Tag Archives: Castiglione

UPDATED: The Courtier’s 5th Birthday Contest

[N.B. I have changed the contest deadline to midnight on August 15, 2013.]

Regular readers know that this blog first appeared on August 16, 2008.  Of course this means we are coming up on the 5th year anniversary of its founding.  So as a special thanks to all of you who drop in to read and share your thoughts, I am inviting you to participate in a contest for a Courtier-related prize.

The Blog of the Courtier takes its name from the “Book of the Courtier” by the Italian author and diplomat Baldassare Castiglione, Count of Novellata, who was born in Mantua in 1478 and died in Madrid in 1529.  In it, the Count uses the literary device of an imaginary after-dinner discussion between several famous Italian nobles and thinkers of his day, to discuss principles which ought to matter to anyone who cares about creating a good society, establishing a just government, and encouraging men and women to better themselves through education and polite behavior.  For centuries it was required reading for any educated person who sought to understand his place in the world, and how to contribute positively to the times in which he lived.

Sadly, in more recent years this book has become something of a historical footnote, as people have moved away from aspiring to be improve themselves and instead have reverted to the kind of slovenly selfishness which Castiglione saw around him and deplored.  In an effort to encourage us to think about the principles which Castiglione saw as forming the foundation for Western society, and to encourage others to rediscover this wonderful work, I will once again be giving away a brand-new, annotated English translation of Castiglione’s masterpiece to the winning entry in this year’s birthday contest.  Past winners have included subscribers to this blog, my followers on Twitter, and people who just happen to have come across the contest through social media.

To enter, simply write in 500 words or less about a person, living or dead, whom you believe embodies the ideals that Count Castiglione was writing about when he noted the following aspects of the character of a good courtier, i.e. the man or woman trying to live a virtuous and good life and do their duty, seeking to improve themselves while at the same time doing the best they can to behave well toward others:

Then the soul, freed from vice, purged by studies of true philosophy, versed in spiritual life, and practiced in matters of the intellect, devoted to the contemplation of her own substance, as if awakened from deepest sleep, opens those eyes which all possess but few use, and sees in herself a ray of that light which is the true image of the angelic beauty communicated to her, and of which she then communicates a faint shadow to the body.

Contest entries will be accepted from today through midnight on August 15, 2013.  I will announce the winner, either by full name or initials, as they choose, on the blog’s birthday.

To submit an entry, simply use the “Contact” tab located above the “Blog of the Courtier” logo on the homepage of this site, and be sure to include an email address on the contact form so that I know how to get in touch with you.  Due to the volume of entries I typically receive, I will not be able to acknowledge each entry individually, but you can be certain that I will read and consider all of them.  I am always greatly impressed by the submissions, some of which show insight into historical figures and famous people, while others praise friends and family members who have always tried to do their best to be a lady or gentleman in whatever they do.

Best of luck with your entries, and thank you for your continued readership of these pages!


Detail from “The Feast in the House of Simon” by Tintoretto (1570-1572)
Palace of Versailles

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On Serving Your Audience

Last evening I made what I considered to be a rather witty, pithy comment on social media, which I will not repeat here, and which caused some distress on the left and misinterpretation on the right.  Unfortunately trying to explain the subtleties of language to an audience which did not grasp it was ultimately futile, yet in the end the fault was mine.  For when you have an audience in the first place, it is paradoxically not a position of leadership, but rather one of servitude which you occupy.

While I cannot claim to be any great wordsmith, I will admit that I do have a general facility for language, which has not only served me well professionally and personally, but which also draws me to others who have a similar affection for the joy of language.  That being said, it is important to realize that words are meant to be tools, not means of tawdry manipulation.  Even if you are the one doing the writing or the speaking, as a pundit, or politician, or academic, your audience deserves better than platitudes and pandering, and has the right to your respect.

Unfortunately we are all too well-aware at present of how easy it is to be anointed a lord of public opinion, whether one deserves the title or not.  And here we have yet another opportunity to look into some of the ideas of Castiglione, the patron of this blog, rather than the self-centered and grasping Machiavelli, who seems to have the upper hand these days, with regard to how the public is treated.  Machiavelli may have argued in his “Discourses” that public discussion was a better way of achieving results than relying on the wisdom of princes, but in “The Prince”, he was always more than happy to look down on an audience as being little more than ignorant sheep, to be used for his own personal gain.

