Castiglione’s Is Published Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A detailed description of Italian aristocratic mores and manners in the sixteenth century, Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier established for the first time the Renaissance ideal of the courtier and court lady. The book was imitated and translated into several European languages, and it influenced William Shakespeare, Philip Sidney, Thomas Elyot, and John Donne.

Summary of Event

Baldassare Castiglione’s Il libro del cortegiano (1528; The Book of the Courtier, 1561) was written at the urging of Alfonso Ariosto (1475-1525), a cousin of the poet Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533), and was originally dedicated to Alfonso, whom Castiglione described as “an affable youth, prudent, abounding in the gentlest manners, and apt in everything befitting a man who lives at court.” Castiglione’s purpose was to depict the profile of the perfect courtier, one who would have the ability to serve his prince to perfection and to win, through this ability, favors and praise from his master in particular and from society in general. Book of the Courtier, The (Castiglione) Castiglione, Baldassare Aldus Manutius Guidobaldo da Montefeltro Medici, Giuliano de’ Canossa, Count Ludovico da Bembo, Pietro Ariosto, Alfonso Ariosto, Ludovico Manutius, Aldus, the Elder Silva, Miguel da Montefeltro, Guidobado da Medici, Giuliano de’ Bembo, Pietro Canossa, Ludovico da Castiglione, Baldassare

Castiglione associated the idea of writing The Book of the Courtier with his stay at the ducal court of Urbino and stated that the four books were composed “but in a few days.” In 1528, at the printing of the first edition by Aldus Manutius, the dedication to Alfonso Ariosto was replaced with one to Cardinal Miguel da Silva, bishop of Vizeu. It is from this second dedicatory text, written from Spain (where Castiglione died on February 2, 1529), that one learns about Castiglione’s life after the death of Urbino’s duke Guidobaldo da Montefeltro and the accession of Francesco Maria della Rovere (1490-1538) to the ducal throne.

According to its author, the text had circulated prior to publication in several manuscript versions, some of which were heavily altered. Castiglione therefore decided to restore the book to its authentic state and to present it to its readers in printed form.

In his original dedication to da Silva, Castiglione explained the nature of the book, which he meant to be a realistic portrait of aristocratic life at the court of Urbino. With great modesty, he judged himself a mediocre literary portraitist and argued that he was not attempting to imitate Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron: O, Prencipe Galetto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620), to which his work had been compared. In explaining the scope of The Book of the Courtier, Castiglione allied himself with figures from classical antiquity, such as Plato, Xenophon, and Cicero, and pleaded that “just as, according to these authors, there is the Idea of the perfect Republic, the perfect king, and the perfect Orator, so likewise there is that of the perfect Courtier.” Platonism, Renaissance

The personages depicted in Castiglione’s work were real people associated at the time with the ducal court of Urbino: Giuliano de’ Medici, Cardinal Pietro Bembo, Gaspare Pallavicino, the poet Bernardo Accolti, Cardinal Bernardo (Dovizi) Bibbiena, Madonna Emilia Pia (d. 1528), and others. Most of the witty, animated conversations and activities related in the book took place on four successive evenings in 1507 (hence the partition of the work in four books), in the Sala delle Veglie of the ducal palace. The participants were all highly born, elegant, learned, and sophisticated. They took turns in proposing and discussing major topics of the day, including love; the dynamics of virtue and vice; the nature of human knowledge and reasoning; literature, old and new; the appropriateness of using Latin or vernacular dialects (especially Tuscan) and neologisms in writing and speaking; the relative merits of the Italian and the French of the period, and of the Greeks and the Romans of classical times; the role and social position of women; and the fine, performing, and martial arts, both ancient and modern.

One evening, Count Ludovico da Canossa is “given the task of forming in words a perfect Courtier.” All the participants engage in a lively dialogue, proposing, rejecting, and refining ideas. The company share a common educational background, and they all understand the references, allusions, and implications of what is being said. Both men and women are widely read: They quote copiously from classical authors, both Greek and Latin, or paraphrase them.

The text of Castiglione’s book, then, is interwoven with quotations from and paraphrases of Aristotle’s Politica (335-323 b.c.e.; Politics, 1598) and Aporemata Homerika (335-323 b.c.e.; Homeric Problems, 1812); Plato’s Politeia (388-368 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701) and Phaedō (388-368 b.c.e.; Phaedo, 1675); Aesop’s Aesopea (fourth century b.c.e.; Aesop’s Fables, 1484); Plutarch’s Bioi Paralleloi (c. 105-115; Parallel Lives, 1579) and Ethika (after c. 100; Moralia, 1603); Cicero’s De oratore (55 b.c.e.; On Oratory, 1742), De officiis (44 b.c.e.; On Duties, 1534), and Tusculanae disputationes (44 b.c.e.; Tusculan Disputations, 1561); Livy’s Ab urbe condita libri (c. 26 b.c.e.; The History of Rome, 1600); Pliny the Elder’s Historia naturalis (late first century; Natural History, 1855); Catullus’s Carmina (mid-first century b.c.e.; English translation, 1893); Ovid’s Ars amatoria (c. 2 b.c.e.; Art of Love, 1612); and other classics. Early Renaissance poetry and prose provide material for debate as well, from the sonnets of Petrarch and the Decameron of Boccaccio to the writings of Poliziano (1454-1494).

