The Book of the Courtier

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The Book of the Courtier

by Baldesar Castiglione


A manual in the form of a dialogue set at the court of the Duke of Urbino in 1507; published in Italian (as Libro del cortegiano) in 1528, in English in 1561.


Fictional conversations detail the qualities and the conduct of the perfect courtier and define his relationship with his colleagues and his prince.

Events in History at the Time of the Dialogue

The Dialogue in Focus

For More Information

Baldesar Castiglione was born in 1478 at Casatico near Mantua, in the region of Lombardy, to an aristocratic family’s (his mother was related to the illustrious Gonzaga dynasty, which ruled the region). He received a traditional humanistic education in Milan, then was drawn by family’s connections into courtly life. At 21, Castiglione replaced his recently deceased father as a diplomat and military officer at the court of Francesco Gonzaga in Mantua. In 1504 the young courtier moved to Urbino, where he served under Guidobaldo da Montefeltro (1472–1508), holding a semi-military post and carrying out diplomatic missions to Rome and abroad. Castiglione remained at the service of the Urbino rulers until 1516, when he rejoined the Gonzaga court in Mantua. In 1524 Pope Clement VII appointed him as nuncio (papal ambassador) and sent him to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, in Madrid. In his post at the Spanish court, Castiglione witnessed the growing tension between the pope and the emperor. In 1528 while negotiating a reconciliation between the two powers, Castiglione was made Bishop of Avila. A year later he died of plague in Toledo, leaving behind his most renowned work, The Book of the Courtier (1528), which soon became a popular handbook for European civility. Castiglione authored other, minor writings belonging to the conventional genres of courtly literature, including the dramatic eclogue Tirsi (performed in 1506), a celebration of the Duchess of Urbino and her circle. He also wrote a eulogy extolling a former patron—De vita et gestis Guidubaldi Urbini ducis (The Life and Deeds of Guidobaldo, Duke of Urbino); the text memorializes him in idealized fashion, as an enlightened ruler endowed with moral virtues who excels as a soldier, statesman, scholar, and patron of the arts. Serving such rulers were attendants like Castiglione, whose duties might encompass both diplomatic and literary activities, and whose profession could lead to upward mobility in Renaissance society. The Book of the Courtier is a conduct manual for this profession.

Events in History at the Time of the Dialogue

Courts and courtiers in Renaissance Italy

According to a guide of 1603 called Iconologia (“Moral Emblems”) by Cesare Ripa, a court was a “company of well-bred men” summoned to work for a distinguished lord, who rewarded them with protection and patronage. Structured around the ruler, the courtly entourage consisted of his family’s, associates, and servants, as well as writers and artists. The ruler drew from a pool of relatives and associates to staff his administration, which governed in conjunction with an ongoing state bureaucracy. Government bodies appear to have been informal, without clear boundaries between a court and the state’s ongoing bureaucracy. The court, however, was a world apart.

Mostly it insulated itself from the outside world. In The Book of the Courtier, the conversations are held among a select circle of cultivated noblemen and ladies in the magnificent halls of the Urbino palace, carefully shielded from any contact with the town. By separating himself from his citizens, a prince gained an aura of superiority, meanwhile protecting his government from civic scrutiny. The performance of courtly rituals and etiquette served to enhance the prestige and authority of his entourage, setting them apart from the general populace.

