The Italian Renaissance. We all know it. It’s that brief time in history where powerful families and political factions were dealing death on the streets while artistic geniuses put their indelible stamp on the world. The upheaval of that time forged the modern world. To survive in that world, one had to have sprezzatura, that easy-going, effortless appearance of nonchalance that made it seem as though you were born to the noble courts with etiquette and protocol burned into your DNA. If you had sprezzatura, you could dazzle patrons, allies, and enemies alike as a courtier.
Baldassare Castiglione was such a courtier. He wrote his Il Cortegiano over the course of 20 years from 1508 to 1528, fashioning it in the form of a Renaissance dialogue. This was a specific literary form that uses drama, conversation, philosophy, and instructional discourse. The conversations he used were modeled after those he actually experienced in the 1507 court of the Duke of Urbino (the one after Cesare Borgia). The result is a book that has been hailed as the definitive account of Renaissance court life and considered one of the most important works of this era.
With a reputation like that, you can probably understand why I wanted to read it.
If you’ve been reading my reviews for any length of time, you’ll already know that I consider the Medieval and Renaissance eras my historical home away from home. You’ll also already know that I’ve read books on knighthood and chivalry with an eye towards incorporating what I can into my own life. I’m not entirely sure why, but I went into this book expecting something along that line. There’s some crossover, I suppose, but on the whole I couldn’t have been more wrong. The chivalrous is expected to hold to etiquette, yes, but the courtier doesn’t necessarily have to hold to the inner standards of a knight. This is the reality of courtly dominance, not the knightly ideal that had to function in the courts as well as on the battlefield. It’s supposedly a more refined age (all evidence to the contrary). I don’t want to say it’s superficial because it’s not, though it certainly comes across that way at times. If this book is any indication, being a courtier is hard work. You’re expected to have a sharp and cool mind, elegant and bold speech, a strong foothold on the classics and the arts (which were not translated in those days), a warrior’s spirit, athletic prowess (meaning you could wield a rapier as well as you could wield your golden tongue), and you had to be able to cloak all of that in a package of proper bearing, using court-appropriate gestures and body language while appearing as if you didn’t put forth any effort whatsoever to achieve any of it.
The way this book is structured, it’s a fictionalized conversation, as I say, based on those that actually took place. In this regard, it’s not unlike Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, though the two books couldn’t be more dissimilar. The conceit of this book is that members of the court attempt to describe a perfect gentleman of the court. The conversation takes place over the course of four evenings, wherein the courtiers debate nobility, women, love, and humor. Very courtly, no? During the course of these debates, that’s where the instruction of sprezzatura comes into play, because you essentially have to work very hard at appearing not to work at all.
The lessons aren’t limited to the oral presentation either. The book spends some considerable time on rhetoric, essentially calling attention to itself indirectly. Where one is allowed to be a little careless in a verbal speech here and there, all things being equal, the written word is supposed to be polished enough to blind the reader with its brilliance and sharp enough to draw blood. The pen is truly mightier than the sword, so they say. From a courtier, this and more is to be expected… and it still has to look effortless, as though it were simply meant to be there and sprang up from whole cloth as if dictated by angels.
If this sounds preposterous, it is. But this is also the reality of how the game was played. Anyone who has read virtually anything written during the Renaissance, fact or fiction, can attest to this. It’s why the average ruffian in a Shakespearean play comes across as far more elegant than most of our modern politicians today. It may be hyperbole, but there’s some truth to it on some level. Reading about it is one thing. Trying your hand at it is something else entirely, and Castiglione is offering the road map for those who’d like to make the attempt.
On the whole, this one is both practical and blustery at the same time, as one would expect. For the historically-minded, it will most definitely offer some insight into the halls of power and prestige. Some of it will surprise you, and odds are you’ll be impressed with just how much of it persists to this day if you know where to look. And that’s the point, because you’re supposed to be impressed. If you’re not, either Castiglione didn’t present himself properly, or you’re too much of a bore to appreciate his refinery.
Which reminds me, it’s important to account for ego here too. After all, these are lessons for Italian nobles of the court, and all that implies.