June 11, 2004

Balli di Sfessania

In about 1622, an album of etchings by the French graphic artist Jacques Callot (1592-1635) was published, under the title Balli di Sfessania

'Cap. Cardoni and Maramao', etching by Jacques Callot, from 'Balli di Sfessania', ca. 1622.
The prints in this series - Callot’s most exuberant and delightful - depict dances known in Neapolitan dialect as the sfessania. Such dances, as Callot’s etchings demonstrate in salacious detail, are characterized by violent and sometimes obscene physical contortions and gesticulations. Each plate features a pair of figures pulled from the repertoire of popular entertainers, their balletic interactions running a comic gamut from mock grace to blatant crudity - source here.
'Razullo and Cucurucu', etching by Jacques Callot, from 'Balli di Sfessania', ca. 1622.


'Cucoronga and Pernoualla', etching by Jacques Callot, from 'Balli di Sfessania', ca. 1622.

Callot had lived in Rome from 1608, and then in Florence from about 1612. He was appointed to the court of Grand Duke Cosimo II in 1614, for whom he made numerous prints intended as official depictions of the various public festivities staged by the Medici Court. Presumably, Callot had ample opportunity to make sketches of the entertainers participating in these events, later to become source material for the Balli series, which Callot etched some time after he returned to his native Nancy.

'Bello Sguardo and Couiello', etching by Jacques Callot, from 'Balli di Sfessania', ca. 1622.


'Scaramucia and Fricasso', etching by Jacques Callot, from 'Balli di Sfessania', ca. 1622.

I recognized some of the figures in these dances, or at least their names, as stock characters of the Commedia dell‘Arte: Pulcinella (not pictured here) and Scaramouche, for example. Many of the other names were unfamiliar to me, though: I had never heard of Maramao, say, or Cucurucu.

'Riciulina and Metzetin', etching by Jacques Callot, from 'Balli di Sfessania', ca. 1622.


'Franca Trippa and Fritellino', etching by Jacques Callot, from 'Balli di Sfessania', ca. 1622.

Interestingly, Callot’s works in this vein had a delayed but decisive literary influence. Amongst the first publications of the 19th-century German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann was a collection of tales entitled Fantasiestücke in Callot’s Manier ‘Fantastic pieces in the manner of Callot’ (1814/15). A later story of Hoffmann’s, the marvellous Princess Brambilla (1820) was subtitled ‘Ein Capriccio nach Jakob Callot’.

'Scapino and Cap. Zabino', etching by Jacques Callot, from 'Balli di Sfessania', ca. 1622.

The present images were all lifted from a Commedia dell‘Arte page at Guy Spielmann’s marvellous site Spectacles du Grand Siècle, which collects many fascinating images relating to theatre in the 17th/18th Centuries. The final image, below, belongs to a different series of etchings, also by Callot, called Varie Figuri Gobbi (‘Various Hunchbacked Figures’)…

Etching by Jacques Callot, from 'Varie Gobbi Figure', ca. 1621.


Posted by misteraitch at June 11, 2004 08:22 AM | TrackBack


Flatunzino, Odori, Quasipersona, Testini Atomici... not one of these Spectacles of Idiocy have ever been MY favorite COMMEDIA characters. How I suffer, and from injuries delivered by whom, heaven only knows.
It is for that reason that i have my friends (all two of them) watch iNTUTIVe,tv.
Not that one actually needs a reason. Always best, tho', 2 b armed w/ excuses when leaving one's house or one's senses.

Posted by: barry l. "lupino di cuori" giovane-young on August 15, 2004 07:29 AM

I'm interested in St. Lucia of Syracusa, Italy. I have a painting of her I obtained in Grenada, but I believe it was from Valencia. An art expert told me it dated to the late 1700's. She is shown in very fancy clothing (her family was wealthy), including a feather poof from the top of her head.

I am struck by the uncanny similarity between my St. Lucia's clothing and that of Sig. Lucia by Jacques Callot in Signora Lucia and Trastullo, Balli di Sfessania..

Is Sig. Lucia a character in the Venetian Comedy del Arte? If so, does she have an relationship to St. Lucia of Syracusa, Sicily?

If so, I wouldn't be surprised, as the legend says that those naughty Venetians stole the body of St. Lucia and took it to Venice, although as far as I know, it's no longer there. You will recall that they also "relocated" the body of St. Mark from Alexandra to Venice.

Many thanks for any information you can give me!

Ann Milam (Seattle, Washington)

Posted by: Ann Milam on October 25, 2005 04:22 AM

Ann—I wish I knew more about this stuff: as it is, I don’t know the answers to your questions. I hadn’t heard of Signora Lucia as a character in the Commedia before, but then many of the persons in Callot’s plates are likewise unfamiliar to me, although it looks like the inamorata character was sometimes called by that name: see this page (under amorosa, for example).

Posted by: misteraitch on October 25, 2005 09:27 AM

Hello, does anyone know where one can find the etchings of the Balli on the internet? I mean the largest and the highest quality. The images on this site are ok, but I wish I could find even better reproductions. Thanks.

Posted by: Villon on December 11, 2005 10:39 PM

Ah!! I love Callot, he was a genious, his works are greate!

Posted by: La Fleur de Lis on May 21, 2007 10:14 PM

very beautifull images, i am a fan of this pixtures when the teatre is in the streets, whit friends and follos inspiration and imporvisation

Posted by: Tanzio Rosa on October 2, 2007 06:45 PM
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