The court apparatus was formidable. In addition to household officers to serve a prince’s needs, his attendants included counselors and officials who relied on the personnel of the different chanceries when performing their duties. Three main departments in the court handled administrative business: a chancery directed by a secretary, a department of justice under a magistrate, and a treasury and financial department headed by a treasurer-accountant. At least two other key professionals served in administrative capacities: a secretary who functioned as public relations manager and a scholar who worked as historian and genealogist to commemorate and extol the ruling family’s accomplishments. The secretary helped glorify his prince through written works that celebrated him or through proposals for projects to be executed by court artists. As a trusted adviser, he often oversaw government business and performed specific administrative duties as well. Secretaries and scholars at court commonly took an active role in politics. They could replace a member of their prince’s aristocracy on administrative bodies or provide service as diplomats. As the prince’s representatives, they helped contain the influence of local nobility. In 1516 Lodovico Alamanni, a Florentine adviser to Lorenzo de’ Medici (Lorenzo il Magnifico’s grandson), warned him against the nobility’s aspirations for freedom from his control. To subdue this resistance to his power, Lorenzo was advised to strip the most prominent citizens of their republican aspirations, demoting them “into such courtiers as might be useful to him,” and recasting them into “secretaries, agents, delegates, ambassadors” (Bertelli, p. 29).

The size of a court was not always indicative of the actual political power of the state or ruler that supported it. A larger “family’s” of courtiers and servants allowed for a more diversified employment of its members. The court of Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, numbered some 800 until his death in 1540, when his brother, Cardinal Ercole, curbed expenses by reducing it to 350. The entourage of lesser lords was even smaller, but still impressive. In his handbook on De cardinalatu (1510; The Cardinalate), Paolo Cortesi stated that a cardinal’s court should comprise 60 gentlemen attendants and 80 servants. A few decades later, Cola da Benvenuto, in his manual, Del governo della corte d’un Signore di Roma (1543; The Government of a Roman Lord’s Court), claimed that the “family’s” or household of a lord should number “one hundred and seven [members], with a stable of forty horses; which I deem to be very suitable, neither too large nor too small” (Cola da Benevento, p. 6; trans. A. Baldi). These officials were entrusted with the “internal organization of the palace, administration of revenue, and the application of justice in what were known as ‘lesser causes’—that is, actions brought between fellow subordinates of the signore [gentleman] or between them and outsiders” (Bertelli, p. 8). No matter the size, court society strove for excellence in various pursuits, including learned and spectacular endeavors, which were considered effective propaganda tools. The prince generally reinforced his authority by holding elaborate festivals and ceremonies; showcases of his wealth and generosity, such fanfare served to fascinate his subjects and to maintain the nobility’s allegiance to the prince.

The court of Urbino

In former days, lords compensated their courtiers with personal privileges; by Castiglione’s day, courtiers received salaries. But often a courtier’s income failed to meet his needs or expectations. At Urbino, Duke Federico da Montefeltro (ruled 1444–1482) hired Gianmario Filelfo to teach his young son Guidobaldo Latin and Greek. In May 1478 Filelfo wrote to the Marquis of Mantua asking to enter his service and maintaining that he had “a lot of expenses, with sixteen to feed”: one may infer that he was unhappy with his compensation at Urbino, though the duke is said to have generally spent a great deal of money on patronage (Clough, pt. 8, p. 133). As a patron of the arts, he bestowed commissions on renowned painters and architects (Piero della Francesca, Melozzo da Forli, and Luciano Laurana). His appreciation of oil painting even led him to commission work from prominent foreign artists (for example, the Flemish Justus of Ghent and the Spaniard Pedro Berruguete).

Federico da Montefeltro could afford to spend lavishly. He was a foremost condottiere (military leader) of his day, and naturally those who required his services (which included the raising of armed forces) paid handsomely. Apparently he amassed quite a fortune. He had various estates in his territory, and every town there made him an annual grant. By conservative estimates Federico’s income must have run around 50,000 ducats a year, “an enormous sum, when one considers that … the Doge of Venice [received] 3,000 ducats a year, and the total revenues (not profits) of prosperous merchants, bishops and cardinals were rarely 20,000 ducats a year” (Clough, pt. 8, pp. 130–131). Such wealth permitted him to spare his citizens heavy taxes and to launch magnificent civic projects. His most audacious endeavor was surely the splendid Ducal Palace, designed by Luciano Laurana and Francesco di Giorgio Martini of Siena, and endowed with a library of precious manuscripts. Here, as Castiglione recounts, “at great expense, he [Federico] collected many very excellent and rare books in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, all of which he adorned with gold and silver” (Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, p. 11).

