Castiglione: The Courtier

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Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529) served at the court of the Duke of Urbino in Italy, a court famed for its support of art and learning. His influential handbook of ideal courtly behaviour, Il Cortegiano was translated into English by Sir Thomas Hoby (1530-1566), one of several fine English translations which made classical and continental works accessible to readers of English (you will come across another superb translation later in the course when you look at Shakespeare's source for Antony and Cleopatra). The Courtier is made up of a series of dialogues--debates--on various topics of interest to the courtier who wishes to act in the best possible manner. The characters who take part in the dialogue which follows were modelled on real people. The passage begins as the group discusses an assertion by Peter Bembo that a courtier--especially an older courtier--is able to enjoy a love giving "much praise and happiness, without any loathsomeness at all." He is of course not speaking of married love.

The oration on love begins with a definition: love is "coveting"--the desire to possess--beauty. Peter Bembo then makes a distinction between the levels of the self at which beauty can be enjoyed; at the level of sense (like the animals), of reason (a faculty appropriate to man), and of "understanding," a word used rather like Hamlet's "apprehension" in his closely related remarks to Rozencrantz and Guildenstern about the nature of man: "in apprehension how like a god!" (II. ii. 315.) The ideal love moves up a "stair" from the lower to higher love, and at the end achieves a mystic unity with the love of God. [Note 1] In these selections from The Courtier, I have modernized spelling, but have kept the vocabulary, and as far as possible the punctuation of the original, including notes to assist your reading, either in square brackets or as footnotes. If you want to read further in The Courtier, there is an old spelling edition in the Everyman Library (London: Dent, 1928).

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  1. Castiglione, like many others in the period, is following the teachings of Plato, especially as enunciated in his dialogue The Symposium, though he is of course giving Plato's ideas a Christian perspective. [Back]

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This page last updated April 20, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best,
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