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Galateo: Or, The Rules of Polite Behavior

Galateo: Or, The Rules of Polite Behavior

by Giovanni Della Casa

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“Since it is the case that you are now just beginning that journey that I have for the most part as you see completed, that is, the one through mortal life, and loving you so very much as I do, I have proposed to myself—as one who has been many places—to show you those places in life where, walking through them, I fear you could easily either


“Since it is the case that you are now just beginning that journey that I have for the most part as you see completed, that is, the one through mortal life, and loving you so very much as I do, I have proposed to myself—as one who has been many places—to show you those places in life where, walking through them, I fear you could easily either fall or take the wrong direction.”

So begins Galateo, a treatise on polite behavior written by Giovanni Della Casa (1503–56) for the benefit of his nephew, a young Florentine destined for greatness.
In the voice of a cranky yet genial old uncle, Della Casa offers the distillation of what he has learned over a lifetime of public service as diplomat and papal nuncio. As relevant today as it was in Renaissance Italy, Galateo deals with subjects as varied as dress codes, charming conversation and off-color jokes, eating habits and hairstyles, and literary language. In its time, Galateo circulated as widely as Machiavelli’s Prince and Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier. Mirroring what Machiavelli did for promoting political behavior, and what Castiglione did for behavior at court, Della Casa here creates a picture of the refined man caught in a world in which embarrassment and vulgarity prevail. Less a treatise promoting courtly values or a manual of savoir faire, it is rather a meditation on conformity and the law, on perfection and rules, but also an exasperated—often theatrical—reaction to the diverse ways in which people make fools of themselves in everyday social situations.
With renewed interest in etiquette and polite behavior growing both inside and outside the academy, the time is right for a new, definitive edition of this book. More than a mere etiquette book, this restored edition will be entertaining (and even useful) for anyone making their way in modern civilized and polite society, and a subtle gift for the rude neighbor, the thoughtless dinner guest, or the friend or relative in need of a refresher on proper behavior.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Judith Martin
[Galateo] holds an important place in the long and rich history of etiquette books…
The Washington Post - Michael Dirda
…first published in 1558…[Galateo] holds a distinguished place among the world's many "conduct" books…Throughout, the book reveals a sophisticated understanding of human sensitivity, of our deep-rooted hunger for respect…In its brevity, Galateo can almost be viewed as a kind of Renaissance Elements of Style, with the understanding that "style" here means courteous behavior. Rusnak's introductory essay, copious notes and bibliography usefully fill out some of the book's historical context. But the counsel itself remains timeless…
Publishers Weekly
Appearing for the first time in English since 1811, this new translation of Giovanni Della Casa’s classic guide to good living is a fascinating glimpse at the social niceties and surprisingly familiar faux pas of the Renaissance. Della Casa (1503-1556), who originally penned his treatise for the benefit of his young Florentine nephew, lambasts perennial peccadillos like clipping one’s nails at the table, spitting, talking too much about your dreams, and acting like you know it all. By comparison, antiquated passages on manners at communal cooking pits, the vapidity of Spanish flattery, and matching your stockings to your doublet are interesting primarily as historical oddities. Rusnack’s contemporary translation is occasionally off-key (the word “loogie” doesn’t quite fit in with the work’s florid syntax), and the idea that this is for the “common reader” is a stretch. It is, however, perfectly suited for history buffs interested in the quotidian pressures of private lives. In addition to that, Della Casa’s tract can be praised for its aphoristic poetry: “Little expenses silently consume our wealth, these small sins... stealthily undermine our distinguished and good behavior.” 4 halftones. (June)

“[Galateo] mixes sagacity with delicious asperity. Modern foodists would be aghast (and perhaps fall blessedly silent) at the advice on how to behave at a dinner party: ‘You must not do anything to proclaim how greatly you are enjoying the food and wine, for this habit is for tavern keepers.’ Della Casa is wonderfully irritated by people who interrupt constantly (they ‘surely make the other person eager to punch or smack them’), and people who describe their dreams in excruciating detail. It is somehow reassuring to know that idiots and bores are the same throughout the ages.”
New York Times Book Review - Judith Martin
Galateo holds an important place in the long and rich history of etiquette books.”
Washington Post - Michael Dirda
“Throughout, the book reveals a sophisticated understanding of human sensitivity, of our deep-rooted hunger for respect. . . . In its brevity, Galateo can almost be viewed as a kind of Renaissance Elements of Style, with the understanding that ‘style’ here means courteous behavior. Rusnak’s introductory essay, copious notes, and bibliography usefully fill out some of the book’s historical context. But the counsel itself remains timeless.”
Boston Globe Brainiac Blog
“Della Casa’s advice is consistently delightful and pointed.”
New York Review of Books - Stephen Greenblatt
“A delightful new translation.”
Choice - D. Stewart

