The Book of the Courtier

by Baldassare Castiglione

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What characteristics of the courtier (from The Book of the Courtier) are still present in today's society?

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Other answers here offer excellent ideas regarding the specific qualities a courtier ought to possess. A central concept of the Renaissance courtier is sprezzatura: an Italian word roughly meaning a studied nonchalance. This ideal of effortless-seeming excellence in multiple areas (politics, arts, society, etc.) insists on the courtier turning himself into a rhetorical object. By that, Castiglione suggests that the duty of the courtier is to "speak" eloquently and persuasively through multiple, non-linguistic as well as linguistic means. By turning oneself into a work of art, the courtier becomes indispensable in his domain. The emphasis here falls on turning oneself into a symbol of a certain type of person and lifestyle.

Today's highly self-aware world of social media seems to demand a comparable transformation of self into artifact of cultural values. The preening and staging that many people engage in on social media (that court of popular opinion, favor, or "likes") is designed to increase one's social capital and to keep eyes turned toward those most successful in manipulating these codes. Like sprezzatura, the effortlessness with which one presents one's skills (where the labor to perfect these talents occurs outside the eye of the camera) is something of a fiction or performance art.

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In The Book of the Courtier, the courtier is evaluated by his outward appearance and demeanor. Succeeding as a courtier means projecting the right image. A courtier is expected to be well-dressed, articulate, athletic, easy to get along with, a good conversationalist, well-educated, and cultured. Most importantly, a courtier needs to make all of this look effortless. No matter how much he has practiced, whatever the courtier does must look spontaneous. This ability to carry oneself with ease and nonchalance is called sprezzatura. Today, we might call it being "cool" or "chill."

In today's world, we still place a high premium on projecting the right image in an effortless way. Prime examples of the courtier ethos can be seen today in politicians and high-end salespeople, such as art dealers and realtors. In those positions, perception is worth more than reality. But a courtier image can be important in other endeavors. Candidates for medical school need to exhibit a good bedside manner. Candidates to top colleges are most often expected to make it through an interview process: having top grades and SAT scores is not enough if social skills and an ability to present oneself well are lacking.

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According to Castiglione, the courtier is essentially a master at pleasing, entertaining, understanding, advising, and speaking. He (for women were not given the same worth at court) is charismatic, physically appealing, and versed in both arts and athletics. Yet, he always remembers his position at court, and never tries to overshadow the higher-ranking aristocrat that he is expected to serve in a variety of ways: as a political advisor, as a social networker, as a counselor, as an entertainer to a point, and sometimes even as a friend.

To find those qualities in today's society one would probably have to observe any work environment where there is a hierarchy in place. From observing that, you would know whether the "courtiers" of today abide by the same guidelines of loyalty, or if they actually possess a true ability to serve in a multidisciplinary manner.

The closest approximation to a modern-day courtier would be the advisor of someone who truly holds power in an organization. It could be a business consultant, a vice-president, or just a commonplace sycophant who knows how to play the system and tap into the emotional needs of a weak leader.

Yet, some people who hold steady to a code of honor and who believe in loyalty and usefulness would show the basic qualities of the courtier in their everyday lives:

  • resourcefulness
  • ethical behavior
  • charisma
  • a sense of humor (a lighter side)
  • a positive attitude
  • an ability to guide and lead
  • excellent conversation skills
  • empathy
  • respect for self and others
  • goal-oriented
  • ability to multi-task
  • multitalented
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