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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529)

THE INTEREST to be found in the literary work of “il conte Baldassare Castiglione”—in the one prose volume he wrote, ‘Il Cortegiano’ (The Courtier)—arises not only from the historical value it now has, but from its representing the charming character of a gentleman. And it does this not merely by intentionally describing the ideal gentleman of the fifteenth century, but by unconsciously revealing the character of its author. Castiglione was himself distinctively a gentleman. Without eminent abilities or position, his life unmarked by any remarkable deeds or any striking events, he yet deserves remembrance as making vivid to us those admirable qualities and conditions which are the result, in individuals, of the long moral and intellectual cultivation of a large group of men and women.

He was one of the group that made famous the court of Urbino, not at the time of its greatest glory under Duke Frederic II., but just afterward, when the duchy was ruled by Frederic’s son Guidobaldo—an estimable invalid—and the court was presided over by Guidobaldo’s wife, the much beloved and admired Duchess Elisabetta, one of the great Gonzaga family. Castiglione’s own sketch of this court (see translation below) renders any other delineation of it supererogatory; but his silence regarding himself personally makes it necessary to gather knowledge of his life from other sources. His person is made known to us by Raffael’s interesting portrait of him, now in the Louvre, painted in 1515. It is a portrait by a friend. Raffael was only five years younger than Castiglione, and their affectionate relations were of long standing.

Castiglione was the son of a valorous soldier who fought by the side of the Marquis Francesco Gonzaga of Mantua, but his early youth was spent not at Mantua but at Milan, where he received from famous scholars—Demetrio Calcondile and his peers—a brilliant classical education, rather than the training one would look for in his father’s son. His father’s death in 1494 obliged him, in those troublous times, to seek a protector. As his mother was distantly connected with his father’s friends, the rulers of Mantua, it was to them that his eyes turned, and in 1499 he was one of the suite of the Marquis on the occasion of the triumphal entrance of Louis XII. of France into Milan after his conquest in three weeks of the duchy; a triumph followed by the hideous ten-years’ “caging” of Lodovico il Moro, Milan’s duke.

Such spectacles as this triumph and this imprisonment, which the boy of twenty-one now beheld, were to be familiar to him all his life. The king-like pope Alexander VI. and his son Cæsar Borgia, the warrior Julius II., the Medici Leo X., the soon-dead Adrian VI., and the irresolute Clement VII., successively ruled in Rome, or rather dwelt in Rome, the Cloaca Maxima of Italy, whose pollution sapped the strength of all the land. The sack of Rome in 1527 was among the last of the long series of Italian woes Castiglione witnessed. He was not in Italy at that moment. The last five years of his life were spent at Madrid as papal nuncio at the court of Charles V. He went thither on the eve of the battle of Pavia, and the imprisonment there of Francis I. soon followed; an imprisonment that seems a terrible echo of that of the enemy of France a quarter of a century before.

‘Il Cortegiano’ was written in the intervals of military and diplomatic services, rendered first to Guidobaldo of Urbino and later to Frederic of Mantua, the son of Francesco. The book was begun probably about 1514; it received the last touches in 1524, but it was not published until 1528.

The dialogues that compose the book are feigned to have occurred in the winter of 1506–7. At that time the author was in England, an envoy from the Duke of Urbino to Henry VII., sent as the Duke’s proxy to be installed as Companion of the Garter. He carried with him splendid gifts for the King, fine falcons, beautiful horses, and a picture by Raffael—St. George and the Dragon, in which St. George wears “the Garter.”

Castiglione’s public labors had made him well known, when between him and his high-born friends there was talk of his marriage with a daughter of the house of Medici; but political influences caused her to be given by preference to a Strozzi. Had this alliance been formed, Castiglione would have found himself, in later years, the nephew of two popes and the uncle of a queen of France. But better luck was in keeping for him. In 1516 he had the singular good fortune to make a marriage of tender affection; but his wife died only four years later: from that time his chief pleasure was in the society of his friends.

They numbered all the most distinguished Italians of his day; men whose intellectual powers found artistic expression alike in words, or the painter’s canvas, or the sculptor’s marble, or the architect’s stone: and it is the reflection of this wide and varied companionship that gives charm and also weight to the pages of ‘Il Cortegiano.’ A more delicate delightfulness comes from the tone of liberal refinement with which the impression is conveyed of singularly ennobling intercourse with women.

