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Of the Court of Urbino

By Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529)

From ‘Il Cortegiano’

ON the slopes of the Apennines, towards the Adriatic Sea, almost in the centre of Italy, there lies (as every one knows) the little city of Urbino. Although surrounded by mountains, and rougher ones than perhaps some others that we see in many places, it has yet enjoyed such favor of heaven that the country round about is very fertile and rich in crops; so that besides the salubrity of the air, there is great abundance of everything needful for human life. But among the greatest blessings that can be attributed to it, this I think to be the chief, that for a long time it has ever been ruled by the best of lords; insomuch that in the universal calamities of the wars of Italy, it still for a space remained exempt. But without seeking further, we can give good proof of this in the glorious memory of the Duke Federigo, who in his day was the light of Italy; nor is there lack of credible and abundant witnesses, who are still living, to his prudence, humanity, justice, liberality, unconquered courage, and military discipline; which are conspicuously attested by his numerous victories, his capture of impregnable places, the sudden swiftness of his expeditions, the frequency with which he put to flight large and formidable armies by means of a very small force, and by his loss of no single battle whatever; so that we may not unreasonably compare him to many famous ancients.

Among his other praiseworthy deeds, the Duke Federigo built on the rugged site of Urbino a palace, regarded by many as the most beautiful to be found in all Italy; and he so well furnished it with every suitable thing, that it seemed not a palace but a city in the form of a palace; and not merely with what is ordinarily used,—such as silver vases, hangings of richest cloth of gold and silk, and other similar things,—but for ornament he added an infinity of antique statues in marble and bronze, pictures most choice, and musical instruments of every sort; nor would he admit anything there that was not very rare and excellent. Then at very large cost he collected a great number of most excellent and rare books in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, all of which he adorned with gold and with silver, esteeming this to be the supreme excellence of his great palace.

Following at last the course of nature, and already sixty-five years old, he died as he had lived, gloriously; and he left as his successor a little motherless boy of ten years, his only son Guidobaldo. Heir to his father’s state, he seemed to be heir also to all his father’s virtues, and soon his noble nature gave such promise as seemed not to be hoped for from mortal man; so that men esteemed none among the extraordinary deeds of the Duke Federigo to be greater than to have begotten such a son. But envious of so much virtue, fortune thwarted this glorious beginning with all her might; so that before Duke Guido reached the age of twenty years he fell ill of the gout, which grew upon him with grievous pain, and in a short space of time so crippled all his limbs that he could neither stand upon his feet nor move; and thus one of the most beautiful and active forms in the world was disfigured and spoiled in tender youth.

And not yet content with this, fortune was so adverse to him in all his plans that he could seldom carry to a conclusion anything that he desired; and although he was most wise of counsel and unconquered in spirit, it seemed that what he undertook, both in war and in everything else, whether small or great, always ended ill for him: and proof of this is given in his many and diverse calamities, which he ever bore with such strength of mind that his spirit was never vanquished by fortune; nay, scorning her assaults with unbroken courage, he lived in weakness as though strong, and in adversity as though fortunate, with perfect dignity and universal esteem, so that although he was thus infirm of body, he fought with most honorable rank in the service of their Serene Highnesses the Kings of Naples, Alfonso and Fernando the Younger; later with Pope Alexander VI., and with the Venetian and Florentine nobles.

After the accession of Julius II. to the Pontificate, he was made Captain of the Church; at which time, following his accustomed style, above all else he took care to fill his household with very noble and valiant gentlemen, with whom he lived most familiarly, delighting in their conversation; wherein the pleasure he gave to others was not less than that he received from others, he being well versed in both the learned languages, and uniting affability and agreeableness to a knowledge of things without number; and besides this, the greatness of his spirit so animated him that although he could not practice in person the exercises of horsemanship, as he once had done, yet he took the utmost pleasure in seeing them in others; and by his words, now correcting, now praising each according to desert, he clearly showed how much judgment he had in those matters; wherefore in jousts and tournaments, in riding, in the handling of every sort of weapon, as well as in pastimes, games, and music,—in short, in all the exercises proper to noble gentlemen,—every one strove so to carry himself as to merit being deemed worthy of such noble fellowship.

