Born to Network

Anthony Grafton

  • The Fortunes of ‘The Courtier’: The European Reception of Castiglione’s ‘Cortegiano’ by Peter Burke
    Polity, 209 pp, £39.50, October 1995, ISBN 0 7456 1150 8

Anyone who teaches the High Renaissance in an American university knows how distant it has become. On first contemplating the nudes that fascinated tourists and connoisseurs for centuries, students shrug. Machiavelli and Guicciardini prove equally unexciting to young men and women who were born in the shadow of Watergate and are bored every night by the eleven o’clock news of Whitewater. They find nothing surprising in the assertion that great rulers cannot keep faith in the manner of ordinary people. Of all the alien worlds the teacher tries to call back to life, however, none seems more remote than that of the Renaissance court. True, students who read Burckhardt – as many still do – find nothing more fascinating than his accounts of courts and festivals. His analysis of how courtiers made their lives into works of art, consciously crafting every word and gesture to outdo their rivals and charm their superiors, fascinates those born less to be wild than to network.

Once the same students move, however, from Burckhardt to one of his central sources, Baldesar Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, their eyes threaten to take on the hard sheen of Carrara marble. This discursive text claims to recount four consecutive evenings of discussion among the courtiers of Guidobaldo da Montefeltre, the ruler of the small princely state of Urbino, in 1507. Many of the issues discussed are not obviously connected with the pursuit of life as art. The book includes, among other barriers to enjoyment, a long discussion of jokes and how to tell them. Issues that were central to the intellectual life of the Italian Renaissance now seen alien and abstract: the proper form of Italian, for example, or the Paragone, the argument about the relative merits of painting and sculpture. Pietro Bembo’s concluding Neoplatonic evocation, in poetic prose, of love’s powers and properties, may seem more embarrassing than engrossing. Women appear regularly but they play strictly regulated roles, organising discussion and playfully slapping down the ill-mannered speakers who try to go too far. As always in societies governed by the chivalric code – as Dorothy Sayers long ago complained – the men have all the action and most of the fun.

When Castiglione is read and interpreted with care, however, his charm and depth overcome not only the alienation of students but also the dullness of their teachers. He offers, first of all, a bath in one of the central emotions of literature: nostalgia, evoking the court at Urbino not as a present model but as a lost paradise.

Here, then, gentle discussions and innocent pleasantries were heard, and on everyone’s face a jocund gaiety could be seen depicted, so much so that the house could be called the very abode of joyfulness. Nor do I believe that the sweetness that is had from a beloved company was ever savoured in any other place as it was there ... we all felt a supreme happiness arise within us whenever we came into the presence of the Duchess. And it seemed that this was a chain that bound us all together in love, in such wise that never was there concord of will or cordial love between brothers greater than that which was there among us all.

Castiglione succeeds in convincing us, first and above all, of how much we have missed. We have not sat in the Duchess’s room after dinner, listening to music, dancing and trying to survive in the court’s favourite games. We have not regained our senses after a night’s passionate discussion of love, realised with a jolt that the light is beginning to come through the castle windows, and returned to our rooms as ‘a soft breeze seemed to come that filled the air with brisk coolness and began to awaken sweet concerts of joyous birds in the murmuring forests of the nearby hills.’

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