6 December 2015

Baldassare Castiglione – courtier and diplomat

Writer left a definitive account of life at court in Renaissance Italy

Baldassare Castiglione, the author of the Italian classic, The Book of the Courtier, was born on this day in 1478 near Mantua in Lombardy.
The portrait of Castiglione can be seen in the Louvre gallery in Paris
Raphael's portrait of Castiglione
now housed in the Louvre in Paris

His book about etiquette at court and the ideal of the Renaissance gentleman, has been widely read over the years and was even a source of material for Shakespeare after it was translated into English.

Castiglione was born into a noble household and was related on his mother’s side to the powerful Gonzaga family of Mantua. After studying in Milan he succeeded his father as head of the family and was soon representing the Gonzaga family diplomatically.

As a result he met Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, and later took up residence in his court, which was regarded as the most refined and elegant in Italy at the time and received many distinguished guests.

The court was presided over by the Duke’s wife, Elisabetta Gonzaga, who impressed Castiglione so much that he wrote platonic sonnets and songs for her.

During this time he also became a friend of the painter, Raphael, who painted a portrait of him.

Castiglione later took part in an expedition against Venice organised by Pope Julius II during the Italian wars and was then sent by Pope Clement VI as a papal ambassador to Madrid. He died after contracting the plague in Toledo in 1529.

His book, Il Libro del Cortegiano, The Book of the Courtier, was published in 1528, the year before he died. It was written in the form of an imaginary dialogue between Elisabetta Gonzaga and her guests. Some readers have seen it as a guide to how to behave in society, while others have interpreted it as a philosophical work. But Castiglione has undoubtedly left us with a definitive and fascinating account of Renaissance court life.

Travel tip:

Mantua, the capital of the art-loving Gonzaga dukes, is an atmospheric city in Lombardy with many interesting things to see. The highlight is the magnificent Ducal Palace, which dominates the northern part of the city. It has about 500 rooms, which include the remarkable Camera degli Sposi, adorned with frescoes by Andrea Mantegna.

The imposing Ducal Palace in Urbino
Photo by Florian Prischi (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Travel Tip:

Urbino, which is inland from the Adriatic resort of Pesaro, is a majestic city on a steep hill.  It was once a centre of learning and culture, known not just in Italy but also in its glory days throughout Europe. The Ducal Palace, a Renaissance building made famous by Castiglione’s 'The Book of the Courtier', is one of the most important monuments in Italy and is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site.


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