COURTLY GRACES AND MANNERS IN THE RENAISSANCE
Lord Aubrey de Baudricourt
"... you must understand it behooves you to frame and order your manners and doings, not according to your own mind and fashion but to please those with whom you live, and after that direct your doings."
--- della Casa, Galateo, c. 1555
As with most everything in Renaissance Europe, Italy set the style and pace in courtly graces and manners in the early 16th century. Italy led Europe in hygiene, dress, cooking, table manners and conversation and considered the rest of Europe, with the exception of a thin upper crust in England and France, as little better than barbarians. The French, impressed with their own adaptation of Italian manners, tended to agree.
Italy's leadership in manners and courtly behavior actually began in the High Middle Ages. Many books describing proper behavior were written for the newly rich to help them fit into their new status. The first of these books was written in about 1290 by Fra Bonvincio da Riva. "The Fifty Courtesies for the Table" describes basic manners such as table manners and personal hygiene.
The mid 14th and 15th century saw a solidification of the social structure in Europe and resulted in fewer books on manners. Instead, books centered on the correct deportment of whole classes, particularly the middle class. Fearful of the rise of the middle class, these books stressed the need for those of lower classes to exhibit the proper respect for their superiors and gracious to their inferiors. Italian books on manners, like their books on fencing and dancing, became the model for the rest of Europe.
In some of the Italian city-states, edicts detailed such things as the goods of which clothes could be made, the number of guests to invite to a feat and even the type of plate on which these guests could be served. There were three purposes for these edicts. The first was to keep inferiors in their place and emphasize the gulf between the nobility and the rising mercantile class. The writers of the edicts also sought to keep the consumption of imported luxuries to a minimum while supporting local industries. And, finally, the edicts were a last reflection of medieval austerity in the face of the ostentatious winds of the coming Renaissance.
Dancing and cardplaying were important facets of the life of the nobility in Renaissance Italy. Dancing was done at both public and private events ranging from the public squares in Florence to the formal balls. Women and men could dance together, but could also seek partners of the same gender without any thing untoward being thought of it. Cardplaying often involved gambling and, at times, could lead to the impoverishment of the practitioner. Despite Papal and state edicts against it, gambling was to ruin many a noble throughout the Renaissance.
Table manners were revolutionized in the fifteenth century with the introduction of the fork. Unfortunately, the rest of Europe did not follow Italy's lead until after 1600. These forks, knives and spoons were made of brass or, sometimes silver. Meals in early Renaissance Italy were generally modest, except for state occasions. Pepper, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and juniper were used to flavor food and stimulate thirst, offering the host the opportunity to show his guests his diverse taste in wines. The triumph of garlic in Italian cooking was not to come until about 1550 and tomatoes would not be deemed fit for eating until the end of the sixteenth century.
The art of conversation was reinvented by the Italians of the Renaissance. These conversations were witty, cynical or cutting, as the occasion required. 'Subjects varied from philosophy to military affairs with the conversers showing off their knowledge of classical literature or the current rage in fashion or current events.
Castiglione and "The Courtier"
"...the correct rule of behavior is to observe a certain prudence and wise discrimination, and to understand the exact emphasis to give to various actions so that they may always be done seasonably."
--- Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, 1528
The first book written specifically about the courtier that did not view him as some sort of parasite was Dello optimo cortesano. Diomede Caraffa wrote it in 1479 with the idea of assisting the courtier to be a better advisor to his prince. It was not a book on manners or courtly behavior but it was to influence later works and to show the courtier in a positive light. Later writers were also to return to the theme of the courtier as an advisor to his prince and make this his most important function.
The most influential book on manners and courtly behavior was Castiglione's "The Book of the Courtier", also referred to as "The Courtier". It was presented in the form of a series of conversations that supposedly took place at Urbino in 1507. The book suggested the proper attitudes and actions for the courtier and these suggestions were to be adopted all over Europe by the end of the Renaissance.
The author, Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529) was the son of Count Cristoforo Castiglione who held estates in the Marquisate of Mantua. The Count had even married a Gonzaga relative of the Marquis himself. Baldassare joined the army of Milan and there gained a bit of military knowledge and sense for public affairs. These enabled him to find employment with the rulers of Mantua (1500-1504), Urbino (1504-1516), Mantua again (1516-1524) and the Papacy (1524 1529). He died in the service Clement VII as the papal nuncio to Spain. The Emperor Charles V mourned him as "one of the world's finest gentlemen".
