The Book of the Courtier

by Baldassare Castiglione

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 212

The Book of the Courtier is a sixteenth-century courtesy book written by Baldassare Castiglione between 1513 and 1524. Essentially, this book tells a gentleman how to act. It is a mix of the chivalrous ideals of the medieval knight and the educational program of the humanists. The book is set in the salon of Duchess Elisabetta Gonzaga, the wife of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro. There, the dialogues of four successive evenings take place. Lady Emilia Pia is the moderator of the discussions. During a parlor game between Elisabetta's courtiers, the topic of discussion is decided. It is "to form in words a perfect courtier." The group of about twenty people sit in a circle and listen to a few main speakers talk, but they can interrupt to question and challenge the speakers' viewpoints.

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The first two books discuss the accomplishments of the ideal courtly gentleman and the circumstances in which he exhibits them. In book three, the formation of an ideal courtly woman is talked about. Finally, Pietro Bembo, a Venetian patrician, humanist, and historian, gives a lengthy discussion on Platonic love. The book finishes on a cheerful tone with laughter and teasing.

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Castiglione's book was considered a masterpiece in its time and quickly spread all over Europe. It influenced hundreds of other courtesy books.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1387

The duchess, Elisabetta Gonzaga, asks the gentlemen of the court to choose a topic of conversation for the evening’s entertainment. They settle on “what belongeth to the perfection of Courtiership.” The resulting conversation, with digressions, addresses that topic. Lewis, count of Canossa, begins the discussion.

His ideal courtier must be, he says, nobly born, with a pleasant disposition, wit, and “a comely shape of person and countenance.” Since his chief profession is to be a soldier, he needs training in all the skills that will make him an able warrior for his prince: riding, handling weapons of all sorts, wrestling, swimming, and other sports that increase strength and agility. The courtier also needs certain social talents, easy conversation, wit, the ability to dance, and, above all, a certain grace that makes all his activities seem effortless and unconscious.

The conversation turns to language, a burning issue in the Renaissance, when the vernaculars are struggling with Latin for supremacy. The count recommends that the courtier avoid using antiquated or unfamiliar words and that he take his vocabulary from those familiar Italian words “that have some grace in pronunciation.” Sir Frederick Fregoso argues that the count depends too much on custom; the courtier should shun “vices of speech,” even if they have been adopted by the multitude. The count concludes the argument by stating that it is the courtier’s knowledge, rather than his diction, that will ultimately be important. The first evening’s conversation ends with a brief consideration of the importance of a courtier’s having some skills in music and art.

On the second night Sir Frederick Fregoso is instructed to discuss the proper times and places for the courtier to exercise those virtues that are essential for him. Frederick points out that most of all an ideal gentleman needs discretion to determine when to speak, when to be silent, and how to act so as to win praise and avoid envy. Fregoso recommends “little speaking, much doing, and not praising a man’s own self in commendable deeds.” He cites as a bad example an uncouth courtier who on one occasion entertains a lady with a description of his prowess with a two-handed sword and terrifies her with a demonstration of various strokes.

All courtiers are expected to be able to entertain ladies gracefully, and the ability to sing is a particularly valuable accomplishment. Sir Frederick notes that a gentleman needs the wisdom to recognize that time in his life when his age makes it ludicrous for him to perform in public; if such a man must sing, let him do it privately.

This point leads to a general consideration of the proper demeanor for the young and the old. Fregoso praises mildness, deference, and hesitancy on the part of the fledgling courtier, but he suggests that the more restrained older man should strive for a little liveliness. A golden mean is the ideal.

After a serious discussion of the value of friendship with loyal, honorable men, Sir Frederick turns, at the request of the cynical Lord Gaspar Pallavicin, to a consideration of court entertainments. In this area, too, Fregoso pleads for moderation; too great a concern with dice or cards can become a vice, and a man could waste the better part of his days in becoming a brilliant chess player. The best entertainment comes from a courtier’s wit, as Castiglione shows by weaving into his narrative a number of anecdotes and “merry pranks.” M. Bernard Bibiena, who tells many of the witty tales, cautions the company to be mindful of the time, the place, and the individuals in jesting; maliciousness and cruelty should have no part in court life.

