Sir Thomas Hoby, The Courtier (English ed. prin. trans. 1561), from Baldassare Castiglioni's Il Cortegiano, ed. prin. 1528)

Genre: Philosophical memoir in the form of a dramatic dialogue probably influenced by Plato's "Symposium."

Characters: Castiglioni, himself, as the witness of events he recalls from the period 1504-8 in the court of the duke of Urbino, a noble household run by the duchess, Elizabetta.  Primary speakers in the passages excerpted in the Norton are Count Lodovico Canossa who attempts to define the essential characteristics of the ideal courtier, and Pietro Bembo, later a cardinal, who ends the all-nighter by explaining to the cynical and elderly courtier, Gasparo Palavicino, and the younger but equally anti-feminist court musician, Morello da Ortona, how one might look through and beyond physical beauty to find the source of all beauty and thereby ascend the "ladder of love" to find its transcendent and unvarying source.

Summary: On an evening he remembers from his youth in Urbino, Castiglioni recounts the free-ranging dialogue among the "best and the brightest" of central Italy--men and women who would go on to occupy the highest positions in the nobility and the clergy from their generation.  It centers on their attempt to define what they are doing, much like a group of graduating seniors on the verge of their professional lives looking back upon the "court" of higher education and trying to decide what are the essential qualities of the ideal student, what perils the educational process faces, and to what heights it might aspire in the best of circumstances. 


Issues and general research sources:

  1. Canossa's ideal courtier is to achieve excellence by adopting the virtues of all those above him whom he desires to be like.   In effect, the courtier takes on their personalities, piece by piece, until he transforms himself into some new thing "stealing" the "graces" of those who are his models.
    • Is there any danger in such a process of adaptation and transformation?
    • What controls the process, from beginning to end?
    • Can the beginning courtier ever be sure of its conclusions?
  2. Canossa's most influential concept was sprezzatura, translated by Hoby's Elizabethan, Early Modern English, as "recklessness."  The Italian root, sprezza, now means "contempt" or "disdain" or "scorn," but a "scornful" young courtier would seem unlikely to succeed.  However, this kind of scorn's success becomes more plausible if we remember they're all nobles whose identities are defined as being "better than others" ("you talkin' to me?"--think Italian Renaissance nobleman's portrait), and if we remember usages of "to disdain" or "to scorn" which emphasize independence, as in "he disdained their assistance and walked off the field on his own."  In E.ModE, "to reck" is still a normal verb related to "to reckon" or calculate as in "to consider the consequences of an action."  So to act with E.ModE "recklessness" would be to act without concern for how things happen.  To one who has studied endlessly the lessons of countless masters (see #1 above), maintaining the illusion of recklessness would be perhaps the last, hardest lesson to master.  Think of ice skaters who, notoriously, always must smile as they perform those triple and quadruple jumps, whether they stick the landing or fall flat.  What kinds of anxieties might that produce in a typical courtier?  How might sprezzatura cover those anxieties, and what might result if people misread it?  For an outstanding example of a young courtier behaving with sprezzatura, see King Lear's Edmund, especially as he absorbs his father's shocking public insult in Act 1, Scene 1. 
  3. The "ladder of love" arises, according to Bembo, from the "natural" attraction of humans to beauty of persons' figure or behavior and rises to the abstract causes of those beauties.  
    • Given what Erasmus says about the "Sileni of Alcibiades," can you launch a critique of that "beauty--->BEAUTY" linkage?  Click here to go to the More page and review issue number 3 on Erasmus.
  4. Bembo's enthusiastic  Neoplatonism tends to look for the most positive view of human behavior, but how many people do you know who are truly capable of ascending the "ladder of love," leaving behind attachment to the physical beauty of the Beloved which first opened the soul's eyes to the Divine Source?  What does Bembo tell us, in passing, will await the lover who fails to make that Neoplatonic leap?  Look for conscious and unconscious illustrations of the "betrayed Lover"'s stance, when the Beloved is gone or has denied the Lover's suit, in the sonnets of Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare.  Sidney, in particular, has "Astrophil" refer directly to classical philosophy as a kind of antidote to the pains of his unrequited love for "Stella."  What could psychoanalytic criticism tell us about the effects of the spurned lover's desire upon rational thought or even vision, itself?  (Also see Chaucer's Troilus, Book V, for an early, astute illustration of such a lover's vision.)
  5. Castiglioni's version of the courtier's ideal composition is almost exactly counterbalanced by Niccolo Machiavelli's Il Principe (1513/1516) translated surreptitiously into English as The Prince.   Machiavelli, of course, was advising the petty rulers of a divided Italy, prey to any adventurous nation that chose to invade, to lead them to use practical manipulative practices to control their governments rather than appealing to high moral values.   In part as a reaction to Machiavelli's forthright depiction of the way successful European rulers actually conducted themselves, the English adopted a form of his name, "machiavel," as the name for a type of villain in tragic drama--the immoral enemy of order who openly declares his antagonism for human idealism. Roger Ascham, in The Scholemaster (1535), illustrated the overwhelming English dread of the very idea of Italian thinking associated with Machiavelli and the Italian courts by writing that "the Italianate Englishman is the devil incarnate."  Even today, to call a deed "Machiavellian" still is to denote in it a kind of unsavory sophistication or even outright immorality.  Nevertheless, the same men who read Hoby's translation of Castiglioni probably also read Machiavelli on the sly.
    • Note that there is no term like "Castiglionian," but if there were, what would it indicate if used in a negative way?
    • How realistic is Canossa's view of the courtier's growth?
    • Does it pose any dangers to the court and to the prince the courtier serves?
    • How reliable do you find Bembo's "ladder of love" in your experience of the ascent?

