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These are the qualities of the complete and perfect courtier, described by Castiglione in a series of imaginary conversations between the principal members of the court of Urbino in 1507. Castiglione's book is of enormous historical value as a deeply felt account of the ideals of the Italian Renaissance at the moment of its greatest splendour. But the enduring topicality of some of the issues raised in The Book of the Courtier, together with the author's sensitivity to atmosphere, his powers of narrative and delicate psychological perception, make it, in addition, a highly skillful and entertaining comedy of manners.
TO MESSER ALFONSO ARIOSTO
WITHIN MYSELF I HAVE LONG DOUBTED, dearest messer Alfonso, which of two things were the harder for me: to deny you what you have often begged of me so urgently, or to do it. For while it seemed to me very hard to deny anything (and especially a thing in the highest degree laudable) to one whom I love most dearly and by whom I feel myself to be most dearly loved, yet to set about an enterprise that I was not sure of being able to finish, seemed to me ill befitting a man who esteems just censure as it ought to be esteemed. At last, after much thought, I am resolved to try in this matter how much aid my assiduity may gain from that affection and intense desire to please, which in other things are so wont to stimulate the industry of man.
You ask me then to write what is to my thinking the form of Courtiership most befitting a gentleman who lives at the court of princes, by which he may have the ability and knowledge perfectly to serve them in every reasonable thing, winning from them favour, and praise from other men; in short, what manner of man he ought to be who may deserve to be called a perfect Courtier without flaw. Wherefore, considering your request, I say that had it not seemed to me more blameworthy to be reputed somewhat unamiable by you than too conceited by everyone else, I should have avoided this task, for fear of being held over bold by all who know how hard a thing it is, from among such a variety of customs as are in use at the courts of Christendom, to choose the perfect form and as it were the flower of Courtiership. For custom often makes the same thing pleasing and displeasing to us; whence it sometimes follows that customs, habits, ceremonies and fashions that once were prized, become vulgar, and contrariwise the vulgar become prized. Thus it is clearly seen that use rather than reason has power to introduce new things among us, and to do away with the old; and he will often err who seeks to determine which are perfect. Therefore being conscious of this and many other difficulties in the subject set before me to write of, I am constrained to offer some apology, and to testify that this error (if error it may indeed be called) is common to us both, to the end that if I be blamed for it, the blame may be shared by you also; for your offence in setting me a task beyond my powers should not be deemed less than mine in having accepted it.
So now let us make a beginning of our subject, and if possible let us form such a Courtier that any prince worthy to be served by him, although of but small estate, might still be called a very great lord.
In these books we shall follow no fixed order or rule of distinct precepts, such as are usually employed in teaching anything whatever; but after the fashion of many ancient writers, we shall revive a pleasant memory and rehearse certain discussions that were held between men singularly competent in such matters; and although I had no part in them personally, being in England at the time they took place, yet having received them soon after my return, from one who faithfully reported them to me, I will try to recall them as accurately as my memory will permit, so that you may know what was thought and believed on this subject by men who are worthy of highest praise, and to whose judgment implicit faith may be given in all things. Nor will it be amiss to tell the cause of these discussions, so that we may reach in orderly manner the end to which our discourse tends.
2.—On the slopes of the Apennines towards the Adriatic sea, almost in the centre of Italy, there lies (as everyone knows) the little city of Urbino. Although amid mountains, and less pleasing ones than perhaps some others that we see in many places, it has yet enjoyed such favour of heaven that the country round about is very fertile and rich in crops; so that besides the wholesomeness of the air, there is great abundance of everything needful for human life. But among the greatest blessings that can be attributed to it, this I believe to be the chief, that for a long time it has ever been ruled by the best of lords; although in the calamities of the universal wars of Italy, it was for a season deprived of them. But without seeking further, we can give good proof of this by the glorious memory of Duke Federico, who in his day was the light of Italy; nor is there lack of credible and abundant witnesses, who are still living, to his prudence, humanity, justice, liberality, unconquered courage,—and to his military discipline, which is conspicuously attested by his numerous victories, his capture of impregnable places, the sudden swiftness of his expeditions, the frequency with which he put to flight large and formidable armies by means of a very small force, and by his loss of no single battle whatever; so that we may not unreasonably compare him to many famous men of old.
Among his other praiseworthy deeds, he built on the rugged site of Urbino a palace regarded by many as the most beautiful to be found in all Italy; and he so well furnished it with everything suitable that it seemed not a palace but a city in the form of a palace; and not merely with what is ordinarily used,—such as silver vases, hangings of richest cloth-of-gold and silk, and other similar things,—but for ornament he added countless antique statues in marble and bronze, pictures most choice, and musical instruments of every sort, nor would he admit anything there that was not very rare and excellent. Then at very great cost he collected a goodly number of most excellent and rare books in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, all of which he adorned with gold and with silver, esteeming this to be the chiefest excellence of his great palace.
