Il Libro del Cortegiano or The Book of The Courtier was written by Count Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529), and was first published in vernacular Italian in 1528. The book provides a fascinating insight into Renaissance court life, and was the ultimate ‘how to’ guide for aspiring courtiers.
The Renaissance court consisted of a ruler’s retinue of servants, advisors, nobles and foreign dignitaries. Court life revolved around the monarch or prince it served, and for Renaissance nobles the best way to advance in their career was to gain their ruler’s favourable attention. However, courts could be large (Queen Elizabeth I’s was estimated to range from 1,000 to 1,500 people) so it was important to stand out from the crowd. The Book of The Courtier provided invaluable advice on just how to do this.
The dos and don’ts of Renaissance court culture
Covering everything from speech to dancing, The Book of The Courtier includes two handy lists of ‘dos and don’ts’ for the perfect courtier. As modern readers, we are likely to find these rules of etiquette pedantic and long-winded – but they contain much that might amuse us, too.
For gentlewomen, Castiglione recommends (digital pages pp. 9–10):
- ‘To beware of praising herself indiscreetly and of being too tedious and noisome in her talk’.
- ‘To be heedful and remember that men may with less jeopardy show to be in love than women’.
- ‘To set out her beauty and disposition of person with meet [appropriate] garments that best become her, but as feigningly as she can, making semblance to bestow no labour about it, nor yet to mind it’.
For gentlemen, Castiglione instructs (pp. 5–8):
- ‘To do his feats with a slight, as though they were rather naturally in him, than learned with study’.
- ‘To dance well without over nimble footings or too busy tricks’.
- ‘To leap well’
What is special about this edition?
The Book of The Courtier reflects how aspects of court culture were shared across early modern Europe. Throughout the 16th century it was translated, published and widely distributed in many different editions.
This edition was published in 1588, in London, and is unusual because it provides Italian, French and English versions of the text side-by-side.
Castiglione counselled his readers ‘to be seen in tongues’ (digital p. 5), or have the ability to speak modern European languages. Therefore, this tri-lingual edition not only gave advice on how to be the model courtier, but also provided the means by which to learn, practise and achieve one of the fundamental courtly skills.
The court in The Duchess of Malfi
Criticism of corruption at court was a common theme in Jacobean drama, and is particularly pertinent to John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.
The play opens with Antonio and Delio discussing Antonio’s recent visit to the French court. He praises the French king, and describes his efforts to rid his court of sycophants, troublemakers and false advisors. Antonio summarises that:
a prince’s court
Is like a common fountain, whence should flow
Pure silver drops in general; but if’t chance
Some cursed example poison ‘t near the head,
Death, and diseases through the whole land spread (1.1.11–15)
He warns that if those in power are corrupt, all others levels of society will suffer: words which prefigure the violent and tragic events of the play.