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.’
The first evening starts with formal proposals for games, proposals that introduce the great game of the dialogues themselves: the sustained discussion of what makes the true courtier. Taken together, they suggest that court life belongs to the realm of serious play (a theme studied to splendid effect by Thomas Greene). The world of the court is rich, splendid, noble; but it is also a hortus conclusus, confining its inhabitants to a narrow space. Early illustrations show the participants in these discussions stiffly lined up in a room of no great size. Court manners, moreover, confine them to a narrow range of possible subjects and a still narrower range of possible conclusions. The Duchess and Signora Emilia Pia, who guide the discussion, push it forcibly back on the rails whenever the court’s decorum is threatened by too much freedom in the criticism of women or absolute power. The speakers who keep the game going do so in defiance of the world outside the firelit castle. Unlike Machiavelli, a few years later, exiled to his farm and given the outsider’s freedom of speech, they cannot seriously ask if anything can be done about Italy’s political collapse. They cannot adequately mourn the transformation of so many Italian states from republics into oligarchies or tyrannies sustained by brutal systems of spying and repression, or the failure of these states, in turn, to preserve Italy from domination by the French and Spanish.
Enough suggestive comments surface in the course of the dialogues to make clear that all the participants know these unpalatable truths. But they have no forum in which to confront them – only the hope, eloquently expressed but also hedged with misgivings by Ottaviano Fregoso, that the courtier who knows how to bend an elegant leg and win princely favour will take advantage of his position to urge moral and prudent conduct on the ruler. They have lost the freedom of the open square – the only place where man can practise civic virtues, as earlier humanists like Leon Battista Alberti repeatedly said. Everyone plays: but couriers can only play, whistling to keep out the dark. Their gaiety, their fragile courage and their ultimate refusal to confront the disasters they have lived through fascinate any reader who can put the work in its political context.
So, even more, do its central messages. The courtier must, the participants agree, be a sort of superman: nobly-born and brave, handsome and articulate, athletic and dapper, he must do, and be seen to do, all things well. The whole long book explains how to do exactly this, in specific and sometimes comic detail (as when the courtier learns never to perform a feat of bravery when his lord is not watching, since it will do him no good). Competence, however, is not enough. Like the philosopher in Tom Stoppard’s Professional Foul, the difference between ‘John ate well’ (i.e. a lot) and ‘John ate well’ (i.e. in an elegant way), Castiglione’s courtiers know that adverbs can have many meanings. The courtier must not only do his job well (competently), he must also do it well (effortlessly). ‘I have found quite a universal rule,’ says one of Castiglione’s characters in a famous passage,
which in this matter seems to me to be valid above all others, and in all human affairs whether in word or deed: and that is to avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some very rough and dangerous reef; and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practise in all things a certain sprezzatura, so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.
Castiglione, in other words, provides several hundred pages of rules, carefully thought out and sinuously developed, thanks to the give and take made possible by the dialogue form he chose to use. But these are intended to govern the behaviour of men and women who will fail if they reveal, by a word or a gesture, that they have read such a work or made a conscious effort to put its precepts into practice. The Courtier can be seen – from one point of view – as the ultimate self-consuming artefact. Supposedly practical, it leaves an attentive reader helpless to carry out the enterprise for which it claims to provide practical guidance (all later etiquette books reveal the same disjunction between form and function). Like Machiavelli’s Prince, which tells princes how to adapt to circumstances, and shows readers that few if any princes ever do change their methods to meet new situations, The Courtier resembles a handbook. Like The Prince it is anything but. Intelligent readers rapidly come to see that Castiglione, like Machiavelli, respected the anfractuosities of the real. He wanted not to give cook-book recipes for success, but to hone their prudence, which was the only tool for dealing with situations too diverse and protean to be predicted in precise detail.
Italian historians often argue that Castiglione wanted to train courtiers who still saw themselves as citizens, as well as subjects. His courtiers, on this account, will not serve an evil master, and will use their skills and charm to make right policies attractive. Scholars who take this view contrast the free courtier of the early 16th century with the Baroque one of a century later, who survived by constructing a hard, deceptive shell around his feelings and vulnerabilities. The 17th-century courtier used Gracián’s Oráculo manual, rather than Castiglione’s Courtier, as his guide to successful conduct in a dark world where spies lurked behind every pillar and rulers emulated Nero rather than Augustus. A reader more attentive to parallels than to differences, on the other hand, may well see Castiglione and Gracián as sharing a good deal of common ground – and treat them both as architects of a self constructed for survival on the bobsled courses of a dangerous, privatised public life. French, English and American scholars tend to see The Courtier in the terms more of social than political history: as a central document in what Norbert Elias called ‘the civilising process’, the long, slow history of how the European aristocracy finally learned to behave in an aristocratic way.
