December 6, 1478
Casatico, Mantua, Italy
February 7, 1529
Diplomat, author, courtier
"It is better to pass in silence that which cannot be recalled without pain."
Baldassare Castiglione in Book of the Courtier.
The Italian author, courtier, and diplomat Baldassare Castiglione was one of the most influential writers of the Renaissance. The Renaissance was a cultural movement initiated by scholars called humanists, who promoted the revival of the human-centered literature and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome as well as new translations of biblical texts (Hebrew holy books and the Christian Bible). He ranks with the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare (1564–1616; see entry) and the French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592; see entry) in importance to the literature of Europe. Castiglione is known primarily for Book of the Courtier, in which he portrayed the ideal courtier (gentlemen of the court). This work was a chief vehicle in spreading Italian humanism into England and France. (Humanism was a movement that originated in Florence, Italy. It was based on a renewed appreciation of the values of ancient Greek and Roman civilization, emphasizing the human potential for achievement and improvement. Humanism was the motivating force for the Renaissance.)
Serves as courtier
Baldassare Castiglione was born on December 6, 1478, in Casatico, Italy, located in the province of Mantua. He belonged to an illustrious family in Lombardy, a region in northern Italy. After receiving a classical education in Mantua and in Milan, he served at the court of Lodovico Sforza (1452–1508), duke of Milan, from 1496 to 1499. When his father died in 1499, Castiglione returned to Mantua and entered the service of Francesco Gonzaga (1466–1519), duke of Mantua. In 1503 he fought with Gonzaga's forces against the Spanish in Naples. On his way north he stopped in Rome and Urbino. Both cities fascinated him. His request to transfer to the court of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro (1472–1508), duke of Urbino, was grudgingly granted in 1504 by Gonzaga.
At Urbino, Castiglione participated in intellectual discussions headed by Guidobaldo's wife, Elizabetta, duchess of Urbino. He wrote a dramatic work, Tirsi, for a carnival at Urbino in 1506. The work is a celebration of the court of Guidobaldo, the duchess, and many friends who would figure prominently in Book of the Courtier. Castiglione's service in Urbino gave him access to the court of Pope Julius II (1443–1513; reigned 1503–1513), where he became a friend of the Italian artist Raphael (1483–1520; see entry).
After Guidobaldo's death in 1508, Castiglione remained in the service of the duke's successor, Francesco Maria della Rovere (1490–1538), and participated in Urbino's military actions. He also organized the first performance of Calandria (Follies of Calandro), a comedy (humorous play) by the Italian cardinal and playwright Bernardo Dovisi (called Bibiena; 1470–1520). Castiglione wrote a prologue (introduction) to the work, which is now lost. In 1513 he was named count of Nuvolara by Rovere. Three years later he married, but became a cleric (church official) in 1521 after the death of his wife. In 1524 he was sent by Pope Clement VII (1478–1534; reigned 1523–34) as ambassador to the court of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–1558; see entry) in Spain. The mission proved to be unfortunate, as Castiglione wrongly reported the emperor's intentions in the period leading up to the sack (destruction) of Rome by Charles's army in 1527.
Book of the Courtier is great success
Book of the Courtier was published in 1528, though Castiglione developed the main idea at the court of Urbino in 1507 and wrote it from 1513 to 1516. The work was a huge and immediate success. It consists of four sections, or books, in which Castiglione blended classical learning into the format of polite conversation among courtiers and their ladies. He featured real-life figures as participants in the conversations.
In Book One the assembled courtiers and ladies propose games for their entertainment and decide to "portray in words a perfect courtier." All participants "will be permitted to contradict the speaker as in the schools of the [ancient] philosophers." Discussions are led by Ludovico da Canossa (1476–1532), a diplomat from Verona, Italy, and a relative of Castiglione. The participants decide that the courtier should be noble, witty, and pleasant. He should be an accomplished horseman and a warrior (his principal profession) who is devoted to his prince. He should know Greek, Latin, French, and Spanish, and he should be skilled in literature, music, painting, and dancing. The courtier's behavior should be characterized by grace and ease, and he should carefully avoid any affectation.
Book Two is a treatment of the ways and circumstances in which the ideal courtier might demonstrate his qualities. It stresses decorum (proper behavior) and conversational skills. At first Federico Fregoso (died 1541), cardinal and archbishop of Salerno, presides over the discussion. When the topic turns to humorous language, Bibiena takes over. The participants then engage in humorous stories, pleasantries, and practical jokes. Book Three defines the qualities of a suitable female companion for the perfect courtier. Leading the discussions and defending women against attack is Giuliano de' Medici (1479–1516), son of Lorenzo de' Medici (1449–1492; see entry) and brother of Pope Leo X (1475–1521; reigned 1513–21). The participants discuss the virtue of women, giving ancient and contemporary examples and telling entertaining stories. They give the lady of the palace many of the same qualities as the courtier. Physical beauty is more important to her, however, and she must always be more discreet in order to preserve her good reputation. In this book the voices of the assembled ladies are heard more often, but here, as in the other three books, women only ask questions. Although they lead the discussions, they are never active participants.
