The Book of the Courtier was written by Count Baldassare Castiglione. Castiglione was a courtier himself, and his book is a description of court life under Guidobaldo Montefeltro, son of Federigo di Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino.
The discourse between the courtiers in the book is respectful and the tone is refined. All the conversationalists seem focused on demonstrating the qualities of grazia (grace) and humility through sprezzatura (nonchalance). Nonchalance here is the idea that art must be presented without drawing attention to the work involved in crafting it.
To Castiglione, a great orator is someone who can perform admirably without divulging (either through his words or behavior) the effort it takes to do so. In fact, Castiglione maintains that one must take care not to mistake affectation for nonchalance. In responding to Messer Bernard Bibbiena, Castiglione states that an obvious "striving" to appear nonchalant is just the opposite of what nonchalance is. So, when nonchalance or sprezzatura is of an affected nature, it is less than "becoming."
In the book, Castiglione provides a controversial example of affectation. He states that ladies who believe themselves unattractive often overdo their use of cosmetics. Castiglione asserts that the "artifice" of copious makeup is a form of affectation, which takes away from a lady's appearance of grace. The madonna Costanza Fregosa objects to Castiglione's depiction of feminine affectation, of course. However, Castiglione is not to be deterred. He maintains that a plain face or one with scant cosmetics betrays more grace than one laden with layers of paint.
To Gastiglione, a beautiful woman is one who is unconcerned about appearing beautiful. Her hair is "artlessly unadorned" and unconfined; she is unaffected in her gestures, her cheeks often tinged with a mere shadow of color whenever she is seized with emotion.
So, in daily living, the art of sprezzatura and grazia are of utmost importance. Included in the book is also an extended discussion about love. For example, messer Bernardo states that a gentle lover often endures many trials, perils, and dangers for his lady's sake. He does this not chiefly to possess her person but to earn her love. He maintains that a lady taken against her will cannot truly love the man who so abuses her. Thus, love potions and the use of force are anathema to true love.
Lord Gaspar, however, disagrees. He argues that a certain amount of artifice is necessary to win both the woman's mind and body. For his part, Bernardo refuses to engage with Lord Gaspar further, stating that the latter is a most "redoubtable warrior."
So, as a whole, the book is really a discussion of how grazia and sprezzatura are manifested in daily life.
*Urbino. City in central Italy that was the center of the duchy of Urbino, in whose court Castiglione’s dialogues are set. The duchy is a small state whose court is among the most splendid in central Italy during the period in which the dialogues are set. The Montefeltro family had ruled the city and its hinterland since 1374. Urbino’s small size and isolated location meant that its dukes derived at least part of their income from mercenary military service. The famous portrait of Federico da Montefeltro, father of the last Montefeltro duke, in which he sits in his simple study reading a large book while dressed in armor, sums up the family’s combination of the martial with the humanistic. Both his court and Castiglione’s participants reflect this dual ethic, one not unusual at similar courts of its time.
When Federico died his young son was but ten years old, thus unable to sign contracts for military service, and proved to be sickly. Castiglione sets the conversation in 1507, the year before the young duke’s untimely death. Thus, the last Montefeltro duke was still alive, though absent, and his court in decline. Early on, Castiglione touches on the theme of nostalgia for better days. The air in the mid-fifteenth century palace is...
(The entire section is 1,383 words.)