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The Book of the Courtier (Penguin Classics)
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73 of 81 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2002
Whether or not this work can be considered relevant in today's society is not a factor here. As a testimony to fifteenth century Italian Court Life it is unparalleled.
This delightful four-part book at the social nobility of the Italian Renaissance opens with an apology by Baldesar on the quality of his writing. Something that was clearly debated after Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio as there is somewhat of a lengthier side discussion on the merits of using the vernacular in written speech partway through the first `book'.
The `handbook' opens with the matriarchal Duchess ordering that a game be played and that signora Emilia decide the nature of it. It is first set to Count Lodovico to describe those qualities best attributed to a courtier with the rest of the `players' questioning or discussing his points further.
The Count states that a good courtier should possess charm, be handsome, be of noble birth, modest, physically fit, be good at sports, should both observe and imitate those good qualities of other courtiers, be a good dancer, have an appreciation of music, letters and art, not be affectatious, be an above average scholar in the humanities and that his first and truest profession be that of arms. Quite a long section is taken with a development on the theory of writing and letters which has many references to the desired quality of those in the ancient world. Indeed, Castiglione holds up those practices of the ancient world in high esteem as being worthy of the perfect courtier.
The second book is to be continued by Duke Federico as to how and when the courtier should put the desired courtier qualities into practice. Castiglione prefaces the second book with a justification of why old people see the future as a depraved version of their golden era - almost a youth's retort to the aged question of rebelliousness.
Federico opens by stating he believes the courtier should be considered, virtuous and adhere to certain rules. Above all else he must have good judgment. The second book is frequently `territorial' in nature, particularly in the section espoused by Bernardo Bibbiena on the three types of pleasantries. Namely: long and amusing narrative ; spontaneous thrust of a cutting remark (including puns) ; practical jokes. It is in the latter, which includes tales, that the poking of fun at inhabitants of various cities (for example, Sienans, Fiorentines, Brescians) occurs. Federico earlier makes mention that no young man should attempt wisdom and that no courtier should socialize overly with those beneath his station taking care in choosing your associates. The second `book' is effectively in two parts - Duke Federico's discussion on the rules of courtiership, Bernardo's discussion of the three types of pleasantries with many anecdotes to prove his points and then finishes with a epilogue discussing those practical jokes played by women after Gaspare denounces the practice.
This proves a neat lead in to the third book for the Magnifico Giuliano to discuss fashioning a Court lady. As signora Emilia puts it: "To prove it, consider that virtue is feminine whereas vice is masculine."
The third book is prefaced by Castiglione with short discourse on the superiority of the Court of Urbino to all the other Courts of Italy. The Magnifico then addresses the Duchess directly stating that a woman must not "resemble a man as regards her ways, manners, words, gestures and bearing." and must be beyond reproach or suspicion. He draw many parallels with the perfect courtier, then espouses excellence in subject knowledge, discretion, prudence purity, magnanimity, and appearance. The Magnifico then gives us many stories about great women, ancient stories from Camma to Argentina, from Roma toTheodolina, Theodora and Mathilda, medieval queens such as Eleanora of Aragon, Isabella of Naples, Tomyris of Scythia and many more. He continues with examples of continence, before finally ending his discussion by stating the greatest thing a Court Lady must know, is how to conduct a discussion on love.
The fourth book is prefaced with a lament for several of those parties at the discussion who are now dead. The fourth book is mainly a discussion by Ottaviano giving an end to the perfect courtier. Namely that he be able to please his Prince and how to liaise with and deal with him It ends more as discussion on the nature of Princes. What Castiglione seems to be intimating is that the perfection of a courtier is determined by his Prince rather than by a standard set of rules. The discussion sidetracks into a discourse on the nature of evil and how to recognize and act on it. It links the concepts of agism and vanity to this discussion with several interjections from the oldest member of the group, Morello. The fourth book ends with a move towards discussion of divine love and there it ends. Whether Castiglione meant to continue or not is uncertain.
Two things leap out about this courtier handbook:
The first is how often Castiglione chooses to address the side issue of semantics, rhetoric and grammar. It was clearly an important topic of the age and more time is spent on that single theme that any other.
The second is the constant reference to the ancient world an an ideal to be lived to. Particularly classical figures such as Alexander. This is not surprising given Jacob Bruckhardt's later 1860 essay on the Civilisation of Renaissance Italy, also refers to the "Revival of Antiquity' of the time.
What does comes across very clearly in this book is George Bull's refined translation keeps in mind the nature of the subject matter and in itself espouses courtiership. It is precise yet fluid in its translating and can be considered the best english rendering of this great Italian Renaissance work to date. This work is a must-read for any serious student of Renaissance Italy.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Castiglione's "Courtier" is one of many books outlining protocol and proper behavior of the sophisticated elite. It might suffice to say that he was in some way the Emily Post of his era however, it seems that this work was more far reaching than this. The Courtier is a fascinating book that is actually more useful in studying the renaissance than Machiavelli's "The Prince" (which I do recommend as well) since its detail on why people should act as proscribed is directly taken from real events and people and it is less a work of philosophy and more a work centered about real action in living. I recommend this work highly to everyone wishing to learn more about this age. This version is far better than the one I first read and it offers decent commentary to help elucidate the reader.

