And the Count, beginning afresh: "My lords," said he, "you must think I am not pleased with the Courtier if he be not also a musician, and besides his understanding and cunning upon the book, have skill in like manner on sundry instruments. For if we weigh it well, there is no ease of the labours and medicines of feeble minds to be found more honest and more praiseworthy in time of leisure than it."
from The Book of the Courtier trans. Sir Thomas Hoby, 1561
Baldesar Castiglione (that is what he is known as in the English speaking world, in Italian his first name is Baldassarre) was an Italian Renaissance writer and courtier best known for Libro Del Cortegiano, or The Book of the Courtier, which was first published in 1528 and hasn't been out of print since. That work is the best explication of the Renaissance ideal of the universal man- the courtier, or "professional amateur", as Sydney Angelo put it. In it, Castiglione outlines in the form of a dialog amongst nobles a the the court of the duke of Urbino how the perfect courtier should look, act, and think, and pursue his interests of literature, art, love, music, sport, rhetoric, and arms.
The back cover of a Penguin Books paperback edition (Castiglione, Baldesar. The Courtier. Trans. George Bull. Middlesex: Penguin, 1967) has the quote that made me first pick up the Courtier: "When James Joyce first read The Courtier, his brother told him he had become more polite but less sincere, thus putting in a nutshell one of the most striking aspects of Castiglione's famous work."
This is what self-help books should be like.
Castiglione lived a live of diplomacy, political intrigue, and military activity. It took him many, many years, and many, many drafts to finally complete The Book of the Courtier.
largely adapted from the timeline of Castiglione's life in the book Castiglione: The Ideal and the Real in Renaissance Culture (Rosand, D. and Hanning, R., ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.), which itself adapted the timeline from Guido La Rocca's edition of Castiglione's letters.
He was born December 6th, 1478 in what is variously known as Casanatico or Casàtico, near Mantua.
In 1491, he began his studies of Latin with Giorgio Merula and of Greek with Demetrio Calcondia in Milan, and entered the court of Ludovico il Moro. He stayed at that court until September 2, 1499, when the French drove Ludovico il Moro out of Milan. His mother pulled some strings and he ended up in the service of Francesco Gorgona, marquis of Mantua. His first diplomatic mission was in April 1501, when he went to the Pio da Carpi, and the house of Emilia Pia.
The time of December 1503 to April 1504 was fateful. Returning from a military campaign around Naples, he stopped over in Rome and met Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, the duke of Urbino, and on September 6, 1504, enters his service.
He had quite a tour with the duke of Urbino. He is sent to Rome to confer with Pope Julius II, and takes a trip to England on the duke's behalf. He also serves as the duke's envoy to King [Louis XII[ of France. Guidobaldo da Montefeltro dies on April 11, 1508, and Castiglione remains at Urbino in the service of the widow and the duke's successor, Francesco Maria della Rovere.
For the next several years he continues his military and diplomatic activity for the duke- most notably, he is appointed ambassador to Rome in February 1513, and is present for the ascension of Leo X to the papacy. He becomes friends with, among others, Pietro Bembo, Sadoleto, Bibbiena, Raphael, and Michelangelo.
Also, 1513 saw perhaps the first fruition of Castiglione's literary skills: during the carnival, Cardinal Bibbiena's Calandria is staged, and Castiglione is thought to have written the prologue. The Book of the Courtier may have first been begun around this time. On September 2, 1513, he is invested with the countship (contea) of Novilara, which is near Pesaro.
In 1514, still in Rome, Castiglione is known to be working of the first draft of Courtier.
In June of 1516, the duke of Urbino is excommunicated, and the pope installs his nephew, Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici. Castiglione goes with them to exile in Mantua. In October of that year he marries Ippolita Torelli, daughter of Count Guido and Francesca Bentivoglio, and a public feast is held by the marquis of Mantua, Francesco Gonzaga.
He continues work on the Courtier until autumn of 1518, when he sends his second draft to Pietro Bembo and Sadoleto.
In 1519, Castiglione writes a letter to Leo X on the subject of archeological ruins, and composes "Elegia qua fingit Hippolyten suam ad se ipsem scribentem" for his wife. On April 5, the usurper duke of Urbino dies and Castiglione goes to Rome to try to restore Francesco Maria della Rovere. Also, on June 28th of that year, Castiglione writes a letter to the marquis of Mantua expressing his happiness over Charles V's ascension as Holy Roman Emperor.
On January 15, 1520, having received no response about the Courtier, Castiglione begins to revise it again. In July, he composes "De morte Raphaelis pictoris" to commemorate Raphael's death in July of that year. On August 25, his wife dies in childbirth, leaving him with two daughters and a son.
There is much political drama in Rome: Castiglione writes to the marquis of Mantua that Pope Leo X's sudden death was possibly the result of poisoning, and an alliance is formed between the new pope, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the king of England against Francis I of France. Castiglione prepares for military conflict, but is sent to Rome by the marquis of Mantua as his envoy.
May, 1524: Castiglione completes yet another draft of Courtier.
On March 11, 1525, he is sent to Madrid by the pope as apostolic nuncio. Castiglione FINALLY completes The Book of the Courtier while there. He sends it to Venice to be published by the heirs of Aldus Manutius and Cristofero Tirabosco. On November 26, the printing begins.
The book begins to make the rounds, something of a sleeper hit, but Castiglione does not live to see its success. He contacts a fever in Toledo and dies at the age of 50. He is honored with a great funeral procession, and Emperor Charles V gives this famous remark: "I tell you one of the best caballeros of the world is dead.".
Other writers who have approached the theme of courtiers, or of being a gentleman, dandy, or fop (pro and con) are Archbishop Hincmar of Reims, Orderic Vitalis, Philibert de Vienne, Pierre Michault, Hue de Roteland, and of course, Oscar Wilde. I highly advise Penguin Book's Portable Renaissance Reader for contemporaries of Castiglione.