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

The Winning Entry: A Gracious Mentor

Tomorrow being the official 3rd birthday of this blog, today I am publishing the winning entry from this year’s Blog of the Courtier Birthday Contest.  My regular readers will know that I asked entrants to submit examples of people who exemplify the ideal of “sprezzatura”, that effortless graciousness that the patron of this blog, Count Baldassare Castiglione, extolled in his “Book of the Courtier”.  I received numerous entries, too many to acknowledge individually, but want to thank all of you for taking the time to sit down and write.  Not only were all the entries I received good examples of living individuals who embody some aspect of sprezzatura, but I am also pleased to see that this virtue is not yet entirely dead in our society.

The winning entry came from Jake P., whom I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting in person but have met through Twitter, where he tweets under the moniker of UCCowboy.  If you are a fellow blogger, gentle reader, or if you have an interest in some topic and would like to meet more people with whom to discuss your ideas, I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity Twitter provides.  Through sharing my blog posts and engaging in discussions on Twitter, I have met a number of very interesting people who have not only provided helpful information and discussion on topics that interest me, but in many cases have become patrons of this and my other blogs.  And it is to the subject of patronage that we turn, with Jake’s entry to the Birthday Contest about his former boss, Jerome, whom he met at university.

Of all the entries that I received, that regarding Jake’s mentor Jerome I think best exemplified the virtue of effortless grace that Castiglione was trying to encourage in his writing.  For remember that sprezzatura is not just about how one looks, which is what some commentators focus on, as if sprezzatura is merely some sort of fashion statement.  Rather, it is really about how one behaves in the society of others.  A true courtier who knows his worth, as Castiglione reminds us, is someone who has reached a level of accomplishment in his career whereby not only are others drawn to him and his example, but he in turn is generous with his time and encouragement.  He does not make a show of being, as it were, the smartest one in the room, but makes himself available to those who need his counsel and leadership, without having to call a press conference about it every time he decides to take an action or express an opinion.

And now to Jake’s entry:

My old boss/mentor Jerome is, in my eyes, the epitome of a gentleman. There is nothing grand or eye-catching in the way he holds himself, but rather he has an accumulation of pure decency and a respect for others. He took a basic interest in me as a Freshman at University, took me on as his assistant, and molded me into the person I am today. He routinely gave me career advice, helped me develop social/analytical skills, and served as the one person who would vouch for me in any circumstance.

I’m sure everybody has a mentor like this, but Jerome sticks his neck out for everybody. My best friends/roommates in college were always free to go into his office and chat about school or work. Jerome led a faculty/student class and served as a source of stability whom first years could go to, when University got crazy. And he helped my younger sister get the job with the athletic department she so seriously desired.

Jerome tells me he lives by the belief that he had a lot of help in his path and that, as a way of acknowledging this, he has spread the love around as an adult. Looking out for others, showing mutual respect, and treating others as being on the same plane are the characteristics of a gentleman. Jerome has shown me how to act that way.

Mentors like Jerome, who take the time to give a hand up to those who are getting started in life, make what is often a selfish and self-centered world a more agreeable and civilized place to live in. Rather than being threatened by those on the way up, he responds to the needs of others with wisdom and generosity. That example of good patronage is a trait which Castiglione believes is essential to the gentleman or lady who is worthy of that title.

As the Count himself writes in his “Book of the Courtier”, all of us are given certain gifts, but these must be perfected by training:

Wherefore good masters teach children not only letters, but also good and seemly manners in eating, drinking, speaking and walking, with certain appropriate gestures. Therefore as in the other arts, so too in virtue it is necessary to have a master, who by instruction and good reminders shall arouse and awake in us those moral virtues whereof we have the seed enclosed and buried in our soul, and like a good husbandman shall cultivate them and open the way for them by freeing us from the thorns and tares of appetite, which often so overshadow and choke our minds as not to let them blossom or bring forth those happy fruits which alone we should desire to have spring up in the human heart.

None of us emerges into the world completely capable of caring for ourselves. We are all dependent upon the care and example of others in order to grow into adulthood. By giving an example of generosity of spirit to others, people like Jerome show young people like Jake that when their turn comes, when they are the ones in a position to be a mentor or patron to someone else, they must take advantage of the opportunity, rather than retreat into selfishness. One may call it Christian charity, noblesse oblige, mentoring, or the like, but without it, we descend into the bestial, self-centered tendencies of our fallen nature.

As Castiglione recognized, the encouragement of this nurturing attitude towards others ensures the continuity not only of society, but also of civilization.  I want to thank Jake for his entry, as well as all of those who entered, for showing that there are still gentlemen and ladies of good will who seek to bring a kind of effortless grace to the way in which they themselves behave and treat others.  Let us try to encourage others to follow this example, by first, of course, following it ourselves.

Contest winner Jake P. and his prize,
a scholarly edition of Castiglione’s “Book of the Courtier”

We Have A Winner!

Thank you to everyone who entered the Blog of the Courtier’s 3rd birthday contest! I received a number of excellent entries; far too many to individually acknowledge. Many of them gave some thoughtful examples of people, whether famous or known to the reader alone, who definitely embody some aspect of Castiglione’s ideal of “sprezzatura”, i.e. that talent for making something difficult look easy and effortless, instead of trying to make a big show about how one does things.

However in the end there can be only one winner, and the entry  I liked best came from reader Jason Persinger of Cincinnati, Ohio.  His entry will be published on August 16th, the date this blog officially turns 3 years old.  In the meantime, his copy of Baldassare Castiglione’s “Book of the Courtier”, the inspiration for this blog, will be making its way to him.

Congratulations, Jason, and thanks to all of you who entered, and who support my writing on these virtual pages!  Your readership and support means a great deal to me, and I am humbled by your continued interest.  We will continue to explore some of the ideals of not only sprezzatura, but also respect for tradition and custom, intellectual curiosity, the practices of a good society, and living a life integrated with faith, all of which continue to make Count Castiglione a man for our times.  God bless!

Detail of the Portrait of Count Baldassare Castiglione by Titian (c. 1523-24)
National Gallery, Dublin