3.—Following then the course of nature, and already sixty-five years old, he died gloriously, as he had lived; and he left as his successor a motherless little boy of ten years, his only son Guidobaldo. Heir to the State, he seemed to be heir also to all his father's virtues, and soon his noble nature gave such promise as seemed not permissible to hope for from mortal man; so that men esteemed none among the notable deeds of Duke Federico to be greater than to have begotten such a son. But envious of so much virtue, fortune thwarted this glorious beginning with all her power; so that before Duke Guido reached the age of twenty years, he fell ill of the gout, which grew upon him with grievous pain, and in a short space of time so crippled all his members that he could neither stand upon his feet nor move; and thus one of the fairest and most promising forms in the world was distorted and spoiled in tender youth.
And not content even with this, fortune was so contrary to him in all his purposes, that he could seldom carry into effect anything that he desired; and although he was very wise of counsel and unconquered in spirit, it seemed that what he undertook, both in war and in everything else whether small or great, always ended ill for him. And proof of this is found in his many and diverse calamities, which he ever bore with such strength of mind, that his spirit was never vanquished by fortune; nay, scorning her assaults with unbroken courage, he lived in illness as if in health and in adversity as if fortunate, with perfect dignity and universal esteem; so that although he was thus infirm of body, he fought with most honourable rank in the service of their Serene Highnesses the Kings of Naples, Alfonso and Ferdinand the Younger; later with Pope Alexander VI, and with the Venetian and Florentine signories.
Upon the accession of Julius II to the pontificate, he was made Captain of the Church; at which time, following his accustomed habit, above all else he took care to fill his household with very noble and valiant gentlemen, with whom he lived most familiarly, delighting in their intercourse: wherein the pleasure he gave to others was not less than that he received from others, he being well versed in both the [earned] languages, and uniting affability and pleasantness to a knowledge of things without number. And besides this, the greatness of his spirit so set him on, that although he could not practise in person the exercises of chivalry, as he once had done, yet he took the utmost pleasure in witnessing them in others; and by his words, now correcting now praising every man according to desert, he clearly showed his judgment in those matters; wherefore, in jousts and tournaments, in riding, in the handling of every sort of weapon, as well as in pastimes, games, music,—In short, in all the exercises proper to noble cavaliers,—everyone strove so to show himself, as to merit being deemed worthy of such noble fellowship.
4.—Thus all the hours of the day were assigned to honourable and pleasant exercises as well for the body as for the mind; but since my lord Duke was always wont by reason of his infirmity to retire to sleep very early after supper, everyone usually betook himself at that hour to the presence of my lady Duchess, Elisabetta Gonzaga; where also was ever to be found my lady Emilia Pia, who was endowed with such lively wit and judgment that, as you know, it seemed as if she were the Mistress of us all, and as if everyone gained wisdom and worth from her. Here then, gentle discussions and innocent pleasantries were heard, and on the face of everyone a jocund gaiety was seen depicted, so that the house could truly be called the very abode of mirth: nor ever elsewhere, I think, was so relished, as once was here, how great sweetness may flow from dear and cherished companionship; for not to speak of the honour it was to each of us to serve such a lord as he of whom I have just spoken, there was born in the hearts of all a supreme contentment every time we came into the presence of my lady Duchess; and it seemed as if this were a chain that held us all linked in love, so that never was concord of will or cordial love between brothers greater than that which here was between us all.
The same was it among the ladies, with whom there was intercourse most free and honourable; for everyone was permitted to talk, sit, jest and laugh with whom he pleased; but such was the reverence paid to the wish of my lady Duchess, that this same liberty was a very great check; nor was there anyone who did not esteem it the utmost pleasure he could have in the world, to please her, and the utmost pain to displease her. And thus, most decorous manners were here joined with greatest liberty, and games and laughter in her presence were seasoned not only with witty jests, but with gracious and sober dignity; for that modesty and loftiness which governed all the acts, words and gestures of my lady Duchess, bantering and laughing, were such that she would have been known for a lady of noblest rank by anyone who saw her even but once. And impressing herself thus upon those about her, she seemed to attune us all to her own quality and tone; accordingly every man strove to follow this pattern, taking as it were a rule of beautiful behaviour from the presence of so great and virtuous a lady; whose highest qualities I do not now purpose to recount, they not being my theme and being well known to all the world, and far more because I could not express them with either tongue or pen; and those that perhaps might have been somewhat hid, fortune, as if wondering at such rare virtue, chose to reveal through many adversities and stings of calamity, so as to give proof that in the tender breast of woman, in company with singular beauty, there may abide prudence and strength of soul, and all those virtues that even among stern men are very rare.