Castiglione was the contemporary and the friend of the famous Marchioness of Pescara, Vittoria Colonna; of the brilliant Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, whose daughter, the beautiful Duchess of Urbino, is immortalized by Titian’s many portraits of her, both as she was in youth and in age, and also as in youth he saw her idealized. This Duchess of Urbino was the niece of Castiglione’s own Duchess Elisabetta; and by marriage with the nephew of Guidobaldo she became the successor of Elisabetta. These great ladies were involved by family ties in all the stirring events of their times. Isabella d’Este was the aunt of Constable Bourbon and the sister-in-law of Lucrezia Borgia. Vittoria Colonna’s husband was the cousin of the famous Alfonso d’Avalos (Marquis del Vasto) of Spain: and in the entangled interests of these personages and of the rulers of Urbino, Castiglione was constantly concerned and occupied.

His counsels were also sought by Giuliano de’ Medici—styled, like his father, “Il Magnifico”—sitting now, ever, in helpless dignity on his San Lorenzo tomb, “mentre che il danno e la vergogna dura”; and by the unfortunate Doge of Genoa, Ottaviano Fregoso; or by the participants in the learned discussions carried on by Cardinal Bembo, with whom he made a gay excursion to Tivoli in 1516, in company with Raffael and the illustrious Venetian Andrea Navigero and his friend Agostino Beazzano, whose portraits on the same canvas are one of Raffael’s masterpieces. Another ecclesiastical friend was Cardinal Bibbiena, who appears nowhere to more advantage than in a letter to the Marchioness of Mantua, describing Castiglione’s grief, and that of his friends, at the news that the Marchioness herself had sent them of the death of Castiglione’s wife. The same year the Cardinal himself died. It was the year of Raffael’s death also, and Castiglione felt himself greatly bereft. The Italian Bishop of Bayeux, Ludovico Canossa,—papal nuncio in France and French ambassador at Venice,—was a cousin of Castiglione’s mother and in constant relations with the son; and it is to him that in what may be called the “drama” of ‘Il Cortegiano’ is gayly assigned the task of making the first sketch of “the perfect courtier.”

From such social relations came Castiglione’s wide familiarity and sound judgment respecting the various worlds of men, of women, and of art. The higher qualities his book gives evidence of—the love of simplicity, purity, sincerity, serenity, kindness, courtesy, moderation, modesty, the appreciation of what is graceful, gay, delicate,—these qualities were truly his own: we know not whence he derived them.

Something should be said of the style in which the book is written. Its author tells us that one of the principal criticisms made upon it while it circulated for many years in manuscript, was that its language was not the language of Boccaccio, who was then accepted as the model for Italian prose-writers. Castiglione did not bind himself to the manner of the Tuscan speech. He was of Lombard birth and habit, and he chose—in the faith of which Montaigne is the great defender—the words, the phrases, the constructions that best fitted his thought, no matter whence he gathered them, if only they were familiar and expressive. He thus gained the force of freedom and the grace of variety, while the customary elegance and the habitual long-windedness of all Italian writers molds his sentences and makes them difficult of translation.

His book was translated into English in 1561 by Thomas Hoby, and exercised a considerable influence on writers of the next fifty years. A reference to it by Donne, Satire v., touches on a characteristic page of his book, for it notes:—

  • “He which did lay
  • Rules to make courtiers (he, being understood,
  • May make good courtiers, but who courtiers good?)
  • Frees from the sting of jests all who in extreme
  • Are wretched or wicked.”
  • In his own country Castiglione’s fame has always been considerable. Ariosto—to whose brother Alfonso, “Messer Alfonso carissimo,” the four books of ‘Il Cortegiano’ are dedicated and at whose desire it was written—Ariosto in his great poem speaks of Castiglione more than once; but a passage in Tasso’s dialogue ‘Della Corte’ does him fit honor:—“I do not deem that Castiglione wrote for the men of his own day only:… the beauty of his writings deserves that in all ages they should be read and praised; and as long as courts shall endure, as long as princes, ladies, and noble gentlemen shall meet together, as long as valor and courtesy shall abide in our hearts, the name of Castiglione will be valued.”