The Malta Independent 15 June 2024, Saturday
View E-Paper

16th Century dances and masquerades

Malta Independent Wednesday, 28 November 2007, 00:00 Last update: about 11 years ago

The Knights of St John hailed from most of the noble families of Europe. There is no doubt that with their arrival in Malta in 1530, they brought with them very strong influences from the Courts of Europe as well as some traces of their previous abode in the Greek island of Rhodes. Music and dance, which were an integral part of aristocratic upbringing, also remained an important part of their life within the Order of the Hospitallers.

In the mid-16th century some knights of Malta (probably French knights) created a group of dances known as the Branles de Malte, and presented them before the Court of France. The dances were in the form of a mimed ballet “for an equal number of ladies and gentleman dressed in the Turkish fashion.”1 Court Masquerades of the period were known to be very grand occasions in which little was spared in the way of rich silks, embroideries and gold trimmings.

Fortunately, over four hundred years later, we still have the music of the Branles, as well as some of the original dance steps.2

When the Knights of Malta presented their Branles de Malte in Turkish attire to the French Court, they were no doubt following current fashion trends. Indeed the taste for the exotic Turkish touch, which was fashionable in the 16th century, persisted well into the 19th century in instrumental music, dance, opera and theatre. Perhaps best known are Mozart’s “Turkish” Violin Concerto K.219 (1775), the Alla Turca Piano Sonata K.331 (1781) and the opera Abduction form the Seraglio (1782). The 18th century military bands which sprang up all over Europe were also directly influenced by the powerful sound of the Turkish Sultan’s Janisseries. To this same source we owe our drums and jingles, so familiar in bands today.

The Branles de Malte were not the only dances of the knights. There must surely have been several others. Thanks to a reference passed on to me by Dr Giovanni Bonello I discovered that some of the exquisite dances were fortunately recorded in the 16th century by Giacomo Bosio.3

Bosio, who wrote a diary of the knights’ latter years in Rhodes and early years in Malta, eventually published his writings in 1602 in a grand opus entitled Dell’Istoria della Sacra Religione.4 In volume three of this work, he explains that in November of 1564, following a successful battle against the infidel, five of the knights’ galleys triumphantly entered the French port of Marseille together with two captive galleys. The fourteen-year-old Charles IX, King of France happened to be in Marseille and was viewing the colourful grand entrance from the window of the Commandery of the Knights of St John (the large building visible at the mouth of the port). The young king could not resist going on board to have a closer look at each of the galleys. It was then that he expressed a great wish to see them in actual combat.

So, entirely for the king’s pleasure, to the sound of trumpets and drums, the knights feigned an hour-long battle between their own galleys. Following this, His Majesty, who was absolutely enthralled by what he saw, boarded the Capitana (the Squadron’s flagship), presumably accompanied by a very limited number of his retinue. The Capitana always stood out due to its being somewhat larger than the common galleys. Whereas an ordinary galley was rowed by 26 benches of oarsmen on either side, the Capitana usually had 30 benches.5 After 1625 the Capitana was painted black and could easily be singled out among the Order’s red galleys.6

His Majesty declared his wish to visit Cacastracci Castle on one of the islands known as the Isole Pomeghe, and the knights once again obliged. The Royal party made its way towards the little fortified islands of Silla, Cacastracci, and Castelditto, which lay but a short distance from the port of Marseille. They all dined sumptuously on board and eventually made their way back to Marseille.

Bosio then continues to report an event which is perhaps most interesting of all. He says that on their return from Cacastracci the Queen’s ladies expressed a desire to be shown the sort of dancing that took place in Malta (il modo di danzare che s’usa in Malta). The Queen, Caterina de Medici (mother of Charles IX), was herself a renowned promoter of dance in the French Court, and would undoubtedly have been equally eager to see these dances. The Knights of Malta seem to have been surprisingly well prepared for this request and managed to produce enough costumes and musicians in order to be able to put up what Bosio calls “many Greek-style and Maltese-style dances.” Where exactly they were staged is not clear. It is however most probable that the party had by then returned to Marseille and that these dances took place in some spacious palace, possibly in the Casa della Commenda di San Giovanni. The galleys would certainly not have provided enough space on board for king, queen, princes, retinues and dancers since the carosse would have been the only section available to them. The carosse, situated at the stern side, was the pride of each galley and consisted of a beautifully-decorated hooded structure. The area within the carosse was usually no larger than a medium-sized room.

One of the dances Bosio talks of is a sword dance, which he says was particularly well liked. It is a great pity that he does not go into detail. Neither is it clear whether this sword dance was actually considered “Greek” or “Maltese”. However, in either case, it is most important to discover that the knights did have some form of sword dance in their repertoire – as indeed one would expect. For this dance we are told that the knights were daring and courageous enough to use real unsheathed swords (spade nude).

