Il Cortegiano.Vinetia, G. Giolito, 1544
8vo. Ff. (xiii) 195. Italic letter. Woodcut border tp with figures within rural scenery, initials with pastoral imagery. Slight age yellowing, some leaves uncut at lower edge, a very good, clean, well margined copy in slightly later ivory vellum, minimal wear in the usual places.
This seminal work of Renaissance literature is by the prominent Italian courtier, diplomat, soldier and author Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529). First published in 1528, this later edition is “Novamente Stampato et con somma diligentia revisto có la sua”. The work is a monumental philosophical dialogue on the topic of what constitutes an ideal courtier, or, in the third chapter, an ideal court lady, worthy to befriend and advise a Prince or political leader. The book fast became indispensable for contemporary royalty and aristocracy as an example of etiquette, self-presentation and correct moral behaviour. The book is exceptional in containing a combination of philosophical discussion, an essay, and the style of a drama. Albury (2014) states it can also be seen as a veiled political allegory, presenting a nostalgic evocation of an idealised milleu, with a reverent tribute to the friends of Castglione’s youth, particularly the Duchess Elisabetta Gonzaga of Urbino, a love interest of Castiglione.
The work was written over 20 years, commencing in 1508. It is composed of a series of conversations that allegedly took place in 1507 between the courtiers of the Duchy of Urbino. Castiglione himself was a member of the Duke’s court there, and would have experienced similar interactions. In the book, the idealised courtier is described as having a cool mind, a handsome voice, as well as proper bearing and gestures. The book follows four evenings during which the court try to describe this perfect specimen of a gentleman and ‘has remained the perfect definition of a gentleman ever since’ (PMM 59). In this dialogue, refined courtiers discuss the virtues (e.g., honesty, magnanimity and good manners) and social skills (e.g., foreign language proficiency, dancing and fencing) a perfect courtier should have, often inspired by classical antiquity, as well as the ‘sprezzatura’—a fundamental nonchalance or ‘carelessness’ guiding his every action. The resulting idea of ‘self-fashioning’, or the crafting of a public persona following received standards, influenced, thanks to numerous translations, the behaviour of the European aristocracy for decades, especially in England where C16 literature and drama were imbued with the Italian ideals of the ‘cortegiano’.
This was one of the most widely distributed books of the 16th C, with editions printed in six languages and in twenty European centres.BM STC It. 156; Adams C 930; Essling II 672; Not in Gamba or Fontanini.