In writing "The Book of the Courtier", Castiglione had two purposes. The first was to recall the Court of Urbino in 1507, a time and place that were of fond memory to him and idealized as the most perfect Court in all of Europe. The second reason was to describe the perfect courtier and aspects of his behavior and actions. Castiglione amplified the concept of the worldly broadly educated man by adding to it a chivalric attitude of loyalty to princes and courtesy to women as typified in the courtly lore of medieval Europe. 'The Courtier" possesses a charm of mood and language that wins for it a place among the masterpieces of the Renaissance.
The book also has a darker side. It is a gentleman's book written by --a gentleman for those who might attend to court of a prince. It emphasizes the necessity for the courtier to distance himself from the lower classes and mix with the middle class only sparingly. Never an egalitarian, Castiglione stresses the fact that the courtier should be of noble birth. This is both a reflection of society's expectations and his own prejudices. Both believed that grazia, good manners and an easy grace of mind and body, came more naturally to those reared among persons already possessing those qualities.
Castiglione's perfect courtier must be a warrior of proven courage and skill. But there must be moderation. The Prince must know that his courtier is brave but not foolhardy. The practice of arms was important but too much war makes the courtier dull and boring.
It must be remembered that "The Courtier" is meant to describe the perfect Renaissance courtier, not the ideal man. The courtier should know his own worth and advertise it discreetly. In battle he should perform his deeds under the eyes of the Prince, no matter what influence it might have on the battle plan. In the victory procession he should ride as near the front as possible so as to be noticed before boredom lays low the crowd and he passes unseen.
The courtier must also be a practitioner of the more peaceful arts. Oratory abilities were respected, as was the courtier's ability to write poetry and prose. If the courtier is gifted in music and dance, so much the better.
Castiglione's book even goes on to describe the preferred height and dress of the courtier. He believes that it is best for the courtier to be small than large since large size is often coupled with thickheadedness. As for dress, Castiglione would have the courtier adopt the Spanish mode of dress, black or dark colors, since the courtier's dress should reflect his solemnity.
Castiglione is rather forward looking in his appraisal of women while using many of the precepts of medieval courtly love in his appraisal of them as well. He firmly believes that women are not of inferior status to men and that they are quite as capable of governing cities as are some men. He states that a court without women is unimaginable and that the courtier owes them the proper respect. He would have them be as feminine as possible and learn music, dancing, literature and the art of entertaining.
The courtier's primary duty is to render to his Prince loyal service and honesty. If the Prince is young, the courtier should serve as a teacher. If he is an experienced ruler, the courtier should be his advisor. He always owes his Prince the truth, whether it be on the battlefield or in the council chamber. 'If the Prince is about to make a wrong decision, it is the duty of the courtier to tell him so, no matter what it might mean to his career.
One of the most important facets of the perfect courtier's behavior are the notions of grazia and sprezzatura, which translates as "easy nonchalance". Nothing that the courtier does should seem to require undue effort. Everything should seem to come easily to him. His accomplishments should be the results of elegant and easy effort.
In the final analysis, Castiglione's courtier is a dilettante. He is to be a jack of all trades and a master of none. He seemed shallow and sprezzatura was not going to fool anyone for long. This model of courtly behavior is open to much criticism but, while not perfect, he became the mirror in which all European courtiers viewed themselves.
"The Courtier" is not merely a book about courtly graces and manners. It also attempts to repair the sad state of affairs in which Italy found itself after the French invasion of 1494. He believed, unlike Machiavelli, that the monarchy was the best form of government. But he was not naive enough to believe that all princes were wise. His courtier, competent in all forms of rulership, would, by his many accomplishments, be the natural mainstay of any Prince who could not rule well alone. As a solution to Italy's problems, the book was worse than useless. At the very time that Italy required a group of highly trained professionals, Castiglione preached the doctrine of the talented, multitalented amateur. In this case, Machiavelli's belief that the dilettante had no place in government was more in tune with the times.
della Casa and "Galateo"
"We say that those be good manners and fashions which bring a delight or at least offend not their senses, their minds and conceits with whom we live."
--- della Casa, Galateo, c. 1555
A second influential book on courtly behavior was published in 1558 and quickly won international acclaim. This was Giovanni della Casa's 'Galateo' or "The Book of Manners'. Giovanni della Casa (1503-1556) was the Archbishop of Benevento and a prominent Counter-Reformation clerical administrator. He wrote both poetry and prose, but the "Galateo" was his most well known work. It became, after "The Courtier", the most influential of Italy's books on behavior. By 1600 it had been translated into French, English, Latin, Spanish and German.
Della Casa, like all of the aristocracy, believed that certain modes of dress should be reserved for each class exclusively so that all might know their station. Defying this precept showed, in his words, "contempt for other people". His beliefs in dress extended to what would or would not be attractive. Della Casa believed that one should dress in such a way as to accentuate the body's strong points while hiding its defects, no matter what the current fashion rave calls for.
