(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The son of a courtier, Baldasar Castiglione was born in 1487 at Casatico, Italy. On his mother’s side he was related to the Gonzagas who ruled Mantua. Following his father’s profession, Castiglione served his kinsman Francesco Gonzaga (1499-1503); then, from 1504 to 1513 he was at the court of Urbino, the setting for his treatise on the ideal courtier. In 1524, he became papal nuncio to Emperor Charles V of Spain, who sacked Rome in 1527. Although Castiglione claimed that The Courtier was the product of a few days’ effort, he may have begun writing it as early as 1508, fully two decades before its publication. By 1518, he had completed a first draft, which he revised in the early 1520’s. The Courtier appeared in Venice in 1528, shortly before its author’s death in Toledo on February 8, 1529.

Burke’s study is a response to Sir Ernest Baker’s 1948 comment that “it would be a fascinating study to examine comparatively the different national tinctures” given to Castiglione’s book, particularly during the century following its initial printing. This exploration of reception illuminates three other issues: the response to the Renaissance outside Italy, the history of the book, and changes in cultural attitudes.

Burke notes that Castiglione’s work belongs to a long tradition of conduct books that dates from the beginnings of Western literature. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (c. 776 b.c.e.), though presenting different versions of the hero, illustrate the eighth century b.c.e. ideal of excellence. Aristotle’sEthics and Xenophon’s Cyropedia in the fourth century b.c.e., Cicero’s Des officiis (of duties), even Ovid’s Art of Love provide other classical examples that sought to teach a code of behavior. In the early Middle Ages, such manuals concentrated on the clergy; the title of St. Ambrose’s Des officiis clericorum (of the duties of the clergy) reveals the refocusing of Cicero’s concern from the secular to the religious world. By the High Middle Ages the emphasis had changed again, aschansons de geste and romances taught chivalry and courtesy to new lay elites. Courtesy books also reappeared. Castiglione drew on all of these predecessors, quoting from or alluding to many of these in his text.

Yet as Burke observes, The Courtier was not originally an instruction manual. Castiglione’s book is a dialogue, in which diverse individuals offer conflicting views. This form is as old as Plato and was adopted by Cicero and Lucian; it was revived by such fifteenth century humanists as Leonardo Bruni, Poggio Bracciolini, and Lorenzo Valla. Dialogues are not necessarily open: some of Plato’s, for example, are little more than showcases for Socrates to expound his (or Plato’s) views. Others, however, allow for alternative positions, and Castiglione’s belongs to this category. In the third book, Giuliano de’ Medici argues that women can understand as much as men, but Gasparo Pallavicino claims that women are “a mistake of nature,” and Cesare Gonzaga asserts that a woman’s role is to inspire male achievement. The Courtier’s very structure reveals its open quality. At the end of the fourth evening, which comprises the fourth and final book, the speakers disperse, promising to resume their conversation; but they do not. Yet Castiglione does stress certain qualities that the courtier and court lady should exhibit: honor, gentilezza, modestia, liberality, elegance, affability, discretion, grace. The most famous characteristic that Castiglione discusses is sprezzatura or spontaneity—hence the author’s claim to have dashed off his book in a few days.

The popularity of The Courtier peaked in Italy in the 1530’s and 1540’s; Burke counts thirteen editions in each decade. Ten more editions appeared in the 1550’s, nine in the 1560’s, four each in the 1570’s and 1580’s, two in the 1590’s, three more between 1600 and 1606, and then none again for more than a century. Judging from the list of owners Burke includes in appendix 2, purchasers of these editions ranged across the social and geographical world of Italy. Aristocrats from Ferrara and Siena, Florentine critics, Venetian authors, a lawyer from Sicily, the Benedictine monk Vincenzio Borghini and the humanist bishop Paolo Giovio all owned copies. Nor was the book’s appeal limited to men; Castiglione presented copies to nine women, and Irene di Spilimbergo, a noblewoman from Friuli, ranked her copy with Petrarch.

As The Courtier was reprinted in the course of the sixteenth century, it acquired additional materials intended to help the reader. The 1547 Aldine edition (Venice) added an index as well as a summary of the qualities a courtier should possess. The 1560 Giolito edition (Venice) provided a different index and a summary of each book. Other editions added marginal notations. The unintentional consequence of these...

(The entire section is 2035 words.)