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The Path of the Courtier: Castiglione, Machiavelli, and the Loss of Republican Liberty

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 October 2012


Although Castiglione's The Courtier was one of the most popular products of the Italian Renaissance, it has largely escaped the attention of modern political theorists. Many dismiss The Courtier as an apolitical work characterized by nostalgia and escapism, but it should not be so dismissed: on the contrary, Castiglione's book expresses a definite political program. This essay explores that program as a “politics of the second best”—as a pragmatic response to unfortunately diminished political opportunities. Put simply, given the choice between trying to make one's master a better person, on the one hand, and not having a master at all, on the other, surely one would not opt for the former unless the latter was not available. Reflection on this point informs the debate between proponents of “negative liberty” and those of “republican liberty.”

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 2012

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1 Burke, Peter, The Fortunes of the Courtier: The European Reception of Castiglione's Cortegiano (Malden, MA: Polity, 1995), 6166, 158–62Google Scholar.

2 See Mazzeo, Joseph Anthony, Renaissance and Revolution: The Remaking of European Thought (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965), 131Google Scholar; and Burke, Fortunes of the Courtier, 58, respectively.

3 There exists, of course, a well-established line of contemporary European literary scholarship on Castiglione; its central preoccupation, however, has been reconstructing the story of The Courtier's composition. Leading contributions to this line of research include Ghinassi, Ghino, “Fasi dell'elaborazione del Cortegiano,” Studi di Filologia Italiana 25 (1967): 155–96Google Scholar; Guidi, José, “De l'amour courtois à l'amour sacré: La condition de la femme dans l'oeuvre de Baldessare Castiglione,” Centre de Recherches sur la Renaissance Italienne 8 (1980): 980Google Scholar; Quondam, Amedeo, “Questo povero Cortegiano,” Castiglione, il Libro, la Storia (Rome: Bulzoni, 2000)Google Scholar; and Motta, Uberto, Castiglione e il mito di Urbino: Studi sulla elaborazione del “Cortegiano” (Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 2003)Google Scholar. While fascinating in its own right, this topic largely falls outside the scope of the present discussion, and will be referred to only when relevant.

4 Most Renaissance advice books followed the “mirror-for-princes” genre established in the Middle Ages. For discussion, see Skinner, Quentin, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, vol. 1, The Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), chap. 5Google Scholar.

5 Bruckhardt, Jacob, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, trans. Middlemore, S. G. C. (New York: Modern Library, 2002), 269Google Scholar.

6 E.g., Hulliung, Mark, Citizen Machiavelli (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 12Google Scholar; and Burke, Fortunes of the Courtier, 32.

7 Among those contributing to this political turn, see Javitch, Daniel, Poetry and Courtliness in Renaissance England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978)Google Scholar, and Il Cortegiano and the Constraints of Despotism,” in Castiglione: The Ideal and the Real in Renaissance Culture, ed. Hanning, Robert W. and Rosand, David (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983)Google Scholar; Trafton, Dain A., “Politics and the Praise of Women: Political Doctrine in the Courtier's Third Book,” in Castiglione, ed. Hanning and RosandGoogle Scholar; Saccone, Eduardo, “The Portrait of the Courtier in Castiglione,” Italica 64 (1987): 118CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Falvo, Joseph D., The Economy of Human Relations: Castiglione's “Libro del Cortegiano” (New York: Peter Lang, 1992)Google Scholar; and Richards, Jennifer, Rhetoric and Courtliness in Early Modern Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a partial critique of the political turn, however, see Cox, Virginia, “Castiglione and His Critics,” in The Book of the Courtier, ed. Cox, Virginia (New York: Everyman, 1994)Google Scholar. Note that these authors have yet to find a significant audience among political theorists: this is suggested by the fact that a search across all dates for all 146 political science journals archived by JSTOR returns exactly zero articles with “Castiglione” in either the title or the abstract.

8 Quondam, Amedeo, “On the Genesis of the Book of the Courtier,” in The Book of the Courtier, ed. Javitch, Daniel (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 283295Google Scholar.

