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Dissimulation and the Culture of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe

Dissimulation and the Culture of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe

by Jon R. Snyder

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"Larvatus prodeo," announced René Descartes at the beginning of the seventeenth century: "I come forward, masked." Deliberately disguising or silencing their most intimate thoughts and emotions, many early modern Europeans besides Descartes-princes, courtiers, aristocrats and commoners alike-chose to practice the shadowy art of dissimulation. For men and


"Larvatus prodeo," announced René Descartes at the beginning of the seventeenth century: "I come forward, masked." Deliberately disguising or silencing their most intimate thoughts and emotions, many early modern Europeans besides Descartes-princes, courtiers, aristocrats and commoners alike-chose to practice the shadowy art of dissimulation. For men and women who could not risk revealing their inner lives to those around them, this art of incommunicativity was crucial, both personally and politically. Many writers and intellectuals sought to explain, expose, justify, or condemn the emergence of this new culture of secrecy, and from Naples to the Netherlands controversy swirled for two centuries around the powers and limits of dissimulation, whether in affairs of state or affairs of the heart. This beautifully written work crisscrosses Europe, with a special focus on Italy, to explore attitudes toward the art of dissimulation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Discussing many canonical and lesser-known works, Jon R. Snyder examines the treatment of dissimulation in early modern treatises and writings on the court, civility, moral philosophy, political theory, and in the visual arts.

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"[A] thoughtful, intricate, and nuanced book."--American Historical Review
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University of California Press
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Dissimulation and the Culture of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe

By Jon R. Snyder


Copyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94444-2


Not Empty Silence

The Age of Dissimulation

La dissimulation est des plus notables qualitez de ce siècle.

Dissimulation is among the most notable qualities of this century.

Michel de Montaigne, "Du dementir"

Il non fidarsi del vivere è necessario per fidarsi del vivere, cioè per vivere alla moderna.

Not to trust life is necessary in order to trust life, that is to say, to live in the modern way.

Pio Rossi, "Ingannare"

"A Profession to Which One Cannot Profess"

It was an evening in early January 1612, and the city of Turin was in the frigid grip of the Po Valley winter. Vespers were long past and the streets were dark and silent, but not everyone was asleep. Alessandro Anguissola, Count of San Giorgio and Lord of Cimmafava, was in his chambers, where he was often to be found when not engaged in his official duties. Anguissola, who had served since 1601 as Serenissimi Ducis Sabaudiae Consiliarius (Counselor to His Most Serene Highness the Duke of Savoy) at the court of Charles Emmanuel I, the Duke of Turin and Prince of Piedmont, devoted these hours by himself to writing down his thoughts on the early modern prince. His manuscript had slowly grown to more than two hundred pages, but he had shown only a few of these to the duke. This evening, however, Anguissola decided to make His Most Serene Highness the gift, in a few days' time, of a fair copy of one of the chapters of his work, entitled Del buon governo del principe (On good government by the prince). He drew out a copy of the manuscript and shuffled through the papers until he came to the chapter that he had already selected in his mind, "Della simulatione et dissimulatione" (On simulation and dissimulation). Then he took up his quill—and cancelled systematically the words simulatione et in the manuscript. When he presented the fair copy to the duke, along with a letter dated 20 January 1612, the title of the chapter read simply "Della dissimulatione." Charles Emmanuel I was apparently pleased with the gift, which survived in the Royal Library in Turin until lost in the catastrophic 1904 fire.

Why did Anguissola—an able courtier and man of the world—suppress any mention of "simulation" in his gift? What led him to consider "dissimulation" alone as a topic worthy of the duke's attention and advantageous to associate with his own name? After all, in drafting the original version of his never-to-be-published work on the fashionable theory of "reason of state," as the extant manuscript shows, Anguissola treated both simulation and dissimulation as essential techniques for the early modern elites. However, as the crossing out in Figure 1 shows, he chose to present his sovereign with a concise manual on dissimulation alone. Why was the one so much more legitimate than the other? Did not both of them involve some degree of deception, if not falsehood? We likely will never know if some event at court near the beginning of 1612 made up Anguissola's mind to revise his original text, or if his gift had long been contemplated in this form. In revising this chapter of his manuscript for the eyes of his sovereign, however, Anguissola clearly must have thought that dissimulation was an attractive subject, as well as an important one, for his gift. Turin was not the cultural or political capital of the peninsula, but there was no shortage of sophistication or intrigue at the Savoy court, where both the poet G. B. Marino and the composer Sigismondo d'India were also in residence in 1612. The author of "Della dissimulatione" was surely acquainted with the latest trends in early modern culture; his choice of topic here could not have been random or casual, and the duke's acceptance of the gift would seem to confirm this.