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University of Chicago Press
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

GALATEO or, THE RULES OF Polite Behavior



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-01097-7



Long-winded opening—good manners, compared with more weighty virtues, and why they are no less useful to a gentleman

Since it is the case that you are now just beginning that journey that I have for the most part as you see completed, that is, the one through mortal life, and loving you so very much as I do, I have proposed to myself—as one who has been many places—to show you those places in life where, walking through them, I fear you could easily either fall or take the wrong direction. And so, under my tutelage, you may stay on the right path toward the salvation of your soul as well as for the dignity and honor of your distinguished and noble family. And since at such a tender age you would be incapable of grasping more abstruse or subtle lessons, reserving them for the proper season I am going to begin with what to many would seem frivolous: that is, how I believe one should behave when speaking or dealing with others, so as to be appropriate, pleasant, and polite. This is either virtue or something very like virtue. And even though being liberal-minded or loyal or generous is in itself undoubtedly more important and laudable than being charming and courteous, nonetheless perhaps pleasant habits and decorous manners and words are no less useful to those who have them than a largeness of spirit and complete confidence. This is so since everyone must each day many times deal with others and converse with them daily. Justice, fortitude, and the other greater and nobler virtues are called into service more infrequently. The munificent and magnanimous are not obligated to act generously all the time, for no one could behave in this way very often. Similarly those among us who are strong and brave are required to display their valor and their noble qualities in action, but very rarely. Thus, while such talents easily surpass the former in greatness and sheer moral weight, the virtues I consider surpass the others in number and frequency. Now, if it were appropriate, I could mention to you many people who, though otherwise of little merit, nevertheless were and still are highly admired just for their pleasant and gracious manners; by these manners they have been sustained to the point of attaining high prestige, leaving very far behind those gifted with the clearer and more noble virtues I have mentioned. And just as pleasant and proper etiquette has the force to arouse benevolence in those with whom we live, so on the contrary boorish and uncouth behavior provokes others to hate and despise us. For this reason, even though no legal punishment can be meted out for the display of unpleasant and gruff manners (for these sins seem very light—and in fact are not mortal), we see nevertheless that nature rebukes us severely for them, depriving us of others' companionship and benevolence. And surely as great sins harm us, so these minor faults are annoying, and they gall us more often. And just as we fear savage beasts but have no fear of tiny insects, such as mosquitoes or flies, still, on account of the constant annoyance of these pests, we complain more often about them. Likewise, most of us hate unpleasant and bothersome people as much as evil ones, maybe even more. Because of this no one would deny that for whoever is disposed to live, not alone or in a hovel, but in cities among other human beings, it is extremely useful to be in habit and manners both gracious and pleasant. Moreover, the other virtues require more furnishings or else are nothing, or useless, while these virtues on their own are rich and vigorous since they consist of words and actions only.


Annoying behavior defined simply in terms of sensual suffering

So that you may more easily learn to do this, you must know it is advantageous to temper and order your habits, not according to your whim, but according to the pleasure of those who are around you and to whom you direct your behavior. But this you must do with moderation, for if you conform too much to the pleasure of others in your conversation or in behavior, you appear pretty much a buffoon or a jokester, or maybe even a flatterer, rather than a polite gentleman. And, on the contrary, those who do not care about others' pleasure or displeasure are rude, inappropriate, and unrefined. Therefore, our manners are attractive when we regard others' pleasures and not our own delight. And if we try to investigate things that generally please the majority and those things that people find annoying, we can readily discover which actions must be avoided in social life and which we should adopt.

Let us say, then, that any act which annoys any of the senses, and that is contrary to desire, and that the imagination represents as a filthy thing, or similarly that which the mind finds repulsive, is unpleasant and one must not do it.


