One would assume that ballet originated in France. After all, most of the movements in ballet have French names, like plié, jeté, relevé and échappé. But ballet originated in the courts of the Italian Renaissance as a form of art on a par with other arts like painting, music and poetry. Dance performances took place in the courts to affirm the power and prestige of a particular noble family Performers danced in the fashions of the times. For women that meant formal gowns down to their ankles. Ballets were participatory with audience members joining the dances toward the end.
Ballet spread from Italy to France when Catherine de’ Medici, an Italian aristocrat with a love of the arts, married Henry II of France in 1533. An early example of Catherine’s development of ballet was “Le Paradis d’Amor,” a work presented at her daughter’s wedding. The first formal court ballet was “Ballet des Polonais,” which was commissioned by Catherine to honor the Polish ambassadors who were visiting Paris at the time. Her entertainments often supported court politics and were usually organized around mythological themes.
The etymology of the word “ballet” reflects its history. The French word “ballet” has its origins in the Italian “balletto,” a diminutive form of “ballo,” which, in turn, is derived from the Italian verb “ballare,” which means “to dance.”
In the late 17th century, Louis XIV founded the Acadèmie Royale de Musique (the Paris Opera), from which emerged the first professional theatrical ballet company, the Paris Opera Ballet. Ballet soon became an independent art form, although it maintained a close association with opera. Ballet soon spread from the heart of Europe to other nations.
Italy today still has a major claim to fame when it comes to ballet. Milan’s Teatro de La Scala is one of the premier ballet companies in the world. Ballet can be seen at opera houses throughout Italy, including Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, La Fenice in Venice and L’Arena in Verona.