The thing about a civilised dinner party where the conversation ebbs and flows harmoniously is that often one learns something new and relationships are cemented. So it was at Cath Kerry’s table recently (www.cathkerry.net/blog). I talked about la bella figura (see previous post), and she asked me if I had read Baldassare Castiglione’s ‘The Book of the Courtier’. Oh, dear. I had not. I have read Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ (in translation), often considered the ‘companion piece’ to the other. She told me I should also look up Titian’s portrait of the great courtier, but try as I might, I couldn’t find it, though I found a rather fetching portrait of Castiglione by Raphael, now held at the Louvre.
Castiglione and Machiavelli were contemporaries. Men of the Renaissance, they were multi skilled. They were courtiers, politicians, diplomats – today, we might call them “political advisors”. I invariably leap to defend Machiavelli – whose reputation brands him as evil, devious and corrupt. His name has become an adjective – Machiavellian – to describe unprincipled political behaviour. And yet, while there is much to alarm us in the writings, he was being, at best, rational and at worst, only pragmatic. When I watch the excellent political series 1992 and 1993 (SBS ON DEMAND), I see that political naiveté, controlled by opportunistic, self seeking bureaucrats– in Australian politics, they are called ‘the faceless men’ – led directly to the rise of Silvio Bellusconi.
In Italy, unlike Australia, there is passionate, vital debate about politics. People, young and old, tell you who they support, what their colours are. Today, after the horrors of Berlusconi's blatant corruption and misuse of power and prestige, all hopes are with a group of young politicians – Movimento Cinque Stella (Five Star Movement). Everyone we spoke to, from middle aged taxi drivers to students in the piazze, was excited. The ‘five stars’ are a reference to five key issues for the movement: water, sustainable transport, sustainable development in the major cities, internet access for all and environmentalism. Tellingly (how closely can we, in Australia, relate to this?), the leader is Beppe Grillo, a comedian. Sadly, here in Australia too, our leading political critics are not intellectuals, academics or other politicians, they are comics, satirists, buffoons. I use that last word advisedly because the wise ‘buffoon’ is a constant figure in the political landscape of Italy.
At approximately the same time that Castiglione and Machiavelli were writing, a new form of professional theatre was emerging. Possibly evolving from the extravagance of carnevale in Venice (though many scholars date its origins in Roman times), Commedia dell’arte was an energetic theatre based on masked ‘types’ which represented the human condition. So, the stock characters came to embody social types – the arrogant doctor, the sleazy leacher - and in time, even towns and regions. Through this theatre, at once scripted and improvised, artists could ridicule the ruling classes and, indeed, mock the populace for their foolishness in following such empty headed fops. Let me quote Machiavelli: “It is not titles that honour men, but men that honour titles.”
Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito
And so, finally, to Castiglione. He was of a wealthy, noble family who fell under the spell of the court of Urbino, at the time the most splendid of the Italian courts. Eventually, through his brilliance as a soldier, writer and diplomat he was sent to Madrid as ambassador of the Holy See where sadly he died from the plague. His book, Il Cortegiano, The Book of the Courtier, (available on Kindle), is a series of fictional conversations between a group of courtiers about the manners, etiquette and accomplishments necessary to be a proper gentleman and lady. Could this be the genesis of la bella figura? (see previous post). Certainly, it is.
Castiglione puts great store on making a brilliant first impression through exquisite clothes, timbre of the voice and comportment – this is civility or grazia (grace). But then...at this point I became so excited, I couldn’t sit still. Then, the courtiers have a discussion about sprezzatura. This notion is so fundamental to how Italians carry themselves that I needed a moment to catch my breath! So, sprezzatura is the most important quality a courtier needs – it is the effortless restraint, the comfortable casualness of each exchange. And, into my modern mind pops the image of a man of a certain age, with a pastel coloured cashmere jumper draped, nonchalantly, over his shoulders, his little finger adorned with a discreet signet ring engraved with the family crest. Artless.
But if this were all, Italians would be no more than well dressed marionettes. Indeed, the gentlemen and ladies of Castiglione’s dialogues conclude that they are custodians of the one virtue that sets humanity apart: that of ‘moral urbanity’.
And so, in 1528, the year before his death, Castiglione gives us the perfect definition of la bella figura: moral urbanity.