The Book of the Courtier

by Baldassare Castiglione

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The main themes of The Book of the Courtier are gender roles and political/social etiquette. Books One, Two, and Four define the rules of political and social etiquette for a male courtier, while Book Three discusses the rules of conduct for a noble lady.

Proper Social Etiquette
Books One, Two, and Four discuss how the male courtier should be a heroic warrior, a principled man, and learned academic. Outside of the arena of war, he should exemplify grace in all his actions. The Count of Canossa affirms the Renaissance archetype of the male courtier. He maintains that the male courtier must be proficient in hand-to-hand combat and in handling weapons of war (whether on foot or on a horse). The courtier must also not be overly "soft" or "effeminate"; certainly, he should refrain from using cosmetics to bolster his own attractiveness. Interestingly, the Count asserts that the perfect male courtier should neither be too tall or too short. He claims that these extremes serve the courtier poorly.

The count maintains that effeminate male courtiers are nothing more than "public harlots" who should be "driven not merely from the courts of great lords but from the society of honest men." His words affirm the traditional masculine stereotypes of the Renaissance. Since men are the leaders of the human race, they must exhibit all the virtues commensurate to their station in life.

Castiglione even argues that the male courtier has a grave responsibility towards his prince. In fact, the latter is obligated to use his intellectual gifts to guide the affairs of the state, particularly if his prince is in need of such guidance and will be open to it. In a conversation, messer Frederico maintains that a male courtier must leave the employ of a wicked prince before he sullies his own good name. He argues that integrity should guide a male courtier's actions, whether he serves a principled or wicked prince.

At this point, Lord Ludovico questions whether a courtier should obey every wish of a prince who treats him well. Frederico answers that every courtier must obey his prince in all things that are honorable and advantageous while refraining from those that bring "injury and disgrace." Yet, he maintains that every courtier should decide for himself whether disobeying his prince is worth the risk. In other words, a courtier can only guide his prince if the latter is open to guidance.

Gender Roles
Book Three discusses the traits a perfect female courtier should have. She should be prudent, kind, discreet, and industrious. She should also not be slanderous, vain, quarrelsome, and envious. Above all, she must (like the male courtier) exemplify grace in all her actions. The duchess, Elizabeth Gonzaga, also affirms the importance of physical beauty in a female courtier. She maintains that "beauty is more necessary to her than to the (male) Courtier, for in truth that woman lacks much who lacks beauty."

Here, Castiglione affirms Renaissance-era feminine stereotypes. In matters of the court, he suggests that strict gender roles facilitate harmonious discourse and mutually beneficial interactions.

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