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Baldassare Castiglione, count of Novilara (December 6, 1478 – February 2, 1529), was an Italianmarker courtier, diplomat, soldier and a prominent Renaissance author.


He was born into an illustrious Lombard family near Casatico, near Mantuamarker, where his family had constructed an impressive palazzo. The signoria (lordship) of Casatico (today part of the commune of Marcariamarker) had been assigned to an ancestor, one Baldasare da Castiglione, a friend of Ludovico II Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, in 1445. The later Baldasare was related to Ludovico through his mother, Luigia Gonzaga.

In 1520, at the age of sixteen, Castiglione began his humanist studies in Milan, 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 seem to have included representative offices for the Gonzaga court; for instance, he accompanied his marquis for the Royal entry at Milan of Louis XII. For the Gonzaga he traveled quite often; during one of his missions to Romemarker, he met Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino, and in 1504 a reluctant Francesco Gonzaga allowed Castiglione to leave his service in Mantua and take up residence at Guidobaldo's court at Urbino.

Urbino was at that time the most refined and elegant among Italian courts, with a magnificent library of illuminated incunambula. Duke Guidobaldo was an invalid whose fragile health barred him active participation in society. Its cultural life was therefore directed and managed by his wife, duchess Elisabetta Gonzaga and her sister-in-law, Maria Emilia Pia. Activities included intellectual contests and the reading and composition of poetry and plays. Among the most frequent guests were: Pietro Bembo,Giuliano de' Medici, Cardinal Bibbiena, Ottaviano and Federigo Fregoso, and Cesare Gonzaga, a cousin of both Castiglione and the duke. All of these were to appear as characters in Castiglione's famous dialogue, The Courtier.

In 1506, Castiglione wrote (and played in) a pastoral play, his eclogue Tirsi, in which allusively, through the figures of three shepherds, he depicted the court of Urbino. The work contains echoes of both ancient and contemporary poetry, recalling Poliziano and Sannazzaro as well as Virgil (the presence of such allusions was part of the Renaissance aesthetic and flattered the knowledge of the audience).

Castiglione wrote about his works and of those of other guests in letters to other princes, maintaining an activity very near to diplomacy, though in a literary form, as in his correspondence with Ludovico da Canossa.

Upon Guidobaldo's death in 1508, his adopted son, Francesco Maria della Rovere, succeeded him as duke of Urbino. Castiglione remained at his court; with Francesco Maria, he took part in Pope Julius II's expedition against Venice, an episode in the Italian Wars: for this he received the title of Conte di Novilara, a fief near Pesaro. When Pope Leo X was elected, Castiglione was sent to Rome as an ambassador of the duke of Urbino. In Rome he formed friendships with many artists and writers; among these, Raphael, a native of Urbino, soon became a close friend, frequently asking for his suggestions. Raphael gratefully painted a famous portrait of Castiglione, now at the Louvremarker.

In 1516, Castiglione was back in Mantua, where he married the youthful Ippolita Torelli, descendant of another ancient noble family; two passionate letters he wrote to her, expressing deep sentiment, have survived. She unfortunately died only four years later. At that time Castiglione was in Rome again as an ambassador, this time for the Duke of Mantua. In 1521, Pope Leo X conferred on him the tonsura (first sacerdotal ceremony), and thereupon began Castiglione's second, ecclesiastical career.

In 1524, Pope Clement VII sent him to Spainmarker as Apostolic nuncio (ambassador of the Holy See) in Madrid, and in this role he followed Charles V to Toledomarker, Sevillemarker and Granadamarker. At the time of the Sack of Rome (1527), the Pope suspected him of a "special friendship" for the Spanish emperor Charles: in effect, Castiglione ought to have informed the Holy See about the intentions of Charles V, for it was his duty to investigate what Spain was planning against the Eternal City. On the other side, Alonso, brother of Juan de Valdés and secretary of the emperor, publicly declared that the Sack of Rome was a divine punishment for the many sins of the clergy.

Castiglione, who was in an awkward position, responded to both the Pope and Valdés in two famous letters written from Burgosmarker. In his lengthy letter to Valdés, the nuncio deplored the Sack and harshly criticized Valdés' comments about it. Castiglione's letter to the Pope, dated December 10, 1527, on the other hand, argued rather daringly that several aspects of Vatican policy had been ambiguous and contradictory, undermining Castiglione's attempts to pursue peaceful and fair agreement with the Empire, and that this lack of consistency on the part of the Church's actions had provoked Charles V to attack.

