Baldassare Castiglione (kahs-teel-YOH-nay) might himself have served as the model for the ideal gentleman he portrays in his most famous work, The Book of the Courtier. One of the most highly respected diplomats of Renaissance Italy, he followed his dictum that the courtier’s chief function is to render service to his prince. He was also a minor poet and a friend of many of the great artists, philosophers, and literary figures of his time.
Castiglione, who was born near Mantua in 1478, studied Greek and Latin with noted humanists and, like many other boys of good families, was sent to court to broaden his education under Lodovico Sforza, duke of Milan. There he might have met Donato Bramante, first architect of St. Peter’s in Rome, Leonardo da Vinci, and other well-known artists; he would certainly have learned of the more brutal aspects of Renaissance politics, for the rule of the Sforzas was never secure. In 1499, when Lodovico was imprisoned by the French, Castiglione returned to Mantua to the court of the Marquis Francesco Gonzaga and his wife, Isabella d’Este, another center of polished society. He fought under Gonzaga at the battle of Garigliano in 1503.
In 1504, Castiglione, attracted by the order and culture of the court of Urbino, one of the most stable of the Italian states, became a valuable member of the staff of its duke, Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, who entrusted him with a number of important diplomatic missions. Castiglione went to England in 1506 to accept the order of the garter, bestowed upon the invalid duke by King Henry VII. A special mission to Louis XII of France took him to Milan in the following year.
After Guidobaldo’s death, sometime between 1508 and 1516, Castiglione began The Book of the Courtier, attempting in it to capture the essence of the brilliant society which had gathered around the duke and his wife, Elisabetta Gonzaga, whose virtue and intelligence had inspired widespread admiration. However, the pressures of public service under Guidobaldo’s successor, his nephew, Francesco Maria della Rovere, the “Lord General” of The Book of the Courtier, hindered the progress of the book, and Castiglione was forced to lay it aside for several years. He served under della Rovere in the papal army that attacked Venice in 1509, participated in the siege of Mirandola in 1511, and was rewarded with a castle for his services in the campaign against the French at Bologna in 1513.
Castiglione represented Urbino at the papal court from 1513 to 1516, when Pope Leo X deposed della Rovere. He then returned to Mantua and, during the relatively quiet two years that followed, virtually completed his account of several evenings’ conversation at Urbino, a remarkable portrait of the wit, the culture, and the ideals of a vanished society.
Ippolita Torelli, a Mantuan lady, became Castiglione’s wife in 1516; she died only four years later, leaving her husband with three children. Castiglione was not long absent from public service; he returned to Rome as ambassador of the Gonzagas in 1519 and was sent by Pope Clement VII to the court of Emperor Charles V in 1525. He was bitterly chastised by Clement after Charles sacked Rome in 1527, but he was able to clear himself of any knowledge of the emperor’s plans in a long letter which still survives. He remained at his post in Spain until his death, in Toledo, in 1529.
Castiglione left, in addition to his most famous work, an eclogue, Tirsi, written while he was at Urbino, and several shorter poems, as well as a number of interesting letters. All of his writings reveal his deep appreciation of the arts that flourished during his lifetime as well as the wisdom and loyalty to his rulers that won him the respect of all who knew him.
Like the characters in his Book of the Courtier (1528), Baldassarre Castiglione spent most of his life working in the courts of Renaissance Italy. He is considered one of the most important prose writers of the period and one of the sharpest...
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