In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Baldassarre Castiglione

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Biography and Related Studies
  • Correspondence
  • Minor Works
  • Editions of the Courtier
  • Textual Bibliography
  • English Translations of the Courtier
  • Essay Collections
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Contexts
  • General Interpretations of the Courtier
  • Key Concepts in the Courtier
  • Jokes in the Courtier
  • Characters in the Courtier
  • The Courtier and Gender
  • Book IV of the Courtier
  • Language, Rhetoric, and Society in the Courtier
  • Dialogue and Discourse in the Courtier
  • Castiglione and Raphael
  • Receptions
  • The Courtier’s English Reception

Renaissance and Reformation Baldassarre Castiglione
Stephen Kolsky
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0090


The reputation of Baldassarre Castiglione (b. 1478–d. 1529) rests on a single work, The Book of the Courtier, published in 1528. It was widely acclaimed and served as a model for civilized and polished behavior, both during the Renaissance and afterward. The book comprises a series of fictional dialogues set in the ducal palace of Urbino. Over the course of four evenings (corresponding to the four books of the Courtier), the interlocutors, often in intense debate, discuss topics of interest to their self-presentation at court. The Courtier analyzes their principal activities (warfare and, more extensively, cultural activities of various kinds) through the prism of new ideals of behavior. The focus on language use, especially through the medium of the joke, underlines the importance of urbane conversation to the courtier’s identity. Much discussion in the dialogues stems from a range of interactions among the courtiers themselves, with the women of the court, and, indirectly, with the prince. The general scope of the Courtier ensured that its influence was not limited solely to Italy. Its impact can be observed all over Europe in the form of translations, adaptations, and even parodies. For 19th- and early-20th-century scholars, Castiglione’s book epitomized the Renaissance. It incarnated an ideal of comportment that privileged the court as the foundation of new behavioral norms. However, that view changed decisively in the second half of the 20th century as a more complex reading of the Courtier emerged. Castiglione’s position as the “perfect” courtier writing the book about the “perfect” court came under significant challenge from the mid-20th century onwards with greater insistence on the historical realities of the early 16th century as they impinged on author and text. The idealized version of the court presented by Castiglione is generally resisted by critics from the 1970s onwards. Much greater emphasis is given to the “workings” of the text, to its rhetorical strategies, and, in general, to the development of critical means through which the apparently seamless surface of the dialogues reveal the paradoxes and disjunctures of Castiglione’s presentation of the court and its courtiers. This was in part based on the manuscript tradition of the text that allows readers to follow its evolution over time. Thus the idealistic interpretation, so prevalent in the 19th century, is overtaken in the 20th century by more nuanced views of the text. These readings recognize that the Courtier was not written in isolation from the catastrophic political events of the period, but in response to them. This article will place the Courtier in its historical and cultural context, focusing principally on the many and various interpretations of the text itself. In addition, some consideration will be granted to Castiglione’s minor works insofar as they illuminate his major opus and are suggestive of the multifaceted literary activities of the Renaissance courtier par excellence.

General Overviews

Cian 1951 represents the last and most enduring of 19th-century-style analyses of Castiglione (notwithstanding the paradox of the late appearance of the final edition, published more than half a century after the first). Cian’s study combines painstaking empirical research with a view of Castiglione as the perfect courtier who represents the apogee of Renaissance ideals. The rejoinder by Dionisotti 1952 marks the beginning of a revision and rethinking of Castiglione’s biography and writings. As such, its importance cannot be overemphasized. The 1950s also saw the publication of another major new interpretation, this time by Loos 1955 that gives particular consideration to the key words that underpin the Courtier’s meaning. Good introductions are Maier 1961 and, particularly, Woodhouse 1978. The latter’s succinct biography of Castiglione serves as an excellent introduction to his analysis of the text and the writer’s minor works. Guidi 1973 provides an overview that places particular emphasis on the changing social structures within which Castiglione operated, both as courtier and diplomat. Anglo 1977 discusses the Courtier in terms of its medieval precedents and its impact on later thought concerning civilized behavior. The online entry Baldassarre Castiglione by Motta on the “Pathways through Literature: Italian Writers” website is an excellent starting place for undergraduate students of Castiglione. With the exception of Motta’s entry, no English translations of these sources are available as of the early 21st century.

  • Anglo, Sydney. “The Courtier: The Renaissance and Changing Ideals.” In The Courts of Europe: Politics, Patronage and Royalty 1400–1800. Edited by A. G. Dickens, 33–53. London: Thames and Hudson, 1977.

    Places the Courtier in its cultural context by tracing attitudes toward the role of the courtier before, and following, the publication of Castiglione’s book. The author examines the major topics arising from the dialogues (such as the debate on nobility) by relating them to earlier and contemporary writings on the same subjects.

  • Cian, Vittorio. Un illustre nunzio pontificio del Rinascimento, Baldassar Castiglione. Vatican City: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1951.

    The culmination of a lifetime’s work, this remains a fundamental text for students of Castiglione. It consists of a biography, an interpretation of Castiglione’s literary production, and an attempt to synthesize the Courtier as a biographically inspired piece of writing.

  • Dionisotti, Carlo. “Review of Un illustre nunzio pontificio del Rinascimento, Baldassar Castiglione, by Vittorio Cian.” Giornale storico della letteratura italiana 129 (1952): 31–57.

    A revisionist view of Castiglione’s biography that challenges Cian’s view of Castiglione as the ideal courtier by rereading key biographical episodes. Dionisotti draws important links between his literary production and the context of the courts, thereby creating the potential for new interpretations of the Courtier.

  • Guidi, José. “Baldassar Castiglione et le pouvoir politique: Du gentilhomme de cour au nonce pontifical.” In Les écrivains et le pouvoir en Italie à l’époque de la Renaissance. Edited by André Rochon, 242–278. Paris: Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1973.

    An examination of Castiglione’s biography from the perspective of the minor feudal nobility, a class struggling to survive and adapt to changing political conditions on the Italian peninsula. The Courtier is read from the same perspective, as a refuge from brutal reality.

  • Loos, Erich. Baldassare Castigliones “Libro del cortegiano”: Studien zur Tugendauffassung des Cinquecento. Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1955.

    Presents a thoroughgoing and wide-ranging analysis of the Courtier aimed at providing an overall interpretation of the book in its historical and intellectual contexts. It still remains an invaluable introduction to the study of the text. Loos’s analysis of keywords is especially useful.

  • Maier, Bruno. “Baldesar Castiglione.” In Letteratura italiana: I minori. Vol. 2, 892–925. Milan: Marzorati, 1961.

    A concise overview of Castiglione’s life and works.

  • Motta, Uberto. “Baldassarre Castiglione.” In Pathways through Literature: Italian Writers/Viaggi nel testo: Classici della letteratura italiana. Translated by Steve Scott.

    This entry on Baldassarre Castiglione (available in both English and Italian) is an ideal starting point for students. It covers in some detail, and with exemplary clarity and accuracy, Castiglione’s biography, his minor works and letters, and the Courtier. The entry also has links to online catalogues.

  • Woodhouse, J. R. Baldesar Castiglione: A Reassessment of “The Courtier.” Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1978.

    An introduction to the Courtier for undergraduate students. It is also useful for those more familiar with the text. A biographical introduction is followed by a chapter locating the dialogue in its humanistic and classical context. The bulk of the book consists of an analysis of each of the four books of the Courtier. The author views the Courtier as a manual for survival in a hostile environment.

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