Peter Burke treats The Book of the Courtier as an ‘open text’, whose dialogue form and apparent tensions and contradictions may reflect its author’s refusal to offer a simple moral, as well as the long time that he spent at work on it and the changes in his personal and political situation. Accordingly, Burke does not offer a final interpretation of what Castiglione meant, though he does identify the ancient and medieval source from which he drew his ideals, his terminology, the larger shape and many smaller passages of his work. For meaning, Burke substitutes reception: not what Castiglione had in mind but what his readers found in him.
Burke argues, convincingly, that watching a succession of readers at work on Castiglione can offer new information about that much discussed but little analysed process, the transmission of Italian Renaissance ideas and mores to the rest of Europe. He establishes the publishing history of The Courtier, edition by edition. His list shows that the book dominated the charts in the ten years after it came out. He uses library catalogues to follow its progress into the hands of intellectuals and aristocrats, men and women, writers and artists. He examines how the professional, if marginal, intellectuals who worked in printing-shops edited the text: they divided it into chapters, indexed it and added marginal notes that summarised what they saw as salient points. In doing so, he shows, they closed the open text, making Castiglione’s nervous, selfconscious dialogue into a simple-minded textbook on how to get ahead at court.
Readers sometimes learned much from the book. Italian writers on art and music, as well as court life, used it to evoke the importance of attaining grace without affectation or visible artistry. Though Castiglione’s women confined themselves to conversation, Italian female readers seem to have taken his description of the court lady’s education as justifying their own efforts to study and produce literary works. Henry Howard, later Earl of Northampton, studied the text closely, attending to Castiglione’s discussions of the arts as well as to his definition of the artless art of conversation. Others understood it more pragmatically. Gabriel Harvey, an ambitious Elizabethan policy wonk whose beautifully written marginalia offer some of the richest information we have about Early Modern ways of reading, annotated The Courtier in minute detail (his copy is now in the Newberry Library in that centre of aristocratic mores, Chicago). He distilled not subtle debates but useful maxims for the politically and socially mobile. Similarly wide-ranging reactions, less elaborately expressed, fill the margins of other copies of the book as well.
The Courtier circulated in many languages – including the only international one, Neo-Latin. In the hands of Burke, who has done fascinating work on the different expressive registers of Early Modern Latin and Italian, Castiglione’s translators prove even more informative than his other readers. From England to Poland, Burke offers fascinating details about how translators struggled with difficult terms like sprezzatura – the elusive grace which shows no signs of effort. Sometimes they paraphrased or rewrote, rather than rendered, segments of the original – as Thomas Hody perhaps did when he used ‘recklessness’ and ‘disgracing’, which could be taken as pejorative terms, as his equivalents for sprezzatura. And sometimes they simply left out what now seem key passages – as the Pole, Górnicki, omitted any discussion of the arts because ‘we don’t know about this here’, and cut the female characters for similar reasons. The limits, as well as the power, of Italianate models of writing and behaviour gradually become apparent.
Another line of inquiry is more original still. Burke does not ask, in the traditional way, whether art imitated life in Castiglione – that is, whether the text really described life at Urbino. Instead, he asks if particular individuals were seen as emulating and embodying the qualities of The Courtier’s protagonists. Careful study of biographies and other texts reveals that many writers adapted Castiglione to new purposes and contexts – and suggests that his work really did affect the way that prominent men and women were described and commemorated. Those who praised Philip Sidney, Arundel and others for their ability to combine courage and sensibility, to pursue arms and letters, had read The Courtier – as had the objects of their praise.
Burke follows Castiglione even into the hands of his enemies – the critics of courts and court life in England and elsewhere, who saw him as confirming their direst suspicions about the cynicism and hypocrisy of ‘the absolute Castilio’. In court circles, by contrast, Castiglione eventually came to seem naive. More ruthless manuals replaced The Courtier in the age of absolutism, though it regained a different kind of life in the 18th-century heyday of sensibility and manners, before winning the approbation of the 19th-century creators of modern good manners.
