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Castiglione, Baldassare 1478–1529 Italian Writer and Diplomat

Castiglione, Baldassare
Italian writer and diplomat

Baldassare Castiglione served as a diplomat to Italian rulers and the pope in the early 1500s. However, he is best known for The Book of the Courtier, which became the leading guide for social behavior and remained influential for centuries after its publication. This work places Castiglione among the most important literary figures of the Renaissance.

Life and Work. Castiglione was the son of a professional soldier who served the marquis of Mantua. Baldassare attended school in Milan but returned to Mantua in 1499 when his father died. For the next five years he traveled about Italy as a military officer and diplomat for the marquis. In 1504 he entered the service of the duke of Urbino.

Castiglione worked for the duke and his successor until 1516. Then the Medici family captured Urbino and forced the duke into exile. Castiglione returned to Mantua and entered the service of the ruling Gonzaga family. He accompanied Francesco Gonzaga II to Venice and acted as Mantua's ambassador to the papal* court in Rome. In 1524 Pope Clement VII named Castiglione his ambassador to the court of Charles V in Spain. Castiglione moved to Spain the following year and remained there until his death.

Castiglione wrote poetry, biography, letters, and even a prologue for a play. However, his most famous work is The Book of the Courtier, which he began by 1513 or 1514. In 1518 he began sending copies to his close friends for suggestions and corrections as he revised his manuscript. The book appeared in 1528.

The Book of the Courtier. Castiglione called his masterpiece a "portrait of the court of Urbino." He sets his scene at the court during a visit from Pope Julius ii in 1506. Castiglione's characters—the courtiers and ladies of the court—play a game in which they "portray in words a perfect courtier." As they discuss the perfect courtier, they also argue current issues such as the merits of different forms of government and types of art. Castiglione uses his own friends from court as characters, carefully portraying them to reflect their real-life points of view.

Castiglione patterned The Courtier on classical* writings. In the tradition of Roman writer Cicero and the Greek philosopher Plato, he described a model character, someone for his readers to try to imitate. Like the classical writers, Castiglione structured his work as a dialogue.

The first book outlines the physical and moral qualities of the ideal courtier. He must, of course, be a nobleman. His first role should be as a soldier, but he must also appreciate and practice arts and scholarship. He must never do things to excess and must always move naturally, with grace and ease. Above all else he must present an attractive physical appearance. Book two discusses how the courtier should demonstrate these qualities, especially through his skill at conversation. He must be able to talk seriously and to use language to entertain.

The subject of book three is the courtier's ideal female companion. The characters discuss the merits and faults of women, a favorite topic of debate at the time. The ideal woman has much the same qualities as the ideal courtier, though physical beauty plays a larger role than in a man. A lady must also be careful to protect her good reputation.

The final book examines how the courtier can best serve his prince or nobleman. He must earn favor so he can speak honestly and even correct his lord if necessary. This book also discusses how the aging courtier should love. It describes platonic love, which moves from human beauty to an understanding of the idea of beauty and finally to an understanding of God.

Some modern observers criticize The Courtier for focusing on image and physical appearance and for devoting too little attention to the courtier's main duty of serving the prince. Nevertheless, The Courtier was brilliantly original and widely imitated. The work enjoyed enormous success throughout the 1500s, and by 1571 translations were available in Spanish, French, English, and even Latin.

(See alsoLiterature; Mantua; Princes and Princedoms; Urbino. )

* papal

referring to the office and authority of the pope

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

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