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Baldesar Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier is the High Renaissance in microcosm. It is the portrait of a group of leading thinkers, politicians, soldiers, clerics, diplomats, and wits gathered together in the Palace of Urbino in March 1507, playing a game over four evenings, which are described in four books, where their task is to delineate the perfect courtier. They were real-life characters, although artfully presented by Castiglione who completed his portrait of them some twenty years later. In their conversations about courtliness they range from chivalry to humanist debates about language, literature, painting and sculpture, to the art of conversation and the telling of jokes, the role and dignity of women, the delicate job of guiding wilful princes, and finally to love and its transcendent form in pure spirit. The setting is high society at play, a minor ducal court at a particular moment, but this is the elegant frame for a larger exploration of human experience and what it is to be civilized, marked by the distinctive idealism and anxieties, the light and shade, of an extraordinarily creative era. By the time he completed his book, Castiglione was lamenting the early deaths of a number of the friends he had portrayed in it. But he had preserved a way of thinking and a set of values and aspirations which came to represent much that seemed essential in the High Renaissance to his contemporaries and his successors, in Italy, then into northern Europe and beyond, and down through the five centuries since those four Spring evenings in Urbino, to the reader today.
The paradox of Baldesar Castiglione’s life is that he was held in such high esteem--the Emperor Charles V called him “one of the finest gentlemen in the world”----while his career was that of an undistinguished soldier and a diplomat who could rarely achieve his goals. He was born in 1478 into a Mantuan noble family of no great wealth, but well-connected with Mantua’s ruling dynasty, the Gonzagas, and known for a tradition of service to the neighboring and more powerful Dukes of Milan. As a soldier, courtier, and diplomat, Castiglione served the Marquis of Mantua, two Dukes of Urbino and finally the Pope, for whom he acted as nuncio to the Emperor Charles V in Spain. He could do little to protect his masters from the buffetings of Renaissance politics and war, although his loyalty was rewarded by the Duke of Urbino in 1513, when he was made Count of Novillara, along with a gift of lands--which was, however, later lost as precipitately as earlier it had been ceremoniously granted. At the end of Castiglione’s career, for all his efforts in Spain on behalf of the Pope (for which he was made Bishop of Ávila), the army of Emperor Charles V was let loose on Italy and, in its mutinous Sack of Rome in 1527, scattered the creative forces of the Renaissance as decisively as it had destroyed the military power of the Papacy. Castiglione died, less than two years later, in 1529 at the age of fifty. But it had also been in 1528 that he had finally brought to publication Courtier which he had been working at, on and off, since 1514. Castiglione’s status as “one of the finest gentlemen in the world,” long in the making, was confirmed. It had not been the substance of his career which had won him Charles V’s accolade, but the style. He had been at the heart of a network of courtiers and artists, and he had been unequalled in the deployment of all the symbols of a refined courtly and diplomatic life. In short, his life had become a work of art.
Castiglione’s earliest experience of courtly life was in Milan, where, from the age of sixteen, he studied the core Latin and Greek texts of a Renaissance humanist education, and observed the court of Lodovico Sforza, ‘Il Moro.’ This was no political paradise--Lodovico had usurped his nephew’s ducal authority--but the court was a magnet for thinkers, writers, and artists, not the least of which was Leonardo da Vinci. However, this early aesthetic and political experience was brought to an abrupt end by an invading French army and the deposition of Lodovico. It was the first template for Castiglione of creative court society and its fragility. Thereafter he entered the service of Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, for whom he fought as Italy was gradually overwhelmed by French and Spanish invaders, until in 1504 he sought leave, brusquely granted, to enter the service of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. The next four years constituted the golden age which Castiglione was to depict in The Book of the Courtier.