Burke sketches out three separate zones: a western, an eastern and a northern. Only in the first of these, made up of Italy, France and Spain, did The Courtier find immediate and wide-spread acceptance. In the second, the tyrannical world of Muscovy and the Christian parts of the Ottoman Empire, it never arrived at all. In the northern region – Britain, Scandinavia and Central Europe – it spread more slowly and met, perhaps, with more criticism and opposition. Taking his cue from Elias, Burke suggests that one can connect the regional successes and failures of Europe’s civilising process, the defanging of its once violent nobility, with the different niches which Castiglione’s book found in different cultural ecologies. Ex ungue leonem: from the fate of one book, the history of a civilisation. Whether or not this larger thesis finds acceptance, The Fortunes of the Courtier, original, spare and stimulating, is a model monograph.
Naturally it does not answer every question it – or The Courtier – raises. In particular, one would like to know more about the actual mores of Italian courts in the late 15th and early 16th centuries – about the court societies that Castiglione and his contemporaries saw and heard about as they grew up, and the now largely forgotten texts that described them. It might be instructive, for example, to compare Castiglione’s book with its little-read Latin predecessor, the dialogues De politia litteraria of the Milanese humanist Angelo Decembrio. This strange text, which includes lively conversations, lists of Latin synonyms and much else, describes the court of Ferrara in the age of Leonello d’ Esté, half a century earlier than Castiglione. One could also compare the tales told by Castiglione’s irrepressible narrators with the many revealing anecdotes of life at a number of courts that crop up in another little-read classic, the Lives of the Florentine bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci.
For all their differences in form, these works both describe a court very different from that at Castiglione’s Urbino. The members of the Este court, as Decembrio depicts them, eagerly discussed topics that their later counterparts at Urbino carefully avoided – ranging from the details of classical philology to those of modern adultery. Decembrio makes Leonello justify, at considerable length, Aeneas’ rebuking of Helen (in the so-called Helen episode of the Aeneid), and Caesar’s weeping at the sight of Pompey’s corpse (in Petrarch’s poem). In each case great men failed to show the self-control one might expect; but in each case, he insisted, the poet had caught a detail of real human life. After all, Leonello pointed out, his own father, Niccolò, had shown considerable emotion when he caught his older son, Leonello’s brother, in bed with his own young second wife, and had to have both of them executed. One can imagine the hissings of indrawn breath that would have condemned the teller of such an anecdote at Castiglione’s imaginary Urbino. Both Decembrio and Vespasiano portray a society far more overtly sadistic than Castiglione’s.
Such texts underline a number of vital points about the Italian court of the Renaissance. It was dangerous; so, too, was the larger state system, in which, until 1494, Italian states jockeyed for power in an uneasy system regulated by the Treaty of Lodi, while rulers and resident ambassadors tried to prevent any single rival from gaining predominance. Those who took part in court life, moreover, had personal as well as political grounds for constant worry. Bourgeois gentilhommes almost to a man, they had not only to act like aristocrats but to create a way of doing so. They came from the society that harboured the commercial revolution of the high Middle Ages, from once republican cities which had deprived aristocrats of their political rights and driven them into exile. Yet they had to show that they – rather than the French and Spanish noblemen who swarmed into Italy after 1494, swelling with pride in their ancient lineages – were the real nobility.
Like his own readers, Castiglione had an inheritance at his disposal, which he reshaped: not only the intellectual heritage that Burke describes, the tradition of manuals on public and private life, but also the social heritage of accumulated experience. Perhaps his book embodies, in its very openness, the contradictions that the court exhibits when examined more closely: between the assertion of noble birth and the fact of short genealogies, the insistence on making life into a safe game and the fact of constant social and emotional risk. Courtiers not only danced and talked but walked a tightrope, in the High Renaissance as before – and after. Burke may devote too little attention to the empty spaces over which they gingerly moved.
One would also like to learn more about the fate of The Courtier in the 19th and 20th centuries. The book continued to live in scholarship, inspiring Burckhardt, Symonds and others who formed the standard modern notion of the Renaissance. One wonders if it also continued to live, at all, in morality. Graciàn’s manual of the cold, hard self did, as Helmut Lehten showed in a recent brilliant book. Werner Krauss, Hispanist and member of the Kreisau circle, found in 17th-century morality some of the bases for his own ability to resist the Gestapo, when they took him prisoner. Did Castiglione’s vision of life as a conscious work of art underpin the artistically designed lives of Symonds, Wilde and others in the Fin de Siècle?