New year, new resolutions

It is, of course, that time of year. The calendar now reads 2011 where once it was a little less, and inevitably this provokes new resolutions. In the spirit of things, I thought I would embark upon a book a week (with the greatest conviction that the resolution will fray and dissolve imminently). Here it shall be blogged about, and perhaps there shall be other things along the way.

Before we go on. Castiglione.

Baldasarre Castiglione (1478-1529) did not preside over grand ceremonies and feasts, patronise the world’s leading artists, musicians and writers, nor send forth diplomats and emissaries to popes and kings. But he was a man who was intimately connected with those that did, those powerful princes and dukes of Renaissance Italy and beyond who defined an era of cultural and humanistic endeavour. To them, he was an indispensable ally, loyal, hard-working, and intelligent. Castiglione was a courtier par excellence, adept in his surroundings and distinguished in diplomacy, poetry, scholarship and soldiery. He was, in effect, l’uomo universale, the Renaissance scholar-soldier who encompassed all the virtues of the ideal man.

In The Book of the Courtier, first published in 1528, he wrote with colour and feeling how others too could attain this ideal. It might be seen as a counterpart to The Prince (1532), that is, a treatise on how to gracefully conduct oneself in the service of one’s royal patron, but more than this it is an engaging account based (with some artistic license) on his experiences and conversations at the small but elegant court of Urbino. It draws upon classical, medieval and contemporary humanist ideals in such a way as to transport us, sometimes with unintended humour, to a bygone era. On the other hand it is evident that the repeated meditations on the theme of “nonchalance”, for example, is amongst those Renaissance preoccupations that are ripe for modern satire.

Castiglione ended his days in Spain, where he was acting as an ambassador of Pope Clement VII. The only portrait of Castiglione that I have seen was painted by Raphael, c.1515, and hangs in the Louvre.

Castiglione inspires this blog because he embodies history, fiction, politics, romance, intrigue, and more. He writes of and plays with, essentially, what it is to be human. Of course, Castiglione’s The Courtier is concerned with powerful men (and women) with money and influence, and those that serve them, all of who seem shallowly preoccupied with appearance, possession, and self-advancement. The world appears through Castiglione a stage on which one must act one’s allocated part. But all is perhaps not lost, and many passages seem still full of earnest insight:

‘I am not saying,’ said signor Federico, ‘that clothes provide the basis for making hard and fast judgments about a man’s character, or that we cannot discover far more from someone’s words and actions than from his attire. But I do maintain that a man’s attire is also no small evidence for what kind of personality he had, allowing that it can sometimes prove misleading. Moreover, habits and manners, as well as actions and words, provide clues to the quality of the man.’

One of my favourite court paintings of this period is indeed revealing of just how seriously Renaissance ideals depended upon ‘a man’s attire’. This portrait (c. 1474-7)) of Federico da Montelfetro, Duke of Urbino, and his son Guidobaldo (who was to become the much-vaunted patron of our Castiglione) depicts the esteemed Duke as simultaneously a battle-ready knight in armour and a deeply engaged scholar, a religious faithful and a protective father. The accouterments make this painting by Pedro Beruguette what it is. One can see just below his left knee the Garter worn by the knights of that prestigious Order, given to him by Edward IV of England. Prominent are the emblems of medieval chivalry here, but also endearing is the almost bored studiousness in his expression – as if the Duke knew that he should aim to look ‘nonchalant’ rather than mannered and self-important, despite being one of the most crucial figures in Renaissance Italian history and often called the “Light of Italy”.

It is said that Castiglione, a perfectionist, spent so many years polishing and pouring over the text of The Courtier that is was nearly never published at all. Readers will probably expect a little less perfection here. A word of caution to anyone intending to read Book of the Courtier though: it is said that when James Joyce first read it his brother told him that he had become more polite but less sincere.

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