The prestige and wealth of Urbino, and the palace itself, a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture, had been established by Federico da Montelfeltro, the first Duke, a great (mercenary) warrior and an equally great patron of the arts. His son Guidobaldo was to be no less a sponsor of civilized living drawing on the profits of war but, crippled by gout, he himself was no warrior and indeed was forced to retire early each evening, leaving the court under the command of his duchess, Elizabetta Gonzaga. It is on one such occasion, on 8 March 1507, in the relaxation following the departure of Urbino’s most eminent guest, Pope Julius II, that the duchess deputes her friend, the witty and animated Emilia Pia, to supervise the evening’s entertainment. She calls on the assembled company to propose games and, after a number of debates had been canvassed--mostly about love and human frailty--it is settled instead that they should take turns to create in imagination the perfect courtier.
Castiglione claimed that the resulting play of ideas was reported to him afterwards, as at the time he was away on a mission to England standing in for Duke Guidobaldo at his investiture by King Henry VII with the Order of the Garter. This mission had indeed taken place, but Castiglione was back in Urbino before March 1507. He was distancing himself from the occasion, allowing freer play between fiction and reality. One of the participants in the game, the future Duke, Francesco Maria delle Rovere, turns up late the first evening, having escorted his uncle, the Pope, from the city, and has to be filled in the following day as to what had been said--but no one could agree precisely what opinions had been expressed. So, within the text, Castiglione jokes about the unreliability and creativity when people tell their stories.
The precedents for these evening games which Castiglione claims to provice second-hand report are the dialogues of classical authors such as Plato or Cicero, and their Renaissance successors, and the courtesy books of the Middle Ages, although those were much more prescriptive in their rules of social behavior. Castiglione had digested his reading well, so there is no simple genealogy, but in particular he draws on Plato’s Symposium, with its relaxed sociability and the testing and ultimately the idealization of the human capacity to love. Parts of Courtier also resemble very closely Cicero’s De Oratore, a debate about the perfect orator, a political performer who could be transmuted from republican Rome to become the courtier of Renaissance Italy. The Ciceronian ideal, though, was a citizen active in a city state. For Castiglione the courtier, as a subject, could influence but not exercise power, so taking refuge in an aestheticization of life, an attempt to stave off the depredations of fortune and mortality through art.
Classical texts, such as the Symposium and De Oratore, while in the form of open discussions, are more didactic than Castiglione allows. His voice can be heard directly in his prologues to each of the four books, in which the four evenings of debate are presented, but even there the accent is a carefully controlled one of tact and courtliness, in melancholy colors. His characters’ speculations represent more diverse voices, and, although some are given greater weight, which is often assumed to show us Castiglione’s own views, the reader is expected to establish the Golden Mean for herself. Gravitas and light-heartedness, for instance, are both needed--the balance will depend on circumstances, not the application of hard and fast rules.
There were literary as well as philosophical influences on Courtier. Castiglione’s very protest that he has not modelled his language upon that of Boccaccio suggests that he had thought long and hard about the Decameron, with its diverse stories told by a group of witty and imaginative Florentines gathered in a country house. It is this openness, the deliberate uncertainties, which allow Courtier to shimmer and stimulate the imagination, rather than shine a harsh light. There is a relaxation of ordinary social rules, a festive, carnivalesque atmosphere which allows people to develop ideas and express emotions much more freely. And just as there was also a shadow in the Decameron, setting off the brilliant story-telling in the country house, which was the plague in Florence that had brought the story-tellers together in flight from the city, so the darkness of a capricious fortune and the Italian Wars, as the peninsula was overcome by foreign invaders, the tyranny of so many princes, and the instability of court life, shades into the light-hearted debates about the good life, and under-scores the laughter in the palace of Urbino.
The game and the arguments are the thing. The characters in The Book of the Courtier are drawn with minimal strokes of the brush. The Duchess is serene and authoritative but quite remote. The driving force is her lieutenant and friend, Emilia Pia. Her sparring with the young Gaspare Pallavicino begins and ends the book. He is the most contrary of the courtiers, always willing, and with glee, to push the limits of the argument. The encounters of Emilia and Gaspare have a sexual energy which has led to speculation that they were the originals of Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, but the genealogy has never been proved. Other characters have clear features--the dignity of Count Lodovico of Canossa who opens the debates, or the liveliness of Bibbiena’s discourses on humor. But there are also cameos which catch the eye--Morella da Ortona, the crusty old soldier, or the jokey friar, Fra Mariano. These were all Castiglione’s acquaintances and, in many cases, friends. Emilia Pia received her bound copy of the work which was to give her an immortality just a few days before she died.