In 1482, when Federico died, his son Guidobaldo was just ten. He grew to adulthood around the same time as Castiglione. The young duke soon faced financial burdens from palace construction and maintenance, resources were becoming scarce, and, unlike his father, he could not afford generous patronage or rare library acquisitions. Guidobaldo’s failure to pay the contracted wage helps explain why Castiglione was often forced to ask his mother and closest friends for loans.


The Treaty of Lodi, signed on April 9, 1454, ended a lengthy period of rivalries and strife on the Italian peninsula. By means of this treaty and the new Italian League (formed to restore peace), the main Italian states—Naples, the Papal States, Florence, Venice, and Milan—hoped to establish stable relations. Although constantly under strain, the peace was preserved until the last decade of the century, when the peninsula fell subject to the ambitions of foreign powers competing for its control. Uncertainty about their political and economic future did not seem to dampen the Italian ruling elite’s sense of superiority over foreign powers, which only made brutal clashes with them more traumatic. In 1494 the troops of French king Charles VIII swept through the peninsula to conquer Naples, which they held only temporarily. In 1504, in another serious threat to the peninsula, the Spanish troops of Ferdinand the Catholic seized Naples. The move stirred fierce international competition for control of the Italian states between the Valois monarchs of France and the Habsburgs, whose vast empire stretched from Spain and its Italian possessions to Burgundy, the Netherlands, and Austria. In May 1527 troops fighting for the Habsburg leader Charles V stormed into Rome and sacked the city, their conquest shattering the Italian sense of superiority and invulnerability. In 1524, Castiglione himself worked to prevent such a calamity when the pope in Rome (Clement VII) sent him to Charles V in Madrid to ease the escalating tensions.

Living at court could ensure nobles and scholars various advantages beyond prestige and financial rewards. The career of Pietro Bembo is a case in point. After his first stay as a guest at the Urbino palace in 1505, he returned in September 1506 to become one of its permanent courtiers, remaining for six years. Bembo was certainly attracted to the hospitality and the riches of the ducal library. But the main reason for joining the Montefeltro entourage rested on the close link between the Urbino court and the pope’s retinue. In fact, Bembo positioned himself for a call to the papal court and hoped to be granted a benefice, or official post endowed with assets. In 1512 he transferred to Rome and was later appointed as a papal secretary. The profession of courtier had meanwhile been losing prestige. By the time Bembo was there (when The Courtier takes place), the Urbino court was undergoing deep transformations. Several of the people whom The Courtier fictionalizes had died, and the cultural prestige of Urbino had already declined.

Scarce are the testimonies on the requisites and daily lives of court ladies. Vespasiano da Bisticci, Federico da Montefeltro’s biographer, claims that the duke “kept his daughters in a separate part of the house, attended by many noblewomen of respectable age and irreproachable conduct; and to these apartments there was no admittance…. When he visited his daughters, all those accompanying him were left outside the door” (da Bisticci, p. 107).

The Dialogue in Focus

Contents overview

In an opening letter to Don Michel de Silva—the bishop of Viseu and a Portuguese ambassador at the papal court (1515–25)—Castiglione explains that he is hastening the release of The Book of the Courtier because of the many unauthorized versions already being circulated. Written in February 1527, the letter announces the author’s intention to commemorate the cultural and aesthetic refinement of the Urbino court, where he spent the most significant years of his life. To depict the “perfect courtier” and celebrate one facet of what was regarded as civilized life, Castiglione dramatizes parlor games held over four consecutive nights by actual members of the duke’s circle, as well as esteemed figures in the pope’s retinue who were staying in the Montefeltro palace en route to Rome. The author’s tendency to idealize is clear. In his view, the excellence of this exclusive environment will become a monument to the Renaissance court, a disappearing political and cultural institution. As Castiglione lists the casualties among his protagonists, it becomes evident that a certain historical process has reached its peak. The ruling class in small Italian principalities has been unable to withstand the clash with major political forces, but the author captures a select group in a remarkable daily routine.

