The Book of the Courtier

by Baldassare Castiglione

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Characteristics and individual qualities of the main characters in The Book of the Courtier


The main characters in The Book of the Courtier possess qualities such as grace, wit, and eloquence. They are well-versed in the arts, skilled in arms, and display moral integrity. These attributes embody the ideal Renaissance courtier, blending intellectual and physical prowess with virtuous conduct.

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What are the most prized characteristics of a courtier in The Book of the Courtier?

Count Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier (1528), as your question suggests, is a detailed discussion among a group of Italian aristocrats, ladies and gentlemen, about the physical and mental qualities of an ideal courtier in sixteenth century Italy, one who is both an ornament to his prince and a counselor.

If we were to encapsulate the qualities of the ideal courtier, we would describe him as something close to a "Renaissance Man," someone who is skilled at all physical activities, especially those dealing with military life, and, equally important, writing, speaking, music (singing and playing multiple instruments), swimming, dancing, fencing, horsemanship. In addition, he must be morally perfect, modest but brilliant, a font of wisdom for his prince, and he must be able to do everything brilliantly without appearing to have expended any effort—in Italian, the word is sprezzatura, the art of doing everything without trying hard.

The basic quality of the ideal courtier, one that causes a lot of complex discussion among the aristocratic group, is, not surprisingly, that he be of noble birth:

I wish, then, that this Courtier of ours should be of noble birth and of gentle race; because it is far less unseemly for one of ignoble birth to fail in worthy deeds. ... (I:14)

In short, a common person would not be embarrassed to fail, but a noble person would be horrified. We need to keep in mind that, because the people "creating" this ideal courtier are all nobles, they would naturally choose from their own class.

A second, but very important, characteristic is that the Courtier be a warrior:

... the principal and true profession of the Courtier ought to be that of arms; which I would have him follow actively above all else, and be known among others as bold and strong, and loyal to whomsoever he serves. (I:14)

In Italy in the sixteenth century, it was common for armies to be made up of mercenaries rather than citizen-soldiers, so the concept of loyalty "to whomsoever he serves" is important because the warrior is fighting for money, not ideals or conviction, and his loyalty is tied directly to his wallet.

But this courtier-warrior cannot just be a soldier, he must show moderation in all other pursuits:

Therefore let the man we are seeking, be very bold, stern, and always among the first, where the enemy are to be seen; and in every other place, gentle, modest, reserved, above all things avoiding ostentation and that impudent self-praise by which men ever excite hatred and disgust in all who hear them. (I:16)

A refrain that goes throughout the work is the emphasis on modesty in all things, and this modesty carries over to eating and drinking modestly so that the courtier is never accused of any kind of excess. His skills in all things physical and mental should be perfect, but he can never be seen or heard to express his superiority. Again, the concept of sprezzatura applies: perfect execution without apparent effort.

Throughout Book II, the aristocrats discuss the Courtier's language and writing ability at great length, going so far as to discuss the elements of Tuscan Italian that make it either a good or bad choice for the Courtier's dialect, and even discussing borrowing vocabulary from other languages:

In such fashion I would have our Courtier speak and write; and not only choose rich and elegant words from every part of Italy, but I should even praise him for sometimes using some of those French and Spanish terms that are already accepted by our custom. (II:32)

This is actually more remarkable than it may seem. In sixteenth-century Italy, and especially in Tuscany where this conversation occurs, various armies from France and Spain are engaged in "political" struggles in Italy, and for a Tuscan aristocrat to encourage the use of French and Spanish is, at the least, fair-minded and perhaps politically useful.

In Book IV, which is sometimes considered "tacked on" to the first three books as an afterthought—if so, it is a good one—Castiglione adds an important characteristic of the ideal Courtier, who will be able to guide his prince to goodness

... and thus be able always to disclose the truth about all things with ease; and also to instill goodness into his prince's mind little by little, and to teach continence, fortitude, justice, temperance. ... (IV:250)

In short, this ideal Courtier—in addition to being a perfect musician, rider, dancer, and warrior—can lead his prince to become, well, the ideal Courtier but with much more power. He can, if he moves quietly, help create the ideal ruler in the prince he serves, a far cry from the job description established in the early books.