"Galateo" discusses acceptable and unacceptable table manners and personal hygiene. Much of Della Casa's advice on hygiene is, by our standards, common sense. Some of it is even humorous, as is this advice to the gentleman who might have a cold: "And when you have blown your nose, use not to open your handkerchief to glare ... as if you had pearls and rubies fallen from your brains...." Della Casa would have his perfect gentleman avoid all coarseness or crudeness of behavior. He states that the gentleman "should beware of coarseness in any form, because however amusing such things may seem to be, honorable people should only use honorable means of pleasing others". Della Casa's gentleman must govern his behavior and his wit which "should be like the nibble of a sheep rather than the bite of a dog, for if it were to bite like a dog it would not be witty but insulting".
Della Casa was no more of an egalitarian than Castiglione. But he cautions his gentleman to be not too boastful of "his birth, his honors or his wealth". Indeed, Della Casa believed that the gentleman should avoid boastfulness of all kinds. But, like Castiglione, in the end the manner in which things are done is as important as the actions themselves: "It is not enough for a man to do things that be good both he must also have a care he does them with good grace."
Manners in the Renaissance England and France
"In addition to their civil speeches they [the English] have the incredible courtesy of remaining with their heads uncovered, with an admirable grace, whilst they talk to each other. "
--- Anonymous Venetian, "A Relation ... of the Island of England...", c. 1500
French courtiers and courtesans followed Italian models. "The Courtier" was translated in to French in 1537 and manners manuals were best sellers in France. Conversation became a polished art in France, it being reputed that while the Germans crushed a man with humour, the French skewered him with wit. The art of Italian repartee arrived in France at about the same time as the art of Italian fencing.
Catherine del Medici was to reinforce the French admiration of Italian fashion and manners. She brought Italian politeness, a sense of beauty, a taste of elegance, a refinement in appointments and dress, and, in the form of her cooks, the beginnings of French cooking. French court ceremony, formalized by Francis I (r. 1515-1547) replaced Italian ceremony as the model of Renaissance Europe. Court dress became more expensive and ornate especially during the latter portion of the century. France was to vie with Spain throughout the century for leadership in fashion.
These were important times for French civilization. During the late Renaissance literature, music, manners and cultured conversation came together to form France's great contribution to the Age of Reason--the salon. Based on Castiglione's Court of Urbino in "The Courtier", it first arose in France in about 1618 and reached its peak during the so-called Age of Reason.
The English followed the French in their imitation of Italian graces and manners. "The Courtier" was translated into English in 1561 by Sir Thomas Hoby. Its rules were followed faithfully by the prominent courtiers of the day: Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake and Sir Philip Sydney. Had the Earl of Essex read it more carefully, he might have been spared such a shabby end.
English men wore more finery than their women. The King provided the prime example of extravagance in dress. But true extravagance was not experienced until Elizabethan times when women, in the person of the Queen herself, launched a counteroffensive in the realm of fashion. When the smoke of the fashion war cleared, Elizabeth and her thousand gowns had won a resounding victory over the dandified dress of such Elizabethan gentleman as Drake, Raleigh, the Earl of Essex the Earl of Oxford and the Earl of Southampton.
England, like all other states of the Renaissance, was a country of rank and privilege. At the top of the heap was the Queen herself. Immediately after her in precedence were the glittering Peers of the Realm: the de Veres, Howards, Dudleys, Devereaux and the like. The title "My Lord' was still an impressive one in 1590 when there were about 740 English noblemen sitting in the House of Lords. The Irish and Scots were generally excluded from the English aristocracy in Elizabethan times.
There had been twenty-seven barons, two viscounts, twelve earls, one marquis and one duke--some forty-three lay peers in all in the second year of Elizabeth's reign. By its end the Duchy of Norfolk had no Duke and the title of marquis was also in abeyance. But now there were also twenty-five earls and a total of eighty-one lay peers.
This Elizabethan nobility were a sensitive lot, anxious to defend their honor against any possible slur or insult, real or perceived. In 1573 the Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, called Sir Philip Sidney "a puppy" during, a tennis game. This was considered a tremendous insult and Sidney demanded an apology or the satisfaction of a duel. Refusing the Queen's attempt to mediate, Oxford lost his standing at court and Sidney was forced to retire from Court for a time as well. Insults were taken seriously, as wag the attitude of the Crown and its attempts to mediate between its hypersensitive nobles. Sir Charles Blount fought a celebrated duel with Robert Devereaux, Earl of Oxford in Marylebone Park with the acquiescence of the Queen. Her not so secret hope was the Sir Charles would "take down the good Earl a step or two".
