contains the "floor tracks" and music for four balli "Anello," "Ingrata," "Pizochara," and "Verceppe," as well as an explanation of the steps used in the dances that she describes. Although Nevile explains the different types of dances, in particular the popular balli and bassadanze found in the manuals, the dances found in her Appendix 3 are all balli. The addition of an example of a notated bassadanza from one of the treatises would have been helpful to many readers, especially those less familiar with the form.

The Eloquent Body is a very short book, 140 pages from Introduction to Conclusion, expanded with the three appendices, helpful notes, and generous bibliography to almost 250. Many readers would have appreciated one more appendix. Because this book will attract readers unfamiliar with specifics of court festivities, a chronological list of events named would have been a useful addition. There are many referred to, some cited several times, and they are easily confused.

This book is a case of something for everyone, with both rewards and frustrations for every reader. Musicologists will certainly want to examine this book. Dance historians should, if only because their "practical" uses of the treatise materials often fail to take into consideration the intellectual aspects of performance. That is not to say that courtiers were intellectuals, but that essential assumptions of the humanists concerning order, virtue, and self-presentation, the elements of self-fashioning, were shared by dancers as well as humanists. Scholars concerned with courtly society and culture, and with festivities will find much of interest. I would argue that it is the intellectual historians themselves, those whose subjects are the humanists and their ideas, who most need to read this book. It is they who can best engage Nevile's presentation of humanistic thought, and it is equally they who must recognize the eloquence of movement as complementary to the eloquence of prose.

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Author Biography

Katherine Mcginnis

University of North Carolina at Greensboro