In the very civil service

The Fortunes of the Courtier
April 18, 1997

Il Cortegiano, The Courtier, was written at various stages between 1506, when Baldassare Castiglione was a courtier in the service of the Montefeltro family at Urbino, and 15, when he was papal nuncio to the court of Spain. Undoubtedly the circle of sophisticated ladies and gentlemen who met in the palace at Urbino provided much of the book's inspiration, but the important political section at the end was in part a later addition, and Castiglione, as well as being a courtier who visited London to receive the Order of the Garter for his master Guidobaldo Montefeltro, was also an expert classicist, well versed in literature. He seems, to judge from the portrait by his friend, Raphael, and by the letters exchanged with his wife, to have been a very charming and sensitive person as well.

The Courtier was one of the most widely read books in 16th-century Europe and this is the point of Peter Burke's book. In an appendix he lists 116 publications in the original Italian, in Spanish, French, German, Latin and English, down to 1600. Thereafter the publications become a trickle, only 18 more to the end of the 17th century. But the popularity in the first century is a remarkable testimony to its attractiveness. Burke also lists 328 individuals who read it before 1700. The list is the product of considerable research and provides the basis for Burke's speculations about the reasons why The Courtier was popular and what effect it had on European thought.

Much of The Courtier is concerned with the courtier's everyday behaviour: conversation, gallantry, games, use of arms and so on. Burke shows that the book was indebted to a variety of ideals of conduct expressed long before it by Homer, Aristotle, Cicero, medieval writers of romance and others. The conception of good conduct is inevitably the product of many layers of civilised life and literature. Among Castiglione's novelties Burke gives prominence, as others have done, to what he calls in Italian sprezzatura, a word impossible to translate precisely but implying a debonair self-confidence and a cultivated appearance of spontaneity; in other words, the behaviour associated with a complete assumption of aristocratic ease.

Burke sees this quality as being adopted as an ideal by Italian writers in the 16th century, when Pietro Aretino advocates it for painters and other writers for courtiers and musicians. The word presented problems to translators. A Frenchman did not do too badly with nonchalance, but English translators seem uncomprehending when they resort to words such as recklessness and even disgracing. Nevertheless Burke thinks, and it is really the main point of his book, that the idea of this kind of behaviour was important in developing the growing conception of courtly living. The point, for instance, seems to have reached Gabriel Harvey (1550-1631), owner of an annotated English translation, who could write that "it importeth a courtier to be graceful and lovely in countenance and behaviour, fine and discreet in discourse and entertainment'', and, after listing several other qualities, "ever graciously bold, wittily pleasant and full of life in his saying and doing''.

In Burke's mind this influence of The Courtier is linked to the idea of the "civilising process'' in European history, famously expressed some years ago by the sociologist Norbert Elias, who showed how court life affected general standards of behaviour. And undoubtedly Castiglione was a contributor to this process.

There are some subsidiary aspects of The Courtier to which Burke might have given more attention than he does. One is the book's significance in the development of the presentation of conversation in literature. Burke quite correctly makes the point that The Courtier was an adaption in Italian of the dialogue genre in which humanists were accustomed to express a variety of ideas in the mouths of several speakers in Latin. Castiglione, however, gave his conversations a lively quality that was closer to common parlance than previous discussions of ideas. And his characters included women so that there was a certain amount of sexual wordplay. It might be worth investigating how far this contributed to literary developments. Did it inspire dramatists or story-tellers? The presentation of characters in drama and narrative is, of course, just as important in the evolution of social ideals as expression of more abstract ideas about behaviour.

Castiglione's treatment of political thought is also bypassed here. One of the interesting aspects of the book is that he presents an essentially Aristotelian idea of political thought, designed originally for the city-state, in the context of the court, which is the only type of government considered in this book. The 16th century was on the whole a world of courts rather than one of city-states so that this political thought must have played quite an important part in the transfer of ideas from the civilisation of the Italian city to the civilisation of the national monarchy. This influence on the monarchical world was the important aspect of Castiglione's work in the long run. The same point applies to other Italian writers. But, whereas Machiavelli, for example, was talking mostly about republican city-states, so that his transfer was in some ways very awkward, Castiglione makes a neat application of Greek political ideas directly to the court.

Castiglione's influence has to be seen in the context of the decline of Italian civilisation that was just beginning in his lifetime, after its most brilliant period, and the enormous blossoming of the other Western European nations that was to follow. The book, which was itself produced with a certain amount of sprezzatura, printed late and perhaps unwillingly, was certainly an important factor in this vast evolution. Burke's painstaking research and engaging speculations make it much easier to see Castiglione's position clearly.

George Holmes is emeritus professor of medieval history, University of Oxford.

The Fortunes of the Courtier: The European Reception of Castiglione's Cortegiano

Author - Peter Burke
ISBN - 0 7456 1150 8
Publisher - Polity
Price - £39.50
Pages - 210

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