Following the sword dance, Bosio says that the Spanish knights came forward with a delightful masquerade. And of course the dance could not fail to have that little Turkish touch in it. In this mascherata, the dancers acted the part of Turkish slaves who were trussed up in French livery. Bosio even goes into detail of their rich costumes of blue silk embroidered with golden lilies. The Turkish slaves were in the process of selling merchandise brought over from Spain. Throughout the dance they offered perfumed gloves, stockings and flowers of silk and gold to the ladies present. One of the masked dancers, the Knight Fra Don Baldassare Borgia, showed the King two beautiful pelli di fiori adobbate di muschio, e d’ambra da far un colletto odorifero, which I take to be exotically perfumed garlands or necklaces of flowers – possibly leather flowers. Bosio states they were beautiful enough to make a most worthy gift for a King. They were sprinkled with precious perfume extracted from gold and silver flasks which they had brought with them.

The King, participating in this amusement, said in jest that he wished to buy the garlands. During the masquerade, Fra Borgia several times refused him, indicating that he wanted an exorbitant price for them. However, at the end of the dance the knight generously donated the garlands to his Majesty via his page boy. Kneeling down on his right knee he exclaimed that the honour of kissing His Majesty’s hand was really the only payment he ever wished for in return. The King was pleased by all this and bestowed on him a gold chain, after first having given one worth 500 scudi to General Gioù who was the flagship’s Capitano della galera. He also gave some different chains worth 300 scudi to each of the other capitani. Precious expensive gifts were showered all round and Bosio goes on to say that the court of France long remembered this exceptionally wonderful occasion.

The musical instruments which accompanied the dances are unfortunately not recorded by Bosio. We do know, however, that the knights certainly had trumpets and drums with them, for these had been used during the mock battle of the galleys. It is very possible that these same instruments were also used for the dances. Sword dances would usually not have needed anything other than trumpets and drums and perhaps little pellet bells around the ankles. It may well be that they used this same available instrumentation for the masquerade. Sadly Bosio omits mention of these mundane details.

This passage in Bosio is of particular interest as it reveals the type of dance which was taking place in Malta. We are told that the knights brought with them some “Greek-style” dances and also performed some other dances which they considered to be “Maltese”. In addition, we discover that dancing of the masquerade ballet type was actually taking place on the island in the mid-16th century.

It should be pointed out that this sort of dancing involving a wonderful combination of dance, music, costume and drama required a certain amount of instruction and practice. Did the knights simply bring knowledge of such court dancing with them as part of their education? Or were there dancing instructors here in Malta with whom they continued to learn and rehearse such dances? So far there has emerged no evidence of dancing instructors on the island, but the possibility of their presence certainly seems to emerge.

Bosio’s detailed description of the very simple story behind the masquerade, together with his meticulous description of the costumes, are all really quite priceless. It is also particularly interesting to note that throughout there was direct interaction between the dancers and the audience. The spectators were drawn in and became part of this dramatic scenario. What is not entirely clear is whether this masquerade was all mimed, like the Branles de Malte, or whether it contained a certain amount of speech.

It is very likely that the whole dramatic scenario of the masquerade would have created a great deal of amusement, owing to the reality of the situation – that of Turkish slaves being employed in Court and doing some profitable business on the side. The beautiful clothing the slaves were made to wear probably made them feel and look totally clumsy and uncomfortable. Some exaggerated acting would have added to this comic atmosphere. It may be recalled that the Branles de Malte were actually also described by Thoinot Arbeau as being full of exaggerated gesticulations.7 It is very likely that in both these masquerades, the Knights were creating their own amusement at the expense of the Turks.

There is little doubt that the Knights of Malta were very much part of Court life of the period. They enjoyed the genre of dancing known as the Ballet de Cour, usually credited to none other than the Florentine Caterina de Medici who encouraged this form of dance spectacle at the French Court when she became the wife of Henri II in 1533. We are now aware of two masquerades of the knights, both of which were performed before the Court of France. We already know the music, some of the dance steps and a reasonable amount of detail regarding the Branles de Malte. All that remains now is for us to unearth the music and the dance steps of Bosio’s dance of the Turkish slaves in order to make this charming masquerade complete.8

Anna Borg Cardona carries out research on Malta’s music and musical instruments. She is the author of A Musical Legacy: Malta – related music found in Foreign Libraries and Daqq, Ghana u Zfin Malti.


1. Thoinot Arbeau, Ochésographie, (Langres: 1588).

2. For more details see Anna Borg Cardona, A Musical Legacy: Malta-related

music found in foreign libraries (2002) in which the 5 Branles de Malthe published by Jean d’Estré in 1559 are edited. Dance steps are also provided from Arbeau’s dance manual Ochésographie.

3. I am grateful to Dr. Giovanni Bonello for first bringing this passage in Bosio to my notice.

4. Giacomo Bosio, Dell’Istoria della Sacra Religione et Illma. Militia di San Giovanni Gierosolimitano (Roma: 1602, Napoli: 1683) 485.

5. Joseph Muscat, The Maltese Galley PIN (Malta: 1998) 1.

6. A.H.J. Prins, In Peril on the Sea: Marine Votive Paintings in the Maltese Islands (Malta: 1989) 190.

7. Thoinot Arbeau, (op.cit.) 83.

8. I would like to thank Dr. Giovanni Bonello, Dr. Albert Ganado, Mr. Antonio Espinosa Rodriguez and Mr. Joseph Muscat for their most enlightening comments.

This article first appeared in the Christmas 2003 issue of Treasures of Malta, which is published by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti. Treasures of Malta is a magazine about art and culture which is published three times a year, and is available from all leading bookshops.

  • don't miss