Most helpful positive review
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.