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What are the most prized characteristics of a courtier in The Book of the Courtier?

The Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione serves to determine what qualities the perfect courtier would have. In several different sections, people examine different aspects of a person's character that determine whether a person would be a perfect courtier. Ultimately, the perfect courtier possesses characteristics that enable him to both serve his lord and make his lord appear even better than he would without the courtier.

Castiglione explains the perfect courtier, saying the form of courtiership is one "by which he may have the ability and knowledge perfectly to serve them in every reasonable thing, winning from them favour, and praise from other men." The perfect courtier has these qualities not for his own pleasure but for the pleasure of the one he serves.

Other qualities that Castiglione's characters find important include:

  • Gentle birth
  • Modesty
  • Grace
  • Morality
  • Calm
  • Eloquence
  • Athleticism
  • Affection and curiosity
  • Discretion
  • Honesty

They discuss whether a courtier needs to appreciate things like art and determine that the perfect courtier would indeed understand and appreciate art, literature, and music. He should also be healthy and athletic enough to serve his lord and engage in activities that bring them both favor. He should play games like dice but not only for money—and should be a good sport when he loses.

When they discuss how the courtier speaks, attention is paid to both the sound of his voice and the words he chooses. His voice should be neither rough nor too feminine. He should have a strong grasp of language and an ability to use it to charm and convince other people of his meaning.

The term grace is used often to describe how the courtier should act. One of the characters says:

Besides his noble birth, then, I would have the Courtier favoured in this regard also, and endowed by nature not only with talent and beauty of person and feature, but with a certain grace and (as we say) air that shall make him at first sight pleasing and agreeable to all who see him; and I would have this an ornament that should dispose and unite all his actions, and in his outward aspect, give promise of whatever is worthy the society and favour of every great lord.

Grace is a very important aspect for courtiers to have, as it seems to help display their other good qualities.

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What are the most prized characteristics of a courtier in The Book of the Courtier?

The courtier to which Castiglione refers is the typical king's or queen's daily visitor or attendant. These are people whom the monarch trusts and interacts with on a daily basis. The monarch may use a courtier to confide a personal problem, to send secret messages, or to plan battles and wars. 

Courtiers visit the court (hence, their name) so often that they should already know how to behave gracefully, as people whose job is mainly to please the King. Also, courtiers could come from a range of backgrounds including the military, the clergy, or the nobility.

All this being said, imagine yourself visiting the Queen of England at her palace everyday. You will have to follow protocol, know what your place is, and also know what ticks or tickles Her Majesty. If you are a proper courtier nobody would have to tell you what to do, and you will shine bright. If you are not a proper courtier you may turn into the laughing stock of the palace.

To us, people who are not related to any nobility, the concept of the courtier may seem almost ridiculous. However, Castiglione is writing in a time and place where courtiers were equivalent of today's celebrities or politicians.

Therefore, according to the text, the courtier must demonstrate

  • a) decorum, or appropriate protocol behavior.
  • b) extreme discretion
  • c) trustworthiness
  • d) a comely shape of person and countenance
  • e) gracefulness

The courtier should also have a great sense of athleticism and sportsmanship. He should be versed in all sports such as swimming, jumping, running, and casting stones. Tennis and horseback riding are of similar importance. The implication of being capable of all of this is that the courtier has the physical strength and endurance to do it all. Therefore, the courtier is not only good looking, strong and interesting but also athletic and versed in many topics.

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What are the most prized characteristics of a courtier in The Book of the Courtier?