Book Four begins with a long discussion of the courtier's primary role as an adviser to his prince. The participants conclude that the courtier must earn the favor of the prince through his accomplishments. He must win his master's trust so completely that he can always speak truthfully without fear. He can even correct the prince if necessary. This subject leads to a debate of the merits of republics (governments ruled by representatives of the people) and monarchies. The topic of conversation finally turns to love, picking up a theme introduced in Book Three. Here the discussion centers on how the courtier, who is no longer young, should love. Pietro Bembo (1470–1547), a noted authority on the subject, instructs the assembled party on a humanist theory of love based on the works of Plato. Bembo explains, step by step, the way to rise from a vision of human beauty to an understanding of ideal beauty, and from there to God. As he speaks he seems to lose touch with his surroundings, and one of the participants tugs at his shirt to awaken him from his reverie.
Helps spread humanism
Castiglione's idealized picture of society at the court of Urbino quickly became a book of etiquette (rules for proper manners) for both the bourgeoisie (middle class) and the aristocracy (upper class) all over Europe. It was translated into Spanish in 1534; French in 1537; English in 1561; and German in 1566. Book of the Courtier was printed in forty editions in the sixteenth century alone and one hundred more by 1900. Through it the broad values of Italian humanism, focusing on the ideal of the fully developed, well-rounded courtier and his lady, were spread throughout western Europe. Yet it must be admitted that in Book of the Courtier the high ideals of humanitas, or culture and virtue, are elevated not for themselves but as tools of self-advancement.
A "portrait of the court of Urbino"
Book of the Courtier is based on Baldassare Castiglione's experiences at the court of Urbino. It depicts conversations that took place in 1506, and many of the participants are courtiers and ladies whom Castiglione met during the years he spent in Urbino. In the letter that opens the book, Castiglione looked back on those days with nostalgia, remembering with admiration and love the friends who had died. He called his book a "portrait of the court of Urbino," through which he intended to preserve their memory. He imagined that the conversations were held during his absence in 1506, when Pope Julius and his attendants stopped at Urbino. This technique allowed Castiglione to include in the book participants who were not members of the court at the time. It also enabled him to remove himself from the discussions, which he claimed to narrate as they were reported to him.
In the opening letter Castiglione defended his use of a language that is not Tuscan, the only Italian dialect (a variety of a language spoken in a particular region or by a particular group) considered appropriate to literature during the Renaissance. Instead, he wrote in the language used by educated persons throughout the Italian peninsula. This emphasis on language may explain why the letter was addressed to Don Michel de Silva, a Portuguese diplomat and friend of Castiglione. Silva was interested in discussions of the Italian language. Castiglione dedicated Book of the Courtier to Alfonso Ariosto, a close friend. Ariosto had urged him on behalf of King Francis I (1494–1547; ruled 1515–47) of France to write a work on the subject of the perfect courtier.
Castiglione died in Toledo, Spain, on February. 7, 1529. His name lived on in Book of the Courtier, which is still being read in the twenty-first century. Castiglione was characterized by many as a dignified, melancholy, and idealistic man, qualities that Raphael captured in his famous portrait of the author. As a writer, Castiglione tended to soften the rough edges of society and to avoid moral issues. For instance, he said of the Italians' recent dismal military performance, it is better to avoid disturbing issues than to continually bring them up. Another example of his treatment of social matters can be seen in his answer to the question of what a courtier should do when ordered by his prince to commit an immoral act such as murder. In Book of the Courtier Castiglione stated: "There would be too much to say; it must all be left to your discretion." Despite avoiding complex moral and social issues, there is much that is positive in the book. Castiglione elevated the concept of human personality and dignity, and he praised the creative possibilities of humankind. Only a modest poet in both Italian and Latin, he wrote a fine sonnet (a fourteen-line poem having one of several conventional rhyme schemes) on the ruins of Rome, Superbicolli e voi sacre ruine. It reappears in the Antiquités de Rome, by French poet Joachim du Bellay (1522–1560), and in Ruines of Rome, by the English poet Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–1599). Castiglione's poetry was published in 1760 and his letters in 1769 and 1771.
For More Information
Castiglione, Baldassare. Book of the Courtier; An Authoritative Text, Criticism. Daniel Javitch, ed. New York: Norton, 2002.
"Baldassare Castiglione [portrait] by Raphael." Great Artists in History. [Online] Available http://www.theartgallery.com.au/ArtEducation/greatartists/Raphael/baldassare/, April 4, 2002.
"Castiglione, Baldassare." Encyclopedia.com. [Online] Available http://www.encyclopedia.com/articlesnew/02398.html, April 4, 2002.