In some cases, though, the gap between the character in Castiglione’s dialogues and the real person yawns very wide indeed. Duke Guidobaldo’s heir, the Prefect of Rome, Francesco Maria delle Rovere, who arrives late on the first evening, having escorted his uncle the Pope from the city, is as courteous and civilized in his demeanour as any of the other participants. His savagery in real life is occluded in Courtier. Delle Rovere stabbed to death his sister’s lover; he had three Venetian border guards beaten to death for the temerity of questioning his right to bear arms on Venetian territory; and, most spectacularly, he murdered Cardinal Alidosi who blamed him for the loss of Bologna. This is not an exhaustive list of his acts of violence, but renders perhaps some of the darker colors to his character. It is possible to be cynical about the brighter tones in which he is portrayed in The Book of the Courtier--it should be noted that Castiglione served delle Rovere as a diplomat when the latter became Duke of Urbino. Nevertheless, the form of the dialogue and its purpose were designed to operate in a different dimension: to demonstrate ideals, not report on life in all its gritty reality. That said, there are traces in Courtier of the real threat of savagery of which delle Rovere proved himself capable. On the last evening of the four, Ottaviano Fregoso questions the value of all the perfections of courtiership delineated over the previous three nights. Are they just trivialities? His answer is no, as they give access to the prince and his understanding. They give just a chance of influencing decision-making for the better which determined the fates of principalities and their peoples. Like his contemporary Machiavelli’s The Prince, Castiglione’s Courtier was written amidst violent political upheaval and rapid shifts in fortune; both their books were attempts to build defenses against that capricious goddess, Fortuna. Castiglione’s reaction was to fashion the veneer of civilization in a princely court, with a view to allowing care and rational thinking a better chance to flourish. (There is aggressive play as the courtiers attack each other’s views, but it is sublimated aggression; again and again, the courtiers dissolve into laughter, at points where the argument could be too pointed or too personal.) Insofar as Courtier was written with the ilk of delle Rovere in mind it was about aspiration to a better way of life rather than a reflection of reality, while Ottaviano Fregoso’s contribution shows a sensitivity to the dangerous underlying realities as acute as Machiavelli’s. Castiglione’s mode may have been courtesy rather than the ruthlessness presented by Machiavelli, but in his approach there is still a concern with how best to deal with disorderly politics.
To pin down a key characteristic of the courtier, Castiglione coined a new word-- sprezzatura. It means nonchalance, the disguise of effort, and was Castiglione’s contribution to the tradition that the purpose of art is to conceal art, and his application of that aesthetic tradition to social life. Affectation is condemned, but that just means an action must appear natural--and appear so easy that it suggests a much greater talent lying in reserve. The Court is an arena for social competition; the evening debating games are themselves contests. Grazia, grace, is the winning and elegant command of body and soul--with which the Duchess is particularly endowed--but sprezzatura, the manipulation of appearance is needed to supplement that. In addition, there is a shading to the word which means a lofty disdain, even contempt for what is being undertaken, and certainly careful restraint in showing any emotional commitment. (In a more recent mode the courtier would be the cool guy, in shades.) The elevation of sprezzatura to a value worries some modern readers. Between the Renaissance and us lies the romantic cult of sincerity--Rousseau’s condemnation of an artificial courtly life--as well as the stress in many religions on genuine humility and integrity. But Castiglione is working to different rules in the moral universe of his court. All are expected to understand those rules, and they do not just regulate the competition for status. In the way the courtiers prize performance and the stimulation of the onlookers’ imaginations, they are behaving as artists. Artificiosa is a word used by Castiglione. Although for us it has a negative connotation of “artificial,” to Castiglione it means made with care, artistic. He accepts the fact of courtly life that it is that your competitors are your peers and you have to catch the eye of the prince. Taking this for granted, perfection then is in the effectiveness of the performance and its artistry. Rather than being a matter of deceit, it is about a disguise, a mask, the social code well understood in a court. For a modern reader, as for those through the five centuries since Courtier was published, the power of this concept, and the unease which it brings, stems from the knowledge that roles are performed in diverse social situations, now as then, and likewise their distance from reality may be well understood if rarely acknowledged.
