Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier was one of the most widely read books in sixteenth century Europe. Noblemen and poets looked upon it as a portrait of the ideal man of the Renaissance, and such men as Sir Philip Sidney are said to have modeled themselves on Castiglione’s imaginary courtier. There is, perhaps, no finer or more appealing picture of life in the Italian Renaissance than that in The Book of the Courtier. Castiglione had a brilliant dramatic gift that enabled him to bring to life his friends at Urbino and to express their ideals clearly and powerfully in natural, rapidly moving dialogue.
The Book of the Courtier became a handbook for the English gentleman. Queen Elizabeth’s teacher, Roger Ascham, said a young man could learn more by reading the book than he would by spending three years in Italy. It seems ironic that Castiglione should find his most enthusiastic readers in England, for he distances himself from the original conversation in Urbino by pretending to have been in England at the time. His name appears in the dialogue only because he sends a glowing report about the education of Prince Henry, the future Henry VIII and the father of Elizabeth I.
Castiglione wrote The Book of the Courtier between 1508 and 1518. He kept adding to the text for another decade, during which it circulated among courts in the city states of what became Italy. Only when he got word of the circulation of an unauthorized copy did he finally prepare the text for publication. He presented specially bound volumes to surviving members of the group featured in the book. The group had gathered at the Palace of Urbino in March, 1507. The courtly ideal (or ideology) that Castiglione upheld was already dead in the Italian-speaking world, replaced by the power politics of the Medicis as described in Il principe, 1532 (The Prince, 1640) by Niccolò Machiavelli. Castiglione’s son was forced to remove jokes about monks in order to keep later editions from being banned by the Catholic Church. Castiglione found an appreciative audience in England when Thomas Hoby translated the text.
Castiglione presents the book as an extended treatise for Alfonso Ariosto, a relative of the epic poet Ludovico Ariosto. In the opening of the first book, he addresses Alfonso directly, responding to his friend’s request for an account of the ideal life at court. Rather than offer his own opinion, he says he is repeating what he heard about a famous exchange at Urbino. He says he is following classical tradition, and his closest model is Cicero’s account of the ideal orator in De oratore (55 b.c.e.; On Oratory, 1742), also set as a dialogue in the past. Indeed, the courtier seems to be the Renaissance equivalent of the ancient Roman orator, a man of knowledge, influence, and eloquence. When Castiglione addresses Alfonso more briefly, at the outset of each succeeding book, he offers rhetorical proofs that public life is no worse in the Renaissance than it was in antiquity, that it has reached its recent perfection at the court of Duke Guidobaldo, and that it may again flourish at Urbino. Each major speaker gives a rhetorical declamation; together the speakers argue what a courtier should be, how he should act, how he should advise the prince, and what his female counterpart should be like.
The rules of the discussion that Lady Elisabetta proposes are the rules of rhetoric, as well as the rules of good manners, and everyone observes them. The rhetorical dimension of The Book of the Courtier was unmistakable to readers in the sixteenth century, when classical rhetoric was a central subject of education. Much of the dramatic interest, in what might easily have become a series of set speeches, derives from the rhetorical moves that the speakers make as they offer to be concise or beg each other to continue, as they challenge each other and reply to the challenges. Much of the pleasure that readers have had with the book is that of hearing genuine conversation...
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