In advising how a leader ought to address the public, Machiavelli counseled that he ought to appear “merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.”  If he does this, Machiavelli argued, “he will be praised by everybody, because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the world there are only the vulgar, for the few find a place there only when the many have no ground to rest on.”  No doubt we can all think of contemporary social, political, and opinion leaders to whom this description might be very readily applied.

In complete contrast, Castiglione recognizes that it is in one’s own genuine good behavior toward himself and toward others that the leader gains esteem.  He despises the kind of unctuous, all-things-to-all-people behavior advocated by Machiavelli, and rather neatly points to how such behavior ultimately leads to things like moral relativism.  “And they cite a certain authority out of their own head, which says ‘si non caste, tamen caute’ [if not chastely, then at least cautiously], and with this they think to cure every great evil, and with good arguments to persuade anyone who is not wary that all sin, however grave it might be, is easily pardoned of God, provided it remain secret and does not give rise to bad example.”

Castiglione criticizes professional sophists (such as Machiavelli) who “from over-loquacity sometimes go beyond bounds and become silly and pointless, because they do not consider the kind of person with whom they are speaking, the place where they are, the occasion, or the soberness and modesty which they ought above all things to maintain.”  Rather than follow their example, Castiglione counsels that a leader not only concern himself with big issues that tend to attract the most attention, but to have the personal humility and sense of service to realize that he ought to be more concerned with helping others than himself:

I would have him take care to heed not only the matters already mentioned, but those which are much smaller, and as far as possible to understand all details affecting his people, nor ever so believe or trust any one of his ministers as to confide to that one alone the bridle and control of his government.  For there is no man who is very apt for all things, and much greater harm arises from the credulity of lords than from their incredulity…

Of course, probably very few of us are going to end up serving in high positions of public office, heading major corporations, or as weekly columnists/commentators in major media outlets.  Yet all of us will find ourselves in situations where others are looking to us for our opinions and guidance.  We need to respect those who are seeking our views, enough to realize what a privilege and a responsibility it is to be sought out in this way.

As Castiglione clearly understood, it is not through the cheap manipulation of human emotions that we build a better society or prove our worth as individuals.  Rather it is in the way which we use such opportunities to encourage others to be and to do better, for the sake of what is good and right, rather than encouraging our audiences to act purely out of selfishness.  Would that more of us would take this advice to heart, on a regular basis, in the choices that we make, in what we write and say, and in how we interact with those who need our assistance.


Detail of “The Speech of Alfonso d’Avalos” by Titian (c. 1540)
The Prado, Madrid

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Blog Post 1,000

Verily, these are fine arguments which you cite, and I do not see why you do not commit them to writing.

- Castiglione, Book of the Courtier, Vol. III.

Yes, you read the title of this blog post correctly: this is my 1,000th blog post on Blog of the Courtier.  Over five years have passed since I started this particular blog, centered around the ideals that Baldassare Castiglione put forth in his “Book of the Courtier”, from whence this project takes both its name and inspiration.  And the writings of the good Count still provide me with inspiration on a regular basis – though whether I cite, verily, fine arguments I will leave for the reader to decide.

It strikes me that this is a somewhat improbable milestone to have reached, for what in the end is a project which I work on simply because I enjoy it.  The fact that this regular writing habit happened at all is thanks in no small part to the initial encouragement of two very good bloggers in particular (and you know who you are, lady and gentleman.)  When I was getting going with this current blog, they made an effort to ask their readers to give me a look over; many have stayed and become good friends.

Over time, the readership of this blog has grown from a few dozen to a few thousand readers a month, something I find equally astonishing, since truthfully all I am doing is just scribbling down some thoughts to share with you, about things which I find important or interesting.  As with any activity, the more you do something, the better you get at it, until writing a blog post is something which I just need a few quiet minutes to do each day.  And I hope that over time my writing is improving, rather than otherwise.  In fact just this week, WordPress selected one of my blog posts again for their “Freshly Pressed” highlight page, after having done so for the first time earlier this year.  To know that a diverse community of fellow bloggers appreciates your work is just tremendous.

Naturally it falls to me to thank you, gentle reader, for your continued readership and support.  Whatever I choose to write about, you come along for the ride and allow me to explore a variety of topics, sharing with me your own thoughts and opinions.  The fact that you care enough to give me some of your time and attention, as well as to leave comments, is truly humbling.  It has been both a great pleasure and privilege for me to share these ramblings and ruminations with you, and  I hope to continue to do so through many more posts to come.