The treatise is ‘divided into four books, each recounting an evening’s fictional conversations. These discussions tackle a wide range of topics, from which emerges a model of courtly behavior. The treatise alleges that these nightly pastimes were held in March 1507, claiming that it author was absent on a mission in England. With this distortion of historical truth (Castiglione had returned to Urbino at the end of February), the writer removes himself from the dialogue, claiming that he is simply recording the memories of the participants. His documentation of these memories fulfills a request from a fellow courtier, Alfonso Ariosto, in trying to assess “what form of Courtiership most befits a gentleman living at the courts of princes” (Courtier, p. 2). To this end, the book presents heated debates in a non-dogmatic fashion.

Duke Guidobaldo’s residence, where the conversations take place, is described as “a city in the form of a palace” and “the very abode of joyfulness” (Courtier, pp. 11, 12). The company is a group of diplomats, intellectuals, artists, and court ladies; Duke Guidobaldo’s absence from this circle (because of ill health) allows for the expression of conflicting views.

Contents summary—Book 1

In Book 1, on behalf of the duchess, Emilia Pio asks each member of the company to suggest “some game after his own liking that we have never played” (Courtier, p. 14). After a series of misguided or comical proposals, Count Ludovico di Canossa agrees to lead a discussion on what constitutes a perfect courtier. He begins by addressing physical and moral qualities. Above all, a courtier is to assist and counsel his lord, thereby winning his favor. Since the courtier must serve his prince “in every reasonable thing,” he should excel in the profession of arms, that is, in the military domain (Courtier, p. 9). Nobility and grace, says the count, are two main qualifications. Objecting to the social discrimination, Gasparo Palavicino, himself an aristocrat, says nobility should not be a prerequisite. The manual defines grace as a quality closely connected to a certain balance that is “difficult to achieve and, as it were, composed of contraries” (Courtier, p. 150). The definition recalls Aristotle’s principle of the Golden Mean, which describes virtue as a mean between two vices—excess and deficiency; courage, for instance, is the mean between rashness and cowardice (see , Nicomachean Ethics, 2.6, 1107a). Concerning a courtier’s gracious attitude, Count Canossa insists on the need to avoid the appearance of affectation, or artificial behavior, by using sprezzatura, a term he coins to describe comportment intended “to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort” (Courtier, p. 32).

The debate then shifts to how to speak, condemning the use of pretentious, stilted verbal expression and entering into a discussion of the questione della lingua (language question), a central topic in sixteenth-century Italian literary circles. The manual favors the language spoken in conversation by the well-educated at princely courts, not the unnatural language used by purists for writing. (“The power and true rule of good speech consists more in usage than in anything else,” says the manual, “and it is always bad to employ words that are not in use” (Courtier, p. 5].) The dialogue goes on to address another recurrent controversy, about whether military abilities are more important than literary abilities or vice versa, and concludes that the courtier should be a connoisseur of the arts as well as an accomplished soldier. The discussion also sketches out the moral requirements a courtier ought to have, a subject it will return to later.

Book 2

In the second book, the disputants elaborate on the qualities of a courtier and discuss the circumstances under which he demonstrates them. The main speaker of the first part of the evening, Federico Fregoso, lays out some general rules: the courtier should display his qualities so flawlessly and naturally that he wins his lord’s favor and the admiration of his peers while reducing the risk of their envy. He must adapt to changing circumstances and interpret his onlookers’ reactions. Besides mastering elegant conversation, he needs to make a good impression. If he happens to handle military arms in some public show, he must “strive to be as elegant and handsome in the exercise of arms as he is adroit” (Courtier, pp. 72–73). He has to avoid uncouth behavior and abstain from the company of people “of low birth” (Courtier, p. 74). Far more crucial to his fortunes, however, is winning his lord’s favor. According to Federico “the Courtier [should] devote all his thought and strength of spirit to loving and almost adoring the prince he serves above all else, devoting his every desire and habit and manner to pleasing him” (Courtier, p. 80). Such complete submission runs the risk of reducing his behavior to that of a “noble flatterer,” especially since it is permissible to use deceit in shaping his image (Courtier, pp. 100–101). Returning to the subject of the moral constraints a courtier ought to observe, Federico claims that he must obey his lord “in all things profitable and honorable to him [the prince], not in those that will bring him harm and shame” (Courtier, pp. 85–86). The debate then shifts to more trivial matters, such as dress codes, a topic linked to first impressions in shaping one’s reputation.


