The Book of the Courtier

by Baldassare Castiglione

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What are the characteristics of the courtier that are most prized in The Book of the Courtier?

The qualities of the ideal courtier are many and complex: he must be a warrior, but only in the service of others; his language must be elegant, but with words borrowed from other languages—French and Spanish, specifically; his modesty must be perfect, and he must know how to instill goodness in the prince he serves. ► Read the full article on Renaissance Art History here Please support the ARTHistory.

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Count Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier (1528), as your question suggests, is a detailed discussion among a group of Italian aristocrats, ladies and gentlemen, about the physical and mental qualities of an ideal courtier in sixteenth century Italy, one who is both an ornament to his prince and a counselor.

If we were to encapsulate the qualities of the ideal courtier, we would describe him as something close to a "Renaissance Man," someone who is skilled at all physical activities, especially those dealing with military life, and, equally important, writing, speaking, music (singing and playing multiple instruments), swimming, dancing, fencing, horsemanship. In addition, he must be morally perfect, modest but brilliant, a font of wisdom for his prince, and he must be able to do everything brilliantly without appearing to have expended any effort—in Italian, the word is sprezzatura, the art of doing everything without trying hard.

The basic quality of the ideal courtier, one that causes a lot of complex discussion among the aristocratic group, is, not surprisingly, that he be of noble birth:

I wish, then, that this Courtier of ours should be of noble birth and of gentle race; because it is far less unseemly for one of ignoble birth to fail in worthy deeds. ... (I:14)

In short, a common person would not be embarrassed to fail, but a noble person would be horrified. We need to keep in mind that, because the people "creating" this ideal courtier are all nobles, they would naturally choose from their own class.

A second, but very important, characteristic is that the Courtier be a warrior:

... the principal and true profession of the Courtier ought to be that of arms; which I would have him follow actively above all else, and be known among others as bold and strong, and loyal to whomsoever he serves. (I:14)

In Italy in the sixteenth century, it was common for armies to be made up of mercenaries rather than citizen-soldiers, so the concept of loyalty "to whomsoever he serves" is important because the warrior is fighting for money, not ideals or conviction, and his loyalty is tied directly to his wallet.

But this courtier-warrior cannot just be a soldier, he must show moderation in all other pursuits:

Therefore let the man we are seeking, be very bold, stern, and always among the first, where the enemy are to be seen; and in every other place, gentle, modest, reserved, above all things avoiding ostentation and that impudent self-praise by which men ever excite hatred and disgust in all who hear them. (I:16)

A refrain that goes throughout the work is the emphasis on modesty in all things, and this modesty carries over to eating and drinking modestly so that the courtier is never accused of any kind of excess. His skills in all things physical and mental should be perfect, but he can never be seen or heard to express his superiority. Again, the concept of sprezzatura applies: perfect execution without apparent effort.

Throughout Book II, the aristocrats discuss the Courtier's language and writing ability at great length, going so far as to discuss the elements of Tuscan Italian that make it either a good or bad choice for the Courtier's dialect, and even discussing borrowing vocabulary from other languages:

In such fashion I would have our Courtier speak and write; and not only choose rich and elegant words from every part of Italy, but I should even praise him for sometimes using some of those French and Spanish terms that are already accepted by our custom. (II:32)

This is actually more remarkable than it may seem. In sixteenth-century Italy, and especially in Tuscany where this conversation occurs, various armies from France and Spain are engaged in "political" struggles in Italy, and for a Tuscan aristocrat to encourage the use of French and Spanish is, at the least, fair-minded and perhaps politically useful.

In Book IV, which is sometimes considered "tacked on" to the first three books as an afterthought—if so, it is a good one—Castiglione adds an important characteristic of the ideal Courtier, who will be able to guide his prince to goodness

... and thus be able always to disclose the truth about all things with ease; and also to instill goodness into his prince's mind little by little, and to teach continence, fortitude, justice, temperance. ... (IV:250)

In short, this ideal Courtier—in addition to being a perfect musician, rider, dancer, and warrior—can lead his prince to become, well, the ideal Courtier but with much more power. He can, if he moves quietly, help create the ideal ruler in the prince he serves, a far cry from the job description established in the early books.

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The Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione serves to determine what qualities the perfect courtier would have. In several different sections, people examine different aspects of a person's character that determine whether a person would be a perfect courtier. Ultimately, the perfect courtier possesses characteristics that enable him to both serve his lord and make his lord appear even better than he would without the courtier.

Castiglione explains the perfect courtier, saying the form of courtiership is one "by which he may have the ability and knowledge perfectly to serve them in every reasonable thing, winning from them favour, and praise from other men." The perfect courtier has these qualities not for his own pleasure but for the pleasure of the one he serves.

Other qualities that Castiglione's characters find important include:

  • Gentle birth
  • Modesty
  • Grace
  • Morality
  • Calm
  • Eloquence
  • Athleticism
  • Affection and curiosity
  • Discretion
  • Honesty

They discuss whether a courtier needs to appreciate things like art and determine that the perfect courtier would indeed understand and appreciate art, literature, and music. He should also be healthy and athletic enough to serve his lord and engage in activities that bring them both favor. He should play games like dice but not only for money—and should be a good sport when he loses.

When they discuss how the courtier speaks, attention is paid to both the sound of his voice and the words he chooses. His voice should be neither rough nor too feminine. He should have a strong grasp of language and an ability to use it to charm and convince other people of his meaning.

The term grace is used often to describe how the courtier should act. One of the characters says:

Besides his noble birth, then, I would have the Courtier favoured in this regard also, and endowed by nature not only with talent and beauty of person and feature, but with a certain grace and (as we say) air that shall make him at first sight pleasing and agreeable to all who see him; and I would have this an ornament that should dispose and unite all his actions, and in his outward aspect, give promise of whatever is worthy the society and favour of every great lord.

Grace is a very important aspect for courtiers to have, as it seems to help display their other good qualities.

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The courtier to which Castiglione refers is the typical king's or queen's daily visitor or attendant. These are people whom the monarch trusts and interacts with on a daily basis. The monarch may use a courtier to confide a personal problem, to send secret messages, or to plan battles and wars. 

Courtiers visit the court (hence, their name) so often that they should already know how to behave gracefully, as people whose job is mainly to please the King. Also, courtiers could come from a range of backgrounds including the military, the clergy, or the nobility.

All this being said, imagine yourself visiting the Queen of England at her palace everyday. You will have to follow protocol, know what your place is, and also know what ticks or tickles Her Majesty. If you are a proper courtier nobody would have to tell you what to do, and you will shine bright. If you are not a proper courtier you may turn into the laughing stock of the palace.

To us, people who are not related to any nobility, the concept of the courtier may seem almost ridiculous. However, Castiglione is writing in a time and place where courtiers were equivalent of today's celebrities or politicians.

Therefore, according to the text, the courtier must demonstrate

  • a) decorum, or appropriate protocol behavior.
  • b) extreme discretion
  • c) trustworthiness
  • d) a comely shape of person and countenance
  • e) gracefulness

The courtier should also have a great sense of athleticism and sportsmanship. He should be versed in all sports such as swimming, jumping, running, and casting stones. Tennis and horseback riding are of similar importance. The implication of being capable of all of this is that the courtier has the physical strength and endurance to do it all. Therefore, the courtier is not only good looking, strong and interesting but also athletic and versed in many topics.

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