The speakers praise the singing and lute playing of their own contemporary, Marco Cara (d. 1525), author of frottole and other songs in the vernacular and Mantuan marchioness Isabella d’Este’s favorite composer. They comment on the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea Mantegna, Michelangelo, and Raphael and invoke contemporary science and philosophy from the works of Paolo Nicola Vernia (Nicoletto Vernia, d. 1499), a professor at the University of Padua. Furthermore, recent historical events, such as the Battle of Fornovo (July 6, 1495) between the army led by Gianfrancesco Gonzaga of Mantua and that of the French king Charles VIII, also provide ammunition for the learned battle of words.

The profile of the perfect courtier begins to emerge as the company gradually arrive at the conclusion that he must be noble of birth and countenance, physically beautiful, and, quite important, graceful. Grace is defined as the quality that makes everything appear to have been done with great ease, regardless of the effort actually spent in accomplishing the task. By extension, definitions of art, too, include the criteria of nonchalance and ease, for Castiglione’s characters believe that true artworks must also give the impression of having been created with no effort at all.

The courtier is expected to be an excellent, wise, and prudent warrior, physically fit and ready to fight. Furthermore, he should be well-read and able to manipulate language—both written and spoken—with ease, elegance, and eloquence; be conversant with both Latin and Greek; and apply discernment in his choice of subject and vocabulary. It is further agreed, against those maintaining that music making is a feminine occupation, that he must be able to read music, play an instrument or two, sing acceptably well, and be a graceful dancer. In addition, he must have a decent knowledge of drawing and painting. Finally, his moral standing should be such as to inspire and encourage his master, too, toward welcoming virtue and repulsing vices, among which ignorance and self-conceit are seen as the most serious.

The literary and artistic achievements of the ideal court lady for Castiglione are similar to those of a man. Physical strength and fitness, however, are not considered desirable attributes, although a lady can play tennis, ride, and hunt in moderation—something that many women of the Renaissance actually did. Her morals must be impeccable, and she should be discreet, of demure manners, and a gracious entertainer.


In addition to being a manual of ideal Renaissance courtly manners, The Book of the Courtier is a mirror of the actual aristocratic lifestyle practiced at the small court of Urbino—and, by extension, at Italian courts in general—in the early sixteenth century. The book has become an invaluable source of information for historians of Renaissance dance, music, painting, sports, and other forms of entertainment and for those who study the reception and propagation of such forms and of philosophical trends in Italy in the early sixteenth century.

In its own time, the book was quite popular as well, both on the Continent and in the British Isles, which Castiglione himself had visited from November of 1506 to January, 1507, as the ambassador of Duke Guidobaldo da Montefeltro to the court of King Henry VII. The Book of the Courtier was translated into English by Sir Thomas Hoby (1530-1566), a Cambridge-educated diplomat, and his translation had both an immediate and a lasting effect on high society, on manners and conduct, and on higher education in England, as well as influencing William Shakespeare and Sir Philip Sidney.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berger, Harry. The Absence of Grace: Sprezzatura and Suspicion in Two Renaissance Courtesy Books. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000. The chapters devoted to The Book of the Courtier examine the topics of grace and nonchalance (sprezzatura) in arts and social behavior, the status of women around 1500, and the reliability of the narrator.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burke, Peter. The Fortunes of the Courtier: The European Reception of Castiglione’s Cortegiano. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. Detailed examination of the book’s reception in its own time, in Italy and elsewhere. Discusses its translators and imitators. Includes appendices with the book’s editions and the names of its readers before 1700.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennedy, Teresa. Elyot, Castiglione, and the Problem of Style. New York: P. Lang, 1996. A study of Castiglione’s influence on Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Boke Named the Governour, written in 1531 and dedicated to King Henry VIII.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Raffini, Christine. Marsilio Ficino, Pietro Bembo, Baldassare Castiglione: Philosophical, Aesthetic, and Political Approaches in Renaissance Platonism. New York: P. Lang, 1998. Includes biographies of all three writers; discusses their works from the perspective of their inclusion of Neoplatonic philosophical concepts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rebhom, Wayne A. Courtly Performances: Masking and Festivity in Castiglione’s “Book of the Courtier.” Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1978. A study of The Book of the Courtier as a specific literary genre.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiggins, Peter DeSa. Donne, Castiglione, and the Poetry of Courtliness. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. Parallel readings of five satires by John Donne and Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier. Donne’s work is seen as a poetic metamorphosis of Castiglione’s prose.

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Categories: History