Every project needs a patron, and from the beginning of this blog project the patron has been Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529), Count of Novilara. Most famous for his “Book of the Courtier”, from which this blog takes its name, Castiglione was a true Renaissance man: diplomat, scholar, historian, dramatist, antiquarian, etc. He mixed with some of the most prominent figures of Europe in his day, and was so highly regarded that for centuries after his death, his “Courtier” and the virtue of “sprezzatura” – to become so accomplished at something as to make it look effortless – became the standard for behavior in polite society in many parts of the world.
Castiglione is, sadly, not read or studied as often as he once was. Over time, the attention of historians and theorists has centered more on his contemporary, Niccolo Machiavelli. One can’t help but wonder whether the shift from lifelong education, Christian charity, and good behavior, to the “take what you can get” philosophy of Machiavelli, isn’t all too-evident in our own society today.
One of the reasons Castiglione always appeals to the reader who wants to respect the past while embracing the future is that Castiglione, too, loved the lessons and traditions of what came before him, even as he appreciated the advancements his own society had made. Despite a lifetime spent with some of the greatest and most powerful people of his age, Castiglione never placed himself at the top of the proverbial heap. “I am not so lacking in judgment and self-knowledge,” he writes in his Introduction to “The Book of the Courtier”. “as to presume to know all I could wish to know.”
Castiglione was also a man of faith, who recognized that a society without God was one in which grasping materialism would trump the pursuit of virtue. In his advice to those in positions of power, he reminds us that justice is not simply a discussion about what is relatively right and wrong at a particular point in time, but “justice also fosters that piety towards God which is the duty of all men, and especially of princes, who ought to love Him above every other thing and direct all their actions to Him as to the true end…For it is impossible to govern rightly either one’s self or others without the help of God; who to the good sometimes sends good fortune as His minister to relieve them from grievous perils; sometimes adverse fortune, to prevent their being so lulled by prosperity as to forget Him.sometimes adverse fortune, to prevent their being so lulled by prosperity as to forget Him.”
A man of talent, learning, intellectual curiosity, and devotion to God, country, family, and friends, Castiglione lived in the real world of his day, but was successful in it not because of how he used people, or even because of his measured successes, but because of his example. He sought to encourage others to educate themselves to always constantly strive to be better at whatever they do, and in whatever interests them, so that both society and the culture as a whole may benefit from those efforts. Whether you are already very familiar with Castiglione and his writing, or whether you are now learning about him for the first time, my hope is that his example will always inspire this blog, as well as those who read it.