In the course of my research into dancing on the London stage, I recently came across ‘A new Comic Dance called A Cortegiano by Castiglione’ performed at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket on 29 December 1735, at the end of act 5 of Dryden’s The Spanish Fryar. The dance’s title is a very obvious reference to Il Cortegiano by the dancer’s namesake Baldassare Castiglione, originally published in Venice in 1528.
Who was the dancer Castiglione and why would he create a dance whose title refers to an early 16th century courtesy book?
Castiglione (we have no record of his first name) danced in London between 1734 and 1736. I have not been able to discover anything about his earlier or later career. According to The London Stage, his first appearance in London was on 28 October 1734 at Drury Lane. His last performance was very likely on 29 May 1736 at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, when he appeared as Pierrot in Henry Fielding’s Tumble Down Dick; or, Phaeton in the Suds. The afterpiece was described in advertisements as ‘The Practice of a Dramatick Entertainment of Walking, in Serious and Absurd Characters’, which sounds like a satirical reference to John Weaver and his ‘Dramatick Entertainments of Dancing’ of the 1710s to 1730s.
The dancer Castiglione may have been Italian in origin, but he probably came to London from France. At his benefit performance on 28 March 1735, the mainpiece was Arlequin Balouard given by a company of French comedians including ‘Francisque’ (Francisque Moylin) as Arlequin, while the entr’acte dances were Les Warriors, Les Transfigurations, The Prisoner, a Comical Pantomime Dance, Pierot and Pieraite, a Wooden Shoe Dance and a Pantomime after the Venetian Manner ‘All by Castiglione’. The first three seem to have been performed only this once on the London stage. The titles of the last four of his dances call to mind the French forain repertoire that had been popular in London’s theatres for more than twenty years.
With A Cortegiano, Castiglione was not only showing off his knowledge of his heritage but also capitalising on the English passion for Italian culture. Il Cortegiano had been published in an English translation as recently as 1724 and a parallel English – Italian edition had appeared in 1727. The latter was accorded a second edition in 1737.
For a dancer, Castiglione must have been unusually well read!