Non Fiction

The Rise of Modernity (and Proto-Feminism) in the Italian Renaissance

Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier exemplified Italian Renaissance humanist ideals by making use of the author’s own memory of conversations in court at Urbino. Although Castiglione tactfully did not include himself in the specific situation proposed in the book,  he wrote in a style that was in accordance with having an appearance of humility, which was one of his main rules for being a courtier. And yet, like Alberti’s writing on the values of a virtuous family, Castiglione cautioned for moderation in striving for any attribute, (such as humility) while pursuing perfection in the court, by adding that the courtier should want to abound with confidence as well. Through ensuing conversation between many different participants, (presided over by Elisabetta Gonzaga, her sister-in-law Emilia Pia, and including Count Ludovico Canossa, Federico Fregoso, and Giuliano de’ Medici) the author urged the aspiring courtier to be eclectic, although without being pompous, nor visibly trying too hard.

Castiglione began his book with an imagined situation in which Duchess Gonzaga decided that the court should play a game of rhetoric in order to find what attributes would make the perfect courtier. Emilia Pia jestingly chose the Count to begin, saying that he would know the least and so would not cause the affair to become tedious too quickly. Count Canossa humbly yet humorously agreed, and began by claiming that it would be best for a courtier to be of noble birth, “…because it is far less unseemly for one of ignoble birth to fail in worthy deeds, than for one of noble birth, who, if he strays from the path of his predecessors, stains his family name, and not only fails to achieve but loses what has been achieved already; for noble birth is like a bright lamp that manifests and makes visible good and evil deeds, and kindles and stimulates to virtue both by fear of shame and by hope of praise” (The Book of the Courtier, p 21). However, Caspar Pallavicino promptly contradicted the Count, (as per the rules of the game, according to “ancient rhetoric”) and responded that he believed more in the graces of Fortune than the responsibilities and expectations of noble birth. His frequent reference to the concept of “Fortune” was another similarity incorporated into the book that Castiglione shared with Alberti, in which both Italian authors agreed that chance could topple the achievements of any courtier or noblemen, no matter how calculating and prudent the man was. In arguing against the necessity of noble birth for courtier-ship, Pallavicino added that, “…the highest gifts of nature are found among the most obscure…” ( p 23) referring to examples of men starting from humble beginnings and gaining prestige through their own virtue.

Although at the end of this bout of words, Castiglione leaned the reader more towards the positive points of being noble in birth. However, Castiglione transitioned the argument through the Count’s response in favor of nobility by connecting that idea with the need for a courtier to be skilled in the art of arms, to the point where it would be his “…principle and true profession…” (p 30). From there on out, the Count took the reins of the debate by describing in detail what exercises the courtier should be adept at in order to be a competent warrior. And yet this was argued not necessarily for warfare in and of itself, as the Count repeatedly stressed that a man should be fit on foot and horseback more so in order to carry grace in all aspects of life. This is in implicit opposition to the previous understanding of the art of being a gentleman, as Castiglione was keenly aware of the prevailing medieval idea of what a courtier ought to be, primarily a knight. In acknowledging the need for a courtier to be a man of arms, and yet at the same time stressing that the man do so in order to also excel at other activities, Castiglione was alluding to the trend of Renaissance states to rely more on foot-soldiers than the mounted knights of old.

In The Book of the Courtier, Castiglione argued again and again through his non-fictional characters that universality in activities without excess in one too much was essential in learning to live as an ideal Renaissance courtier: “Our Courtier then will be esteemed excellent and will attain grace in everything, particularly in speaking, if he avoids affectation…” (p 37). Castiglione often used analogies through his characters, which livened up the debate and allowed the participants to transition to the many different topics that were necessary to touch on, as humanism required variation in study. The Count and Federico argued whether if there were boundaries between speaking and writing, where the Count argued against using ancient, obscure Tuscan words in writing, as he said that no one would reasonably incorporate those phrases into everyday speech. Federico begged to differ, saying that using difficult words gave the writer an authoritative voice, and would force the reader to slow down and pay attention, adding that “if the ignorance of him who reads is so great that he cannot overcome those difficulties, it is not the fault of the writer, nor on this account ought that style to be deemed unbeautiful.” (p 40). Pallavicino then interjected and claimed that speech-craft was more important for the courtier, and yet was drowned out by the others whom successfully counter-argued that writing was of utter importance, especially, (although Castiglione did not repeat it explicitly) since the courtier’s primary responsibility would be that of diplomacy.

Regardless of the competing importance of speech and writing, The Book of the Courtier was clear in its intent that the aspiring courtier should be an educated adviser, as opposed to the traditional court medieval knight.  The author set his treatise on courtliness in 1507, at the height of the Italian Renaissance, and his advice largely hinged on classical writings on being a gentleman, mainly that of Cicero.  Unlike in the Middle Ages, Italian court life in the Renaissance, (when not based in a republic, such as Venice or Genoa) depended on educated humanists who would advise the king on matters, and would also advocate culture and the arts. A groundbreaking theme in The Book of the Courtier was the status of women, as the Duchess called on Medici to defend womanhood against men such as Pallavicino, whom still held the belief that women were only good for childbirth. Medici argued that women were not only necessary as muses, but were capable of artistic endeavors themselves.

Like in art, the Italians were the vanguard in developing politics in ways that other Europeans would only start to learn from decades later; this meant that at the time of the book’s writing, the French were still following the medieval ways of being a gentleman through valor on the battlefield and knighthood. With The Book of the Courtier, Castiglione set a precedent that would be taught and followed for centuries to come by all Europeans, especially the French. The book’s main objective, and Castiglione’s main occupation in life, was diplomacy. Since knighthood was becoming continuously unimportant in Renaissance nobility, the court life increasingly became a game of words in which courtiers would be in residence at, or write letters to, foreign principalities in order to represent the interests of their lord or king. According to Castiglione, the perfect courtier should have had all of the attributes of a humanist, but most importantly writing. The epistolary craft, (through developing rhetoric and logic) was most helpful in learning the art of persuasion, which was what the quintessential courtier/diplomat needed. This is what made The Book of the Courtier a seminal work in Modernity.

In the book, Giuliano de Medici argued that women were capable of more than just domestic work, something unheard of at the time.
In the book, Giuliano de Medici argued that women were capable of more than just domestic work, something unheard of at the time.