“Sketch of Raphael’s Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione” by Rembrandt (1639)
The Albertina, Vienna


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Count Castiglione on Confident Clothing

The other evening I attended a Christmas party thrown by some very good friends, in the neighborhood where I live.  As it was to be a cocktails and canapes sort of thing, I wore a gunmetal sharkskin suit with a subtle sheen – not the blindingly reflective sort which seems to appear quite frequently on the red carpet these days – and a black angora turtleneck.  Several people commented on how much they liked both the suit, and the combination of wearing it with a turtleneck rather than with shirt and tie.  However in truth, it really was not that unusual a combination: this was something that would not have been out of place in the Art Deco period, or the Mad Men era, for example.

If you pay attention to clothes, one of the things you will come to appreciate over time is that there has been far less variety over the past century than there was in the centuries which came before it.  For example, this season retailers such as Ralph Lauren and Zara are selling cloche hats, tweed coats with fur collars, and velvet suits right out of the Edwardian era.  This is thanks in part to the popularity of the British television series “Downton Abbey”.  Coincidentally, the same thing happened back in the 1970′s, when other British shows set in the late Victorian/Edwardian period, like the original “Upstairs, Downstairs”, “The Duchess of Duke Street”, and “The Pallisers” saga, influenced clothing retailers both in Europe and America.

However as we watch ladies’ hemlines go up and down, it is true that men’s clothing generally does not go through the same amount of radical alterations, apart from the wardrobes of those who are victims of fashion.  Men’s duds get tighter or looser, more constructed or more de-constructed, depending on the aesthetics of the time, but not much else changes.  Many of the articles of clothing your grandfather might have worn you could still wear today, and look just as stylish as he did then.

The reason I think this is important to recognize is that, at least among the men, it is a sign of maturity to come to appreciate what suits you, rather than buying into the fever for trendiness which seems to have a death-grip on our society, from politics and religion (or anti-religion), to art and architecture, to gadgetry and clothing.  One of the things which differentiates the man who knows himself, from the boy who is still trying to be what he thinks others want him to be, is to be found in the clothing choices he makes.  This was as true during the Renaissance as it is today.

Count Baldassare Castiglione, the always well-dressed patron of this blog, writes in his Book of the Courtier that we cannot judge a man strictly by his dress.  However, we cannot completely discount dress, either, for it tells us something about the personality of the man himself.  “I do not say,” he writes, “that fixed opinions of men’s worth are to be formed only in this way, or that they are not better known by their words and acts than by their dress: but I do say that dress is no bad index of the wearer’s taste, although it may sometimes be wrong; and not only this, but all ways and manners, as well as acts and words, are an indication of the qualities of the man in whom they are seen.”

That passage from Castiglione gives us the opportunity to reflect a bit on our own choices, and how we look at ourselves.  For example, personally I have never been particularly interested in sports, and at my very jock-oriented high school I was often left on my own – writing, reading, listening to punk/alternative music, and so on while others ran about.  Thus sports-inspired clothing, like a varsity-style jacket or letter sweater, would be a rather awkward and uncomfortable choice for me, not necessarily because it would fit poorly, but because it would not match who I am, my experiences, and so on.

Whereas in contrast to trying to dress like I was on a team or captain of a squad, wearing a leather jacket over a shirt and tie is something I have done since I was a teen, and I return to it regularly whether it is in fashion or not.  It is actually rather an old idea, as we can see in the illustration from 1930′s Finland below: a mixture of modern and traditional, without necessarily being predictable.  Perhaps that describes me rather well, also, and it is why I feel so comfortable in it, whereas on someone else it would look decidedly uncomfortable.

For most of us men, we have to dress a certain way at certain times: dark suits for court or funerals, tuxedos to balls, that sort of thing.  There are many times when we do not have a lot of variety, for we are looking to be considered both dependable and in line with the men who came before us.  However where men are in situations where they can actually choose what they want to wear, there is in fact plenty of room to maneuver between the extremes of peacock and dormouse.  Castiglione throughout his commentary on dress in the Book of the Courtier points out that man should have the confidence to try things out, and see if they suit him, while at the same time avoiding the overly bright and garish.