5.—But leaving this aside, I say that the custom of all the gentlemen of the house was to betake themselves straightway after supper to my lady Duchess; where, among the other pleasant pastimes and music and dancing that continually were practised, sometimes neat questions were proposed, sometimes ingenious games were devised at the choice of one or another, in which under various disguises the company disclosed their thoughts figuratively to whom they liked best. Sometimes other discussions arose about different matters, or biting retorts passed lightly back and forth. Often "devices" (imprese), as we now call them, were displayed; in discussing which there was wonderful diversion, the house being (as I have said) full of very noble talents; among whom (as you know) the most famous were my lord Ottaviano Fregoso, his brother messer Federico, the Magnifico Giuliano de' Medici, messer Pietro Bembo, messer Cesare Gonzaga, Count Ludovico da Canossa, my lord Gaspar Pallavicino, my lord Ludovico Pio, my lord Morello da Ortona, Pietro da Napoli, messer Roberto da Bari, and countless other very noble cavaliers. Moreover there were many, who, although usually they did not dwell there constantly, yet spent most of the time there: like messer Bernardo Bibbiena, the Unico Aretino, Giancristoforo Romano, Pietro Monte, Terpandro, messer Niccolò Frisio; so that there always flocked thither poets, musicians and all sorts of agreeable men, and in every walk the most excellent that were to be found in Italy.
6.—Now Pope Julius II, having by his presence and the aid of the French brought Bologna under subjection to the apostolic see in the year 1506, and being on his way back to Rome, passed through Urbino; where he was received with all possible honour and with as magnificent and splendid state as could have been prepared in any other noble city of Italy: so that besides the pope, all the lord cardinals and other courtiers were most highly gratified. And some there were, attracted by the charm of this society, who tarried at Urbino many days after the departure of the pope and his court; during which time not only were the ordinary pastimes and diversions continued in the usual manner, but every man strove to contribute something new, and especially in the games, to which almost every evening was devoted. And the order of them was such that immediately after reaching the presence of my lady Duchess, everyone sat down in a circle as he pleased or as chance decided; and in sitting they were arranged alternately, a man and a woman, as long as there were women, for nearly always the number of men was by far the greater; then they were governed as seemed best to my lady Duchess, who for the most part left this charge to my lady Emilia.
So, the day after the pope's departure, the company being assembled at the wonted hour and place, after much pleasant talk, my lady Duchess desired my lady Emilia to begin the games; and she, after having for a time refused the task, spoke thus:
"My Lady, since it pleases you that I shall be the one to begin the games this evening, not being able in reason to fail to obey you, I will propose a game in which I think I ought to have little blame and less labour; and this shall be for everyone to propose after his liking a game that has never been given; and then we will choose the one that seems best worthy to be played in this company."
And so saying, she turned to my lord Gaspar Pallavicino, requiring him to tell his choice; and he at once replied:
"It is for you, my Lady, first to tell your own."
"But I have already told it," said my lady Emilia; "now do you, my lady Duchess, bid him be obedient."
Then my lady Duchess said, smiling:
"To the end that everyone may be bound to obey you, I make you my deputy and give you all my authority."
7.—"It is a remarkable thing," replied my lord Gaspar, "that women should always be allowed this exemption from toil, and it certainly would not be unreasonable to wish in some way to learn the reason why; but not to be the first to disobey, I will leave this for another time, and will tell what is required of me;" and he began: "It seems to me that in love, as in everything else, our minds judge diversely and thus it often happens that what is very delightful to one man, is very hateful to another; but none the less we all are ever alike in this, that every man holds his beloved very dear; so that the over fondness of lovers often cheats their judgment to such a degree, that they esteem the person whom they love to be the only one in the world adorned with every excellent virtue and wholly without defect; but since human nature does not admit such complete perfection, and since there is no one to be found who does not lack something, it cannot be said that such men do not cheat themselves, and that the lover does not become blind concerning the beloved. I would therefore that this evening our game might be that each of us should tell what virtue above others he would have the person whom he loves adorned with; and then, as all must have some blemish, what fault he would have in her; in order that we may see who can find the most praiseworthy and useful virtues, and the most excusable faults and least harmful to lover and beloved."
My lord Gaspar having spoken thus, my lady Emilia made sign to madonna Costanza Fregosa to follow after, because she sat next in order, and she was preparing to speak; but my lady Duchess said quickly:
"Since my lady Emilia will not make the effort to invent a game, it were only fair that the other ladies share this ease and that they too be exempt from such exertion for this evening, especially as there are here so many men that there is no danger of lack of games."
Excerpted from The Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione, Leonard Eckstein Opdycke. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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