Ballet originated from the court entertainments of Renaissance Italy, evolving from the stately processions, jousting and fencing displays (often with interludes of song and poetry) that enlivened the medieval nobility. From the early 15th century, most Italian courts employed a dancing master. The works performed at the courts of Italian princes came to be called balli (after the Italian word, ballare which means ‘to dance’) and featured costumed courtiers acting out allegorical stories, often themed from Greek and Roman Mythology (such as Jason and the Golden Fleece; performed during the wedding of the Duke of Milan, in 1489).  

Students of the Imperial Ballet School (St Petersburg) in Petipa's <i>Fairy Tale</i> , 1891 © Wikicommons
Students of the Imperial Ballet School (St Petersburg) in Petipa's Fairy Tale , 1891
© Wikicommons

The earliest balli were expensive spectacles in which kings, queens and their courtiers danced and listened while troubadours sang their praise. The best painters, designers, musicians, costumiers and dancing masters were engaged to produce extravagant events that would rarely be performed again. To succeed at any Italian court, an ambitious nobleman had to be as proficient at dancing as he was at fencing or riding.

The first dance manuals with instructions about how to perform steps began to appear in mid-15th century Italy. Pivotal was De Arte saltandi et choreas descendi De la arte di ballare et danzare by Domenico da Piacenza (c1455) which laid the initial foundations for the wordless dance theatre that would later be codified as classical ballet. During these early years, many of the noble ideals of courtly behaviour were enshrined into the aesthetic principles of ballet and became a part of the discipline. The emphasis on an erect, uplifted torso, for example, can be attributed to ballet’s origins at court.

Commedia dell'Arte's Harlequin © national Gallery of Prague | Wikicommons
Commedia dell'Arte's Harlequin
© national Gallery of Prague | Wikicommons
Commedia dell’arte, popular in Italy from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, also played a significant role in developing theatrical performances integrated with dance. The genre revolved around familiar characters, such as Pulcinella and Harlequin who came to enrich the ballet repertoire, particularly in the work of Russian choreographers Marius Petipa (who was French born but moved to St Petersburg when he was 29 years old), Mikhail Fokine, Léonide Massine and Serge Lifar (who was born in Kiev and had a very successful career in Paris) all creating work inspired by the Commedia dell’arte tradition.

Caterina de’ Medici – daughter of Lorenzo II, Duke of Urbino, was largely responsible for taking the courtly pageants so beloved by her father to France when she married, in 1553, the man who was to succeed to the French throne as Henri II. The elegant ballet de cour subsequently flourished in France and began to overshadow the development of Italian balli during the 17th century, although many of the most important dance artists and teachers working in France (and subsequently Russia) continued to be Italian.

By the beginning of the 18th century, ballet in Italy and France was being recast into theatrical performances by professional dancers for paying audiences, although in Russia it remained a private spectacle sponsored by the nobility well into the 19th century. When ballet moved into the theatre, regular ballet performances were held at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples from 1737, although Milan emerged as the main centre with the opening of La Scala, in 1778. To ensure a steady supply of trained dancers, the Imperial Academy of Dancing was established in Milan, in 1813, becoming one of the finest schools in the world throughout the 19th century. A ballet school had opened in Naples, a year earlier.   

Photograph, Carlo Blasis' <i>Traité élémentaire, théorique et pratique de l'Art de la Danse</i> © Sferaviola | Wikicommons
Photograph, Carlo Blasis' Traité élémentaire, théorique et pratique de l'Art de la Danse
© Sferaviola | Wikicommons
Instruction was based on positions, exercises, steps and movements which were developed into a technical vocabulary. One of the foremost codifiers was the Neapolitan dance teacher, Carlo Blasis, who had danced at La Scala and appeared in St Petersburg. As Director of the Imperial Academy attached to La Scala, from 1837, his work helped to spread the influence of the Italian School, particularly to Russia. His written works – of which there were many – are amongst the most important ballet treatises ever published and the classical vocabulary in use today stems largely from Blasis.    

Italian influence on the development of Russian Culture took hold in the early decades of the 18th century. Giovanni Ristori’s opera Calandro was performed in St Petersburg by Italian singers in 1731. The Empress Anna Ivanovna, niece of Peter the Great, was said to be so enchanted by this “exotic and irrational entertainment” that she recruited Francesco Araia’s Venetian company to perform La Forza dell’Amore in the Winter Palace, to celebrate her birthday, in 1736.    

