The Book of The Courtier (1528), one of the most celebrated renaissance courtesy books, serves as a guide to perfect social manners and wit. Politically it seeks to define the position of a courtier in relation to the Prince he serves. In an attempt to offer a pragmatic understanding of courtly life and manners and the binary of power relation between the Prince and his courtiers, Castiglione lays down the qualities that must characterise his “Perfetto Cortegiano” (perfect courtier).
Divided into four books, it describes a series of conversations held among the courtiers and the ladies of the Court of Urbino in the presence of the Duchess, Eleanora Gonzaga. The game, proposed by Federico Fregoso whereby “one of this company be chosen and given the task of forming in words a perfect Courtier, setting forth all the conditions and particular qualities that are required of anyone who deserves this name” when consented by the Duchess in Book I, provided the perfect opportunity for all the notable courtiers to speculate on the qualities that a courtier must possess.
However, Castiglione’s dedicatory letter to Signor Don Michel de Silva, Bishop of Viseu reveals that “the greater part of those persons who are introduced in the conversations were already dead”. The text, as a “record of the vanished world” as David Rosand says, employs historical characters to improve a period of political decadence into a more fruitful one by outlining the qualities that a perfect Courtier must possess. Castiglione modelled his book on Cicero’s De Oratore, but he is more concerned with literary and stylistic imitation than following the political lessons of Cicero.
The first three books articulates three central concepts; namely, “grazia”, “mediocrita” and “sprezzatura”; which are proposed as central to the character of the courtier. The fourth Book set on the fourth evening, records for the most part Ottaviano Fregoso’s opinions. Ottaviano stands out as a more serious and blunt courtier who violates the verbal code of courtly manner as he dismisses the prescriptions of such skills as “dancing, entertaining, singing and playing games”, as put forward in the first three books, as “vain and frivolous” which serve only to make men “effeminate”.
As Lawrence Ryan states, “The discussion suddenly seems to shift from concern with the ideal courtier, possessing a self-contained excellence too lofty for any function in the real world, into an attempt to establish a meaningful role for him in an actual society”. Ottaviano stresses that the most important quality of a perfect courtier must be to win the favour and the mind of the Prince to such a degree that he may be capable of speaking his mind to the Prince without the fear of displeasing him.
He deplores the present situation where the Prince is blinded by ignorance and self-conceit being surrounded by flatterers who never correct him in order to win grace and favour by suggesting “things that are agreeable and diverting”. The Prince hence being unaccustomed to truth becomes incapable of obeying the call of duties, honour and justice and becomes an arrogant tyrant, whom Castiglione compares to the giant figures made in the festival of Piazza d’Agone which were stuffed with “rags and straw”. Loathing such a situation, Ottaviano considers the courtier responsible to guide the Prince along the path of virtue and truth.
He says that the perfect courtier should be able to teach his Prince “continence, fortitude, justice and temperance, and enable him to relish the sweet fruit which lies under the slight bitterness first tasted by one who is struggling against his vices”. Ottaviano, however, now suggests the courtier to deploy those “vain and frivolous” skills as the means to teach the Prince some virtuous habit, while engaging him in their innocent pleasures. Thus the problematic question of deception that Gaspare had violently attacked previously when Federico had insisted that his ideal courtier is the master of deceit is now justified by Castiglione.
Castiglione justifies this deception on moral grounds when he insists that the courtier should strive to use his talents to make himself and his moral lessons pleasing and ingratiating to the Prince in order to advise and educate him. The courtier should thus be: “…practising a healthy deception like a shrewd doctor who often spreads some sweet liquid on the rim of a cup when he wants a frail and sickly child to take a bitter medicine”. Importance is thus placed in pedagogic education and the courtier is entrusted to play the role of an advisor and an educator.
Castiglione presents his ideal courtier as the model of active virtue and proposes reason and moral awareness as seminal in just action. His only purpose is to lead the Prince onto the virtuous path. Castiglione stresses that it is of utmost importance for the courtier to have a holistic understanding of the character and interests of the Prince to win his heart and mind and thereby have access to educate and influence him onto the virtuous path of reason and justice. It is this faculty that separated the fates of Aristotle and Calisthenes.
While the former with a flexibility of temper superseded the role of an educator, as Castiglione says, “Aristotle knew so well the character of Alexander and encouraged it so skilfully that Alexander loved and honoured him more than a father”, the latter being a rigid advocator of naked truth, that was unalloyed with the art of “courtiership”, only incurred infamy and death. Ottaviano further asserts that an ignorant Prince incapable of governing his people and the state is the “deadliest plague of all”. He believes that the moral and ethical education of the Prince under the guidance of the courtier will serve as a tool of empire-building.
It will make him a judicious and capable administrator and this will in turn lead his state to attain the cherished peace and prosperity. Castiglione’s courtier will strive to guide his Prince to become a perfect “governor” who would adroitly govern his state and the citizens justly and also act as a peacemaker to bind the citizens together by “marriage ties”. The perfect courtier with his noble qualities attains a grand stature and is equated to those Greek leaders who emerged from the Trojan horse. Thus Ottaviano anticipates the rebirth of the utopian Golden age as he sought to redefine the character of the courtier.
In this context, Castiglione also seems to draw our attention to the interdependent power relationship that exists between the Prince and the courtier. The courtier cannot exist without the court or the Prince. He is both politically and economically dependent on the Prince. But the Prince, too, is dependent on the advice of the courtier, for as Ottaviano said that virtues lie rooted in our soul but develops into its full form only when education nurtures them. This process of ethical growth is fostered under the care of the “Perfetto Cortegiano” who like a farmer will cultivate his faculties by guiding him to abide by reason and truth.
Castiglione’s text displays a tendency to corrupt absolute power by making the Prince as much dependent on the courtier as the courtier is on the Prince and the court. Though most of the courtiers express their doubts over the possibility of undertaking such a difficult role, yet Ottaviano is hopeful and so is Castiglione. The ultimate goal of Castiglione’s “Perfetto Cortegiano” is to “become his Prince’s instructor”. Castiglione ingenuously transformed the knight whose prime objective was to adopt the courtly codes of social conduct and to serve his lady, into a dutiful pure spirit whose sole purpose is to serve his Prince as an advisor.