Places: The Book of the Courtier

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Il libro del cortegiano, 1528 (English translation, 1561)

Type of work: Didactic

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Urbino

*Urbino. Book of the Courtier, TheCity in central Italy that was the center of the duchy of Urbino, in whose court Castiglione’s dialogues are set. The duchy is a small state whose court is among the most splendid in central Italy during the period in which the dialogues are set. The Montefeltro family had ruled the city and its hinterland since 1374. Urbino’s small size and isolated location meant that its dukes derived at least part of their income from mercenary military service. The famous portrait of Federico da Montefeltro, father of the last Montefeltro duke, in which he sits in his simple study reading a large book while dressed in armor, sums up the family’s combination of the martial with the humanistic. Both his court and Castiglione’s participants reflect this dual ethic, one not unusual at similar courts of its time.

When Federico died his young son was but ten years old, thus unable to sign contracts for military service, and proved to be sickly. Castiglione sets the conversation in 1507, the year before the young duke’s untimely death. Thus, the last Montefeltro duke was still alive, though absent, and his court in decline. Early on, Castiglione touches on the theme of nostalgia for better days. The air in the mid-fifteenth century palace is rarefied, demanding both the expectation and provision of courtesy and fine manners. The group is essentially discussing who it is that belongs in their very select company. The isolation of the court from the surrounding world allows for the idealism on which the conversation is built and ensures that few practicalities intrude into the discussion. Court life is dominated rather by music, dancing, dining, and fine conversation.


*Italy. In the early sixteenth century, when this book was written, Italy was a patchwork of republics and monarchies. Wars between France and Spain drew Italian states into shifting and destructive alliance systems, and began the disintegration of the genteel world that Castiglione presents in these dialogues. Small states, such as the duchy of Urbino, were threatened with extinction, and the idealism about politics one finds in the dialogues was already undermined forever by Machiavelli’s darker vision. In 1507, however, the courts represented or discussed by the participants in Castiglione’s dialogues were still working entities, and the issues posed not yet muted.

Participants in the dialogues viewed republics, such as those of Florence, Venice, and Siena, as unstable places where even sworn enemies might have to govern side by side. Bereft of true court life, the republics were run by merchants, who were fickle, opportunistic, and ignoble–in all ways uncourtly. Nonetheless, Tuscany was a cultural center, whose dialect of Italian was becoming dominant, and Venice was a center of ostentatious noble life and political stability, combining elements of a ducal court and republican offices.


*Bergamo. Town in northeastern, subalpine Italy that was noted for its lack of culture and the general oafishness of its people. Like Castiglione, William Shakespeare uses the bergamasque dance as a low form fit only for peasants.


*Rome. The early ancient city provides examples of virtuous behavior worthy of nobility, while the few references to later events are generally negative. Little is said about contemporary Rome.


*France and *Spain. These huge players on Italy’s chessboard appear as entities casting long shadows, rather than as settings for narrative action. France had invaded Italy in 1494 seeking unsuccessfully to dominate Naples. In 1499 French forces returned and established hegemony in Milan and surrounding areas, imprisoning Duke Ludovico Sforza and impairing court life. Spain’s Aragon kingdom had conquered Naples in 1504 and established a fine, if somewhat somber, court life there.

None of the participants in the dialogues are crass enough to discuss the politics of the day, but the references they make to the French and Spanish are generally negative, such as the distaste of French nobles for letters and the presumption of French and Spanish courtiers.

BibliographyBurke, Peter. The Fortunes of the Courtier: The European Recognition of Castiglione’s Cortegiano. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995. Burke uses the European reception of Castiglione’s The Courtier to illustratre historical and cultural shifts, particularly in the century following its first publication.Castiglione, Baldassare. The Book of the Courtier. Translated and with an introduction by George Bull. New York: Penguin Books, 1967. Renders the Italian names more faithfully than Sir Thomas Hoby’s classic translation. Includes a lively introduction, useful notes, and an index.Finucci, Valeria. The Lady Vanishes: Subjectivity and Representation in Castiglione and Ariosto. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992. A feminist and psychoanalytic perspective. Includes separate chapters on the discourse, the women, and the jokes in The Book of the Courtier. Draws comparisons to a popular epic of the same era.Frye, Northrop. Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays, 1974-1988. Edited by Robert D. Denham. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990. Contains a lucid account of Castiglione’s importance in Renaissance literature, written by one of the twentieth century’s most influential literary critics.Hanning, Robert W., and David Rosand, eds. Castiglione: The Ideal and the Real in Renaissance Culture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. Includes a chronology of Castiglione’s life and essays on language, women, and humanism and an essay on Renaissance portraiture.Rebhorn, Wayne A. Courtly Performances: Masking and Festivity in Castiglione’s “Book of the Courtier.” Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1978. Considers Castiglione’s book in the light of courtly customs and entertainments.Woodhouse, John Robert. Baldesar Castiglione: A Reassessment of “The Courtier.” Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1978. A new appraisal of Castiglione’s work, emphasizing the artistic creation rather than the historical account.
Categories: Places