Scandalous Mothers, Secret Books, and Courtiers, Oh My!

Nanna (a prostitute): Suppose there’s a nobleman asking for you [to attend a social gathering]. … You have to know how to talk: answer to the point, don’t ramble on. … Don’t sit there looking too gauche or too flirtatious, but carry yourself gracefully. And if there’s playing or singing, keep your ears fixed on the music or song, praising the musicians and the singers, even if you don’t enjoy it or understand it. And if there’s a scholar there, approach him with a cheerful face, showing you appreciate him more—­yes, even more—than the master of the house.

Pippa (Nanna’s daughter and an aspiring prostitute): Why do that?

Nanna: Out of respect.

Pippa: Oh, come on!

Nanna: Why, all you need is for one of those fellows to attack you in writing, and to have the gossip spread everywhere, with those slanderous things they’re so good at saying about women. ­

Good advice from a fictional prostitute, created by the renowned and feared cultural critic, Pietro Aretino (1492–1556), whose pen could make or break a reputation. Aretino’s 1536 text Il Dialogo, recently translated as The School of Whoredom, is a relentlessly explicit satire of the Renaissance advice book, and the mores of virtually everyone who might seek out such a thing—the aristocracy, landed gentry, commoners, artists, clergy, merchants, military, academics, courtesans, and courtiers.

The Renaissance was a golden age for art and literature, and so too for advice. Before the late fourteenth century, there were some advice manuals but, with the invention of the printing press, the increase in literacy, and the rising importance of vernacular writing, the genre exploded. Across Italy, and especially in cities such as Florence and Venice, the middle- and upper-classes were acquiring a greater sense of personal agency, and discussions of individual “virtuosity” and self-fashioning were often paired with those of moral and civic “virtue.” With this came anxiety over the relative merits of high birth and earned status, and in books circulated widely in the newly blossoming print culture, dissimulation came to be openly discussed as a kind of art. The codification of comportment flourished through the dispensation of advice on just about every aspect of body, mind, soul, and property. One wonders how much these advice texts facilitated social reform, and how much they were an instrument of social control; how much they formulated new ideals of doing and being, and how much they reflected what had already evolved.


Aesopus moralitus - Vita Fabulae - Folio 4v 1485 MetMuseum

Woodcut illustration accompanying 1485 edition of Aesopus Moralitus: Vita, Fabulae. This popular book of moralized tales, most of which involve animals, was among the standard texts used to teach young children to read. In this scene, Aesop is shown attempting to reform his adopted son—who had been caught plotting Aesop’s murder—by giving him a series of precepts by which to live. Overcome by guilt, the son throws himself off a steep cliff. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

­Advice guides in the Renaissance, while not the money-makers they often are today, came in many formats. Some appeared as small, paperbound print editions, and­ some as luxury tomes, such as the first edition of Castiglione’s The Courtier. Some advice books were practical instruction manuals, teaching read­ers how to do things like mix paint (Cennini), have gorgeous, brilliant children (Marinello, Mercurio), or live long and age well (Zerbi). Some were compilations of rules, like Della Casa’s famous Galateo, a precursor to Miss Manners, while others drew on advice that had originally appeared in religious sermons, such as those of the famous and frightening Ferrarese monk, Girolamo Savonarola. Some advice appeared in epistolary form intended for a small readership or sole reader, such as Piccolomini’s letter for the ten-year-old future King of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Others—Annibale Guasco’s counsel to his daughter, for example, as she embarked on a career as lady-in-waiting to the Infanta, Caterina of Spain—were in fact written with distribution in mind. Advice also took the form of aphorisms (Petrarch’s Remedies) and preening autobiographies telling “how I did it” (Cornaro). Some books, like Giambattista Della Porta’s massive compendium of “secrets,” were written in Latin and billed as valuable, hard-to-acquire wisdom that should not be spread around, yet were translated immediately into many languages and sold widely. Cookbooks were printed (Maestro Martino, Scappi), as well as many recipe books for beauty products. One famous advice book was written in the hopes of winning back the job of its author, then in exile: Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Often, advice writing took the form of a dialogue between friends, or between an elder and student or young relative. Less of it was written by women, although they were often subjects (and objects) of the texts, and their avid readers. Much advice pointed to the importance of finding a middle ground or equilibrium. And while biblical references were common, citations from classical authors demonstrating the pedigree of both the advice and the advice-giver were equally frequent. Parodies like Aretino’s were not unusual, but the helpful tips listed below were written in all seriousness, despite what reading them in this form might suggest. My advice: caveat lector!


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