Barbara Sparti (1932–2013)

Barbara Sparti was an active member of SDHS for many years. She was fervent in her support of early dance research, and forthright whether in offering praise or expressing concerns. (See, for example, the letter she sent to SDHS last summer in which she reflected on the contributions of Julia Sutton and other music researchers to SDHS and the study of early dance.)

Barbara had planned to attend the Trondheim conference, where she was scheduled to present a paper titled The “Politically Correct” Renaissance Courtier Looks at Dance. Toward the end of April she withdrew from the conference because of health problems.

The letter below, from Wendy Heller, was circulated to members of the Society of Seventeenth-Century Music and forwarded to many of Barbara’s friends and colleagues.

Dear Friends,

It is with great sadness that I share this news.

Barbara Sparti, renowned dance historian of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque, died in Rome on June 17, 2013. Born in New York in 1932, Barbara attended Antioch College before moving to Italy in 1955.

Barbara had at least four remarkable careers. She trained in Orff and Dalcroze methods in Geneva and Salzburg, and taught music and movement to adults and children for over forty years. As the director of the “Gruppo di Danza Rinascamentale” from 1975–1988, Barbara led Renaissance dance performances not only throughout Italy, but also as far away as Moscow, Berlin, and London. She was renowned as a choreographer for late Renaissance operas and plays by such figures as Ruzzante, Caccini, Cavalieri, Gagliano, and Monteverdi on stage and TV. Much in demand as a practical instructor of Italian Renaissance dance, Barbara taught classes throughout Europe, in North America, and Israel; she was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1990, guest lecturer/choreographer in Israel in 1997, at the University of California Santa Cruz (2000), and in residence at Princeton University in April 2002. She also taught generations of dancers at the Early Music Festival in Urbino for over 25 years.

As a scholar, Sparti was no less astounding. The translator of Gugliemo Ebreo's 1463 dance treatise and author of the introduction to Ercole Santucci’s Mastro da Ballo (1614), Barbara introduced dancers, dance historians, and musicologists to these two seminal treatises. In well over two dozen essays published in English and Italian, she explored a vast array of topics on fifteenth- and seventeenth-century dance, including Jewish dancing masters, iconography, aesthetics, improvisation and ornamentation, social and political contexts of dance, the moresca, and the galliard. Most recently, she was co-editor of Imaging Dance: Visual Representations of Dancers and Dancing with Judy Van Zile, assisted by Elsie Ivancich Dunin, Nancy G. Heller, Adrienne L. Kaeppler (Olm, 2011). Sparti was honored by the publication of “Virtute et arte” del danzare. Contributi di storia della danza in onore di Barbara Sparti, edited by Alessandro Pontremoli (Aracne, 2011).

Although Barbara only attended less than half a dozen meetings of the Society of Seventeenth-Century Music, she was well known to SSCM members for her warmth, humor, and her insightful and elegant conference presentations. Many met her for the first time, as did I, over the wooden tables at Shaker Village, Kentucky for the 1995 SSCM meeting, which she attended at the suggestion of her good friend Irene Alm. We would room together-the first of many times-for the meeting at the University of Virginia. In 2002, when SSCM came to Princeton, Barbara spent several weeks in residence there, directing students and community members in a performance of Sigismondo d'India's Balletto de rei della Cina. To say that my students fell in love with her would be an understatement. At that same conference Barbara also presented her paper on dance in Melani”s Ercole in Tebe, which she would later publish in Early Music History. Happily, she was also in attendance just last April at the SSCM meeting in New York, after having presented a colloquium and dance workshop at Princeton. Barbara frequently spoke fondly of the warm welcome she always received at SSCM, and was deeply grateful for the Society's support of and interest in dance scholarship and its intersections with musicology.

Beloved by everyone who knew her, Barbara was honest and direct, at times even blunt, yet her every word and deed exuded warmth and compassion; her radiant smile, like the songs of Orpheus, could charm even the hardest heart. Whether teaching, dancing, reading a paper, or entertaining guests in her lovely flat in Trastevere, Barbara was always a powerful presence. Indeed, who else could bring Roman traffic to a dead stop with a bold hand gesture and imperious stare? Barbara was deeply passionate about her work, adhering to the highest possible standards, endlessly supportive of her students and dozens of friends all over the world. Among the most determined individuals I’ve ever known, she had a seemingly infinite supply of energy and strength of character that kept her traveling (including a trip to Egypt with her family for her eightieth birthday), teaching, visiting, and writing—as if the treatments for lung cancer were but a mere inconvenience. She was devoted to her two brilliant children, Davide and Donatella, and her four grandchildren, who brought her such joy. It was a pleasure and honor to count her among my closest friends; she will be sorely missed.

In sadness,


Wendy Heller
Department of Music
Director, Program in Italian Studies
Princeton University

SDHS publications

Studies in Dance History SDHS’s monograph series, published by University of Wisconsin Press, answers a growing demand for works that provide fresh analytical perspectives on dancing, dancers, and dances in a global context. Read more...

[cover of 2015 Conversations] Issued yearly in early spring generally, Conversations Across the Field of Dance Studies reflects the dynamic and diverse membership of SDHS. We seek to bring you themes and debates current in the field of dance studies and the profession, alongside news from the international community of scholars in dance and related disciplines. Read more...

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