All the hours of the day were assigned to honorable and pleasant exercises, as well for the body as for the mind; but since my lord Duke was always wont by reason of his infirmity to retire to sleep very early after supper, every one usually betook himself at that hour to the presence of my lady Duchess, Elisabetta Gonzaga; where also was ever to be found my lady Emilia Pia, who was endowed with such lively wit and sound judgment that, as you know, she seemed the mistress of us all, and that every one gained wisdom and worth from her. Here, then, gentle discussions and innocent pleasantries were heard, and on the face of every one a jocund gayety was seen depicted, so that the house could truly be called the very abode of mirth: nor ever elsewhere, I think, was so relished, as once was here, how great may be the sweetness of dear and cherished companionship; for apart from the honor it was to each of us to serve such a lord as he of whom I have just spoken, there was born in the hearts of all a supreme contentment every time we came into the presence of my lady Duchess; and it seemed as though this contentment were a chain that held us all united in love, so that never was concord of will or cordial love between brothers greater than that which here was between us all.

The same was it among the ladies, with whom there was intercourse most free and honorable; for every one was permitted to talk, sit, jest, and laugh with whom he pleased; but such was the reverence paid to the wish of my lady Duchess, that this same liberty was a very great check; nor was there any one who did not esteem it the utmost pleasure he could have in the world to please her, and the utmost pain to displease her. And thus most decorous manners were here joined with the greatest liberty, and games and laughter in her presence were seasoned not only with keenest wit, but with gracious and sober dignity; for that purity and loftiness which governed all the acts, words, and gestures of my lady Duchess, bantering and laughing, were such that she would have been known for a lady of noblest rank by any one who saw her even but once. And impressing herself thus upon those about her, she seemed to attune us all to her own quality and pitch: accordingly each strove to follow this example, taking as it were a pattern of beautiful behavior from the bearing of so great and virtuous a lady; whose highest qualities I do not now purpose to recount, they not being my theme and being well known to all the world, and far more because I could not express them with either tongue or pen; and those that perhaps might have been somewhat hid, fortune, as though wondering at such rare virtue, chose to reveal through many adversities and stings of calamity; so as to give proof that in the tender breast of a woman, in company with singular beauty, there may abide prudence and strength of soul and all those virtues that even among stern men are very rare.

But continuing, I say that the custom of all the gentlemen of the household was to betake themselves straightway after supper to my lady Duchess; where, among the other pleasant pastimes and music and dancing that continually were practiced, sometimes entertaining questions were proposed, sometimes ingenious games were devised with one or another as arbiter, in which under various disguises the company disclosed their thoughts figuratively to whomsoever pleased them best. Sometimes other discussions arose about different matters, or biting retorts passed lightly back and forth; often imprese, as we now call them, were displayed. And in these verbal contests there was wonderful diversion, the household being (as I have said) full of very noble talents; among whom (as you know) the most famous were my lord Ottaviano Fregoso, his brother Messer Federigo, the Magnifico Giuliano de’ Medici, Messer Pietro Bembo, Messer Cesare Gonzaga, the Count Ludovico da Canossa, my lord Gaspar Pallavicino, my lord Ludovico Pio, my lord Morello da Ortona, Pietro da Napoli, Messer Roberto da Bari, and countless other very noble gentlemen. Moreover there were many who, though usually they did not remain there constantly, yet spent most of the time there; like Messer Bernardo Bibbiena, the Unico Aretino, Joan Cristoforo Romano, Pietro Monte, Terpandro, Messer Nicolo Frisio; so that there always flocked thither poets, musicians, and all kinds of agreeable men, and the most eminent in ability that were to be found in Italy.