One level beneath the English nobility was the knight. Knights held a somewhat nebulous position in the hierarchy of Elizabethan England. Knighthood was not considered a title of nobility but was, instead, merely an honor, granted by the Crown or a designated deputy such as the Marshal of England or Lord High Admiral. Knighthood gave the recipient no direct legal privileges and was most often granted only to the sons of great noblemen who have won royal favor or commoners who had performed high public service to the Crown. It was not an honor that passed from father to son and many landed nobles were never to feel the touch of the Queen's sword on their shoulders. Elizabeth jealously husbanded knighthoods, just as she did patents of nobility. On two occasions she made her displeasure known to the Earl of Essex because of his showering of knighthoods on his followers.
Younger brothers and younger sons of the peers, and their other relatives, could not hope to become noblemen. They were considered to be "gentlemen", a title that they were forced to share with the disreputable attorney at law or even a nouveau-riche linen draper's ex-prentice who, because of his hard earned wealth, was been able to buy a genteel estate. Anyone who could lay lawful claim to a coat of arms could demand to be addressed as "Esquire" or "Gentleman" and feel insulted if such an honor is denied.
The title of "Master" was a courtesy given to many people who were never granted a coat of arms, but who had risen above the crowd as master craftsmen, successful merchants and city administrators. They were often addressed as masters or mistresses. Many times the only discernible difference between a gentleman and a master was that the gentleman did not "dirty" his hands with manual labor or the degrading practices of merchandising. This attitude towards merchants and merchandizing was to change not long after the death of the great Queen.
The Elizabethan gentleman can be considered a true son of the Renaissance. In Germany Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation somehow overwhelmed the Renaissance. In France, after years of bloody religious civil war, the triumphant Renaissance rejected the Reformation. Elizabethan England successfully merged the two events. The Renaissance had freed him from the burden of medieval dogma and the Baroque had not yet frozen his thought patterns into those common to the Age of Reason. His ideals lay somewhere between the Castiglione's ideal courtier and the coldly relentless and realistic Machiavellian Prince. The Elizabethan respected and admired Sidney but he worshiped Drake.
Germany and Spain
"This is a ragged, boorish lot..."
--- Pope Pius II, c. 1458
[referring to the Viennese]
The Germans considered crude by most by the rest of Europe. Their manners were generally judged as little more than what one would expect of barbarians and their nature, when appraised positively, was called boisterous. Clothing for well to do German men voluminous and cut with generous slashes. This style of dress, popularized by German mercenary soldiers, became a German trademark. It was topped with a broad hat.
The government of Germany was concentrated in the hands of some 2,500 local and regional magnates. Among these were about 2,000 imperial free knights who together owned about 250 square miles of territory. They owed fealty to no one but the Emperor but were excluded from the diet of the Empire. Among the most famous of them was Franz von Sickingen, a warrior famous for his part in the Knight's War and in the Reformation.
There were also about 50 ecclesiastical princes of whom the most powerful were the Prince-Archbishop Electors of Mainz, Trier and Koln, the Archbishops of Wurzburg, Magdeburg, Salzburg, Fulda and Bamberg. About thirty secular princes assisted in ruling the Empire, the four most powerful being the Count Palatine of the Rhein, the Electors of Saxony and Brandenburg and the Duke of Bavaria. Other important territorial princes were the dukes of Wurttemberg, Lorraine, Saxony-Dresden, Pomerania, Julich-Cleves, the landgrave of Hesse and the margrave of Brandenburg. Finally, there were about 100 counts, 70 lesser prelates and 66 imperial free cities.
Throughout the Renaissance Spain dominated Europe in the fashion world as it did on the battlefield. Spanish life had a characteristic charm and splendor all its own. A good half of the kingdom claimed to be of noble descent (shades of Gascony) and tried their best to live up to these pretenses. This included trying to keep pace with the clothing of the upper crust of the country. The Spanish tended to favor darker, more somber colors. The rest of Europe agreed, at least in principle.
In the time of Philip II male dress was fairly simple: ruffs, doublets, dark hose and buckled boots. The simplicity of the Spanish gentleman's clothing was set off in many ways: the close-fitting doublet was supported by a whalebone frame, or quilted inside, to give the wearer a more imposing bearing. A felt hat with a wide brim, worn with multicolored ostrich plumes, often graced the head of the Spanish noble. A huge dark cape was often worn to complete the desired affect of somberness. Hairstyles, which had been rather short during the time of Charles V, became longer during the reign of Philip II and perfume came into use in at this time as well.