Castiglione was extraordinarily fond of Federigo the duke of Urbino with whom he fictitiously converses in this work. I am inclined to believe, though possibly naively, that the fictitious conversations outlined in this work, though not actual, may have been a summation of actual conversations that Castiglione and Federigo actually had. We should remember that Federigo was a model duke and Urbino was the model court of renaissance Italy. Federigo was a lover of learning and the arts and an able ruler willing to give audience to any of his subjects. He also was a more than able military commander who was just in to his men and equally just to those whom he fought against. In short he was the finest example of a renaissance prince. Urbino, though far smaller than Florence, Venice, Genoa or Rome was a very well organized and lovely court that was a favorite place, not only for Castiglione, but also for many artists including Leonardo Da Vinci. Putting all of this in context it is understandable why it made sense for Castiglione to use Federigo as his model in writing this book and it also explains one reason why it was such an immediate success among all of the Italian nobility. Naturally they read it for different reasons than you will but this book had lasting appeal and should be regarded as a classic work.

One reason this book is so interesting is that it is the outline of protocol for courtiers of the Italian Renaissance. Pondering this one might ask the question "why did Castiglione feel he had to write this work?" I can assure you his aims were quite different from those of the handbag maven Kate Spade who has recently issued a series of books along the same vein as The Courtier for today's yuppie elite and their "wannabee" counterparts. I surmise simply that this book needed to be written because their was an essential break in culture of the nobles of the Renaissance and those of the Middle Ages. However this break was by no means sudden and the crudeness and bad manners of the Middle ages did not die quickly especially among the rural nobility. Even so Castiglione saw a benefit from everyone "working off of the same page" and thus he wrote that page.

If you are studying the Renaissance it is probable that you will read some short excerpt of this book. While enlightening as that small cut may be it pales in comparison to the entire work. Sociologists, historians, scholars, and interested people will all get something out of reading this book. It is not imposing and dry as it may appear. Though the language may be dense at times Castiglione is kind to his readers by making the work enjoyable and easy to read. Modeling the work after conversations naturally lightens the work and it really is not that long of a work anyway. I rate this version as the best I have seen and think that you will do a great service to yourself in reading this.

-- Ted Murena
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
There really was a Camelot. But it was in Italy. Urbino in northern Italy to be exact, in the 1500s. Perched on top of a couple of hills in the region Le Marche, Urbino was ruled by the Montefeltro family. From 1444 to 1482 Federigo de Montefeltro skillfully steered his tiny domain through the rough storms of Italian Renaissance realpolitik. Federigo was a successful soldier of fortune yet maintained one of the largest libraries in Italy, spoke Latin, read Aristotle, helped orphans and in general earned the love of his people. He built a beautiful fairy-tale palace and had Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca decorate it.

His less fortunate son Guidobaldo inherited this charming and well-run dukedom. Guidobaldo married the cultivated Elisabetta of the Gonzaga family from Mantua. He was an invalid and not made of his father's stern military stuff. A victim of the brilliant military campaigns of Cesare Borgia that so enchanted Machiavelli, Guidobaldo was temporarily deposed. When the Borgias (Cesare and his father Pope Alexander VI) died, the people of Urbino rose up, drove out Borgia's soldiers and cheered Guidobaldo and Elisabetta upon their return.

For the next few years the court of Elisabetta and Guidobaldo was the most beautiful, enlightened, genteel place on earth. They attracted musicians, scholars and artists. Conversation was honed into a fine art. Into this paradise strode our Lancelot, Baldassare Castiglione, a diplomat descended from minor Italian nobility. He loved Elisabetta, but as far as we know the devotion remained platonic

It is because of Castiglione that we believe we have a sense of what the court of Montefeltro was like, or at least how they would have like to have been remembered. His "The Book of the Courtier" (Il Cortigiano) painstakingly analyzes the attributes of a gentleman through conversations (probably highly idealized) of refined visitors to Urbino.

It's a long, slow, but thoroughly enjoyable book. It is a window into the renaissance mind. It does not describe how the Italians of the sixteenth century were, Machiavelli and Cellini are probably more useful there. But it tells how they wanted to be. The book was read and studied by nobility all over Europe.

It's also how I wanted them to be. Urbino is one of my favorite places. It's a crowded student city now. But on a quiet morning when only a few people are about and the sun has made its way over the hills from the Adriatic, I can imagine that I can see the ghosts of Elisabetta and Guidobaldo walking on the cobbled streets outside their beautiful palace. Fussy, snobbish, yet kind and gentle Castiglione and his wonderful book help make that fantasy more real.

Oh, and for you bike people, Castiglione married Ippolita Torelli.

