Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Sweet New Year

52. The Book of the Courtier by Baldesar Castiglione, translated by Charles Singleton

L'shana Tova, a sweet new year, to my fellow Jews. If I had started my list at Rosh Hashanah last year, I would have answered my challenge to read 52 books in year. As it is, I started the count on January 1. I could simply continue the list for this year, or I could start a new one for Rosh Hashanah. I will take some time to think about which is the best option.

The Book of the Courtier, was, interestingly, an assignment for my Sixteenth Century British Literature class. The teacher seems to use the "British" part loosely, half of our books are in translation. However, she is correct that these books influenced the English Renaissance strongly and therefore are appropriate for the course. I would prefer to learn international literature anyway, so I should not complain.

Castiglione wrote The Book of the Courtier in 1528, in homage to his deceased prince, Federico, of Urbino, and all the courtiers of Urbino, particularly the Duchess, wife of Federico's son and successor Guidobaldo. Urbino was a very small Italian principality in Lombardy, Duke Federico served as a mercenary for the Vatican against the Florentines as well as vice versa.

There are actually four books, each chronicling the conversation of a successive night at the Court of Urbino. In the first book, the Duchess deputizes the lady Emilia Pia to choose a game from those that the courtiers suggest. She chooses a game to delineate the qualities and behavior of the perfect Courtier. The courtiers then take turns speaking and arguing about what he ought to be. The First Book concerns mostly his qualities, and the Second Book the use of his qualities. In the Third Book, the women pressure the men to describe a perfect Court Lady to match the Courtier. The Fourth Book discusses how the Courtier should behave in love and courtship.

The conversations reminded me of what I imagine would occur in a saloon, or brief intellectual conversations I've had with my friends that I wish lasted longer and for which I wish I could be better informed and much wittier. Castiglione does an excellent job of making the arguments sound natural and the men react, while extremely civilized, very humanly. If theoretical games and endless discussion of love and disparaging versus defense of women in elegant language interests one, this book is a gold mine. I am sure some would find it boring, and I, of course, found their centuries-old logic flawed (mostly in regards to women), but overall it is extremely thoughful, well written, and well worth serious contemplation.

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