Ideal Courtiers, Real Courtiers


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Girolamo Mercuriale
Italian, 1530–1606
De Arte Gymnastica (The Art of Gymnastics), 1573
Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library


Mercuriale’s De Arte Gymnastica is a fascinating work—part medical treatise and part history book—in which the author painstakingly pored over ancient texts and archaeological remains to reconstruct the athletic practices of the ancient Greeks and Romans in order to examine the effect of physical activity on the health of people in ancient times.  Mercuriale identified three types of physical activity—gymnastica medica, or exercise for the health, gymnastica bellica, or sport used in training for war, and gymnastica atletica or exercise for its own sake.

Mercuriale’s quest for the healthful properties of exercise in the ancient world is tied to the idea of mens sana in corpore sano—a healthy mind in a healthy body. This phrase from the Latin poet Juvenal was adapted by the Renaissance humanist Luis Vives (1493–1540) in his De Disciplinis of 1524 to describe the interconnectedness of the health of mind and body—i.e., that the care and exercise of the body was key to the proper function of the mind.


The pages shown here illustrate the ancient practice of pugilism, or boxing; at left we see two fighters mixing it up in a fanciful arena decorated with figures in athletic poses, while at right, two views of ancient “boxing gloves” are shown.  Boxing is an example of gymnastica bellica, having been practiced in the ancient world as a means of keeping warriors in shape. As such, boxing would have also been endorsed by Baldassare Castiglione; in his Book of the Courtier, seen here at left, Castiglione also touts the benefits of various kinds of sporting activities for the courtier, chiefly because they help maintain the strength, suppleness, and quickness of his body for the chief pursuit of battle.  Among these the most important is hunting on horseback, but running, leaping, swimming, casting stones, and even playing tennis are also deemed important to keep the body in good condition. In this respect, it is interesting to note that the drawings by Pirro Ligorio on which the woodcuts in this edition of De Arte Gymnastica are based were also adapted as frescoed decorations in the palace of a great nobleman, Duke Alfonso d’Este II of Ferrara, himself a great lover of sport.


Maintaining one’s physical fitness through competitive sport was important even at the highest levels of society; in 1520, during a three-week meeting between François I and Henry VIII (the so-called Field of the Cloth of Gold), Robert Fleuranges de la Marck, François I’s close confidant, relates that Henry challenged François to a wrestling match. François won the match by throwing Henry to the ground; this story is still taught in to French schoolchildren today.