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...
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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 among highly civilized people. Frederick Fregoso, who leads the discussion on the second evening, is especially concerned with metaphor, irony, and other figures of speech. It is not necessary, however, to know the names of all the rhetorical figures. It is enough to realize that Castiglione is not digressing or contradicting himself when he piles figure on figure and story on story; he is representing the twists and turns of a conversation.
Those twists and turns can be tiresome for modern readers who want to get on with the story. The Book of the Courtier is less a story about four evenings in Urbino than a book of stories about the courtly or courteous life. The chief method of proof that the various speakers use is the illustrative anecdote or exemplum, and there are even examples of good and bad practical jokes as the second evening draws to an uproarious end. Castiglione’s model here may be TheDecameron (1349-1351) by the great Italian storyteller Giovanni Boccaccio, a tale about people who tell tales. Castiglione’s tales are in summary form, many of them no longer than a paragraph; they never use the street language that makes Boccaccio’s tales so vivid, but they say much about the tellers. In the dedication to the bishop of Viseu, Castiglione rejects the comparison to Boccaccio that readers immediately made. His most fully realized characters, such as Emilia and Julian, nevertheless step out of the pages and live on their own. The advantage of a dialogue is that many points of view can be expressed, even if some are put down.
The villain in the piece is the sickly young Gaspar Pallavicin, who is thoroughly cynical about men and especially cynical about women. His views are barely tolerated, but they are forcefully expressed and belong to The Book of the Courtier as much as Bembo’s encomium on love. Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier is inevitably paired with Machiavelli’s The Prince, not only because the prince needs the courtier but also because idealism needs an antidote of realism. The Elizabethans saw the two works as poles apart. They coined the term “Machiavellian” to describe the rogues they feared in politics and cultivated the ideals of courtesy in the heroic courts of Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590, 1593, 1598) and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596).