from Benet Davetian, The History and Social Relevance of Civility (c-2003)

Il Cortegiano – Balancing Courtesy and Integrity

The tensions between the crudity of political life in an increasingly commercial network of social relations and the ideal of esthetic excellence is noticeable in the content and tone of one of the seminal courtesy books of the Renaissance: The Book of the Courtier (Il Cortegiano) [1529], tr. Sir Thomas Hoby, 1974). Although medieval values of 'chivalry' had become nearly obsolete in the new urban economic climate, Baldasar Castiglione managed to revive the ideal of chivalric honor and style within the context of his times.

The Book of the Courtier became one of the Renaissance's most widely-read books and managed to leave an indelible imprint on the European aristocracies, including those of France and Britain. Although very briefly mentioned in Norbert Elias' Civilizing Process, The Book of the Courtier is one of the most important milestones in the development of a Western courtesy and civility tradition and deserves a fairly detailed description.

Castiglione himself was a courtier born to the rank of count and educated in the humanist schools of Milan and Mantua. He traveled to England and Spain as an emissary and acted as Pope Clement III's representative at the court of Emperor Charles V. His book was the outcome of ten years of experience as a courtier in the court of the Montefeltro family in Urbino. Castiglione was not only writing about the ideal courtier but also about his own fond recollections of life in the idyllic court of Guidobaldo Montefeltro, son of Federigo di Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. Federigo was known as a man of intense principles, even during his most brutal military campaigns. Presiding over a household of 500 people, he managed to create an environment in which modesty and honesty were considered cardinal virtues. He is reported to have never accepted the easy way out for himself and even refused a Church indulgence secured for him by a wellwisher, preferring instead to fast as prescribed with the members of his household. On matters of money he was repeatedly quoted as admonishing that a man's word was far more important than his wealth. In regards to learning he was very demanding of himself and his library contained all the books necessary for an orderly acquisition of learning. In matters of art, he was not only a patron but also an expert---he had a master's knowledge of sculpture and was adept at communicating with painters and bringing out the best in them. As the paternalistic administrator-ruler of Urbino, he was intensely respected, to the point of reverence; men and women were known to kneel when he passed in the streets, an honor which was not automatically accorded to the nobility. He made Urbino one of the most vital courts in Italy. His son continued his father's tradition; with his wife, Elisabetta Gonzaga, he provided Castiglione with an ideal court as the setting for his book on the art of courtly behavior.

Castiglione was writing at a time when gunpowder was decreasing the influence of the old nobility and replacing its political and moral voice with the absolutism of central monarchies. So there is a wistful, ironic tone to the work. It is not only a book of conduct but a book of autobiographical remembrance of Italy prior to the destabilizing invasion of the French (Burke, 1995: 34-35).

The Book of the Courtier is an excellent example of ideal discourse between men and women of honor. As impressive as the content of the dialogs is the fact that the speakers have found a pleasant and fair way of relating to one another. The tone of the work, is in itself an important part of the author's message to the reader who is given a double opportunity---to see courtiers in pleasant and meaningful discourse with one another and to hear each of them speak of the personal qualities necessary to the ideal courtier. There is something original here. Ideal mannerisms are not denied, but added to them now is the ideal of an opinionated and intelligent conversation that is not at all limited by ecclesiastical dogma or the artifice of aristocratic pretension.
One theme appears repeatedly in the four books of The Book of the Courtier: the theme of 'honor.' Virtue and honor are no longer a duty to God, but a responsibility towards one's own self as well as the self of others. The prescriptive quality of medieval religious devotion is transformed into a self-regulated ethic. This double loyalty to self and others is noticeable in the manner in which the participants in the book take great pains not to appear pedantic or to insult one another with assertions that are emotionally forceful. There is an effort to harmonize opposing motivations: duty towards the community of court and the need to be true to one's self. The book was an important milestone in the rationalization of individuality and in the personalizing (as opposed to theologizing) of virtue.

The book consists of dialogues between guests at the court of Urbino held over a period of four evenings during the frequent presence of the Duchess of Urbino. The dialogues begin when one of the guests suggests that, to pass the time in some meaningful way, they the guests converse with one another and arrive at a consensus regarding what is meant by an 'ideal courtier.'

Castiglione's treatment of courtesy differs considerably from that of his predecessors. Neither brute force nor the mixing of force and piety favored by the medieval romances is sufficient for the making of a courtier. Considerably more is required, The ideal courtier is to blend the graceful and the sec manner as to become an unassuming, courageous individual committed to justice, truth, and wise counsel, yet never given to boasting about his accomplishments or appearing greedy for rewards. Discretion and self-dismissal, even in the presence of great personal worth and accomplishments, is the special talent of Castiglione's courtier.

