Academic journal article Early Theatre

Marie De Medici's 1605 Ballet De la Reine: New Evidence and Analysis

Academic journal article Early Theatre

Marie De Medici's 1605 Ballet De la Reine: New Evidence and Analysis

Article excerpt

Scholars have known very little about the three French court ballets for which Marie de Medici (1575-1642), queen consort to Henri IV of France, was both patron and highest ranking dancer. (1) This gap in knowledge is especially pronounced for her January 1605 unnamed ballet de la reine for good reason: no recit or verse text seems extant, while other sources confuse questions of dating or offer only scattered clues regarding the ballet's 'magnificence', its dancers' gem-studded costumes, and the remarkably large audience. (2) An unsigned manuscript letter authored by a spectator at the Louvre performance, however, offers significant new information. This letter, archived among the manuscripts collected by the famous seventeenth-century antiquarian Nicolas-Fabri de Peiresc, has remained unknown to ballet de cour scholars despite having been roughly paraphrased by Louis Battifol in 1930. (3) Battifol's description of the ballet's events is incomplete and partly inaccurate, (4) but direct study of the manuscript itself, in conjunction with readings of other neglected documents, can correct the historical record.

This essay presents the first scholarly edition of this eye-witness account, including an introduction with discussion, an edited transcription of the newly discovered seventeenth-century manuscript, and an English translation with annotations. Given the striking absence of previous work on this ballet, I first situate the letter's description of the event by clarifying questions of the ballet's dating, identifying performance venues, and describing the audience. I then offer a brief structural overview of the ballet's onstage action; notes to the edition discuss in further detail particular elements of the letter's report as clarified by comparison with other contemporary references. This edition, I hope, will help to settle basic questions such as when, where, by whom, and for whom this ballet was performed, making available a wealth of new evidence regarding specific visual iconographies, choreographed dances, musical innovations, and elements of audience response. In addition, my discussion touches briefly on issues of authorship and reliability of the letter's narrative as historical evidence. Finally, I suggest what we can gain from studying this letter in terms of new insights regarding women's court ballet as a whole as well as individual aesthetic and socio-political contributions by Marie de Medici as patron-performer.

Discussion

Basic Questions of Performance History

Although previously known sources conflict regarding the 1605 ballet de la reine's date and location, (5) Jacques Compar, duc de La Force, asserts that Marie de Medici initiated rehearsals for the women's dancing no later than 10 January 1605, with the Louvre performance occurring in the early hours of 24 January. (6) The letter archived by Peiresc confirms this time period, specifying that an audience assembled at the Louvre late in the evening on 23 January while the ballet itself began at around one o'clock in the morning of 24 January. The Florentine ambassador in Paris, Baccio Giovannini, similarly reports that the ballet took place in the middle of the night, as does another source not previously identified, Le romant des chevaliers de Thrace, which offers a print description of a running at the barrier which took place in February 1605 but also briefly discusses Marie's ballet the previous month. (7) By reading such sources together with the letter found among Peiresc's collected papers we learn, too, that this ballet was repeated at multiple Paris locations over a period of seven hours. Our letter mentions that between four and eight o'clock in the morning, after the ballet's presentation at the Louvre, it was danced again at 'other assemblies', the first being the home of 'monsieur de Rhony' (Maximilien de Bethune, duc de Rosny and future duc de Sully, who resided in Paris at the Arsenal). La Force specifies further that the ballet's final location, following the Arsenal, was the archbishop's palace; (8) somewhat wearily, he adds, he spent the whole night scurrying about accompanying Henri IV, who wished to attend all three performances, and it wasn't until day that he with the king returned to the Louvre. …

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