“And there are many such, who think they gain a point if only they be like a great man in some thing; and frequently they devote themselves to that which is his only fault.”
Baldassare Castiglione (December 6, 1478 – February 2, 1529), known as the Count of Casatico, was an Italian courtier, diplomat, soldier and a prominent Renaissance author, who is probably most famous for his authorship of The Book of the Courtier.
The work was an example of a courtesy book, dealing with questions of the etiquette and morality of the courtier, and was very influential in 16th century European court circles.
Born into an illustrious family at Casatico, near Mantua (Lombardy), his family had constructed an impressive palazzo. The signoria (lordship) of Casatico (today part of the commune of Marcaria) had been assigned to an ancestor, Baldassare da Castiglione, a friend of Ludovico III Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, in 1445. The later Baldassare was related to Ludovico Gonzaga through his mother, Luigia Gonzaga.
In 1494 at the age of 16, Castiglione began his humanist studies in Milan, studies which would eventually inform his future writings. However, in 1499 after the death of his father, Castiglione left his studies and Milan to succeed his father as the head of their noble family.
Soon his duties included officially representing the Gonzaga court; for instance, he accompanied his marquis for the Royal entry at Milan of Louis XII. He traveled quite often for the Gonzagas; during one of his missions to Rome he met Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino; and in 1504, a reluctant Francesco Gonzaga allowed him to leave and take up residence in that court.
The Humanist spirit, with its longing to embrace and fuse the variety and confusion of life, fills that Renaissance conversation—at once so formal and so free, so schooled and spontaneous, so disciplined in design and convivial in movement—with an ardent vision of the one virtue of which human nature is normally capable: that of moral urbanity. And it is this virtue which women lend to society.
He died of the plague in Toledo in 1529.
In 1528, the year before his death, The Book of the Courtier (Il Libro del Cortegiano) was published in Venice by the Aldine Press, run by the heirs of Aldus Manutius. The book, in dialog form, is an elegiac portrait of the exemplary court of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro of Urbino during Castiglione’s youthful stay there at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
It depicts an elegant philosophical conversation, presided over by Elisabetta Gonzaga, (whose husband, Guidobaldo, an invalid, was confined to bed) and her sister-in-law Emilia Pia. Castiglione himself does not contribute to the discussion, which is imagined as having occurred while he was away. The book is Castiglione’s memorial tribute to life at Urbino and to his friendships with the other members of the court, all of whom went on to have important positions and many of whom had died by the time the book was published, giving poignancy to their portrayals.
Castiglione writes: They are the custodians of the social covenant. In the code of the Courtier the Renaissance woman comes into her own and the mission which Isabella [of Este, Marchesa of Mantua, known as the “first lady of the Renaissance”] pursued amid the strenuous turmoil of actual life is realized, in these animated pages, by her passive sister-in-law Elizabetta. Though she takes no part in the conversation, she presides over it, and her presence permeates its conduct. The men defer to her, especially in their conduct with women—”with whom we had the freest and commerce, but such was the respect we bore to the will of the Duchess that freedom was the greatest restraint.”