Saturday, November 15, 2008

Week 12, Ariosto, Castiglione

Notes on Ludovico Ariosto


Notes on Baldesar Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier

2552-53. Duke Federico of Urbino is praised as an example of the perfect Renaissance prince: courageous, generous, and prudent. He is also said to have been the possessor of a fine palace and a collector of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew manuscripts. His son Guidobaldo (or Guido for short) succeeded him, but has been kept from living an active life due to his frail health. His excellence consists in not being “overcome by Fortune.” That is, he bears up under the strain of many difficulties. He also values the excellence of his courtiers, which speaks well of him.

2554. The Duchess Elisabetta Gonzaga is the center of the courtly circle, serving more or less in the place of the ailing Duke. Everyone looks to her as the model of perfect conduct and aristocratic excellence. This is not to say that she is intimidating or rigid; quite the contrary. The narrator says that there was no one “who did not esteem it the greatest pleasure in the world to please her and the greatest grief to displease her. For which reason most decorous customs were there joined with the greatest liberty, and games and laughter in her presence were seasoned not only with witty jests but with a gracious and sober dignity….” she combines a free spirit with an intuitive understanding of propriety, and the result is a graceful social circle in which everyone is encouraged to be honest and to strive towards perfection. Those around her take part in pleasurable conversations that don’t sacrifice the Renaissance goal of constantly improving on one’s capacities and cultivating one’s faculties.

2555-57. Count Ludovico argues in favor of nobility as the first requirement for a proper courtier. His reasoning is that “noble birth is like a bright lamp that makes manifest and visible deeds both good and bad, kindling and spurring on to virtue as much for fear of dishonor as for hope of praise.” People of ordinary birth, he believes, do not have this incentive but will be satisfied to live in the manner of their parents and grandparents. He argues explicitly that nobility is innate: “nature has implanted in everything that hidden seed which gives a certain force and quality of its own essence to all that springs from it, making it like itself…” (2555).

Nonetheless, he advises, effort can largely make up in a nobleman for the lack of certain qualities he really ought to have: “those who are not so perfectly endowed by nature can, with care and effort, polish and in great part fix their natural defects.” What is needed, he says, is “that certain grace which we call an ‘air’” (2555). It is perhaps worth quoting the Italian here: the courtier should have “una certa grazia e, come si dice, un sangue, che lo faccia al primo aspetto a chiunque lo vede grato ed amabile.” (See the Biblioteca Italiana online edition of Il Libro del cortegiano, Book 1.) If he has this sangue or air, everyone will find him likable and pleasant to be around. And to his friendly opponent’s argument that noble birth is really not so important after all, Ludovico replies without hesitation, “I deem it necessary to have him be of noble birth… because of that public opinion which immediately sides with nobility” (2556). It is a matter of popular bias, we might say—the nobleman or noblewoman makes the best “first impression” (2557).

2557-58. Ludovico continues his list of requirements with the thought that “true profession of the Courtier must be that of arms,” and he must be loyal “to whomever he serves” (2557). But this military capability must not be taken too far—it is appropriate only on the field of battle, and not in polite social situations, as the anecdote told about the soldier Berto who prided himself on his fierceness suggests.

2558-59. Should a courtier praise himself? Well, he should have qualities worth praising, but he must not trumpet his own virtues directly. There is an art to speaking well of oneself without sounding conceited. As Dante had long ago pointed out, when you praise yourself, no one wants to believe you, but when you speak ill of yourself, almost everyone wants to believe you. The key thing is to do more than you claim you can do, and moderate your speech.

2559-61. A courtier’s physical appearance is also very important, and Ludovico insists that he must avoid appearing overly feminine in bearing or speech, as was sometimes fashionable at court. We may recall that Shakespeare’s plays often make fun of such courtly effeminacy—Osric in Hamlet is a good example, as is Oswald in King Lear. And the French come in for a good deal of mockery on that account, as in Henry V. The courtier must also be well versed in the handling of dueling weapons and an excellent horseman as well as a hunter, among other exercises. In sum, he should be expert in everything he does without being ostentatious.

2562-64. The Count is asked how exactly a person might come by this “grace” he talks about, but he professes not to be interested in that question. He will offer illustrations of “what a perfect Courtier ought to be” (2562), and that is all. The only hint he will offer is that one who seeks “to acquire grace in bodily exercises” should “begin early and learn the principles from the best of teachers” (2563). Above all, staying clear of pomposity or affectation is necessary. Coining a term, the Count says we must “practice in all things a certain sprezzatura, so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it” (2563). Again, the Italian may be worth quoting: “usar in ogni cosa una certa sprezzatura, che nasconda l’arte e dimostri ciò che si fa e dice venir fatto senza fatica e quasi senza pensarvi.” If we can do this, considerable “grace” will attend our person and actions: “Da questo credo io che derivi assai la grazia.” The only genuine art, apparently, is “art which does not seem to be art” (2564): “arte che non pare esser arte.” We can readily appreciate this notion in our modern consumer culture since so much involving fashion, after all, is about seeming artless while actually taking care to get just the right look and make just the right “statement” in public. (How many person-hours have been spent trying to achieve that “disheveled” look with regard to hairstyle?) Ludovico’s promotion of sprezzatura, like most of the other things he says, amounts to an admission that courtly life revolves around spectacle.

And it would not be advantageous if the spectacle began to seem unnatural, forced, or “practiced.” Who is the “audience” here? The Duke’s subjects in general, other rulers’ subjects when they have dealings with the Duke, and, of course, the courtiers and courtly ladies themselves. A courtier’s role is to embody, and to body forth, the goodness and grace of the sovereign. Outward appearances, as any good Neo-Platonist would say, mirror the inward goodness of a person’s soul, and the courtier is the ruler’s outward appearance, somewhat as Christ is God’s “Word made flesh.” This frame seems appropriate since Castiglione is writing in a materialistic, competitive age that still convincingly speaks the language of a profoundly Christian ethical and symbolic universe. In the end, I’m not sure we can separate the courtly spectacle from the “reality” of political power at court: courtiers are essential mediators between the ideal aims of power and its actual deployment in a complicated, compromised world.