9 Citations are to book and chapter, followed by the page number in the widely available Penguin edition: Castiglione, Baldesar, The Book of the Courtier, trans. Bull, George (London: Penguin Books, 1976)Google Scholar. Though less literal and arguably based on an inferior text, Bull's translation is considerably more clear and vigorous than Singleton's earlier one, reprinted in the Norton edition (see n. 8 above). With respect to the broader themes addressed here, there are no relevant differences of substance between the translations. When referring to the Italian original, I rely on Walter Barberis's excellent critical edition: Castiglione, Baldesar, Il Libro del Cortegiano (Turin: Biblioteca Einaudi, 1998)Google Scholar.

10 Friend and relation to Castiglione, Lodovico was himself a nobleman and an exemplary courtier in his own right. At the dramatic date of the dialogue, however, his career was still before him, and he is selected to describe the ideal courtier because of his love of controversy rather than his expertise (I.13; 52).

11 Lodovico may well be relating his own experience here as a novice courtier enjoying the advantage of noble birth.

12 For detailed treatments of the importance of moderation and discretion in Castiglione, see Javitch, “Constraints of Despotism,” and Richards, Rhetoric and Courtliness, esp. chap. 2; for nonchalance and grace, see Saccone, “Portrait of the Courtier,” and Berger, Henry, The Absence of Grace: Sprezzatura and Suspicion in Two Renaissance Courtesy Books (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), esp. chap. 1Google Scholar.

13 Lodovico's argument finds a humorous rejoinder in Don Quixote, I.37–38, where the eponymous knight harangues the company at an inn on the preeminence of arms over letters. This is, of course, only one of many instances in which Cervantes seems to take issue with the courtly tradition established by Castiglione. Another is the insensitive and ultimately cruel treatment of Don Quixote and his squire by the Duke and Duchess in II.30–57, which seems to respond critically to Castiglione's discussion of practical jokes near the end of the second evening's discussion in The Courtier.

14 Many rich details are necessarily glossed over in these brief remarks. Some further aspects of book 2 will be considered below, and for interesting discussions of book 3, see Trafton, “Praise of Women,” and Berger, Absence of Grace, chaps. 4–5.

15 Mazzeo, Renaissance and Revolution, 135. Castiglione's model of human perfection is heavily indebted, of course, to classical sources—Aristotle and Cicero in particular.

16 Ryan, Lawrence V., “Book Four of Castiglione's Courtier: Climax or Afterthought?,” Studies in the Renaissance 19 (1972): 158CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Kelly-Gadol, Joan, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?,” in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. Bridenthal, Renate and Koonz, Claudia (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), 157Google Scholar; Burke, Fortunes of the Courtier, 35; and Quondam, “Genesis of The Courtier,” 293.

18 Bull, George, introduction to The Book of the Courtier, by Castiglione (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 16Google Scholar.

19 Bull, introduction, 17; and Mazzeo, Renaissance and Revolution, 134, respectively.

20 Mazzeo, Renaissance and Revolution, 138.

21 Contrary to the assumption of some earlier commentators, the political discussion in book 4 was no mere afterthought on the part of Castiglione. Although earlier drafts of The Courtier had only three books, most of the substance of the political discussion we shall discuss was present in the draft of 1520–21. His later decision to divide the last book in two and concentrate his explicitly political material at the opening of the newly created fourth book had the effect, perhaps, of heightening its significance. For further discussion, see Ghinassi, “Fasi dell'elaborazione del Cortegiano”; Ryan, “Book Four”; and Quondam, “Genesis of The Courtier.”

22 Castiglione's argument here depends, of course, on the assumption that good people necessarily make for better rulers; though this connection was (and perhaps still is) widely assumed, it might easily be challenged.

23 The passages cited here cast doubt on Ryan's interpretation of book 4, according to which the courtier must involve himself with political affairs merely in order to secure the peaceful conditions necessary for his own complete flowering as a uomo universale—i.e., “the practical virtues are but means to the end of intellectual perfection” (Ryan, “Book Four,” 165).

24 For example, from his failure while serving as ambassador in Rome to prevent the pope from deposing Francesco Maria della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino, in 1516.

25 Petrarca, Francesco, “How a Ruler Ought to Govern His State,” in The Earthly Republic: Italian Humanists on Government and Society, ed. Kohl, Benjamin G. and Witt, Ronald G. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978), 64Google Scholar; and Machiavelli, Niccolò, The Prince, trans. Bull, George (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 76Google Scholar.

26 Erasmus, Desiderius, The Education of a Christian Prince, ed. Jardine, Lisa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 56Google Scholar. It follows, according to Erasmus, that flatterers should receive no worse a punishment—namely, the penalty of death.

