The Book of the Courtier

by Baldassare Castiglione

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Lady Elisabeta Gonzaga
The characters in The Book of the Courtier spend four evenings at Urbino in March, 1507, debating what makes the ideal courtier. The discussion is hosted by Lady Elisabeta Gonzaga, the duchess of Urbino, while the duke is on his deathbed. In spite of this circumstance, she's viewed as a genial, accommodating hostess.

Count Lewis of Canossa
Count Lewis of Canossa, a visiting diplomat, kicks things off on the first evening. He believes that the perfect courtier is smart, friendly, athletic, a gifted dancer, and of noble birth. These are qualities with which most of the rest of the party agrees.

Sir Frederick Fregoso and Bernard Bibinea
On the second evening, the discussion is led by Sir Frederick Fregoso, who shares his ideas on speech and behavior. A courtier himself (in addition to being a diplomat and a soldier), Sir Frederick feels that courtiers should be well-spoken, but should speak little and be humble. With regards to behavior, Sir Frederick urges courtiers to be self-aware; certain aspects of their performance, like singing, for example, should be reserved for the young. Also in attendance is Bernard Bibinea, a courtier and writer. He has a sharp wit and serves as the group's expert on humor.

Lord Julian de Medicis, Lady Emilia Pia, and Lord Gaspar Pallavicin
The third evening of discourse focuses on the role of women at court, and it's led not by a woman, but by Lord Julian de Medicis, who is living in temporary exile at Urbino. He thinks a "separate, but equal" policy is best when it comes to the sexes. Of all the women present, Lady Emilia Pia, the duchess' best friend and the widow of the ailing duke's bastard brother is the most outspoken. She's the first to defend women, and clashes with the party's resident pessimist, Lord Gaspar Pallavicin. Originally from Lombardy, Lord Gaspar is young, but sickly, and particularly cynical about women. While Lady Emilia fails to change his attitudes about the woman's role at court, she does cause him to clam up after the third evening.

Lord Octavian Fregoso and Pietro Bembo
The fourth and final evening of discussion covers two disparate topics: government and love. Lord Octavian Fregoso, originally of Genoa, is also living in temporary exile at Urbino. He believes the courtier's role as an adviser to his prince is often complicated by a prince's pride. The courtier, therefore, should deftly nudge his prince toward solid moral values. Poet and courtier Pietro Bembo then brings the four-day discussion to its conclusion by talking at length about the idea of Platonic love. He believes that passion is the pursuit of the young; mature courtiers should seek to understand the concept of beauty itself. If they can do that, they can reach an elevated state of consciousness and become closer to God.

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