Castiglione unexpectedly received the Pope's apologies and was greatly honored by the emperor. In retrospect, it is virtually certain that Castiglione had not been negligent in his diplomatic duties in Spain and bore no responsibility for the Sack of Rome. The popular legend that he died of remorse is without foundation: he died of the plague.

The Book of the Courtier

In 1528, the year before his death, the book for which he is most famous, The Book of the Courtier (Il libro del Cortegiano), was published in Venice by the Aldine press run by Andrea d'Asolo, father-in-law of Aldus Manutius. The book, which Castiglione is thought to have begun in 1508 and worked on for twenty years, is a nostalgic recreation of a lively and cultured philosophical conversation that took place over a span of four consecutive evenings in 1507 and was presided over by Elisabetta Gonzaga and Emilia Pia at Duke Guidobaldo da Montefeltro's court at Urbino. Cast in the form of a philosophical dialogue, it is retrospective tribute to Castiglione's friendships with the participants in the discussion, all of whom all went on to have important positions. But more importantly, it is an elegiac valediction to the ideals of the High Italian Renaissance, now waning as Italy was overrun by foreigners. The topic proposed by Elisabetta is the question of what constitutes an ideal courtier. Castiglione himself does not take part in the discussion; his opinions are voiced (ostensibly) by his friend Lodovico da Canossa, who warns at the outset that no rules can be given as to what makes a perfect courtier, for it is something that cannot be taught by precept. Ludovico (as a character in a fictional work) can only attempt to describe an ideal for others to imitate, if they are able to. Thus, though Ludovico/Castiglione declines to teach, those who wish to learn are free to do so.

The Courtier embodies the Ciceronian humanist ideal of the perfect orator (whom Cicero called the "honest man"), for whom Cicero prescribes an active political life of service to country whether in war or peace. In the Middle Ages, the perfect gentleman had been a chivalrous knight who distinguished himself on the battlefield. Castiglione's book changed that; now the perfect gentleman, though still above all a skillful fighter, also had to be educated in Greek and Latin.

Cicero's orator had been active in a republic, but republics were dying out in Italy when Castiglione wrote. This meant in practice that the perfect gentleman of the Italian Renaissance had to win the respect and friendship of his peers and especially of a ruler, i.e., be a courtier, so as to be able to offer the ruler valuable assistance and advice on how to rule the city. To do this, he must be accomplished -- in sports, telling jokes, fighting, poetry, music, drawing, and even dancing -- but not too much. Above all, he must be good, but to his moral elegance (his personal goodness) must be added the spiritual elegance conferred by familiarity with good literature (i.e., the humanities, including history). He must excel in all this without apparent effort and make everything look easy. In a famous passage, Lodovico da Canossa explains "the mysterious source of courtly gracefulness, the quality which makes the courtier seem a natural nobleman": sprezzatura.
I have found a universal rule .
. valid in all human affairs, whether in word or deed: and that is, to avoid all affectation as though it were a rough and dangerous reef; and (to coin a new word, perhaps), to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says seem effortless, and almost unpremeditated.

Theoretically, noble birth is not necessary and anyone can be a perfect courtier, even if lowly born; but in practice, it is easier if one is born into a distinguished family. In any case, the ideal courtier should be able to speak appropriately with people of all stations in life. Ideally, the courtier should be young, about twenty-seven (at least mentally), but should give the appearance of being graver and more thoughtful than his years. To do this he should wear subdued rather than bright colors, though in general attire he should follow the prevalent customs of his surroundings.

In addition to the formation of the perfect courtier, the participants, who do not always agree by any means (for in Ciceronian fashion the conversation is open ended, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions), also address a variety of other questions, such as which form of government is best, a republic or a principality; what constitute appropriate topics for joking; whether painting or sculpture is superior, and the role of music. They also deplore the rude and uncultivated manners of the French, who know more about fighting than literature and look with disdain on those whom they call "clerks" (though hope is expressed for Francis of Valois, the future king of France). This is a bitter topic, since the French, who had just invaded Italy, had shown themselves clearly superior in fighting to the Italians. Another topic is that of the Court Lady, which brings up the topic of the equality of the sexes. One character, Gaspare Pallavicino, aged twenty, is depicted as a misogynist who attacks women, but the others rush to their defense, affirming the equality of women to men in every respect. Most eloquent is Giuliano de' Medici, a more mature man. Giuliano points out that throughout history some women have excelled in philosophy and others have waged war and governed cities, and he lists the heroines of classical times. Pallavicino, piqued, hints that Giuliano is indulging in insincere praise, but in the end Pallavicino concedes that he has been wrong to disparage women. Interestingly, the affable Giuliano (a friend and lover of women) is the very person to whom Machiavelli planned to address his book The Prince.Machiavelli wrote to his friend Francesco Vettori that he planned to dedicate The Prince to Giuliano, but he ended up instead dedicating Giuliano's brother Lorenzo
I have composed a little work De principatibus . . . . And if ever you liked any of my whims, this one should not displease you, and to a prince, especially a new prince, it should be welcome; therefore I am addressing it to his magnificence Giuliano. --Machiavelli, Letter to Francesco Vettori, December 10, 1513, in Nicolo Machiavelli’s The Prince: New Interdisciplinary Essays, Martin Coyle, editor, Manchester University Press, 1995, 1999.
Giuliano later was given the title of Duc de Nemours by Francis I. He died soon after.

