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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 5 - Renaissance Literature 


The Courtier

In the United States, political figures serve an administration; in Renaissance Europe, political figures and those who aspired to a career in public life served in or around a court. Court conduct became the measure of proper behavior: so powerful was this association that English still defines good manners as "courtesy."

Although today courtiers are archaic, in the Renaissance, the courtier embodied the era's standard of excellence. No one articulated that standard better than Baldesar Castiglione (1478-1529). In his youth, Castiglione received a classical education; in his teens, Castiglione entered the service of some of the great princes of his day, becoming a member of several different Italian courts, just as an ambitious young American attends college in order to prepare for a career. Most of his life was spent as a diplomat in the service of the Duke of Urbino. While representing the Duke in Rome, Castiglione became a friend of many of the great artists of his time, notably Raphael and Michelangelo.

Although political upheavals complicated his life, the book Castiglione wrote about court life, The Courtier, was not bitter; rather, the work has an undercurrent of sadness. Instead of analyzing the struggle for power, Castiglione portrayed an idealized Urbino, creating an imaginary set of conversations conducted by several friends in Urbino's court. To pass the time, these elegant and eloquent courtiers compete with each other to describe the perfect courtier. By exercising their intellectual freedom in this way, Castiglione's courtiers teach his readers how to cope in a real world rife with despotism. Play, laughter, and style can provide a spiritual release when no political release is in sight.

Since the book is a dialogue, as in a play, different points of view co-exist; instead of offering instructions to a prince on how to rule a people, Castiglione's courtiers speculate on how men--and women--might best rule themselves. Like Machiavelli, Castiglione attaches importance to self-image and believes that all courtiers should cultivate the ability to play a variety of roles. More specifically, an age that celebrates human achievement celebrates art and therefore one should try to make one's life a work of art. To Castiglione, all human beings could be like actors, molding themselves upon the stage of the world by studying their parts carefully.(1)

Probably the most famous idea to emerge from the conversation in The Book of the Courtier is the notion of sprezzatura, defined in the following passage which considers the grace that marks all the actions of the ideal courtier. The translation is by Charles S. Singleton.

From Book I, Chapters 25 and 26

"I am not bound," said the Count, "to teach you how to acquire grace or anything else, but only to show you what a perfect Courtier ought to be. . . . I have found quite a universal rule which in this matter seems to me valid above all others, and in all human affairs whether in word or deed: and that is to avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some very rough and dangerous reef; and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it. And I believe much grace comes of this: because everyone knows the difficulty of things that are rare and well done; wherefore facility in such things causes the greatest wonder; whereas, on the other hand, to labor and, as we say, drag forth by the hair of the head, shows an extreme want of grace, and causes everything, no matter how great it may be, to be held in little account.

Therefore we may call that art true art which does not seem to be art; nor must one be more careful of anything than of concealing it, because if it is discovered, this robs a man of all credit and causes him to be held in slight esteem. And I remember having read of certain most excellent orators in ancient times who, among the other things they did, tried to make everyone believe that they had no knowledge whatever of letters; and, dissembling their knowledge, they made their orations appear to be composed in the simplest manner and according to the dictates of nature and truth rather than of effort and art; which fact, had it been known, would have inspired in the minds of the people the fear that they could be duped by it.

So you see how art, or any intense effort, if it is disclosed, deprives everything of grace...."

From Book III, Chapters 4 and 5

". . . I hold that many virtues of the mind are as necessary to a woman as to a man; also, gentle birth; to avoid affectation, to be naturally graceful in all her actions, to be mannerly, clever, prudent, not arrogant, not envious, not slanderous, not vain, not contentious, not inept, to know how to gain and hold the favor of her mistress and of all others, to perform well and gracefully the exercises that are suitable for women. And I do think that beauty is more necessary to her than to the Courtier, for truly that woman lacks much who lacks beauty.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

"Leaving aside, then, those virtues of the mind which she is to have in common with the Courtier (such as prudence, magnanimity, continence, and many others), as well as those qualities that befit all (such as kindness, discretion, ability to manage her husband's property and house and children, if she is married, and all qualities that are requisite in a good mother), I say that, in my opinion, in a Lady who lives at court a certain pleasing affability is becoming above all else, whereby she will be able to entertain graciously every kind of man with agreeable and comely conversation suited to the time and place and to the station of the person with whom she speaks, joining to serene and modest manners, and to that comeliness that ought to inform all her actions, a quick vivacity of spirit whereby she will show herself a stranger to all boorishness; but with such a kind manner as to cause her to be thought no less chaste, prudent, and gentle than she is agreeable, witty, and discreet ...."

Questions for Discussion

  1. How is the "truest" art defined here? Why should one want to disguise the effort it takes to do something well?
  2. Castiglione devotes the third book of The Courtier to "the woman question," in an extended debate on the moral, social, and political status of women that ranges from the most enlightened to the most repressive points of view. How does the view of women expressed here compare with those expressed in Petrarchan sonnets?
  3. Do you agree that it is more important for a woman to be physically attractive than for a man?
  4. Why should it be more important for a woman than for a man to be pleasant to every sort of person?


(1) Not surprisingly, amoung their many other accomplishments, Machiavelli and Castiglione each wrote a play, the literary form which literally and most fully dramatized the complex Renaissance view of the interrelationship of life and art.