The ladies were required to cover their entire body until the strict morals of Spain began to relax. In the very late 16th century female dress was finally allowed to be more fancy and, as with most things Spanish, set the pace of fashion in Europe. The fan came into its own as an instrument of flirtation and hoop skirts became a prominent item of wear, first in Spain and then, later, the rest of the Continent.
The overwhelming concern of the Spanish courtier was his status. He sought to outshine his fellow courtiers by his ostentatious dress, the sumptuousness of his table and the impressiveness home.. The government tried to curb the courtier with sumptuary laws but these were unsuccessful. The greater the social standing of the grandee in question, the more ostentatious his display of wealth and rank was likely to be.
Within Philip's Court there were four main groups of players: Philip and the royal family, the high nobility, the lesser grandees and nearly penniless hidalgos. In a space suspended between the royal family and the highest nobleman Philip set his illegitimate half brother, Don Juan of Austria. Don Juan, or Don John as he was known to the English, was addressed as "His Excellency" (as was the right of any Spanish prince of the royal house), but was not allowed to reside in any royal palace nor stand with the royal family during mass. Thus was he kept in his place and the higher nobility in theirs.
The Spanish courtier was to set the pace for Europe until the very might of Spain was eclipsed by France in the mid-17th century. The triumph of the army of France at Rocroi also meant the victory of French color over Spanish somberness. It was truly the dawning of a new age: the end of the Renaissance, perhaps, and the beginning of the Baroque.
"I consider, therefore, that the perfect courtier ... can indeed be good and praiseworthy, not, however, simply in himself but in regard to the end to which he is directed. "
--- Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, 1528
The Renaissance was an age of contradictions. It was an age of elegance, beauty, scientific study, maritime exploration, and boundless energy. Jewel encrusted hooped dresses and quilted doublets with white ruffs set the pace of fashion. The science of astronomy discovered that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the Universe (it would not be until much later that even the sun was dethroned of this central position) and humanists speculated that Man, not God, was the measure of all things. Both the Spanish and the English circumnavigated the globe and, everywhere, tremendous energy. But it was also an age of filth and plague, of religious bigotry and unrest. It was a time of great poverty, coarseness and unbelievable superstition.
These contradictions are reflected in how the courtier viewed himself and, more importantly, how he was viewed by others. Castiglione and his immediate predecessor's saw the courtier as a useful person rendering service to his Prince in exchange for well-deserved rewards. They created a model upon which courtiers of the Renaissance could base their behavior and actions. The Renaissance man tried to mould himself to meet the models of behavior portrayed in Italian books of manners. Few courtiers ever lived up to the standards. Most were realistic enough to realize that some elements of self-interest, cynicism and ambition were necessary for success. In the end, Castiglione remained the model and Machiavelli the reality.
Even as Castiglione's model of the perfect courtier was becoming accepted as the standard for Europe, others were writing literature that belittled him and viewed him as a parasitical animal sucking life from the very Prince that he was supposed to serve. Philibert de Vienne's Philosopher of the Court holds up Castiglione's model courtier as a figure of ridicule but it is Lorenzo Ducci's cynical Arte Aulica, printed in 1601, that best mocks the courtier as a slave, and a voluntary one at that. Ducci's courtier is an unrepentant social climber who will use any means to ingratiate himself to his Prince.
Yet, Philibert and Ducci's courtiers are nothing more than courtier's who have taken Castiglione's guidelines beyond the limit. In no small part because of Castiglione and others who wrote in the same vein, the courtly graces were polished to an art. These old writers knew that Renaissance Europe was a stratified society in which all knew their proper place. We now know that titles and clothing were designed to make it obvious what place within that society the owner occupied and, with the middle class now beginning to offer a threat to that place, to keep him there.
Castiglione, Baldasare, The Book of the Courtier, Penguin Books, London, England, 1976.
Davis, William Stearns, Life in Elizabethan Days, Harper and Row Publishers, New York City, New York, 1930.
Defourneaux, Marcelin, Daily Life in Spain in the Golden Age, Praeger Publishers, New York City, New York, 1971.
Durant, Will and Ariel, The Renaissance, Simon and Schuster, New York City, New York, 1953.
----------------------- The Reformation, Simon and Schuster, New York City, New York, 1957.
---------------------- The Age of Reason Begins, Simon and Schuster, New York City, New York, 1961.
Febvre, Lucien, Life in Renaissance France, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1977.
Ross, James B. and McLaughlin, Mary M., The Portable Renaissance Reader, Penguin Books, London, England, 1981.