Perhaps Anguissola found it imprudent openly to discuss simulation as a component of statecraft—at least not in the company of princes, most of whom were not pleased to be considered masters of this art, or to take instruction in its fine points. If so, by 1612 he was certainly not alone in seeing simulation as a contested category of contemporary political culture, for the same gesture of erasure had been performed by others before him writing elsewhere in the Italian states. Neither was the decision to compose a work about dissimulation an isolated act. On the contrary, "Della dissimulatione" was inscribed in many networks of discourse that traversed early modern Europe. If he thought his own little work to be beyond controversy, however, Anguissola must not have spent much time at the booksellers in Turin. Dissimulation was debated, and likely practiced, from the courts of Old Regime Italy to the bustling cities of the Low Countries, from the outposts of the Spanish empire to the great English country houses, from austere Geneva to the glittering palaces of the Roman popes. Catholics and Protestants, courtiers and princes, great aristocrats and their secretaries, diplomats and soldiers, saints and heretics: all praised dissimulation or denounced it vehemently.

What stirred the hearts and minds of these Europeans was the role that dissimulation played in the establishment of the early modern culture of secrecy. As states and societies grew in size and complexity, the production, circulation, and reception of information came to be seen as involving a number of new and vexing problems for rulers and subjects alike. The Spanish Jesuit moralist Baltasar Gracián y Morales (1601–1658), one of the keenest observers of the culture of secrecy, warned that "much of our lives is spent gathering information. We see very few things for ourselves, and live by trusting others. The ears are the back door of truth and the front door of deceit. Truth is more often seen than heard. Seldom does it reach us unalloyed, even less so when it comes from afar. It always bears something mixed in by the minds through which it has passed." In this context of ever-increasing circulation, contamination, transformation, and appropriation, how could information best be managed securely and secrets kept by individuals or by governments? Was the truth always to be told? Who was to have the right to keep something hidden, and under what conditions? And how could the practice of secrecy itself be kept secret from others? There was no simple answer to these questions, and few clear-cut cases to which to refer. If some—like Anguissola—were inclined to divulge the workings of dissimulation, few were willing publicly to acknowledge its use. Except in the form of this discourse on its performative norms and protocols, dissimulation has persistently escaped the gaze of history, striving to remain covert, incognito, and unspoken. As Torquato Accetto, the greatest of all early modern theorists of the topic, reminded his readers in 1641, "dissimulation is a profession to which one cannot profess."


The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have been called "the age of dissimulation" in Europe. Even today these years still summon up not only remarkable cultural achievements ranging from the Italian Baroque to the French grand siècle and the Spanish siglo de oro, but also what later came to be known to many Italians as laleggendanera (the dark legend): hackneyed images of Don Juan, Volpone, Tartuffe, Iago, poison rings, secret passageways, ciphers scrawled in invisible ink, duplicitous Jesuits, paranoid Inquisitors, exquisite tortures, spectacular betrayals, hasty midnight executions, and all the rest of the Old Regime mythology. Dissimulation most certainly played a key role in the processes by which authority and subjectivity were constructed within the early modern period, but it has no place in such an archaic mythology. Rather, we may consider it a central component of the early modern social and cultural technology of secrecy, which was of paramount importance to those who lived in that period. For example, when offered the chance in 1584 to surrender to the overwhelmingly superior Spanish army led by Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma, during the most violent religious conflict that early modern Europe had yet known, the outmanned Dutch rebel forces defending Antwerp hesitated, doubtless recalling the atrocious fate of other towns that had fallen to Parma's ferocious predecessor, the Duke of Alba. To convince them to lay down their arms, the commander of the Dutch garrison assured his men that Parma was "void of all dissimulation" and would therefore keep to the terms of the surrender.

For these desperate Dutch fighters, as for countless other early modern men and women, it was completely legitimate—and quite routine—to suspect dissimulation in the words of others, whether overt enemies or not. There was nothing unusual either in the rebel commander's assessment of Parma's words and motives, or in his decision to communicate to his troops the absence of dissimulation in the Spanish general. In extreme cases such as military conflicts, to grasp the techniques of dissimulation—in order to know who was sincere and who was not—could make the difference between life and death. But knowledge of these techniques was also needed in the everyday negotiations of the individual, who was, like Antwerp itself, besieged, in this case by the sweeping social, political, religious, and economic changes in the new Europe. Dissimulation was the most radically subversive and most feared of all dialogue games involving the early moderns caught up in these many changes, for it was often difficult, if not impossible, for those taking part in the dialogue to tell who was playing and who was not.

Early modern dissimulation involved first and foremost the exercise of strict self-control over the expression of thoughts, emotions, or passions. As a practice of self-censorship, dissimulation assisted those who sought not to reveal or disclose anything of their own interiority, but were at the same time intent upon not uttering any untruth to others. Gracian urged his readers: "Without lying, do not tell all truths. Nothing requires more skill than the truth, which is like a letting of blood from the heart. It takes skill both to speak it and to withhold it." Dissimulation offered a range of techniques for safeguarding one's secrets by rendering them unreadable or invisible to others. Through the disciplined use of reticence, taciturnity, diffidence, negligence, omission, ambiguity, irony, and tolerance (that is, pretending not to have seen or heard something), dissimulators aimed to frustrate any outside attempts to connect their words and gestures to their true inner state. Dissimulating language was therefore nonmimetic, as artificial as a highly stylized work of art. A common metaphor for dissimulation in early modern culture was the mask. On the anonymous cover of a lost portrait from the early sixteenth century, sometimes attributed to Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, appears a haunting image of a mask with the inscription sua cuiquepersona (to each his own mask). Two points are made by the creator of this unusual object. First, its motto asserts that each of us has a mask (or persona) that can be worn whenever needed, in order to hide or disguise some truth about us. Second, as the inscription warns anyone about to gaze at the portrait within, no one can know with certainty whether the face is itself already a mask and its owner no different than an actor in a comedy: in the culture of secrecy, the natural was always already artificial, and mimesis was fundamentally unreliable. Thus, as Valentin Groebner suggests, to think about dissimulation means to consider the limits of human perception and of the capacity to make distinctions.

