Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

   entry August 2009, large box added Mar 25-7, 2022                        


Gaetano Grossatesta

(born c. 1700, in Modena — died c. 1774, probably in Naples)

When Gaetano Grossatesta moved to Naples in 1745, he already had behind him some 20 years of experience in northern Italy as a respected choreographer or direttore di ballo [dance]. (The term coreografo was not then in general use.*note) He was well primed to take over the job of ballet director at the new San Carlo Theater. By the end of his life, some 30 years later, he had composed the dances (and music for those dances) for the first performances of about 100 operas in both northern Italy and in Naples and had collaborated with composers of distinction such as Vivaldi, Albinoni, Hasse and Gluck. Today he is almost totally forgotten. It’s hard to say why except that the passage of time and changing artistic tastes can conspire to make almost anyone obscure. (See the series on “Obscure Composers.”) Ballet, perhaps, has special problems in that it didn’t really exist as a separate art form until the early 1800s.

Today, it makes sense to say “Let’s go to the ballet” or “opera” or “concert” because we see dance, melodrama, and symphonic music as separate disciplines. In the late 1600s, however, it made no sense at all because everything revolved around opera; opera was the vehicle for instrumental music and dance. There were not yet such things as “symphony number this” or “piano concerto number that.” And though there were social dances and court dances in Paris, the capital of early ballet, such dance was a long way from appearing separately on a stage for you to enjoy.

Ballet, in the form of staged versions of social and court dances, was incorporated into early opera (meaning all of the 1600s) either within an act or as an interval between acts. The dancers wore elaborate court or theatrical costumes of the day (women wore formal gowns down to the ankles); that type of dance is referred to today as “Baroque dance.” There were no tutus, ballet slippers, pointe work or flying Russian dancers in tights bounding over the stage like low-flying trapeze artists. That Baroque situation passed from France into Italian ballet of the early 1700s where the direttore di ballo was usually mentioned in printed programs but was otherwise somewhat neglected. Importantly, while you can easily find notated music from that period, very few examples of notated dances have survived (in the Beauchamp–Feuillet notation, for example, from the 1600s (a sample is seen in the photo insert, above). Thus we can't really say with precision what dance in early opera looked like. (Fortunately, some notation from Grossatesta’s ballets survives.)

Our modern sense of ballet as a cohesive performance of dancers moving to music to tell a story originated during the
Italian Renaissance in the fifteenth century and more specifically under the influence of Catherine de' Medici. She was born in 1519 in Florence and in 1589 in Château de Blois in France. She was the Queen consort of France from 1547 until 1559, by marriage to King Henry II and was the  mother of French kings Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III. These court ballets were elaborate and extravagant. They were performed in large chambers with viewers on three sides. Aristocratic money dictated the ideas, literature and music used in these ballets, and they were created primarily to entertain the aristocracy of the time. The first formal 'court ballet' ever recognized was staged in 1573, Ballet des Polonais. Catherine commissioned it to honor the Polish  ambassadors visiting Paris upon the accession of Henry of Anjou to the throne of Poland. In 1581, she commissioned another court ballet, Ballet Comique de la Reine, however it was her Italian compatriot, Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx, who organized the ballet. Catherine  and Balthasar (also cited as "Baltasarini") de Beaujoyeulx were thus responsible for the first court ballet ever to integrate poetry, dance, music and set design to convey a unified dramatic storyline. We know very little of Baltasarini except that died c. 1587 in Paris and is cited as an "Italian violinist, composer, and choreographer." He moved to Paris originally in 1555 specifically to serve at Catherine's court.  He tutored two of her sons and displayed a talent for arranging elaborate entertainments for the court.

added Mar. 25, 2020
Before you get all peace, love, and kumbayah about Catherine, the party girl (image), she had other interests. Some historians say she was the dark puppet-mistress pulling the strings on the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (SBDM), one of the low points in history of how those who share the same faith can descend into savagery and become mindless butchers. The SBDM was more than a single event and began on the night of 23–24 August 1572 and developed over a number of days largely in Paris, but spreading to other areas. The massacre was a targeted group of murders and a wave of Catholic mob violence against the Huguenots (French Protestants, named for Besançon Hugues, b. 1487 - d. 1532, a Swiss politician) during the so-called "French Wars of Religion" (1562-98). The particular "wave" of religious animosity in question here, the SBDM, lasted several weeks and estimates of the number of  dead across France vary widely, from 5,000 to 30,000. About three million people perished from violence, famine, or disease in the general French Wars of Religion. The SBDM was the second deadliest religious war in that period of European history. It is surpassed only by the Thirty Years' War,
caused by the Protestant Reformation itself, but which took a while to get raging. It went from 1618-48 and took eight million lives. (I note that Luther, himself, married a nun. So at least those two got along fine.) We note that Catholic-Protestant hostility continued such that by 1685, so many Huguenots with trade and professional skills had been driven into exile from France, that the French state itself was severely weakened.
           added: Mar 27
And the pope? Pope Gregory XIII (1502–1585), was head of the Catholic Church from May 13th, 1572 to his death in 1585. He commissioned and is the namesake for the Gregorian calendar, our civil calendar, so I tend to like him --a "science" kind of pope. But he was also pope during the SBDM, and his behavior during and  afterwards is disturbing. Though he feared invasion of Europe by Muslim Turks, his predecessor, pope Paul V, had mopped up the Med with the Muslims at the monumental Battle of Lepanto in 1571, an important victory for Christianity. Greg's attention was now more directed to the "inner" Christian danger of Protestantism. A generous account of his behavior during the SBDM says he was led to believe the Huguenots wanted to seize power in France, to stage a Protestant coup. That's why he issued a "well-done" to Catholics after the first few days of slaughter. After all, they had defended the state. If it looked like papal approval of the cruelties of the massacre, that's not fair. He didn't approve of the cruelties but made no public protest. Shall we give him those benefits of the doubt? I don't know. His public reactions were exuberant. "This is worth 50 battles of Lepanto," he said. He also had three frescoes made for the Sala Regia hall of the Vatican showing the events. He then issued a commemorative medal with his portrait and on the obverse a chastising angel, sword in hand and the legend UGONOTTORUM STRAGES: "Overthrow of the Huguenots", says one published English translation from Latin. It's a poor one. STRAGES in Latin is always very violent and is commonly translated as massacre, slaughter, and the like. (STRAGE still means that in modern Italian.) UGONOTTORUM STRAGES means "Slaugher of the Huguenots" and, indeed, a grisly image of a detail of the slaughter is on the obverse of the medallion (image shown).