Technically, Machiavelli is Italian literature and off limits in a survey of "English literature."

6.  Castiglioni produced his Italian text as a manuscript book for a Patron, a bishop of the Church who was in a position to support Castigioni politically and economically.  Hoby produced his English translation as an edition of printed books for many patrons, those who bought the books.   Think about the difference between what you would be reading in 1528 if you were a friend of Castiglioni's vs. what you would be reading in 1561 if you were a customer of Wyllyam Seres, the printer who produced the first English edition of Hoby's translation. 

7.  The "courtiers" of this dialogue compete against each other in tests of verbal performance.  The judges and supervisors of this event are the Duchess of Urbino and her confidante and friend, the Lady Emilia Pia de la Montefeltro, a widow who serves the Duchess by organizing and moderating these dialogues (click here for her portrait, painted by Raphael, from the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art.  (She hangs upon the western wall.)  How does the women's discourse exercise power to start, stop, and redirect the flow of the men's discourse?

8.  Castiglioni's Il Cortegiano was first published in Italian in 1528, and translated by Sir Thomas Hoby into English in an edition published in 1561.   (See the hyperlinked first edition [editio princeps] information at the top of this page.)  This marks a crucial moment in the education of non-noble children because now they can eavesdrop on the secrets of the noble inhabitants of the courts they want to join. Since Chaucer's day, each noble court equipped itself with a non-noble cadre of clerks skilled in languages, mathematics, diplomacy, and the arts, to advise and to carry out policy commanded by the nobles they served.  In London, the most important single group were the Chancery clerks (servants to the court overseen by the Chancellor, viz. Sir Thomas More).  Learning to survive in the court's hothouse atmosphere required mastery of one's entire person, both character and body, and the projection of a "second self" designed to maneuver among others with whom one competed for knowledge and power.  Steven Greenblatt, in the book of the same name, called this practice "Renaissance self-fashioning."  What are the rules for this game?  What might it cost if you lost?  For recent, prize-winning depictions of this world, see Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, novels centering on the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's "Master Secretary" and the man who simultaneously orchestrated Henry's divorce from Katherine of Aragon, marriage to Anne Boleyn, and execution of Sir Thomas More.  (More had previously destroyed the career of Cardinal Woolsey, Cromwell's patron.)

To go to the Project Gutenberg digital edition translated by W. K. Marriott, click here.  If you want to find quickly a section which accounts for the English outrage about Machiavelli's politics, try Chapter XVII.  When Machiavelli ponders whether a prince should desire to be loved or feared, he concludes it "is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you."  Before you disagree, read his reasoning and consider carefully what you see in the world around you.

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