Other answers here offer excellent ideas regarding the specific qualities a courtier ought to possess. A central concept of the Renaissance courtier is sprezzatura: an Italian word roughly meaning a studied nonchalance. This ideal of effortless-seeming excellence in multiple areas (politics, arts, society, etc.) insists on the courtier turning himself into a rhetorical object. By that, Castiglione suggests that the duty of the courtier is to "speak" eloquently and persuasively through multiple, non-linguistic as well as linguistic means. By turning oneself into a work of art, the courtier becomes indispensable in his domain. The emphasis here falls on turning oneself into a symbol of a certain type of person and lifestyle.

Today's highly self-aware world of social media seems to demand a comparable transformation of self into artifact of cultural values. The preening and staging that many people engage in on social media (that court of popular opinion, favor, or "likes") is designed to increase one's social capital and to keep eyes turned toward those most successful in manipulating these codes. Like sprezzatura, the effortlessness with which one presents one's skills (where the labor to perfect these talents occurs outside the eye of the camera) is something of a fiction or performance art.

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What are the most prized characteristics of a courtier in The Book of the Courtier?

In The Book of the Courtier, the courtier is evaluated by his outward appearance and demeanor. Succeeding as a courtier means projecting the right image. A courtier is expected to be well-dressed, articulate, athletic, easy to get along with, a good conversationalist, well-educated, and cultured. Most importantly, a courtier needs to make all of this look effortless. No matter how much he has practiced, whatever the courtier does must look spontaneous. This ability to carry oneself with ease and nonchalance is called sprezzatura. Today, we might call it being "cool" or "chill."

In today's world, we still place a high premium on projecting the right image in an effortless way. Prime examples of the courtier ethos can be seen today in politicians and high-end salespeople, such as art dealers and realtors. In those positions, perception is worth more than reality. But a courtier image can be important in other endeavors. Candidates for medical school need to exhibit a good bedside manner. Candidates to top colleges are most often expected to make it through an interview process: having top grades and SAT scores is not enough if social skills and an ability to present oneself well are lacking.

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What are the most prized characteristics of a courtier in The Book of the Courtier?

According to Castiglione, the courtier is essentially a master at pleasing, entertaining, understanding, advising, and speaking. He (for women were not given the same worth at court) is charismatic, physically appealing, and versed in both arts and athletics. Yet, he always remembers his position at court, and never tries to overshadow the higher-ranking aristocrat that he is expected to serve in a variety of ways: as a political advisor, as a social networker, as a counselor, as an entertainer to a point, and sometimes even as a friend.

To find those qualities in today's society one would probably have to observe any work environment where there is a hierarchy in place. From observing that, you would know whether the "courtiers" of today abide by the same guidelines of loyalty, or if they actually possess a true ability to serve in a multidisciplinary manner.

The closest approximation to a modern-day courtier would be the advisor of someone who truly holds power in an organization. It could be a business consultant, a vice-president, or just a commonplace sycophant who knows how to play the system and tap into the emotional needs of a weak leader.

Yet, some people who hold steady to a code of honor and who believe in loyalty and usefulness would show the basic qualities of the courtier in their everyday lives:

  • resourcefulness
  • ethical behavior
  • charisma
  • a sense of humor (a lighter side)
  • a positive attitude
  • an ability to guide and lead
  • excellent conversation skills
  • empathy
  • respect for self and others
  • goal-oriented
  • ability to multi-task
  • multitalented
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What individual qualities are given to the main characters in The Book of the Courtier?

The courtiers of the Renaissance period were expected to possess very specific characteristics. These characteristics were true to the ones exemplified by those who were chivalrous and courtly in both nature and behavior.

Baldassare Castigilione's The Book of the Courtier describes many different characteristics of the courtiers in the courts of the Duke of Urbino (when Castigilione was a part of the duke's court in 1507).

According to the book, one of the common characteristics of the courtier was the possession of an excellent voice. What this means is that the courtier's language was elevated (above that of the commoner), elegant, with beautiful tone and brave words.

Another characteristic of the courtier was a mastery of the arts. The courtier needed to know about all aspects of the classical, or fine, arts.

Over the course of the text, other attributes are named. A courtier must be both athletic and brave. They must also noble qualities, knowledge of love, and be humorous.

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