Two years’ later, the Empress founded a school in St Petersburg to teach ballet to selected servants’ children, which led to the emergence of a small company in the 1740s performing in the Imperial Palaces. The first ballet school in Moscow was founded in 1773 under the direction of Italian ballet master Filippo Beccari, one of the great virtuoso dancers (alongside Sabatini) from the early years at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, and this led to the founding of the first Moscow ballet company in 1776.    

Russia became a major centre for ballet during the mid-19th century, at exactly the time when Italian ballet was becoming overshadowed by opera.

Carlotta Grisi and Marius Petipa, performing in <i>Giselle</i> © Bibliothèque nationale de France | Wikicommons
Carlotta Grisi and Marius Petipa, performing in Giselle
© Bibliothèque nationale de France | Wikicommons
However, many of the early, foremost stars of Russian ballet were Italians. It was Marie Taglioni, one of the greatest names in the history of ballet, who caused a sensation with her St Petersburg debut performance, on 6th September 1837, dancing La Sylphide  – which she premiered in Paris in 1932). Taglioni continued to dance regularly at the Imperial Theatre for the next five years. She was followed into St Petersburg by several other great Italian ballerine of the Romantic era, including Carlotta Grisi (who created the title role in Giselle, also in Paris, in 1841) from 1850-53; Fanny Cerrito later in the 1850s; Carolina Rosati, from 1859-62; and Virginia Zucchi, from 1885-88. These Italian ballerine captured and drove the public enthusiasm for dance, inspiring a new generation of Russian dancers to emerge in the golden age of Imperial ballet under master choreographer, Marius Petipa.     

The distinctive Russian style, developed under Petipa, included the vital ingredients of French elegance and Italian virtuosity, the latter best exemplified by Pierina Legnani, who moved from being prima ballerina at La Scala to holding the same status at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg,  from 1893 to 1901. It was Legnani who developed the celebrated feat of executing 32 fouettés without stopping and she is only one of two dancers ever to have been appointed prima ballerina assoluta at the Mariinsky (the other being her contemporary and rival, Mathilde Kschessinska).

Ballet Master Enricho Cecchetti teaching Anna Pavlova © Wikicommons
Ballet Master Enricho Cecchetti teaching Anna Pavlova
© Wikicommons
The male equivalent of Legnani was Enrico Cecchetti, a brilliant virtuoso and technician who made his debut in St Petersburg in 1887. If Blasis was the greatest ballet teacher of the 19th century, then his successor into the early 20th century was certainly Cecchetti, whose Russian pupils included Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina and Agrippina Vaganova (who herself went on to become the architect of 20th century ballet methodology and training in Russia).     

During the soviet era, Russian ballet drew into itself, evolving through the teachings of Vaganova and the divine inspiration of dancers such as Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya, into an island of splendid isolation, rarely able to venture beyond the boundaries of the Soviet Union, or to learn from outsiders coming through the iron curtain. The Soviet State replaced the Tsars as a massive sponsor of the art and made the institutions of Russian ballet even stronger.

Agrippina Vaganova in <i>La Esmeralda</i>, St. Petersburg, circa 1910 (unknown photographer) © Wikicommons
Agrippina Vaganova in La Esmeralda, St. Petersburg, circa 1910 (unknown photographer)
© Wikicommons
Now, the major ballet companies of Russia – notably the Bolshoi of Moscow and the Mariinsky (known as the Kirov during the Soviet era) of St Petersburg – are world leaders of the art. 19th century tradition of great Italian dancers within the elite of world ballet has continued with major international stars such as Carla Fracci, Viviana Durante, Alessandra Ferri, Roberto Bolle, Giuseppe Picone and The Royal Ballet’s Mara Galeazzi and Federico Bonelli being amongst the top rank of dancers in the past 20 years.                

Despite the major role played in the codification of ballet by teachers such as Carlo Blasis and Enrico Cecchetti, the international language of ballet technique derives from the French (entrechat, arabesque, pirouette etc), but the etymology of the international word for ballet remains the derivative of the Italian balletto. Although the equivalent word for a male dancer, ballerino, is now rarely used outside of Italy, a woman ballet dancer has always been known, the world over, by the Italian word ballerina. Given that Italy has given the world many of its greatest women dancers, from Taglioni to Ferri, this seems appropriate.