- Bill McGann, author of "The Story of the Tour de France"
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50 of 63 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2000
Wouldn't it be great if several people had gathered together in one of the 16th century Italian states to hash out exactly what was proper behavior for a gentle person at that time and place? And wouldn't it be better if they were led by a gracious lady who demanded that they stay on track? And wouldn't it be helpful if somebody had written down what was said, so that we could read it? And wouldn't it be wonderful if the book earned praise all over Europe at that time, so we'd know that its teachings were generally accepted? And wouldn't it be convenient if it were currently in print in English translation?
They did. We can. It is.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 16, 2008
Well, contemporary for Niccolo Machiavelli. But this book has enduring relevance for anyone who has to spend time among those courting the politically powerful. It would be easy to dismiss this as without current relevance, but that would be a clear indication of either naiveté about political life or intellectual laziness (or both). The book is formatted as a series of fictional or fictionalized discussions among the influential. This was a common style for non-fiction, from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century, but does feel a little odd to many modern readers.

Over the course of several evenings, the topic is "What makes the perfect courtier?" That is to say, the perfect flunky in the company of the politically powerful. Many attributes an behaviors are discussed as appropriate for a courtier, and two things jumped out at me. First, that this could be a textbook for a political intern or a climber in the business world. Second, how shallow the desired traits were. Social graces, from a good family, a good dancer, a good athlete, but never a skilled planner, a thoughtful or reflective nature, and definitely not someone who will tell the boss the ugly news. There is also great deal of discussion of how to backstab with grace and style.

Reading this was something of a secret and dirty pleasure; the conformation that so little in human behavior has changed in five centuries, the underhanded social techniques, the unbridled ambition of the players.

If you are headed for an entry level position in the political arena, read this, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.

E. M. Van Court
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11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on May 4, 2000
Castiglione's "The Courtier", a landmark in Renaissance literature, is a treatise presented in dialogue form, offering hints on how the courtier ought to act, to win the favours of ladies, to comport himself and - to fight. Contrary to my first expectations, it is no less practical and realistic than Machiavelli's "Prince"; Castiglione may seem somehow unfashionable to the modern reader, with his stress on decorum, honour and the importance of birthright, but has precepts endure, and can be just as readily applied in a court of the sixteenth century as in the present...
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Review of "The Book of the Courtier" by Baldesar Castiglione and translated by George Bull. Baldesar Castiglione was born in 1478, a member of an ancient aristocratic family. He received a thorough humanistic education, while acquiring a refined appreciation of art. He was essentially a courtier. He entered the service of the Duke of Urbino who entrusted him with important missions and in his leisure time participated in the literary and intellectual activities of the Court. After the death of the Duke he remained in the service of the new one and became the resident ambassador in Rome. He was deprived of a job when the Duke was expulsed. He then lived on his estates in Mantua. 1519 he returned to Rome and the Mantuan Ambassador and after further activities from his Mantuan Masters entered Papal service in 1524. From that date until his death in 1592 he was Papal Nuncio in Spain. This book signifies his major work. "Discretion and decorum, nonchalance and gracefulness," are the qualities of the complete and perfect courtier as described by Castiglione in a lively series of imaginary conversations between the real-life courtiers to the Duke of Urbino, where his speakers discuss qualities of noble behavior as well as wider questions such as the duties of a good government and the true nature of love. For example on page 130: "So let the courtier be eloquent when it suits his purpose, and when discussing affairs of state, prudent and wise; and let him be judicious enough to know how to adapt himself to the customs of the people he may be living among. Then in lesser matters let him be entertaining, and in everything sensible. But above all else he should always hold to what is good; he should be neither envious nor slanderous, and he should never seek to gain grace or favour through wicked methods or by dishonest means." This book has as much if not more useful maxims than Machiavelli's "The Prince" and has the added benefit of beautiful prose. Well done. I wish I could give it more than five stars.
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on October 4, 2012
While the less memory gifted among us might find the coterie of individuals engaged in conversation throughout the book confusing, the Book of the Courtier does well as a handbook of sorts for aspiring gentleman.

It goes beyond the Ps and Qs, it's a way of life and a method of being. It espouses Sprezzatura, an art which proposes that as men, we should conceal our gifts and abilities with practiced nonchalance- I would go so far as the call it the "casually" bedswept hair of the renaissance era.

The book tends to overindulge and flesh out each of the characters involved, but you find the meat of the text in really arguments that form and create the perfect courtier- that of man comfortable amongst kings and princes, while respectful to those "beneath his class" (ironic I know).

If you are interested in being above office politics, this might be the best book for you to "play the game" yet remain above it.
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on May 20, 2012
I enjoy reading history, and this book gives a different and very interesting insight into the norms and practices of 600 years ago (at least of the "nobler" class). What I appreciated the most was relating "yesterday's" social and societal practices to today's. In so many ways, we can see ourselves in these would-be practitioners of the "code". And in many ways, we feel the loss of a certain gentility that was expressed in this book. Great read. Another excellent book that gets into the mind of late medieval thinkers is "The Art of Worldly Wisdom" by Baltasar Gracian.
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on June 12, 2012
A fine printing of a classic. Arrived on time and in excellent shape. Price was competitive. Would consider others from this source.
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