Grazia (grace) is not presented here with its religious overtones, but as a quality tempered by gravitas (dignity), for these two qualities assure a courtier that his speech does not seem affected or forced. The art of personality presentation must remain unnoticeable, not because of deceitful motives but because of the natural 'bearing' appropriate to a refined courtier, a bearing designed not to cause offence to others. Castiglione admonishes his courtier to
''Avoid affectation in every way possible....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' (Book I, 43).'

There is a strong correlation between Castiglione's preference for lack of ostentation (sprezzatura) and the Aristotelian ideal of the golden mean, an ideal that was the basis of Cicero's Orator, a work urging men of proper bearing to exhibit a 'purposeful negligence' (neglegentia diligens) in order to create the impression that ideas interested them more than the artifice of style (Burke, 1969: 11). This studied spontaneity (all'improviso) was also a cherished theme in Ovid who advised young men at court to cultivate a casual look of neglect (forma viros neglecta decet) in order to exude self-confidence.

Petrarch and Alberti had affirmed their belief in the human will and Castiglioni furthered that belief by arguing that only through a disciplined application of willful intent could the ideal courtier manage to consistently speak the type of truths that would allow him to become a trusted and useful advisor in court. The questioning of self that appears later in the Protestant and Puritan writings is already present here in Castiglione's work, although it is remarkably free of religious references. Like Machiavelli, Castiglione is not speaking of the prescribed Christian 'virtues' but of 'virtue' as a state of being. He defines men of honor as
''...those men who, even when they think they will not be observed or seen or recognized by anyone, show courage and are not careless of anything, however slight, for which they could be blamed... (Book I, 33).'

What is noteworthy about Castiglione's commentary and the dialogues of the people he quotes is his departure from writers such as Alberti who accorded the woman status only as a mother and an efficient manager of her household. Most certainly due to the influence of the well-bred and cultured Duchess of Urbino, Castiglione accords men and women of court similar responsibilities. The donna di palazzo is encouraged to share in her husband's interests in culture and the arts; she is identified as a gentle moderating force capable of bringing harmony and a pleasant disposition to the ambiance of the court. As a tempering force in the court she is to be without equal, as seemed to be the Duchess Elisabetta Gonzaga who occasionally steps in and very gently calms discussions that are becoming heated. That the book received an enthusiastic welcome in European courts where women were increasingly holding influence is quite understandable.

While Castigliano did not sanction the despotic regimes that had sprung up in Italy, he did favor a monarchical system that would limit greed and administer policy through democratic assemblies. He was a pragmatist for he was not overly disturbed by the presence of vice in the courts. He explains that virtue could not exist without vice, nor justice without injustice, and considered the truly competent courtier as a stabilizing force: 'I hold that the principal and true profession of the Courtier must be that of arms; which I wish him to exercise with vigor; and let him be known among the others as bold, energetic, and faithful to whomever he serves (Book I, 32)....Let the man we are seeking be exceedingly fierce, harsh, and always among the first, wherever the enemy is; and in every other place, humane, modest, reserved, avoiding ostentation above all things as well as that impudent praise of himself by which a man always arouses hatred and disgust in all who hear him (33-34).'

Yet, he qualifies this military competence by adding that learning is the pre-requisite of gentility: ''...to separate thoughts from words is to separate soul from body: in neither case can it be done without destruction....what one has to say and write must be given a good order. It must then be well expressed in words, which words (if I am not mistaken) must be proper, select, lustrous, and well formed, but above all be words which are still used by the people (54).' In any case, any learning possessed by the courtier must be expressed in an appropriate manner if it is to have any worthwhile effect: 'But all this would be empty and of little moment if the thoughts expressed by the words were not fine, witty, acute, elegant, and solemn, according to the need' (55).'

Castiglione offers no specific rules for the development of such wit. Instead, he asserts that wit is the property of an intelligent mind and the outcome of discipline and commitment: 'Thus, good usage in speech, as I believe, springs from men who have talent, and who through learning and experience have attained good judgment, and who thereby agree among themselves and consent to adopt those words which to them seem good (58).'

In Castiglione's ideal court, the courtier creates his self in conjunction with others and is, therefore, subject to the influence of the behavior of others. Even witty dialogue is a means by which the courtier can read the personality of others while developing his own persona (Book II, 172-175). Despite such imitative learning, he must always proceed from some inner standard that protects him from being forced to act against his own conscience and self-interest. In effect, Castiglione is speaking of a 'quiet' confidence that needs not prove itself in every case.