Women did not begin to come into their own as public figures in Renaissance Italy until after Castiglione’s lifetime (1478–1529). At the end of the sixteenth century, upper-middle-class women could enter a courtly entourage, provided they displayed some remarkable skills and had strong connections. In the mid-1580s, when, at age 11, Lavinia Guasco joined the Savoy court in Turin, she had already mastered the art of calligraphy and had received extensive training in music. The later years of the Renaissance witnessed the rise of the “virtuosa” that is a lady endowed with and recognized for outstanding artistic talents, such as singer and harpist Laura Peverara, who flourished in the 1580s. She impressed Alfonso d’Este, who recruited her as a lady-in-watttng to sing and play for his court, rewarding her with a generous dowry.

Comic relief now enters the discussion as Bernardo da Bibbiena takes charge of the proceedings, deliberating at length on “pleasantries and witticisms” (Courtier, p. 103). The section (chapters 43–90) classifies jokes and sets down criteria for effective and appropriate humor, supplying examples that provide the reader with a rich repertoire of repartee and playful stories.

But, among other witticisms, those are very well turned that are made by taking the very words and sense of another man’s jibe and turning them against him, piercing him with his own weapons; as when a litigant, to whom his adversary had said in the judge’s presence: “Why do you bark so?” replied at once: “Because I see a thief.”

(Courtier, pp. 115–116)

Book 3

Responding to the final words of the previous day, Book 3 sets out to describe the court lady (“donna di palazzo”), a contentious subject. The women-haters in the company, Gasparo Pallavicino and Nicoló Frigio, have already voiced their prejudices; they bitterly reject any praise of female virtues. Into the verbal fray steps Giuliano de’ Medici, “the defender of women’s honor” (Courtier, p. 142). Leading the debate, he describes the ideal female counterpart to the courtier. The court lady must “have knowledge of letters, of music, of painting, and know how to dance and how to be festive” so that she can participate in entertainments and cultivated conversations, “using witticisms and pleasantries that are becoming to her” (Courtier, pp. 154–55). Besides developing some of the same qualities as a courtier, she must exhibit those “that befit all [women] (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),” along with “a certain pleasing affability” (Courtier, p. 151). Giuliano maintains that women are endowed with a balance of qualities that differentiates them from men (rather than simply possessing a smaller amount of the same properties). To settle a dispute on “the imperfection of women,” the dialogue steers into consideration of their worth. Giuliano argues that women ought to be considered as necessary as men for the preservation of the human race through procreation. After discussing some theoretical subtleties, he gives several examples of illustrious women, both ancient and modern, who proved their value. The evening ends with talk about the court lady’s amorous conduct and her “knowledge of what pertains to discourse of love” (Courtier, p. 190). A true lady of the court must be cautious about any dalliance, or flirtation, detecting her suitors’ hidden intentions. By pretending to ignore their “covert words of love,” she can keep them at bay through a refined strategy of dissimulation (Courtier, p. 191).