Disgusting things offend the senses—and even the imagination and desire

And thus it is that in the presence of others one should not do things revolting, fetid, gross, or obnoxious, and should even avoid mentioning them. And not only is it unpleasant to do or mention such things, but you should even go so far as to avoid bringing to mind any act that really bothers people. Therefore, it is a nasty habit when certain people in public put their hands on whatever part of their body they wish to touch. Similarly, it is improper for a polite gentleman to arrange himself to relieve his physical needs in the sight of others. Nor, when finished, should he return to their presence still adjusting himself in his clothing. Nor, in my opinion, when returning, should he even wash his hands if in the presence of decent company, since the reason for washing himself will reveal in their imaginations something repulsive. And for the same reason it is not an appropriate behavior, when on the road as sometimes happens one sees something disgusting, to turn to one's companions and point it out. Even much less should one entreat someone to sniff something that stinks, as some are inclined to do with enormous insistence, even twisting up their noses and saying: "Wow, smell this, ugh, it reeks"—; rather you should say, "Don't even breathe, it stinks." And just as these and similar actions annoy the senses they pertain to, so grinding one's teeth, or whistling, screeching, the rubbing of stones and grating of metal are unpleasant to the ear, and so one ought to abstain from such as much as you can. And not only this, but you must watch your singing, especially solo, if you are tone-deaf and sing off key. Few can resist doing this; in fact, it seems the less one's natural musical talent, the more one sings. There are some who, coughing or sneezing, make such a loud noise that others go deaf; in similar acts they are so indiscreet that those nearby get spritzed in the face. You will also find those who, yawning, bellow and bray like a donkey; or a person with his big mouth wide open who wants you to follow his point, sending out of his mouth that voice—or rather that racket—a deaf-mute makes when he attempts to tell a story. And these rude and vulgar manners you want to avoid, as they disturb the ear and the eye. Rather, a polite person ought to abstain from many yawns, and not just for the reasons cited above, but because yawning seems to come from weariness and disgust, and he who yawns would love to be anywhere else but where he is, and dislikes the group he's with, and the conversation, and the activities. And sure, even though a man is most of the time ready to yawn, should he be distracted by some delight or some thought, it doesn't come to mind to yawn, but when he is lazy and indolent he is easily induced to yawn. And so when somebody yawns in the presence of apathetic and thoughtless persons, everybody else will immediately start yawning incontinently, as you may have seen many times, as if that person had reminded them of something they would have done themselves already, had they only thought of it first. And many times have I heard learned men say that the Latin word for yawning means lethargic and careless. It's advisable to flee this habit which—as I have said—is unpleasant to the eye, the ear, and the stomach; by indulging in it, we show the company around us that we are not having a good time, and we also cast a very bad impression of ourselves, that is to say, we display a drowsy, slumbering spirit. This makes us not lovable at all to those we are around. You do not want, when you blow your nose, to then open the hanky and gaze at your snot as if pearls or rubies might have descended from your brains. This is a nauseating habit not likely to make anyone love you, but rather, if someone loved you, he or she would fall out of love right there. The spirit of the Labyrinth, whoever he may have been, proves this: in order to cool the ardor of Giovanni Boccaccio for a lady he barely knew, he tells how she squats down by a fireside, coughs, and spits out huge loogies.

Also inappropriate is the habit of putting one's nose over the glass of wine someone else is drinking, or on top of the food others must eat, so as to smell it. Besides, I would not want someone to sniff even what he himself has to drink or to eat; the reason is that from his nose could fall those things that men find disgusting, even though this is perhaps unlikely. Nor would I recommend that you offer your glass of wine to someone after you have had your lips to it and sipped, unless it were to someone more intimate than a friend. And even worse should you offer a pear or other fruit from which you have just taken a bite. And don't be looking like you consider the things discussed above trivial and of small moment, for even light blows, if they are many, can kill.