As the Count so clearly understood five centuries ago, clothes do not exactly make the man: the monk is no less holy if his habit is new, than if it is old and worn.  However when men do have choices about what to wear, blending into the background is not always such a good idea.  If you are both comfortable and looking your best, chances are your words and your actions are going to match that level of confidence.  And that confidence is more likely to bring about a better result in your interactions with others, on many levels.


Bow tie and leather jacket combo in Finland (c. 1935)


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The Courtier Pays a Call

Last evening I visited some good friends after work for a couple of hours, having a drink outside on their balcony and enjoying both the conversation and summer-like weather.  One of the benefits of getting older is realizing how often such evenings are infinitely more pleasurable, memorable, and even educational than ones spent either surrounded by a great deal of noise and activity, or entirely on one’s own.  The reason I suspect this is the case is something that Count Castiglione himself understood very well, for in fact it forms the framework for his “Book of the Courtier”, from which this blog takes its inspiration, and that is the importance of actual conversation between human beings, and what that conversation does to examine and to build up our society.

Back before the Western world turned in on itself in selfishness and the worship of fleeting images projected onto flat screens, people of all social classes used to engage in what was collectively referred to as “paying calls.”  This involved physically going to visit a neighbor, friend, or relative, in order to discuss how everyone was doing, the news and events of the day, and so on.  The manner and timing of the visit would vary according both to personal desire and local practice.  In one part of the world for example, it might be customary to pay calls after church on Sunday; in another, it might be that one visited one’s neighbor only in the cool of the evening after chores were finished for the day.

When calling upon others was considered standard practice, the “people from the manor” visited their neighbors and friends, and received visitors in turn, just as the farm laborers working in their fields did in their own cottages.  The merchants in the towns and cities engaged in it, as did their customers.  Please note that in observing this fact, I am not making reference to some dreamy fantasy of what life might have been like in the days before television and the internet: it was simply a fact of life that unless you were desperately poor – and even the poor would visit one another to bring comfort and solace in their commiseration - you had a duty to behave this way if you were to be considered civilized. Ask your grandparents about what life was like when they were younger, and chances are they will tell you about paying calls, or whatever the practice may have been referred to where they lived, where the adults relished the opportunity to sit and talk with other adults.

We can see just how essential this practice was, for paying calls takes place among all classes of society throughout the canon of Western literature.  It is recounted throughout centuries of fiction: without even having to go look up the actual passages, I can think of such scenes in the work of writers such as Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, Honoré de Balzac, Eudora Welty, James Boswell, Bailey White, Arnold Bennett, Laura Ingalls Wilder, James Joyce, and countless others.  It was such a common practice, with so many local varieties, that sometimes the rules surrounding this practice could become quite rigid – even comically so.

Take the beautiful BBC miniseries “Cranford”, for example, based on the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell.  The spinster sisters Miss Deborah and Miss Mattie Jenkins inform their recently-arrived houseguest from the metropolis of Manchester, Miss Mary Smith, of all the multiple protocols adopted locally over the years, as to when and where and how such visits are to take place.  These unwritten commandments on paying calls provide a seemingly endless source of amusement for the  viewer, as the maid repeatedly errs in how she announces visitors, or the visitors themselves stay too long, or raise subjects that are not supposed to be addressed during such get-togethers.

Yet comedy aside, the important thing to note from the practice of visiting and holding conversation on a regular basis in the home, was that it held families and communities together.  When we started building Western civilization through working together, these practices helped to both create and give life to society, and to thereafter keep that society going.  And this marvelous feat of not actually slaughtering each other in the street was accomplished by bringing people face to face within a framework of behaving with respect in someone else’s home, however grand or humble that home might be.

As I wrote about earlier this week, with the coming of shorter days and colder temperatures, many of us are going to become more isolated, turning to television and the internet for company, and we need to make an effort to reach out to those who might be isolated because of the change of seasons.  However I would also suggest that regardless of the time of year, for the larger health of our society, paying calls on a regular basis with those in our community is something we ought to consider reviving.  Perhaps not in as formal a way as it was practiced previously, but we can use technology to make such meetings easier to arrange.  And once we do meet, then the technology can be switched off or ignored, and the type of conversations which led to the building up of Western civilization can once again take place.

“Rev. Thomson paying a call on Mr. and Mrs. Harris in their home”
Life Magazine


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