The book ends on an very elevated note with a long speech about love by the humanist scholar Pietro Bembo (later a Cardinal). Bembo, who is older than the others, talks about an old man's love, which is of necessity Platonic. Bembo's speech is based on that of Socrates in the conclusion of Plato's Symposium, except that here the object of love is female and not a boy as in Plato. Bembo describes how the experience of sublimated love leads the lover to the contemplation of ideal beauty and noble ideas. Bembo talks about the divine nature and origin of love, the "father of true pleasures, of all blessings, of peace, of gentleness, and of good will: the enemy of rough savagery and vileness", which ultimately lifts the lover to the contemplation of the spiritual realm, leading to God. However Bembo does say that it is all right for the platonic lover to kiss his beloved on the lips, describing the kiss as the union of two souls. When Bembo has finished, the others notice that they have all become so enraptured by his speech that they have lost track of the time and the night has passed and day is breaking over the hills.

The Book of the Courtier caught the "spirit of the times" and was soon translated into Spanish, German, French, and English. One hundred and eight editions were published between 1528 and 1616 alone. (Pietro Aretino's La cortigiana is a parody of this famous work.) Castiglione's depiction of how the ideal gentleman should be educated and behave remained, for better or for worse, the touchstone for all the upper classes of Europe for next five centuries.

Castiglione's less known, but still interesting, minor works include love sonnets and four "Amorose canzoni" ("Amorous Songs" ) in the style of Petrarch and Bembo, about his Platonic love for Elisabetta Gonzaga, . His sonnet "Superbi colli e voi, sacre ruine" ("Proud Hills and Sacred Ruins"), shows Castiglione's learned humanism but is not without pre-romantic inspiration.

Castiglione also wrote a number of Latin poems, together with an elegy for the death of Raphael entitled De morte Raphaellis pictoris, and another elegy in which he imagined his dead wife was writing to him. In Italian prose, he wrote a prologue for Bibbiena's Calandria.

His letters are also of considerable interest for what they reveal not only the man and his personality but also historical information about the famous people he met and visited, and about his diplomatic activity.

Baldasare Castiglione, died of a fever in Toledo, Spain, on February 2, 1529, at the age of 50.


  • Raffini, Christine, Marsilio Ficino, Pietro Bembo, Baldassare Castiglione: Philosophical, Aesthetic, and Political Approaches in Renaissance Platonism, (Renaissance and Baroque Studies and Texts, v.21,) Peter Lang Publishing, 1998. ISBN 0-8204-3023-4


  1. Dates of birth and death, and cause of the latter, from ‘Baldassarre Castiglione’, Italica, Rai International online.
  2. Comune di Marcaria: La Storia, p.3.
  3. Novilara, Servizi Turismo e Attività Ricettiva ed Informatica della Regione Marche.
  4. Jennifer Richards, in "Assumed Simplicity and the Critique of Nobility: Or, How Castiglione Read Cicero" (Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 54, 2001), notes that the question put forth by Cicero's De Oratore, namely, can rhetoric be taught or is it an inborn gift, arguably parallels that of The Courtier. The rhetorical genre likewise -- that of an informal private discussion (sermo, conversation, as opposed to declamatio, public oratory) among equals who uphold different opinions and reach no definitive conclusion -- is also the same in The Courtier and De Oratore. Richards, however, also argues that although Castiglione admits to being inspired by De Oratore, he also in fact also drew heavily from Cicero's newly discovered and published (1501) treatise De Officiis (On the Obligations of a Gentleman).
  5. ,Jennifer Richards, op. cit.
  6. The Courtier, 32.
  7. This speech is a summary of the real Bembo's dialogue on Platonic love, Gli Asolani, printed in 1505
  8. See June Osborne, Urbino: the Story of a Renaissance City (Frances Lincoln, ltd, 2003), pp. 167-68

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