Castiglione is describing a new standard for courtly life: in addition to the respect and deference shown by courtiers towards their prince, all members of the court must show a similar mutual deference towards one another. He does not hold the ruler free from such a requirement: '...among the many faults that we see in many of our princes nowadays, the greatest are ignorance and self-conceit....' (Book IV, 290). Castiglione seems not to be speaking against monarchy itself, but against the monarch whose rashness makes him unworthy of his position (303). As for the role of the courtier in court, it is an infinitely delicate one. He is to be effortlessly discreet and affable but must consciously ensure that the ruler does not make decisions opposed to the welfare of the realm: 'You ought to obey your lord in all things profitable and honorable for him, not in those that will bring him harm and shame' (Book II, 117). However, any opposition that the courtier registers towards the ruler must be done so with utmost tact: '...when he [the courtier] sees the mind of his prince inclined to a wrong action, he may dare to oppose him and in a gentle manner avail himself of the favor acquired by his good accomplishments, so as to dissuade him of every evil intent and bring him to the path of virtue (Book IV, 289).'

As for the courtier's family pedigree, it is best that he come from a noble family, mainly because someone of common rank may not be sufficiently motivated to develop the many qualities required of a competent courtier: '...the lowly born, they lack that spur, as well as that fear of dishonor, nor do they think themselves obliged to go beyond what was done by their forebears; whereas to the wellborn it seems a reproach not to attain at least to the mark set them by their ancestors (Book I, 28).
It is noteworthy that the Church is almost never mentioned in the entire text of The Book of the Courtier. When the publisher's censor examined the book, he removed the word fortuna (fortune or luck) because of its secular undertones and replaced it with the word 'God.' But with this small exceptionn, there is a remarkable degree of 'self-determination' in Castiglione's text. Although he encourages the individual to learn from a master, he qualifies the master as someone of deservedly superior knowledge rather than someone who speaks in the name of authority.

The relevance of the work is best appreciated if we remember that Renaissance Italy was intensely involved in a dialogue between extremes. In art, for example, there was a tension between naturalism and idealism, order versus grace, and opulence versus simplicity. What distinguished the personages who appeared in Castiglione's work was their ability to understand the qualities of each extreme and their willingness to build a composite of an ideal courtier able to avoid excesses while being refined, discerning and influential. This avoidance of extreme positions helped the courtier deal with a variety of princely characters. He was able to remain unwavering when faced with two totally different rulers: one who only wished compliments, and another so arrogant and haughty that he wished neither compliments nor advice. The courtier was admonished not to forget his real task: to guide the undecided prince towards firm and realistic government while encouraging the inflexible ruler to adopt a just and dialogical relationship with his subjects. Castiglione's courtier was, therefore, not only a servant of the state, but a prime mover capable of influencing the course of history.

Repeatedly, the notions of 'discipline' and 'honor' come up in the various passages of the book. Honor is presented not as unquestioning loyalty towards a lord or church, but as a 'sensible' attitude held by the courtier towards himself. 'Discipline' is not force over others, but a tempering influence on self. Here we have the emergence of an individuality that is quite different from the 'all for one' mentality of the Arthurian legends. The ideal Renaissance courtier recognizes that he is bound by codes of deference towards whomever he is serving; yet, at the same time, he remains loyal to his own sense of right and wrong, and, must, consequently, respect his own values during his interactions with his equals and superiors.

Peter Burke, who has written a seminal book on the reception received by The Book of the Courtier, has discussed the ambiguity of the work and the positive manner in which it was received in Italy and abroad precisely because of its ambiguity (Burke, 1995). Burke explains that Castiglioni tried to show someone to act gracefully, something that is nearly impossible to teach through the dispensation of a few rules; he conveyed the sentiment of grace through the manner in which he organized the content and tone of the dialogues of his characters. And he managed to write in a tone that would not offend those at court who presumed to already know what he was teaching---the playful tone of the book kept it from sounding like a patronizing tome (1995: 32). It also softened the underlying purpose of the book: to promote a model of rational and intellectual debate that was considerably different from medieval discourse.

Castiglione's book was widely welcomed and found its way into most European courts. It achieved such success because it presented a composite of a courtier that could be adapted to the particular court systems of different European monarchies. Not only was the book a treatise on the behavior of an ideal courtier, but, just as importantly, it was a meditation on the meaning of a graceful life. It was this idealization of 'grace' (grazià) and unaffected self-confidence that attracted members of the noble class who began using the book as a behavioral guide.

Unlike Capellanus, who wrote of a very distinct personality suited to a theologically-bound knightly culture, Castiglione managed to write a work which was in many ways universal and not limited to a particular epoch or region. In effect, he managed to build a bridge between the world of humanism and the world of courtly intrigue, finding some meeting point that could turn the process of membership in court elites into a morally and aesthetically satisfying one despite the rampant injustices of absolute monarchies. A series of works in Spain, Poland, Portugal and France imitated the format of The Book of the Courtier; the themes of honorable behavior and a studied natural demeanor appeared frequently in the courtesy literature that followed Castiglione's work. By 1625, there were more than 900 courtesy works published in Europe and more than 800 directed at women on the subject of the ideal Renaissance lady (Kelso, 1929).