Book 4

Addressing the courtier’s political role and his pursuit of spiritual love, Book 4 begins with the belated reappearance of the courtier Ottaviano Fregoso. As he was scheduled to be the main speaker, his delay alters the proceedings, and the company starts dancing. This change in the ritual marks the transition to a more serious discussion of the courtier’s purposes. Ottaviano (Federico’s brother) criticizes the debates of the previous three nights: the previous discussions, he complains, deal with the “excellence of the courtier for his own sake” and overlook his crucial role in power relations at court (Woodhouse, p. 147). The courtier as sketched so far might appear small-minded in his devotion to a seemingly ego-centered array of accomplishments. His attempt to refine his skills could degenerate into a self-promoting exercise, whereby he attracts an unseemly attention to himself. Such behavior would interfere with his primary role as counselor to the prince. Indeed, only the pursuit of a higher aim can save the courtier from this nearly effeminate form of self-absorption, in view of its preoccupation with “frivolities and vanities” (Courtier, p. 210). These same concerns, however, can be nurtured to good effect if they serve to gain the prince’s favor for a lofty purpose:

Therefore, I think that the aim of the perfect Courtier, which we have not spoken of up to now, is to win for himself … the favor and mind of the prince whom he serves [so] that he may be able to tell him, and always tell him, the truth about everything he needs to know, without fear or risk of displeasing him.

(Courtier, p. 210)

Charged with guiding his lord, the courtier must act as his instructor, steering him away from arrogance, helping him to avoid the traps laid by flatterers, and leading him “by the austere path of virtue” (Courtier, p. 213).

Next Ottaviano turns his attention to princes, discussing the moral qualities they should develop; he places high value on temperance (the control of one’s instincts through reason). The ensuing discussion examines different forms of government, favoring monarchies over republics, according to a line of thinking that elevates unity over plurality. In keeping with an ethical view of courtly life, the prince must be virtuous and capable of winning his “people’s love and obedience” while ensuring peace between the social classes: his aim should be “to keep his subjects in a tranquil state, and give them the blessings of mind, body and of fortune” (Courtier, p. 230). Besides providing a handbook on how to navigate the turbulent waters of life at court, Castiglione shows his own political shrewdness in the fiction of the dialogue, which extols as promising heirs to European thrones three princes destined to indeed become powerful rulers (Francis I, Charles V, and Henry VIII). (Since the conversation is set in 1507, the author, writing with the benefit of hindsight, can easily pretend to predict their fortunes.)

From a discussion of politics, the conversation shifts to the form of love the courtier should cultivate. The treatise takes a fresh look at the subject, renouncing courtly rituals and earthly passions in favor of a spiritual love. The duchess gives Pietro Bembo “the burden of speaking, and of teaching the Courtier a love so happy that it brings with it neither blame nor displeasure” (Courtier, p. 243). Bembo shapes his argument according to the notion that “love is nothing but a certain desire to enjoy beauty,” an idea from a current (the neo-Platonic) school of philosophy (Courtier, p. 243). With this credo in mind, the mature courtier can keep his passions in check and overpower his sensual cravings. He is free to pursue the synthesis of beauty and goodness, to seek the spiritual value of love that makes it possible for him to benefit from his beloved lady’s “amorous influence” even if she is far away (Courtier, p. 253). Such detachment from the animalistic, corporeal world encourages his ascent to “the lofty mansion where heavenly, lovely, and true beauty dwells, which lies hidden in the innermost recesses of God” (Courtier, p. 257). Speaking of a holy love infused with “divine wisdom,” Bembo’s language “becomes not only mystic, but increasingly more Christian” (Woodhouse, p. 180). He is almost carried away by his rapture, so that Emilia Pio tugs at the folds of his robe and humorously warns him to restrain his thoughts, lest his soul should abandon his body. To their surprise, the members of the party realize that their conversation has lasted the entire night. With daylight filtering into the room, they open the windows and contemplate the rosy sunrise, in which the star of Venus still shines. Under the influence of this celestial body (symbolizing the mythical Venus Urania, goddess of heavenly love), the speakers, having promised to continue their conversation in the evening, retire to their separate quarters.

The “language question.”

