"Indeed, far too much," remarked signor Lodovico, "for I don't think that one could discover anywhere in the world a vessel big enough to hold all the things you want to put into our courtier."
Machiavelli's The Prince was a proto-realpolitik version of the medieval Mirrors for Princes genre, breathtaking even today for its bald pragmatism. The contemporary Book of the Courtier, by Baldesar Castiglione (1478-1529), however, cast a rather more idealistic eye upon the Prince's associates. Its premise - a group of men and women gather on consecutive evenings at the court in Urbino, to while away the hours in discourse on the broad theme of what one looks for in the ideal courtier - harks back to Bocaccio's Decameron (although its concerns are somewhat less bawdy). Yet the execution owes as much to Plato's Symposium: another gathering of notable thinkers and bon viveurs, another collective pursuit of a philosophical abstract, another author absent from the action but very much pulling the strings.
This is entirely appropriate, of course. The mission statement of the Renaissance was ad fontes - an attempt to return to the sources of European thought (Classical, Biblical) in their original languages, free of centuries of translation and clutter. One of the results was an enthusiastic 'rediscovery'*, or perhaps more accurately a redeployment, of ancient texts. Knowing your Classics became not only a foundation for scholarly training, but also fashionable in the world beyond the ecclesiastical educational establishment, a vital tool of the courtier as much as of the scholar. A rhetorical point was no longer well made without Graeco-Roman allusions to back it up.
[ * not necessarily in the sense of them having been 'lost' before, I note with an eye to twelfth-century Toledo (and my co-blogger Vicky's medievalist wrath ;-)) ]
Castiglione, then, had every reason to display his Classical learning: and barely a page goes by of the Courtier without a Roman historical anecdote or a touch of Athenian sophistry. The structure of the discussion is very much along Platonic lines, with pairs of characters taking it in turns to deliver extended meditations and argue point/counterpoint upon a given topic (although, it must be said that the debates tend to be considerably less one-sided than the average Socrates Explains It All). Or take the opening remarks, for example, in which Castiglione ponders whether or not to write his book:
I have spent a long time wondering, my dear Alfonso, which of two things was the more difficult for me: either to refuse what you have asked me so often and so insistently, or to do it.
In its artificial juxtaposition and balancing of ostensible opposites, this is pure Classical rhetoric; the introduction to the Penguin edition even helpfully supplies the Cicero quotation that it homages:
For a long time I debated earnestly with myself, Brutus, as to which course would be more difficult or serious - to deny your oft-repeated request, or to do what you ask.
Classical learning, and the virtues of Renaissance humanism more generally, are likewise championed by the characters as requisite qualities of the courtier. This is not to say that the medieval ideals of chivalry have been left behind. Far from it: a courtier, we are told, should be adept at riding and in tournaments, and be equipped to serve his prince militarily. (This was a particularly sore point in Italy during this period, where there was never a lack of opportunities for military adventures, as the quarrelsome city-states and principalities spent as much time fighting each other as their eventually victorious external enemies).
Yet a well-to-do sixteenth-century nobleman needed more than merely martial prowess to justify his existence in changing world; as the Renaissance polity replaced the medieval kingdom or city-state, so the courtier was envisioned as the successor to the knight. New things were required, and expected. It was on this topic that the Courtier proved so influential long after its Italian setting succumbed to outside domination - in Elizabethan England, in particular. Over the course of the discussion, the participants declare that a courtier, to be worthy of his favoured (and lucrative) position, must be a person of graceful deportment, charm and wit, possessed of great learning and appreciation of literature, and skill in music and languages.
So in jousts and tournaments, in riding, in handling every kind of weapon, as well as in the festivities, games and musical performances, in short, in all the activities appropriate to a well born gentleman, everyone at his Court strove to behave in such a way as to deserve to be judged worthy of the Duke's noble company.
Unsurprising, then, is Lodovico's jest quoted at the top of this post. Nor are the standards expected of female courtiers any less exacting - indeed, they are more so, and retain much more of their chivalric antecedents. While women, too, are expected to be witty and well read, their courtly role is envisioned as a considerably more constricted one (it is notable that only one of the women, the bubbly and sharp-witted Emilia, plays an active role in the discussion). There is only one true misogynist among the group, but while he is ably shouted down (and, at times, mocked to amusing effect) by the rest, the underlying assumptions in Castiglione's work pay only lipservice to Plato's contention in the Republic that men and women may be equals, given equal circumstances. Rather, women are to be distant adornments, to be admired extravagantly but kept at arm's length for their own protection; they must guard their virtue more preciously than their lives, for their reputation is much more fragile than men's. The injustice of this is frankly acknowledged by several of the discussants, but goes largely unchallenged:
[Women] may impugn a man's virtue more freely than he may insult theirs. And this is because we ourselves, as men, have made it a rule that a dissolute way of life is not to be thought evil or blameworthy or disgraceful, whereas in women it leads to such complete opprobrium and shame that once a woman has been spoken ill of, whether the accusation is true or false, she is utterly disgraced forever.
Male courtiers, too, must look to their reputation; the concern for men, however, is not their sexual morality, but how others view their overall conduct. A successful courtier is one who projects the appearance of grace, wit and accomplishment (even, we might infer, if he does not actually possess them). By a man's deeds is he known - and, in the world of the Renaissance court, he is equally 'known' by his speech and demeanour, his manners and his honour. While the translator of my edition dismisses this preoccupation with surface matters and dissumulation as shallow beside Machiavelli's plain speaking, there can be no doubt that appearances were crucial to a courtier. By the standards of the day, the external provided unescapable markers of what was within, and a courtly career could be made or broken by whom one flattered, impressed - or offended.
For the Book of the Courtier is ultimately an exercise in aspiration, an expression of an ideal, deliberately overstated for effect (which is hardly out of keeping with the techniques of Classical rhetoric). Adding to this is the strong thread of nostalgia that runs through the book. While it is set in 1507, at a court at which the author spent a great many years, by the time Castiglione was writing it up (the 1520s), he was painting a portrait of a lost world. Urbino and many other Italian city-states had fallen variously under the sway of Rome, France, and the Empire: the autonomous Renaissance princes that Castiglione's fictionalised characters speak of how best to serve were no longer to be found in Italy. The envisaged Courtier, then, is a tribute to fondly-remembered golden age - and a glance ahead to what would soon emerge further north.