Italian sword dances
Italy has two linked sword dances, coming from villages in the Tanaro valley in the Piedmonte region. These were from the villages of Fenestrelle, Bagnasco and Vicoforte.
Fenestrelle and Bagnasco
The Fenestrelle and Bagnasco dances are essentially two variants of the same dance, even though the villages are quite widely separated, which is performed by 10 to 14 dancers, accompanied by drummers, and has a number of characters, including a Spokesman, Prisoner, Guards, and a Harlequin or Fool. The Fenestrelle team perform in red, white and green costume to reflect the national colours of Italy.
The Bagnasco dancers perform in a Turkish style costume, adopted at some time in the twentieth century (there are photographs from 1914 showing a rather plainer costume in use), with turban, white shirt with with baggy sleeves, green waistcoat and baggy silk trousers. Curved scimitar-like swords are used by the dancers.
Figures are formed by passing under swords, vigna alta, jumping over swords, vigna bassa, jumping through hoops, and figures such as snail formations. The dance also has a significant dramatic element, with a peasant character being elevanted on a lock of swords, condemned to death and then symbolically “executed.” before eventually being revived, after unsuccessful attempts, by the Harlequin. The next part is then a maypole dance, again accompanied solely by drumming.
The first recorded performance of the dance was in 1732, but in such a remote, mountainous region, it was likely to have been performed long before it was first recorded. The dance was traditionally performed during the Carnival by many villages in the area but gradually died out until the last performance in the village of Fenstrelle in 1920 and Bagnasco in 1948.
The dances are kept alive today by the Bal do Sabre Fenstrelle group and the Bal do Sabre Bagnasco group, who revived the Bagnasco dance in 1967 under the leadership of Giuseppe Carazzone, a school teacher from the village. When I spoke to the Bagnasco group at the Sword Spectacular events in Whitby, they told me that the dance/drama is not set in Italy, but somewhere in the Balkans, possibly Montenegro, and that the peasant was executed for resisting the Turkish invaders.
The Vicoforte dance was known to have existed in the 15th century, and was another sword dance with a strong dramatic element, with twenty dancers, and characters including a King, Judge, Archer, two Moors, a Harlequin and the character Brighella from the 16th century Italian Commedia della Arte. This dance, too, had a mock execution.
There is also a dance called the Ndrezzata, from the village of Buonapane on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, traditionally performed at Easter or on St John the Baptists day in midsummer. This used wooden swords and clubs, and mainly consisted of clashing them together, but at the end of the dance, a chain was formed with the clubs, which were then formed into a lock, on which the leader was elevated to give a short speech.