In Book 1 of The Courtier, the discussion veers toward the questione della lingua, the “language question,” at the time a highly controversial topic. In the various regions of Italy, people spoke dialects derived from Latin, but subjected to distinct linguistic influences. After the superb achievements of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Tuscan emerged as the predominant vernacular language, though its position was questionable in the following century. With the revival of the classics in the 1400s, Latin gained prestige as a more refined and effective means of literary expression. By the time Castiglione wrote The Courtier, however, Tuscan was regaining its status as a vehicle of eloquence. Moreover, there was an effort to define a written form of vernacular able to supersede both the different variants then in use and Latin. Faced with a peninsula still fragmented into courts and literary circles with distinct dialects, scholars examined the nature of the Italian language. The search for a unifying linguistic identity gave rise to many treatises, which gravitated around a few general positions:

The classicist position: The proponents of this theory looked to the masterpieces of the great Tuscan writers of the fourteenth century for models—for prose, to Boccaccio’s Decameron and for poetry to Petrarch’s Canzoniere. Although these Renaissance scholars praised Dante’s Divine Comedy , they had reservations about its use of newly coined words, foreign words, and “vulgarity” (all also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). The most influential representative of this position was Pietro Bembo, who appears as a character in the Book of the Courtier and penned an influential treatise expounding his view (Prose della volgar lingua, 1525; [Writings in the Vernacular Language]).

The courtly language position: Troubled by the regional aspects of Tuscan, other writers recommended a vernacular linked more closely to Latin. They proposed a hybrid or mixed form for writing and speaking, defending a form of Italian they argued was already in use in the courts. This position was first articulated by Vincenzo Colli in a treatise (now lost) and by Mario Equicola (in De natura de amore [The Nature of Love], circa 1505–1508). The Courtier advocates a subtle compromise of this sort.

The naturalist position: Still other writers (such as Lodovico Martelli and Benedetto Varchi, both natives of Florence) offered further alternatives. On the one hand, these writers stressed the Florentine (or, more generally, Tuscan) roots of the fine language in the fourteenth-century masterpieces. On the other hand, these writers refused to adopt old-fashioned, bookish forms of expression, preferring their current vernacular. In some cases this meant looking beyond Florence and extolling another Tuscan dialect, that of Siena, a town endowed with a rich cultural heritage. The theorists in this camp took a naturalist approach, combining their own native usages with the language of Boccaccio and the other illustrious Tuscan writers.

In writing The Book of the Courtier, Castiglione used a language modeled after the one spoken in northern Italian courts, rich in Latinisms and regional expressions. Once his treatise reached Aldine Press for publication, however, the work underwent linguistic revision by Giovan Francesco Valerio, who adapted it to the style of fourteenth-century Tuscan prose. So, to a degree, the printed version of The Courtier misrepresents its author’s linguistic intent.

Sources and literary context

Large sections of The Courtier can be seen as carefully wrought patchworks of quotes that rely heavily on classical precedents. However, the derivative nature of the manual should not be counted as a weakness; it reflects a common practice of the day, the reworking of ancient models in an attempt to both emulate and compete with them. Greek and Latin sources inspired ideas in The Book of the Courtier. In justifying his approach to creating an idealistic image of the perfect courtier, Castiglione mentions Plato and Xenophon, along with Cicero, as sources. Some notes in a 1556 edition of The Courtier indicate that several passages were modeled after the prologue to Cicero’s Orator (Burke, p. 42). The dialogue format is inspired mainly by Cicero’s works on rhetoric (De oratore, Orator, and Brutus) and to a lesser extent by his philosophical writings. The Courtier is filled with short quotes. One noteworthy example is a simile concerning the need to charm a prince “with salutary deception,” “like shrewd doctors who often spread the edge of the cup with some sweet cordial when they wish to give a bitter-tasting medicine to sick and over-delicate children” (Courtier, p. 213). An image from Lucretius, it appears in his De rerum natura (1.935–942). The crucial notion of sprezzatura (nonchalance) is indebted to Latin precedents: Castiglione takes his warning to avoid pretense from Quintilian, who declares (in Institutio oratoria 1.6 and 1.40) that “nothing is more unpleasant than affectation.” Drawing on Artistotle’s principle of the Golden Mean—a midpoint between excess and deficiency (formulated in the Nicomachean Ethics)—and on his Politics, Castiglione makes Aristotle the dominant authority in political matters. Another deep influence on political and moral positions was Plutarch. Even the dispute on language echoes ancient precedents: Castiglione shares Cicero’s view that stylistic variety expresses the diversity of writers’ minds and that one should match style to content (from De oratore).