Still, the calendar was a great idea.

rossatesta’s career rose with opera seria (the name given to those operas from the 1600s and 1700s that were based on themes from Greek mythology and, thus, "serious") where dance often helped to move the plot along; his career faded with age and with the advent of Ballet d'action, a new ballet movement started by French choreographer Jean Georges Noverre in 1760, in which dancers expressed their character and emotion through their movements rather than through elaborate props and costumes —in other words, the beginning of modern ballet.

There is little information about Grossatesta’s family and background. The earliest reference to his work is from 1720 in Venice. He had at least one brother, Antonio, who is mentioned in one of Casanova’s letters. The brother became the impresario of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice and engaged Gaetano as choreographer in 1729. Gaetano may also have performed as a dancer on the stage. (This was when a "gentleman" could dance; this means simply that he would have been in a group of seven or eight dancers performing a dance that he, himself, had worked out —or "choreographed.")

Ballet Dancer
by Edgar Degas

After Grossatesta moved to Naples, the situation of ballet started to change for the better; that is, the librettos offered progressively more information on the dances, and these balli are often described in detail. It isn’t clear if Grossatesta composed the ballet parts of the opera that opened the San Carlo Theater on November 4, 1737, Achille in Sciro  (with music by Domenico Sarro and libretto by Metastasio). San Carlo literature on the subject says that Grossatesta, indeed, directed the balli, but original program notes have not survived. It would have been plausible even though the date is some seven years before he moved to Naples; it was common for those in the theater to maintain working relationships throughout the Italian peninsula even without a unified nation. One source (Giordano), however, points out that Grossatesta was verifiably not the choreographer for the second opera to appear at San Carlo; thus, in absence of proof, there is no reason to assume that he was there on opening night a few weeks earlier.

In any event, Grossatesta was composer and director of balli for San Carlo from 1745 to 1752 and its impresario from 1753 to 1769. As a choreographer, he was an innovator, and as impresario, he was on the lookout for new talent, new composers, new operas. One who benefitted from Grossatesta’s willingness to help young composers was Niccolò Piccinni, who debuted at San Carlo with the opera Zenobia in 1756. Piccinni became the best-known Italian composer of opera for the next 20 years until Paisiello, Cimarosa and the generation of Mozart-competitors in Italy. In Naples, Grossatesta was also the Maestro di ballo delle Serenissimi Reali Infanti ("Dancing Master to the Most Serene Royal Children").

There is no consensus as to why Grossatesta left a job that most persons of that era would have kept until death. It may have been the working conditions. Under the intellectual and cultured Charles III —by all accounts, the classical “benevolent monarch”— the conditions were excellent: essentially, Here is a fine new theater; do what you will to make it a great one. When Charles abdicated to return to Spain, his minor son, Ferdinand, took over —the infamous Re Lazzarone (Beggar King). Again, by all (!) accounts, Ferdinand was a dunce and a lout. (One such account is here.) Grossatesta apparently had a good working relationship with the young king’s regent, Bernardo Tanucci, but the child monarch came of age in 1767. Ferdinand had no ear for music, but they say he liked the dancing parts enough to wake up in the royal box and follow them. Maybe that wasn’t enough for Grossatesta. Two years later, he left and disappeared so quietly that no one knows where he went or even exactly where or when he died.

*note: The first to use the term "choreography" was Raoul-Auger Feuillet in 1700: “Chorégraphie, ou Art de décrire la dance par caractères, signes et figures démonstratives [Choreography, the art of describing dance through characters, signs and graphic symbols.] The author's name is remembered today in the name of the dance notation system, Beauchamp-Feuillet.

[back up to text]


—Croce, Benedetto.  I teatri di Napoli. Secolo XV-XVIII. Naples. Pub. Pierro, 1891.

—Giordano, Gloria and Jehanne Marchesi. "Gaetano Grossatesta, an Eighteenth-Century Italian Choreographer and Impresario, Part One The Dancer-Choreographer in Northern Italy," and "Part Two: The Choreographer-Impresario in Naples." In Dance Chronicle, Vol. 23, No. 1 (2000), pp. 1-28 and Vol. 23, No. 2 (2000), pp. 133-191 (respectively). Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. London.

—Smith, Marian. Ballet and Opera in the Age of 'Giselle'. Princeton Studies in Opera. Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, editors. Princeton University Press. 2000.

[See also Ballet in Naples]

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