Galateo and Count Ricciardo—an anecdote on the importance of politeness

I want you to know that in Verona there was once a bishop, very learned in the great books and profoundly wise, named Giovanni Matteo Giberti. Aside from his other admirable qualities, he was also courteous and generous with the nobles who came and went about him, honoring them at home with his magnificence, not in excess but as a golden mean befitting a cleric. It so happened that a nobleman by the name of Count Ricciardo was just then passing through and stayed several days with the bishop and his household, which was composed, for the most part, of urbane and educated men. Because the count seemed to them a very refined gentleman, adorned with pleasant manners, they praised and esteemed him highly, except for one trifling imperfection in his behavior. The bishop, a discerning man, noticed it and, having sought the advice of some of his closer friends, decided that the count ought to be made aware of it, without causing him any undue stress. Since the count was set to depart the following morning and had already taken his leave, the bishop summoned a discreet gentleman of his household and told him to ride out and accompany the count part of the way and then, when he thought the time was right, to tell him very sweetly what they had discussed. This gentleman was a man up in years, very learned, as well as pleasant, a good conversationalist and handsome, all beyond belief, who in his time had much frequented the noble courts. He was and perhaps still is called Mr. Galateo, and it was at his bidding and on his advice that I first started to compose this treatise. Riding with the count, he soon engaged him in pleasant chat, passing from one topic to the next, until it seemed time to return to Verona. Asking for permission to take his leave of the count with a cheerful look, he said delicately: "My lord, my lord bishop extends your lordship his infinite thanks for the honor you have bestowed upon him by entering and dwelling in his humble abode. Furthermore, as recompense for all the courtesy you have shown toward him he has commanded me to present you with a gift on his behalf. And he earnestly entreats you to receive it with a glad heart. This is the gift. The bishop thinks you are the most graceful and well-mannered gentleman he has ever met. For this reason, having carefully observed your manners and having examined them with more than ordinary attention, he has found none which was not extremely pleasant and laudable, except for one that is deformed: the unseemly action your lips and mouth make when chewing food at table makes a strange smacking kind of sound very unpleasant to hear. The bishop sends you this message, begging you to try to abstain from doing this and to accept as a precious gift his loving reprimand and remark, for he is certain no one else in the world would give you such a present." The count, who had never before been aware of his faux pas, blushed a bit on being chastised, but being a worthy man he quickly pulled himself together and said: "Please tell the bishop that men would be far richer than they are if all gifts exchanged were like his. And thank him kindly for all the courtesy and benevolence he has afforded me, assuring him that from now on I will diligently and attentively watch myself. Now go, and Godspeed."


Returning to the subject of offensive and gauche habits

Well, what do we think the bishop and his noble comrades would have said to those we sometimes see who, absolutely oblivious as pigs with their snouts in the swill, never raise their faces nor their eyes, much less their hands, from the food? And they gulp down their grub with both their cheeks puffed out as if they were playing the trumpet or blowing on a fire, not eating but gobbling. Those who grease up their hands and arms to the elbows or dirty their napkins such that washcloths in the bathroom are neater. Often they shamelessly use these same napkins to wipe away sweat that, from their rushing and gorging, drips and falls from their foreheads, their faces, and from around their necks, even using them to blow their noses when they feel like it. Truly people made like this are not worthy of being invited, not only to the immaculate house of that noble bishop, but they should evn be chased out of any place where civilized men dwell. A man of good manners must therefore watch himself that he does not smear his fingers so much with grease that his napkin is left filthy: it is a disgusting sight. And even wiping fingers on the bread you are eating does not seem very proper or polite. The noble servants who wait on gentlemen's tables must not, under any circumstance, scratch their heads or anywhere else in front of their master when he is eating, nor put their hands on any part of the body that one covers up, nor even appear to do so, as some sloppy servants do, who keep a hand on the chest or behind the back tucked under their clothing. They must rather display their hands in the open and outside of any suspicion, and keep them carefully washed and clean, with nothing grimy on any part. Those who serve the plates and the glasses must diligently abstain during that moment from spitting, from coughing, and moreover from sneezing. Because, in such actions, suspicion of misbehavior is as annoying to diners as certainty, so the servants must take care not to give their masters reason to be suspicious, for in this case what might have taken place disturbs as much as what has. If you have placed a pear to cook by the fireplace or a piece of toast on the coals, do not blow on it because it is covered with a bit of ash, for as the saying goes: There never was wind without rain. You must rather tap the plate, or by some other means brush off any ashes. Do not offer your handkerchief, even fresh from the laundry, to anyone, as the person will not know it's clean and so will find the act gross. When speaking with someone, do not get so close as to puff on the person's face, for you will find that many do not like to inhale someone else's breath, even though there may be no bad odor. These and other such behaviors are unpleasant and should be avoided for they irritate the senses of those we interact with, as I said above.

Let us now mention some breaches of etiquette that, without being offensive to any one sense in particular, offend the vast majority of people when they are committed.

Excerpted from GALATEO or, THE RULES OF Polite Behavior by GIOVANNI DELLA CASA. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Giovanni Della Casa (1503–56) was a celebrated Italian writer and diplomat whose works in Latin and Italian spread across a stunning range of poetic and prose genres. M. F. Rusnak is a translator, professor, and writer. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey, and Florence, Italy.

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