The aim of the dissimulator was to arrive at a "zero degree" of communication, without leaving the conversation or lapsing into either muteness or falsehood. In other words, dissimulating language always clung as closely as possible to silence, like a shadow to a body, approximating but not being taken for the latter: as any number of early modern writers pointed out, if one were to remain truly mute in conversation, the effort at dissimulation would be evident to all and therefore doomed to failure. It was meant to be a rhetorical act that was "hard to follow": balancing precariously on an intersubjective tightrope, the dissimulator attempted to detach from the conversation without disappearing from it entirely. As Accetto noted archly, "some men of excellent virtue are sometimes almost buried alive." Dissimulation was a finely woven cultural covering that allowed its user to avoid appearing to others either as a statue, like those stone-faced Stoics mocked by Erasmus, or as a blatant hypocrite, while little more than marginally engaged in the present exchange of words and emotions. The true master of this art of secrecy was to pass—Accetto observed memorably—"without leaving a trace, like smoke in the air."

In 1578 the Flemish humanist Justus Lipsius (1547–1606), in his famous Epistola de fructu peregrinandi etpraesertim in Italia (Letter on the benefit of traveling, especially in Italy) addressed to an ex-disciple from the Lowlands inquiring about travel to Rome, admonished his reader to follow three basic rules while in Italy, and especially in the corrupt city of the Popes: frons tibi aperta, linguaparca, mens clausa. Dissimulation required much more, however, than simply keeping one's eyes open and one's mouth (and mind) shut. The foundation of successful self-effacement was thorough self-analysis on the part of the dissimulator, who was to subject every word, gesture, and gaze to rigorous inner examination. Prior to representing any part of one's heart or mind to others in conversation or writing, one had to consider how to minimize the possibility of revealing what was better kept hidden or secret. To withhold the truths of the heart or mind from others, however, it was first necessary to find out what those truths were. In order to dissimulate successfully with others, one therefore could not dissimulate with oneself.

The master dissimulator relied on probing psychological self-critique, to be sure, but sought to scrutinize with equal rigor the motives and abilities of all those participating in the conversation as well. Only in this way could one understand what might be safely or profitably revealed to them. Norbert Elias, in his classic studies of the court, understood this to mean that there was established under early modern absolutism "a correspondence between self-observation and the observation of others" that led in the seventeenth century to the birth of the discipline of psychology. This did not indicate, as has already been suggested, that either such intensive labor of self-analysis and analysis, or the fruits of its discoveries, could be openly discussed in the exchange between speakers. Dissimulation had to stay as secret as those secrets it intended to preserve, and could only succeed if the dissimulator managed to remain unnoticed: one's words or actions had to be taken by others as signs of mere diffidence, indifference, or nonchalance. This was no mean feat in the age of absolutism, which greatly valued the visual and gave priority to the eyes over all the other senses. Dissimulation had to exist unseen, paradoxically, in a social context that placed a premium on display and on observation. Some expert practitioners of this shadowy art, many early moderns assumed, nonetheless managed to do just this. "We have no news," warned Accetto, "of those excellent dissimulators who have been, nor of those who are."


Although dissimulation was a watchword for the Europe an elites of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was no general agreement on its significance as a practice pertaining to these groups. Until the early modern era, prudence, or phronesis, occupied the most prominent position in philosophical and moral reflection on how to evaluate and adapt to changing circumstances and the shifting winds of fortune. There was relatively broad consensus that prudence was a matter of practical conduct and practical reason, as Aristotle had argued in book 6 of the Nicomachean Ethics (1140A–1145A). It was neither a kind of wisdom nor mere clever opportunism, for it dealt with universal principles and particular cases. In the wake of Aristotle, Cicero too had closely identified prudence with practical knowledge in his De Inventione (On invention, II.53), setting it over and against theoretical or philosophical knowledge of universal truths. Prudence was the exercise of versatilitas, involving foresight, preparation, judgment, patience, quickness, perspicacity, maturity, and caution. Concerned as it was with the ever-changing affairs of the individual, prudence required, above all else, relativism and flexibility in the application of moral and ethical principles to any given situation in which there was a choice to be made.


Excerpted from Dissimulation and the Culture of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe by Jon R. Snyder. Copyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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"[A] thoughtful, intricate, and nuanced book."—American Historical Review

Meet the Author

Jon R. Snyder is Professor of Italian Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has most recently published a bilingual edition of G.B. Andreini's 1622 comedy, Love in the Mirror, as well as a book on Baroque aesthetics, L'estetica del Barocco.

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