Castiglione and ‘The Courtier’

William Amelia describes how Baldassare Castiglione's popular book on courtly manners invoked the elegance and charm of Renaissance life, and went on to influence Europe for centuries.

If manners make the man, then for nearly five hundred years men have been indebted to a Renaissance humanist who set forth the model of courtly behaviour and the elaborate ritual of manners for men of wealth and ambition. The man is Baldassare Castiglione, the spokesman for the way of courtly life through his book The Courtier, perhaps the sixeenth-century’s greatest literary success, and a work of immense influence, which describes the Italian gentleman under his brightest and fairest aspect.

The Courtier or II Cortegiano was written in the form favoured by humanists, as a conversation or dialogue. It purports to give an account of a series of after dinner discussions held in the drawing room of the ducal palace of Urbino in March, 1507, where the question of what constitutes a perfect courtier was debated. Its ideal of courtly completeness was recognized by the cultured public of the time as a common ideal and model: the ideal of culture translated into a style of composure and intellectual self-control.

If the subjects discussed are elementary, they are also fundamental; and, with but few differences, the type settled upon is the ideal gentleman of the present day. The society whose portrait emerges from Castiglione’s pages is dignified, well behaved, high minded and, in his words, ‘should always be a little more humble than rank would require’. The characters discuss deportment, athletics and propriety of speech in the context of correct conduct, which, says Castiglione, ‘...seems to me to consist in a certain circumspection and sense of the fitness of things’.

How much Castiglione’s account of life at the cultivated court of Urbino is an idealization, and how much is accurate reporting, we do not know. Presumably, the long conversations on the qualifications of the perfect courtiers are Castiglione’s invention, though parts of them could have been inspired by some actual discussion.

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