The conversation then turns to the character of women, whose honor and trustworthiness are wittily attacked by Lord Gaspar and defended by the Lady Emilia. Lord Julian de Medicis is instructed to imagine an ideal court lady for the next evening’s amusement. The position of women is eloquently defended in part 3; one of the gentlemen asserts that “no court, how great so-ever it be, can have any sightliness or brightness in it, or mirth without women, nor any Courtier can be gracious, pleasant or hardy, nor at any time undertake any gallant enterprise of Chivalry, unless he be stirred with the conversation and with the love and contentation of women.”

Lord Julian wants for his ideal woman sweetness, tenderness, and womanliness, a pleasing disposition, noble birth, and a certain amount of beauty; she needs the same virtues of courage, loyalty, and discretion that the courtier requires, and her position, too, could be enhanced by pleasant conversation and modesty. She needs to avoid that common feminine failing, a fondness for gossiping about other women. The ladies, as well as the gentlemen, of the court need some skill in the arts, so that they can dance, sing, or play musical instruments with ease. Lord Julian says that the court lady should at least be acquainted with literature and philosophy.

Lord Gaspar, who has injected antifeminist sentiments throughout Lord Julian’s discourse, scoffs at the notion of educated women and proclaims that the sex is an imperfection in nature. Lord Julian counters by enumerating those qualities in which he finds women superior to men and by relating stories of famous women in history.

Sir Frederick asks Lord Julian to consider what he thinks is most important for women: “what belongeth to the communication of love.” The latter answers that a lady must first distinguish between true and false protestations of affection. A good Christian, he can approve only of love that can lead to marriage. To the objection that an aged, unattractive, or unfaithful husband might justify favors to a lover, Lord Julian replies: “If this mishap chance to the woman of the palace, that the hatred of her husband or the love of another bendeth her to love, I will have her to grant her lover nothing else but the mind; not at any time to make him any certain token of love, neither in word nor gesture, nor any other way that he may be fully assured of it.”

The fourth part opens with a brief reflection on mortality. Castiglione relates the fates of members of the court of Urbino during the years between the nights he is describing and the time he completes his book. He turns then to the topic of the final evening’s discussion, the courtier’s role as adviser to his prince. Lord Octavian Fregoso points out that this role is often made difficult by the arrogance and pride of rulers, who consider that their power automatically brings wisdom. The courtier is obliged to lead his prince gently and subtly toward goodness, courage, justice, and temperance, mingling moral instruction with pleasure, one justification for the courtier’s acquiring skills in the “polite arts.” Lord Gaspar questions Fregoso’s basic premise, that virtue can be taught, but the latter affirms his conviction that if moral virtues are innate, a man would never become evil. Morality is acquired, rather than inborn, and education is therefore of inestimable value.

The discussion shifts to government itself, and arguments about the relative value of the kingdom and of the commonwealth are weighed. The group concludes that the rule of the virtuous prince, a man attuned to both the active and the contemplative life, is best. Lord Octavian suggests that a council of the nobility and a lower advisory house, chosen from the citizens of the land, might increase the virtue and knowledge of the prince; such a government would combine the best aspects of monarchy, aristocracy, and the commonwealth.

Finally, Pietro Bembo discourses on Platonic love. The passions of youth are unfitting for the older courtier; he has to recognize that all love is, in fact, a yearning for beauty, and he must raise his thoughts from admiration of a single lovely woman to contemplate the idea of beauty. Purified of his human faults by this contemplation, he can reach “the high mansion place where the heavenly, amiable and right beauty dwelleth, which lieth hidden in the innermost secrets of God.” Bembo’s discourse becomes more and more enraptured, and when he breaks off at last the others realize that it is daybreak. The courtiers and ladies disperse for the last time.

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