27 Mazzeo, Renaissance and Revolution, 137.

28 E.g., by Falvo, Economy of Human Relations, 3–5; Burke, Fortunes of the Courtier, 31–32; and Quondam, “Genesis of The Courtier,” 295.

29 We should not infer, however, that Castiglione had this purpose in view from the outset: after all, the form and style of The Courtier was established in early drafts, apparently before he had resolved on any specific political message for the work. His aim initially might simply to have been, as he suggests in the dedication, to imitate the dialogues of Plato, Xenophon, and Cicero—much as we would expect from a humanistic author of the Italian Renaissance. On the significance of the dialogue form, see Richards, Rhetoric and Courtliness, chap. 1; on the significance of the author's absenting himself from that dialogue, see Berger, The Absence of Grace, chap. 6.

30 Here see the authors cited in n. 7 above.

31 The following history is familiar, but for further details, see Hyde, J. K., Society and Politics in Medieval Italy: The Evolution of the Civil Life, 1000–1350 (New York: St. Martin's, 1973)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Skinner, Foundations, esp. parts 1–2, and The Italian City-Republics,” in Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, ed. Dunn, John (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)Google Scholar; Jones, Philip, The Italian City-State: From Commune to Signoria (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997)Google Scholar; and Waley, Daniel and Dean, Trevor, The Italian City-Republics, 4th ed. (New York: Longman, 2010)Google Scholar.

32 Bull, introduction, 17.

33 Guicciardini, Francesco, Maxims and Reflections (Ricordi), trans. Domandi, Mario (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965), 122Google Scholar.

34 This passage perhaps clarifies Castiglione's cryptic remark in the preface to book 1 that his aim is to describe a courtier “so perfect that the prince who is worthy of his service, even though his dominion is small, can count himself a truly great ruler” (I.1; 40).

35 Guicciardini, Maxims, 86.

36 Burke, Fortunes of the Courtier, 35. This tendency is evident in Kelly-Gadol, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?”; Javitch, Poetry and Courtliness and “Constraints of Despotism”; Langer, Ullrich, “Merit in Courtly Literature: Castiglione, Rabelais, Marguerit de Navarre, and Le Caron,” Renaissance Quarterly 41 (1988): 218–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Falvo, Economy of Human Relations; Berger, Absence of Grace; and Quondam, “Genesis of The Courtier,” for example. Note that the tendency cuts across both the more recent political readings and also the more traditional apolitical readings.

37 It is possibly significant, however, that Bembo read and commented on an earlier draft of The Courtier for Castiglione (see Quondam, “Genesis of The Courtier,” 286–89).

38 See, for example, Aristotle, Politics III.11, VI.2; and Cicero, De republica I.47–50.

39 Machiavelli, Niccolò, The Discourses, trans. Walker, Leslie J. (New York: Penguin Books, 1970), 112, 115Google Scholar.

40 Guicciardini, Maxims, 69; and Rinuccini, Alamanno, “Liberty,” in Humanism and Liberty: Writings on Freedom from Fifteenth-Century Florence, trans. Watkins, Renée Neu (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1978), 199Google Scholar.

41 Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, ed. Gaskin, J. C. A. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1998), 143Google Scholar.

42 In any case, the relative instability of republics was a commonplace in medieval political theory: see, for instance, Aquinas, De regno I.3.

43 On the use of interest to counteract passion, see the famous discussion in Hirschman, Albert O., The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977)Google Scholar.

44 Machiavelli, The Prince, esp. chaps. 16–17.

45 Guicciardini, Maxims, 63–64. The personal dependence of the courtier on the arbitrary will of his prince is emphasized by Javitch, “Constraints of Despotism,” esp. 22–28; and Langer, “Merit in Courtly Literature,” esp. 222–33.

46 Hobbes, Leviathan, 143. For further discussion, see Pettit, Philip, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), esp. chap. 1Google Scholar; Skinner, Quentin, Hobbes and Republican Liberty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

47 For a recent attempt to defend this view, see Goodin, Robert E. and Jackson, Frank, “Freedom from Fear,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 35 (2007): 249–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and for a cogent reply, Pettit, Philip, “Freedom and Probability: A Comment on Goodin and Jackson,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 36 (2008): 206–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar.