Ideal Courtiers, Real Courtiers


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Baldassare Castiglione
Italian, 1478–1529
Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier)
First edition of 1528, from the press of Aldus Manutius in Venice
Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library


This was one of the most influential books of the Renaissance. By the end of the 16th century it had been translated into every major European language. The depth of its appeal may be shown by the story that Holy Roman Emperor Charles V kept three books at his bedside: the Bible (in Latin), Machiavelli's The Prince, and Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (both in Italian).


The book records an imaginary debate among the refined courtiers of the Duke of Urbino, on the subject of what qualities make up the perfect courtier. The talk often turns to the relationship between men and women, and particularly on what is proper to do in the matter of sociability and love. Castiglione met with the future King François I of France in Bologna in 1506. This was very beneficial to the French court in terms of image, as shown in the chapter 42 of The Courtier. François I owned a copy of the book in his personal library of Blois (today at the BnF Res. *E52). Another sign of interest is that, in 1529, the newly created office of lecteur du Roi (the man in charge of reading aloud to the King) was assigned to Jacques Colin, the author of the first translation of Castiglione into French.