From The Book of the Courtier
By Baldessare Castiglione
Baldessare Castiglione (1478-1529) wrote Il Cortegiano around 1516; it was first published in 1528. It is written as a dialogue. In his introduction, Castiglione claims it is based on conversations that took place at the Court of Urbino, a small Duchy in northern Italy (where Castiglione served as a courtier until 1524. He later served as a diplomat and ultimately became a Bishop in Spain). Book One of the dialogue begins when one of the company at dinner proposes "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." The dialogue (in four books) discusses the features of the ideal courtier. This selection is from Book One. The speaker for most of this section is Count Ludovico da Canossa, who has been assigned the task of defining the essential features of the courtier
I am not obligated, said the Count, to show you how to have a good grace, nor any thing else, but only to show you what a perfect Courtier ought to be. Neither will I take it upon myself to teach you this perfection. A while ago, I said that the Courtier ought to have wrestling and vaulting ability, among other things, none of which I can teach, for I have not learned them myself.... Just as a good soldier can speak his mind to an armorer of what fashion, of what temper, and what goodness he wants have in his harness, he cannot teach the armorer how to make it, nor to hammer or temper it. So perhaps I am able to tell you what a perfect Courtier ought to be, but I am not able to teach you how to become one.
So I will fulfill your request and do what I am able. Although some say (in the manner of a proverb) that Grace is not to be learned, I hold that whoever sets out to be gracious or to have a good grace in the exercises of his body, (presupposing first that he be not by nature inept) ought to begin young and to learn his principles from clever men. Philip, king of Macedonia, thought so, and he instructed through his will that so famous a philosopher as Aristotle, perhaps the greatest in the world, should be the one to instruct Alexander, his son, in the first principles of letters. And of men today, the same is true. Mark how well and with what a good grace Sir Galiazzo Sanseverino M. of the horse guards has taught the French king, who does all exercises of the body, and, with the natural disposition of person that is in him, and applies all his study to the learning of clever men. He continually has excellent men about him, and chooses everyone from the best of that skill they possess.
For as in wrestling and vaulting, and in learning to handle various kind of weapons, the king has taken for his guide our M. Peter Mount, who (as you know) is the true and only master of all artificial force and sleight. Likewise, in riding, in jousting, and in every other feat, the king has always had before his eyes the most perfect person that has been known to be in those professions. He who would be a good scholar, beside the practicing of good things, must always set all his diligence to be like his master, and (if it were possible) change himself into him. And when he has had some entry, it profits him much to behold various men of that profession and governing himself with that good judgment that must always be his guide, go about to pick out, sometime of one and sometime of an other, various guides. Just as the bee in the green meadows flies about the grass choosing out flowers, so shall our Courtier steal this grace from those who appear to have it, and from each one purchase what shall be most worthy praise. And he shall not do, as a friend of ours (whom you all know) did: he thought he looked like King Ferdinand the younger of Aragon, but attempted not to resemble him in any other point but in often lifting up his head so and arranging his mouth so, expressions which the king had actually gotten by infirmity. And there are many who think they resemble great men, and actually may somewhat, but who often take the aspect in the great man that worst becomes him.
I often wonder myself about where such grace comes from (leaving out those blessed with it from above), and I find one rule that is most general and occurs above all in everything belonging to a man of grace. And that is to avoid, as much as a man may, the sharp and dangerous rock of affectation or studiousness of manner, and (to invent a new word) do everything with a certain carefree ease [in Italian: sprezzatura]--that is to appear to do difficult things simply and without effort, and (as it were) as if you do not mind doing it. I do believe this is where grace comes from, for everyone knows the difficulties of accomplishing difficult matters, so that an easy ability to do them creates a great impression.
By contrast, to use force and (as they say) to make a big deal of your own effort is a great disgrace and causes everything great to be little valued. Therefore grace is the art that appears not to be any art at all. Neither ought a man appear to put more effort into anything than it takes to do it... I recall having read that there were some excellent speakers who tried to to make people believe that they could not read, a trick trick that made their learning seem even more impressive, but which was an undignified trick... You can see that to reveal the effort and study that go into doings something takes away the grace of doing it. Who among you doesn't laugh when our M. Peterpaul dances after his own fashion with such fine skips and on tiptoe without moving his head, as though he were all of wood, so carefully that you can see him counting his paces? What eye is so blind that cannot see the disgrace of too much interest in how one appears. Grace in men and women is lightly-regarded agility or ease of motion, a way with words, and an unselfconscious or unstudied smile or gesture that conveys a sense that nothing is amiss and that nothing possibly could be amiss.
Here M. Bernard Bibiena could wait any longer, and he said: You may see yet that our M. Robert has found one to praise in dancing, though the rest of you set little by it. For if grace does consist in carefree boldness [sprezzatura], and in appearing not to mind any other thing, then M. Robert is graceful and has no equal in the world. For we perceive that he appears to think nothing of his manner, the way his garments fall from his back, and his slippers from his feet. He dances on without picking them up..
Then the Count answered, I will say something so of our vices. Can you not see that what you call in M. Robert a carefree and easy manner is actually a studied effort? For it is well known that he works very hard to make a show of not minding how he appears. To work at not minding is to mind too much. And because he does this, his carefree attitude is not attractive. It is a thing that does just the opposite of what he sets out to do, (i.e., to obscure the difficulty of acting so). Therefore I judge it a vice to take an interest in one's carefree attitude (which in itself is praiseworthy). Putting effort into the precise way your clothes drape themselves while dancing, carrying yourself just so for fear of ruffling your hair, or keeping a looking glass in your cap and a comb in your sleeve, and to have always at your heels a servant to sponge and a brush you is not to be carefree and reckless. Such precise effort is always a vice and contrary to that pure and amiable simplicity which is so acceptable to men's minds. Mark what an ill grace a soldier has when he forces himself to sit bolt upright and settled in saddle (as we use to say after the Venetian phrase) in comparison to one who appears not to mind it and sits on horseback so nimbly and close as though he were on foot. How much more pleasing is a gentleman who is a modest soldier of few words, and no bragger, than one who always brags about himself and blasphemes with a bravery that seems to threaten the world. And this is nothing else but an effort to seem to be what he is not. The same thing happens in many areas of life; yes, in everything in the world that a man can do or speak.
Analysis Task for Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier
Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier was a kind of Renaissance manual on how to be cool. In the book, a group of speakers debate what qualities are needed by the ideal courtier (think of a courtier as a kind of man-about-town). In the section you read, Count Canossa describes the kinds of abilities needed by the ideal courtier. The most important of these is Sprezzatura. What does he mean by this term? Is he right? Is this the essence of cool? Who has this ability? Who does not? Can it be taught? Why? Why not? Be sure to integrate the text into your answer to support your understanding. Does Castiglione’s idea still hold true today? Why? Why not?