Castiglione drew on Italian as well as classical sources. The large section of The Courtier devoted to jokes borrows its theoretical principles from Cicero’s De oratore and takes some jokes from Quintilian (Institutio oratoria) of ancient Rome and from later Italian jokesters, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Poggio Bracciolini’s Facetiae, and Giovanni Pontano’s De sermone. The manual’s detailed account of power relations is linked to a well-established literary tradition in the 1400s, discussing the perfect form of government and the ideal ruler (including works such as Giovanni Pontano’s De principe and Filippo Beroaldo the elder’s De optimu statu et de principe). Plato’s presence, filtered through his fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian followers (Marsilio Ficino, Francesco Cattani da Diacceto, Mario Equicola, and Pietro Bembo) is felt in the discussions of love and beauty at the end of the conversations.


The publication of The Book of the Courtier was a carefully orchestrated event. It involved two of the most prestigious Italian publishing houses in the early period of printing in Italy, the Aldine press in Venice and, a few months later in 1528, the Giunti press in Florence. The work, an object of curiosity in intellectual circles even before its release, met with much success among Italians and soon spread to other parts of Europe. Between the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, 62 editions of The Book of the Courtier were published in Italy in a wide variety of formats. A short time after its release, The Book of the Courtier appeared in Spanish (1534) and French (1537); the English and German versions followed in 1561 and 1565, respectively. The flurry of reprints testifies to the book’s widespread popularity. It contributed greatly to the spread of values and customs of the Italian Renaissance throughout Europe. The Book of the Courtier became an influential source for more than proper courtly behavior. Responding to a preference for maxims during the Renaissance, publishers plumbed the manual for aphorisms and precepts. In doing so, they violated Castiglione’s intent, for he had used the dialogue format to discourage a one-sided concept of truth. On the other hand, the manual did more than intended, serving as a blueprint for parlor games and dramatizing lively and portraying civil behavior in action as well as providing its readers with prescriptive information.

Legend has it that even Charles V, the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor—who is said to have called Castiglione “the best knight living”—trusted the counsel he found in The Book of the Courtier, keeping a copy of the manual at his bedside, along with Machiavelli’s The Prince (or, ironically, the Bible, depending on the strain of the legend).

—Andrea Baldi

For More Information

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Burke, Peter. The Fortunes of The Courtier: The European Reception of Castiglione’s Cortegiano. University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

Cartwright Ady, Julia. Baldassare Castiglione, the Perfect Courtier, His Life and Letters, 1478–1529. 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1908.

Castiglione, Baldesar. The Book of the Courtier: The Singleton Translation. Ed. Daniel Javitch. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.

Clough, Cecil H. The Duchy of Urbino in the Renaissance. London: Variorum Reprints, 1981.

Cola, da Beneveto. Del governo della corte d’un Signore in Roma. Rome: Vincenzo Lucrino, 1552.

Finucci, Valeria. The Lady Vanishes: Subjectivity and Representation in Castiglione and Ariosto. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Hanning, Robert W., and David Rosand, eds. Castiglione: The Ideal and the Real in Renaissance Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.

Osborne, June. Urbino: The Story of a Renaissance City. London: Frances Lincoln, 2003.

Vespasiano, da Bisticci. The Vespasiano Memoirs. Trans. William George and Emily Waters. London: Routledge, 1926.

Woodhouse, John Robert. Baldesar Castiglione. A Reassessment of The Courtier. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1978.

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