For Castiglione sprezzatura matters in all things performed in public; great or small, there is an aesthetic element and a social statement to be made, whether in a tournament, dancing, or telling funny stories. But there is a particular focus on the fine arts at the heart of courtiership, and the debates surrounding them in Courtier rehearse themes typical of Renaissance discourse. There is a lengthy digression about language--how far the written model of language should be Tuscan and, more than that, the Tuscan of Petrarch and Boccaccio of two centuries before, or how far it should be contemporary, drawing on the best usage from diverse parts of Italy. We know Castiglione’s views on this more definitely than on other topics. Despite the protest in his prologue that he writes in the language of contemporary Lombardy, the vocabulary and syntax of Courtier is largely Tuscan and with a strong preference for the most Latinate words. In emphasizing the centrality of the arts, there is a clear assumption that the great artists are heroes of the age. The artist as hero was one of the features of the High Renaissance in general, which gained special attention in the nineteenth century and still informs attitudes today, when art has become for some a substitute for religion. This elevated role for the artist underlies a debate in Courtier about the relative merits of painting and sculpture. The dispute focuses on which art form can make something appear natural and individual, and yet not jar with the idealism in the artist’s imagination, as abstracted in an Aristotelian way from the observation of many models. This was a standard, perhaps even hackneyed, Renaissance debate, but it had never before been given form in an artistic and social setting as it was in Courtier. And again the book itself embodies the concerns of the High Renaissance in its own form, blending naturalism and idealism. Castiglione’s feeling toward the arts gave shape to his own social life as well as his book. He moved within an unequalled network of writers and artists. Raphael was a particular friend who painted his portrait on the occasion of his wedding.
Another theme debated, where Courtier was not so much being original as giving well-worn ideas a new valency, was in the discussion of the dignity of women, formally undertaken to establish the characteristics of a donna di palazzo who would make the perfect counterpart to the male courtier. (Perhaps revealing as to embedded male views of women, the female counterpart to cortigiano--cortigiana--could not be used, as the word means courtesan.) The argument is clearly weighted to the side of Giuliano de’ Medici, known as the Magnifico, and Cesare Gonzaga, who decry the claims that women are inferior to men, as put forward by others such as Gaspare Pallavicino, and present lengthy arguments to acknowledge their right to equal regard. Gaspare caricatures, and so seems to discredit, the position of the anti-feminist, and at one point Emilia Pia and the other ladies playfully pummel him as though they had become Bacchantes. Modern feminists, however, have interrogated the apparent weighting to the advantage of feminist arguments to be found in Courtier. The Magnifico, for instance, is at first esoteric and then lists the heroic deeds of a few women in extreme circumstances, nearly all from previous ages if not legendary. Thus he avoids addressing contemporary experience. Cesare Gonzaga praises women for being chaste while men are so often dishonorable, and so implicitly identifies women’s virtue with sexuality, a focus of concern which has not featured in earlier discussion of the ideal male courtier. He also presents women as an essential inspiration to men, rather than an end in themselves, and in the very form of The Book of the Courtier itself, the women are there to stimulate the men to compete in debate rather than participate substantially themselves. The Duchess is in charge, but as a deputy to her husband, and Emilia Pia is in turn a deputy, taking authority to a more playful, rather than a more radical, level. They command respect but in a patriarchal format where the men undertake the essential action. However, if Castiglione had, despite a vaunted respect for women unusual in his period, inscribed patriarchy in his book, it has also been argued that this was done to excite further critical thought. Whether this was so or not, in the structure of the book patriarchy is set in tension not with a modern-style feminism, but with a contemporary anxiety about feminization.
In the early stages of Courtier, ritual obeisance is made to the courtier as a warrior and expert in manly sports. But there is precious little discussion of what makes a good warrior and the focus shifts completely to the refined pursuits of courtly life (except, it has to be said when heroic women are being discussed), and war is condemned as intrinsically evil. The central value lies in the arts of peace, nurtured in the peaceful enclosure of the court. (This emphasis may reflect Castiglione’s own life--if an author may be assumed a life outside his text--given his mediocrity on campaign and, in contrast, his social eminence as a courtier.) But over an uncomfortable number of the debates--whether on the subject of the appropriate masculine response to women, or which mode of dress to adopt, or contrasts with the French and the Spanish, or, above all, the fate of Italy prostrate before foreign invaders, with a heroic resistance distinctly lacking--there hovers an anxiety that traditional masculine roles are under threat in the very courtiership which is being celebrated in the book’s debates. This is most clearly represented by Duke Guidobaldo in his absence-- crippled by gout, he is incapable of being the warrior his father was and even abandons leadership of the Court in the evenings to the women. So, if patriarchy is not undermined in Courtier, its nature is highly problematic. In Book 4, as we have seen, one way out is the use of courtiership as the means of controlling the often brutal and destructive figure at the apex of patriarchy, the prince. (This would be its virtù, signifying both its virtue and its manliness.) The other road taken is through Bembo’s great speech, expounding neo-Platonic love, where fleshly desire is consumed in the fire of passion, leaving the exultation of a purely spiritual bond, the perfect form of love. This is the climax of Courtier, and it leaves debating games far behind. It is through the spiritualization of love that masculine and feminine are, at least in this reverie, transcended, as is the messy political decline of Italy which contrasted so painfully with its artistic supremacy.
A number of the courtiers were to become bishops and cardinals, but the spiritual consolation outlined by Bembo is not specifically Christian. Courtier’s subject is the secular life, and its morality is couched entirely in secular terms. Religion hardly features in the book, except for the Magnifico’s attack on the hypocrisy and licentiousness of friars. This absence of piety became increasingly suspect as the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation took hold, and in 1584 an expurgated version was produced. The original was condemned to feature on the Roman Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books, until, astonishingly, 1966. However, this censorship did not undermine Courtier’s popularity. There were 62 editions in Italy in the 150 years after its first publication, and translations rapidly appeared, the most famous in English being that of Sir Thomas Hoby in 1561. Re-workings as well as translations were published in other countries, adapting it to the particularities of other cultures. Aristocracies all over Europe seized on sprezzatura as a sign of membership of the elite, and they appreciated the pragmatism through which the courtier sought to influence the prince. But princes liked it too--the Emperor Charles V kept Courtier by him as one of his three most favored books (with, tellingly, Machiavelli’s The Prince as another). In the end, Courtier was a book which could travel, socially and geographically, with its open questions, its range of opinion and principles which could be adapted to circumstance, and its playful and sometimes profound reflections on how to fashion one’s life in a competitive, creative social setting. It is a text in which there is no closure. The evening debates make room for the reader and her imagination. The book finishes but the games do not. At the conclusion of Bembo’s rapturous vision of Platonic love, all have fallen silent. Emilia Pia plucks Bembo by the sleeve to bring him down to earth, and then the assembled company realizes it is dawn, with Venus, appropriately enough, being the last star to shine in the morning sky over the hills surrounding the palace. Everyone reluctantly retires to bed, but not before Emilia Pia and Gaspare Pallavicino have returned to their sparring, and it is agreed to continue the discussions that following evening. So the games go on, as they have in the imaginations of readers ever since.
John Lotherington is the director of the 21st Century Trust in London. He is the editor and author of several books on European history and on contemporary social issues.